The Price of Patrick: Fifteen Men (On a Deadmans Chest) [1]


Photo credit: Pedro Vezini / Flickr / CC BY-NC-SA

March 17th is almost upon us – and so time enough to indulge in another exploration of the historical (St) Patrick’s own words in honour of the man himself.  In keeping with recently established blog tradition, this year I thought that I would take a  forensic look at one particular portion of his text where he discusses issues involving payments, protections and expenditure – on his part – towards that of native authorities. In particular, at his famous referencing of his own ‘price’ of ‘fifteen men/persons’ (Confessio 53).

By doing so, I hope not only to illustrate how his mission may have come under suspicion from fifth century British Christians, but also highlight implications which may point towards his possible modi operandi within insular Irish society. If correct, these same aspects may also provide a fragmentary insight into the economic and social organisation/makeup of some of the earliest Christian communities in Late Iron Age/Early Medieval Ireland.

One does not simply…


To set the scene: Patrick’s historical mission in Ireland was certainly not the stuff of later legendary accounts. One did not simply rock up into pagan kingdoms, insulting kings, showering people with shamrocks, engaging in pyromania and bopping druids on the head. There is of course, none of the above in the historical Patricks own documents.  And even if there was, it would be the kind of thing a complete bone-headed uppity outsider – with no concept of how things went down in Early Medieval Ireland – would do. Someone like Palladius for example, that long thin lanky strip of a gaulish micky dazzling blow-in who, funnily enough, is never heard of again.

The cheese-eating celestine flunkie.

What we do find are repeated assertions of Patrick’s careful and delicate attempts to mediate and manage his way through the hierarchical pitfalls of insular Irish society. His previous experience as a slave in Ireland  would have afforded him great advantage. His survival and relative success in establishing several fledgling communities also suggest that he was well able to play the system. A large part of this would have involved expenditure on a fairly wide scale – and how, why and where Patrick managed to produce the goods for such actions seems to have come under suspicion from fellow British Christians. We don’t have their accusations, but we have some of Patrick’s answers to them – and from them – one can infer some of the issues that seem to have been put to him.


Photo credit: Keith Bloomfield / Flickr / CC BY-NC-SA

People in Greenhouses…

To illustrate, lets take a slow run-in to the the Confessio 53 passage in question by starting a few paragraphs back:

You all know, and God knows, how I have lived among you since my youth, in true faith and in sincerity of heart. Towards the pagan people too among whom I live, I have lived in good faith, and will continue to do so. God knows that I have not been devious with even one of them, nor do I think of doing so, for the sake of God and his church. I would not want to arouse persecution of them and of all of us; nor would I want that the Lord’s name should be blasphemed on account of me…”

Confessio 48

Patrick here is addressing some of his Irish converts and supporters, people who knew he had been among them since his early life, stressing his good faith towards them and non-Christian peoples among who he is living. The implied accusation? He had ulterior motives for going on mission. Patrick rejects this and stresses the need to be above board with everyone, especially Non-Christians, for fear of persecution. The implication? He regularly deals and negotiates with Non-Christians within the insular social & political system – and even if he did want to manipulate them in some way, he dare not, for fear of adverse consequences on his converts. People who live in glasshouses, don’t throw stones.


Photo credit: Johnson Cameraface / Flickr / CC BY-NC-SA

Bearing Gifts…

“…I have tried to keep a guard on myself and for the Christians and virgins of Christ and religious women who were giving me small gifts of their own accord. When they would throw some of their ornaments on the altar, I would give them back to them. They were hurt at me that I would do this. But it was because of the hope of the eternal gift, that I was careful in all things, in case unbelievers would trap me or my ministry of service for any reason. Nor did I want to give those who could not believe even the slightest reason for speaking against me or take my character away.”

Confessio 49

Here we have more detail on Patrick’s efforts to protect his reputation – including offending existing and potential converts who freely offered him gifts during, or after, religious services. The implied accusation? Word has been received in Britain that he was being offered such gifts and that he appeared to be selling religious benefits/service and making a profit as a result. Patrick stresses again that, even if he wanted to accept such gifts, he can’t – for fear of giving ammunition to those ‘who could not believe’ in his religion.

Even among his most fervent Christian converts, he needs to take care: precisely because they continue to live alongside Non-Christian members of their own families. The implications: Patrick probably did receive regular gifts/donations from Irish Christians, but only accepted them through some other more formal procedure – and not as part of any public missionary activities, services or rituals that may have carried the image of his charging for ‘Christian access’. Secondary implications: Patrick sometimes attracted generous donations, particularly from high status females – and his fellow Christians in Britain being aware of this were wondering what and where it was being spent on.


Photo credit: ElDave / Flickr / CC BY-NC-ND

Raised Eyebrows…

“Perhaps, however, when I baptised so many thousands of people, did I hope to receive even the smallest payment? If so, tell me, and I will return it to you. Or when the Lord ordained clerics everywhere through my poor efforts, and I gave this service to them for free, if I asked them to pay even for the cost of my shoes – tell it against me, and I will return it to you and more.”

