Less DA Binchy Code, Please… St Patrick’s Origins: In His Own Words (1)


Photo credit: -RobW- / Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND)

A recent exchange in the letters page of the Irish Times concerning the historical (St) Patrick’s origins has compelled me to wade into the mire of modern-day Patriciana. Quapropter olim cogitaui scribere, sed et usque nunc haesitaui…

The exchange originated between Rev. Marcus Losack, a pilgrimage leader and spiritual guide, and Dr Elva Johnston of the School of History & Archives, UCD, Dublin. Rev. Losack, who has been promoting a book on the subject for a while now, took exception to a letter by Dr. Johnston in which she noted flaws within his recent rehashing of an old argument –  Patrick being a Breton, from Brittany – as opposed to the historically attested view of his being a Romano-Briton.

‘Ooh La La’

The response by Rev Losack is a tour de force in historical misinterpretation, misappropriation and selective ‘reasoning’.  In it, he expresses (in an impressively accomplished display of vaudevillian histrionics) a misplaced ‘sense of dismay and disappointment at the tone of Dr Johnston’s letter’ and castigates her as taking an ‘extremist position’ by ‘refusing to countenance any alternative theory’.  He asserts that such a view ‘reflects a certain academic arrogance and authoritarianism which does not do justice to the complexity of the subject’. After then implying that the Royal Irish Academy’s current rendition of a key linguistic term is influential enough to lend favour in some way towards a quasi-national (dare I suggest, illuminati inspired?) academic plot designed to hide the original meaning – he then finishes by channelling the words of that world-renowned heroic denizen of historical accuracy & wisdom, Dan Brown, towards the possibility of the ‘experts in Dublin’ being in error.

Rev Losack is, unfortunately, very much mistaken.

‘Hold It Against Me’

Dr. Johnston’s position is in no way extreme but merely reflective of the prevailing academic consensus which is based on a century or so of historical textual criticism and serious scholarship. Nor does she refuse to ‘countenance any alternative theory’. On the contrary, her letter merely highlights the folly of one particular alternate ‘theory’ – that of his own – as set out in the original promotional article she was responding to. Any attempt to argue that it is ‘incumbent upon her as an academic historian not to close the doors to further inquiry’ is, in itself, a monumental expression of self-reverential ‘authoritarian arrogance’.


The academic door on that particular old Breton nugget has been closed firmly (and for good reason) for many years now. The expectation that ‘further inquiry’ (breathlessly described elsewhere as a ‘grail like quest’ involving over four years of ‘historical sleuthing’) should somehow deserve to be included in the same strata as a century of academic scholarship is perhaps the very epitome of arrogance itself and one which ‘does not do justice to the complexity of the subject’ – let alone the relevant disciplines, credentials, abilities and expertise of decades of Patrician scholars who have found the Breton position entirely lacking. Nor indeed, does it do justice to the earliest insular literary engagement with the subject, the historical individuals concerned, their respective ecclesiastical cultures, learning and contemporary contexts, or indeed, the original words of the historical Patrick himself, upon which all modern-day scholarly consensus is firmly laid upon.

Image: Author

‘Me Against The Music’

As Dr. Johnston, one of the foremost national authorities on early medieval Ireland and early Irish Christianity, notes: The place-name evidence, adduced by Marcus Losack, does not carry any historical weight. Patrick’s own writings clearly identify him as British and his earliest biographers, writing in the seventh century, follow this lead.

So, in the true spirit of academic (mis)adventure, I thought that I would take this opportunity to look at exactly that: Patrick’s own writings – and those of other contemporary authors –  in order to demonstrate the manifest error behind any view that refuses to see, or is unable to comprehend, that the actual words of late fourth/early fifth century sources should generally take precedence over the folklore, opinions and nationalistic politics of early modern Dan Bretons using later medieval sources.

What follows is a rundown of primary source evidence which makes it clear that Patrick identified the island of Britain as his homeland.

‘(Hit me baby) one more time’

However, before we do anything, let us remind ourselves of the central tenet of Rev. Marcus’ argument, in his own words:

I have argued that St Patrick’s “Britanniis” which is the name given for his homeland in the oldest surviving copy of Patrick’s Confessio, preserved in the Book of Armagh, is a reference to the region we now call Brittany and not to the island of Britain, exclusively.
“I have taken this view on the basis that the name “Britannia” or “Britanniis” may have been applied to Brittany at the time of the rebellion of Magnus Maximus (who ruled as emperor of the west from 385-389 AD) as a result of a strategic settlement of the ancient Britons in that region, which was known to the Romans as Armorica.”
“This gives an historical context to St Patrick’s early life and captivity and perhaps sheds light on the true meaning of this key geographical reference since if he had been born in Brittany or settled in that region as a child, he would have grown up understanding “Britanniis” to be his homeland.

Patrick does indeed use the key term ‘Britanniis’ (a total of three times) to refer to his homeland. Leaving aside the myriad examples of the use of ‘Britannia’ representing Britain in late antiquity, let us just focus on ‘Britanniis’ (i.e ‘The Britains’, plural) and its close variants for the moment. If Rev. Marcus is correct in his summation then it would follow that there would be corroborating evidence of the term being used in an Breton/Armorican context from other authors closely contemporary to the dating range above & that of Patrick’s approximate earlier lifetime…


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‘Britanniis’ in Late Antiquity: Claudius Claudianus

Lets take a look at Claudian, a Roman poet from Alexandria, (c. 370 – c. 410 AD):

Exitium iam Roma timens et fessa negatis
frugibus ad rapidi limen tendebat Olympi
non solito vultu nec qualis iura Britannis
dividit aut trepidos summittit fascibus Indos.
Rome, the goddess, fearing for her city’s destruction and weak with corn withheld, hastened to the threshold of revolving Olympus with looks unlike her own; not with such countenance does she assign laws to the Britons, [i.e ‘The Britains’] or subject the frightened Indians to her rule.”

Claudian, The War Against Gildonico (lines 17-20)

Here we see the use of the ‘Britannis‘ term to denote ‘Britons/The Britains’, utilised in a metaphorical context of contrasting frontiers, or edges, of the Roman world. To anyone who would attempt to argue that the example does not specifically identify the island of Britain – or that Brittany could also conceivably be viewed as a frontier –  I would direct them to another Claudian example…

venit et extremis legio praetenta Britannis,
quae Scotto dat frena truci ferroque notatas
perlegit exanimes Picto moriente figuras;
“next the legion that had been left to guard Britain, [i.e ‘The Britains’] the legion that kept the fierce Scots in check, whose men had scanned the strange devices tattooed on the faces of the dying Picts.

Claudian, The Gothic War (lines 416-418)

Unless late fourth century Romans had a particular reason to believe that there could be copious numbers of feral Irish & Picts running around Armorica warranting an entire legion to defend against –  I think it’s safe to say that in the eyes of Claudius (and his audience) ‘Britannis’ was a perfectly acceptable and understandable term denoting the island of Britain in the plural. A collective  dioceses, or provinces, of ‘the Britains’ as depicted in the Nomina Provinciarum Omnium in Laterculus Vernonensis, from the early 4th century AD onwards.


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‘Britanniis’ in Late Antiquity: Ammianus Marcellinus

Let us now turn to Ammianus Marcellinus, a Roman soldier & historian, c.330-391+ AD:

horrea quin etiam exstrueret pro incensis, ubi condi possit annona a Brittannis sueta transferri
“and even build granaries in place of those that had been burned, in which he could store the grain which was regularly brought over from Britain” [i.e ‘The Britains’]

Ammianus, Res Gestae (18.2.3-4)

Here again we find ‘Brittannis’ being used to denote ‘The Britains’ with reference to grain being transported over to the continent (by sea) from the island. How do we know it wasn’t the other way round? Because the passage in question concerns the exploits of Julian on the continent and names several Roman towns in modern-day Holland and Germany.

A second example from Ammianus is as follows:

Consulatu vero Constantii deciens terque Iuliani in Brittanniis cum Scottorum Pictorumque gentium ferarum excursus rupta quiete condicta loca limitibus vicina vastarent et inplicaret formido provincias praeteritarum cladium congerie fessas
But in Britain [i.e ‘The Britains’] in the tenth consulship of Constantius and the third of Julian raids of the savage tribes of the Scots and the Picts, who had broken the peace that had been agreed upon, were laying waste the regions near the frontiers, so that fear seized the provincials

Ammianus, Res Gestae (20.1)

Once again, Brittaniis’ is used and associated with portrayed Irish and Pictish activity along Britain’s frontiers. Note that provincials, or provinces, are in the plural – indicating a conceptual view of ‘The Britains’ in the same vein. Ammianus then provides us with yet another ‘Brittaniis’ example in the same vein, but to really appreciate the less than subtle implication contained within, let me first highlight his usage of a close variant, that of ‘Brittannias’:

Profectus itaque ab Ambianis, Treverosque festinans, nuntio percellitur gravi, qui Brittannias indicabat barbarica conspiratione ad ultimam vexatas inopiam
Having set out then from Amiens and hastening to Treves, Valentinian was alarmed by serious news which showed that Britain was brought into a state of extreme need by a conspiracy of the savages

Ammianus, Res Gestae (27.8)