Confessio 50

Here again, Patrick strongly rejects the previous apparent accusations of his selling Christian sacraments and offices. Angrily declaring to anyone to find proof of this, he says he will return anything in spades. i.e. there is no proof and he knows it. Implications: He is speaking to members of several distant Irish Christians communities here (after all, there is no reason to return anything wrongfully taken from Irish converts to Britons) – who appear to be either concerned at, or perhaps believing in, the accusations coming from elsewhere.

Patrick is seemingly concerned that such communities will start to think that his more remote missionary adventures are being conducted in a manner unbecoming. Secondary implications: the later stages of his mission involved wider and more distant Christian communities throughout Western Ireland – and that these were apparently successful enough to both warrant their own clergy as well as potentially resulting in donations/revenue flowing back into his mission coffers from there. Those offerings were apparently large enough to have caused raised eyebrows, both home and abroad.


Photo credit: Jose Betancur / Foter / CC BY-NC-ND

Where No One  Has Gone Before

“I spend myself for you, so that you may have me for yours. I have traveled everywhere among you for your own sake, in many dangers, and even to the furthest parts where nobody lived beyond, and where nobody ever went to baptise and to ordain clerics or to bring people to fulfilment. It is only by God’s gift that I diligently and most willingly did all of this for your good.”

Confessio 51

Patrick is still addressing his Irish audience of several distant communities. He tells them that they know and have observed how he has spent such wealth on their behalf in repeatedly traveling around to each of them – in addition to maintaining security and access to him and ensuring his accessing of wider territories and peoples on the western fringes. Implication: he is appealing to their own knowledge of the extent of his efforts, as well as their own understanding of the complexities and costs involved of doing the same within insular Irish society.


Photo credit: Pedro Vezini / Flickr / CC BY-NC-SA

Intervention of Firm Friends

At times I gave gifts to kings, over and above what I paid to their sons who travelled with me. Despite this, they took me and my companions prisoner, and very much wanted to kill me, but the time had not yet come. They stole everything they found in our possession, and they bound me in iron. On the fourteenth day, the Lord set me free from their power; all our possessions were returned to us for God’s sake, and *for the sake of the close friendship we had had  previously.*

Confessio 52

[* I prefer De Paor’s version of the last line: “through the intervention of firm friends whom we had had the foresight to acquire.”]

Here Patrick goes into detail of just how dangerous and expensive his missionary activities could sometimes be – particularly when entering into new regions. Local petty kings and chieftains had to be placated. Their sons were hired as bodyguards at extra expense. Even then, it sometimes didn’t work out, and he gives a fascinating example of one case where it took some time for his previous  protection payments to ‘firm friends’ (i.e. the local big kahuna) to come through for him.

The Price of Everything – The Value of Nothing

Viewed altogether, one can perhaps easily understand why and how such accusations may have arisen. Patrick’s missionary successes, in his mind, may have been measured in the relative number of fledgling Christian souls netted – but on the ground, this also manifested as increasing amounts of insular revenue support. This gradual increase in funds allowed a corresponding increase in mission activity and expenditure, sometimes through very public displays of gift giving to a variety of insular authority figures.

It is perhaps this type of activity on Patrick’s part, particularly his dealings with, and payments to, pagans, which raised the eyebrows of his fellow Christians – especially those further afield in Britain who had little appreciation of the local political system and Patrick’s reasoning, knowledge and manipulation of same. If this was indeed where were such funds were going to – if Patrick wasn’t charging for religious services rendered and was being highly selective in who he received donations from – then where exactly was all this revenue coming from?


Photo credit: JeffGamble / Flickr / CC BY-NC-SA

Fifteen Men (On a Deadman’s Chest)

The answer may lie, paradoxically, within a final example of his expenditure – which brings us to the main passage in question. Not content with explaining to his Irish/British audience of the expenses involved in new regions, he turns the tables back towards his more established Irish audience of Christian converts, addressing their knowledge of how much he needed to spend for his, and theirs, continued access to each other:

You know yourselves how much I expended on those who were the judges in those regions which I most frequently visited. I estimate that I gave out not less than the price of fifteen persons, so that you might benefit from me, and that I might benefit from you in God. I’m not sorry I did it, nor was it even enough for me – I still spend, and will spend more. The Lord is powerful, and he can grant me still to spend my very self for the sake of your souls

Confessio 53

This is a crucial passage. To ensure continued access to the more established convert communities he regularly frequented, it seems Patrick was making payments – not to local kings, chieftains or their sons, as portrayed before – but rather ‘illis qui iudicabant‘,  ‘those who pass judgement’ i.e. judges, or some kind of judical/legal administrators. This is a fascinating snippet of information, representing one of his few direct references involving insular Irish custom. But what was the difference? Why would he have needed to pay a judicial/legal figure in addition to, if not instead of, local kings and chieftains?

Well, that depends on what he may have hoped to gain from such efforts. If paying Kings and Chieftains involved initial security and protection within their respective areas of authority, then paying ‘judges’ must have involved something else. Something along the lines of longer lasting ‘recognition’ or ‘status’ for both himself and his converts. Something that perhaps extended across several disparate territories/kingdoms within existing insular legal frameworks. Some sort of legally recognized ‘rights’ which sanctioned him to operate within insular society as an (relatively) independent entity.

Which is where the price of fifteen men/persons comes in…

–> To Be Continued

6 thoughts on “The Price of Patrick: Fifteen Men (On a Deadmans Chest) [1]

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