Quo monitu ut rediere plerique, incentivo percitus retentusque anxiis curis, Civilem nomine recturum Brittannias pro praefectis ad se poposcerat mitti
In consequence of this demand and strongly moved by his offer, most returned, and Theodosius, relieved of his anxious cares, asked that Civilis be sent to him to govern Britain as deputy-prefect

Ammianus, Res Gestae (27.8)

In these examples, we have clear references of events and political concerns concerning the Roman administration of Britain and (continental based) reactions to events causing concern there. How do we know he didn’t mean Armorica/Brittany? Because in the middle of it all, he informs us of this:

Postremo ob multa et metuenda, quae super eadem insula rumores adsidui perferebant…
Finally, because of the many alarming things which constant rumours reported about that same island

Ammianus, Res Gestae (27.8)

Which is then followed immediately by the next chapter which starts off with…

Haec in Brittanniis agebantur.
Thus was Britain [i.e. ‘the Britains’] hounded/plundered.

Ammianus, Res Gestae (27.9)

Taken altogether, that leaves us with several explicit references and examples of Brittaniis being used to depict the island of Britain, in the provincial plural, during the time of Ammianus.


Photo credit: Xuan Che / Flickr (CC BY)

‘Britanniis’ in Late Antiquity: Historia Augusta

Now let us turn our attention to the Historia Augusta, like the above, a product of the late fourth century AD. It too has several references, one of Britaniis’ and two close variants:

deinde cum Proculus et Bonosus apud Agrippinam in Gallia imperium arripuissent omnesque sibi iam Britannias, Hispanias et bracatae Galliae provincias vindicarent, barbaris semet iuvantibus vicit.
Then Proculus and Bonosus seized the rule at Agrippina in Gaul, and proceeded to claim all of Britain (‘The Britains’) and Spain (‘The Spains’) and the provinces, also, of Farther Gaul, but these men he defeated with the aid of barbarians…
Gallis omnibus et Hispanis ac Britannis hinc permisit, ut vites haberent vinumque conficerent
Hence he granted permission to all the Gauls and the Spaniards and Britons to cultivate vineyards and make wines

Historia Augusta (Probus 18.5-8)

Here we see both Britannis and Britannias being used as an overall term for Britain – and also used in conjunction with similar overall terms for the provinces of ‘The Gauls’ and ‘The Spains’. But it is the third example which perhaps makes the most interesting distinction concerning the matter at hand:

Bonosus domo Hispaniensi fuit, origine Britannus, Galla tamen matre
Bonosus was a Spaniard by birth, but in descent a Briton, though he had a Gallic mother.

Historia Augusta (Firmus Saturninus Proculus et Bonosus 14.1)

Here we can see the variant term Britannus being used to denote British identity & descent – specifically contrasted against that of both Spanish and Gaulish identities. To be from anywhere in ‘Britannus/Britanniis’ in the late fourth/early fifth century does not seem to have been deemed the same thing as being from anywhere in ‘The Gauls’.


‘Britanniis’ in Late Antiquity: Paulus Orosius

Lastly, let’s take a quick look at Orisius (c. 375 – c. 418 AD) who also uses Britannis and its  variants. But before we do, a quick side glance at the way he uses the following:

Et quoniam oceanus habet insulas, quas Britanniam et Hiberniam uocant, quae in auersa Galliarum parte ad prospectum Hispaniae sitae sunt, breuiter explicabuntur…
And because the ocean has islands, which are called Britain and Ireland, which are located opposite the Gauls in the direction of Spain, they will be briefly described…

Orosius, Historiae Adversum Paganos (1.2.75-81)

Britannia oceani insula per longum in boream extenditur; a meridie Gallias habet
Britain, an island in the ocean, extends a long distance into the north; to the south, are the Gauls…

Orosius, Historiae Adversum Paganos (6.9.2-9)

Just for clarity, we see here a clear conception by Orosius of Britain as an island, and its (then perceived) location with regard to Spain, Ireland and Gaul. Once again, though, it is his actual use of the term ‘Britaniis’ which provides a particularly interesting attribute:

Caesaris equitatus primo congressu a Britannis uictus ibique Labienus tribunus occisus est. secundo proelio cum magno suorum discrimine uictos Britannos in fugam uertit
Caesar’s cavalry was defeated by the Britons in the first meeting, and there Labienus, the tribune, was slain. In the second battle, with great risk to his own men, he defeated and turned the Britons into flight.

Orosius, Historiae Adversum Paganos (6.9.2-9)

Here, once again, we see ‘Britannis/Britannos‘ being used to denote both Britons and a British identity – in the deep past – from the perspective of his present. Despite portraying events centuries earlier (when Britain was not under Roman authority – and long before it was even a single province, let alone several) Orosius uses his own contemporary cognitive terminology which is strongly reflective of all the previous examples above – that of a widespread  conception and awareness of an Insular British identity, alongside ‘The Britains’ as a distinctive geographical entity. All of which were clearly and regularly associated with the island of Britain  and encapsulated in the regular Latin usage of Brit(t)aniis to reference the same.

In other words, no indication, as Rev. Losack would have us believe, that:

the name “Britannia” or “Britanniis” may have been applied to Brittany at the time of the rebellion of Magnus Maximus (who ruled as emperor of the west from 385-389 AD)

In conjunction with all the above examples, there is also the small matter of their being (at that particular time) little contemporary notice of either a large-scale movement of Britons into the area, or indeed any specific association of Magnus  Maximus and Brittany in similar terms. We have to fast forward several centuries for such legendary depictions which occur in the 10th-12th century Mabinogion tale ‘The Dream of Macsen Wledig’ and Geoffrey of Monmouth’s 12th century ‘Historia Regum Britanniae’ – which is perhaps particularly appropriate – Geoffrey being the late medieval version of Dan Brown.


Photo credit: Michael Foley Photography / Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND)

‘Brittany’ in the Early Medieval Period – The Actual Historical Evidence

Modern historical consensus is that we cannot recognise any large-scale movement of Insular Britons across the channel until the mid to late fifth century at the very earliest. In other words, around the time (even with later conservative estimates) that Patrick would have been well advanced in age, career and likely, his mission in Ireland. Sidonius Apollinaris, writer, noble and bishop, writing c. 470s-480s AD includes two fleeting references to the same within his letters. The first is a comment concerning a king being advised to attack the:

Britannos super Ligerim sitos…
…the Britons/Bretons situated above/north of the (river) Loire …

Sidonius Apollinaris, Liber 1, Epist 7 (5)

The second is a reference to Britons interfering with the slaves of a particular Gaulish estate:

…mancipia sua Britannis clam sollicitantibus abducta deplorat…
his complaint is of the Britons/Bretons clandestinely taking away his slaves …

Sidonius Apollinaris, Liber 3, Epist 9 (2)

Here then, is the earliest historical reference to depicted British activity/settlement within the area of Armorica, and even then, the events depicted – given the hostility – suggest something that is relatively recent and ongoing (and ironically, seemingly partaking of the type of activity that would have netted them people, rather then the other way around). This would certainly match that which is depicted within Gildas (mid to late sixth century) of an exodus of Britons to Gaul as a result of Saxon incursions (i.e. not Roman misadventures).

Seen in this light, it is perhaps not surprising that it is only from the late sixth century onwards that ‘Britannia’ becomes a specifically attested term in sources referring to Armorica. (In actuality the earliest example of this is Procopius (500-565 AD) who was interestingly writing in Greek and not Latin). In addition to this, there is the somewhat ironic observation that the sources do not differentiate between external ‘Insular Britons’ or internal ‘Bretons’. Both are called ‘Brittones’, which suggests a continuation of a ‘them and us’ mentality from the perspective of their neighbours – an external term used about Bretons and not neccesarily by them.

In fact, if we really think about it in such terms, none of the above tallies with the likely vernacular term the Bretons had for themselves: the ‘Latavii’ (c.f Old Breton: ‘Letau’; Romano-Celtic Letavia’, Old Irish ‘Letha’; Old Welsh ‘Litau’, Mediaeval Welsh ‘Llydaw’) a Brythonnic term which influenced the future names for Armorica/Britanny in all related languages above. If Patrick was indeed from there, he seems not to have known or used it. Which is just a tad strange, seeing as it would have been his native tongue.

‘Kill the Lights’

All in all then, (before even coming to Patrick’s own text) in order for Rev Losack’s  theory to be even remotely possible, it necessitates the following:

a) complete dismissal of actual contemporary (late fourth/early fifth century) Latin usage of the term ‘Britanniis’ denoting Insular Britons and/or ‘The Britains’…

b) an uncritical reliance on later medieval legendary sources, written centuries later, as somehow containing an authentic record of the same – despite having no earlier evidence of transmission.

c) the amazing prospect that a fifth century Patrick, if he was indeed from Brittany, managed to use a sixth century ethnic designation that was apparently not being used by those self-same ethnic descendants of British settlers in Armorica – but rather by their native Gaulish neighbours – which would presumably imply that he was Romano-Gaulish, but not from Brittany at all….

In which case, Rev. Losack is possibly using his own argument to invalidate his own argument…and is presumably at risk of ripping open a paradox and tearing a hole in the space-time continuum.

Or something.

(Continued in Part 2…)


One thought on “Less DA Binchy Code, Please… St Patrick’s Origins: In His Own Words (1)

  1. Pingback: Brexit Stage Left: The Historical Patrick, ‘Britishness’ and Imperial Romanitas | vox hiberionacum

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