The Price of Patrick: Fifteen Men (On a Deadmans Chest) [3]


Nephin dwarfs Croagh Patrick in County Mayo – Image: Mayo.Me / Flickr / (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

<–Continued from Part Two

Show Me The Money

If Patrick indeed managed to establish himself in such a manner – as a publicly recognized high status figure (and related Christian ‘kindred’) within insular Irish society –  then he could have opened up an entirely different revenue stream quite apart from the previously mentioned gifts, offerings and even perhaps, any potential seed funding or external support from British Christian supporters.

As we have seen, in the later law tracts, a noble was entitled to receive his rightful portion of his clients shares and profits. As a Christian leader/Bishop Patrick would have likely expected occasional offerings from his more wealthy converts. As a ‘lord’ over ‘base clients’ however, he would have possibly been in a position to act as an initial seed funder himself – lending funds/goods/agricultural stock (on a favorable basis) to fledgling Christian clients in return for future shares/dividends/surplus. This in turn could have provided a regular ‘revenue stream’ to fund the expense of  his larger missionary efforts.

Quid pro quo – the more converts/clients brought in, the more revenue increases; the higher the increase in revenue, the higher the amounts he had to spend; the more he spent, the more  converts/clients he could bring in. Its essentially business marketing/localization 101 – early medieval Irish style. A self sustaining system, reliant on the flow of ‘funds’ from one level to the next.

Here’s the main passage again…

“You yourselves however, are not lacking in how much I expended/paid out to those who judge in all of the regions I visited often. I reckon/assess that I truly distributed a minimum worth/price/value of fifteen men…in order that you enjoy/have the benefit from me and that I always enjoy/have the benefit from you in God. I am not sorry, nor am I satiated, moreover I will still spend  and spend more besides, as long as I am able. God is powerful  and may yet grant/let me spend myself for your souls.”

Confessio 53 (My Trans.)

Christian Grumbling

And yet, take a close look at the above. As before, Patrick is not talking to a British audience at this point, but rather his own Christian converts within Ireland. He is directing his lack of repentance concerning expenditure to them. The implication? That they were perhaps unhappy with what he was spending it on elsewhere. Why would they care? Well, as Christian base clients/communities who were ‘stakeholders’ in the system, they may have been unhappy seeing their hard won profits/surplus being distributed on such things as pagans, bribes, protections and even, at the end – the support of unknown Christian converts from disparate tribes in remote locations, previously unconnected or related to themselves.

They certainly seem to have previously expressed reservations on the matter. So much so, that Patrick felt the need to politely admonish them for doing so – in addition to gently reminding them of his formal legal ‘status’/relationship with them, within insular custom (if that’s what the ‘fifteen men’ indicates). Viewed in this context, such perspective perhaps helps to explain the very next paragraph in Patrick text:

See now: I call on God as witness in my soul that I tell no lie. Nor would I write to you looking for your praise, nor out of greed – it’s not that I hope for honour from any of you for myself. It is the honour which is not yet to be seen, but which is believed in the heart, which is what gives me satisfaction. The one who gave the promise is faithful, and never lies.

Confessio 54

When taken together, the two passages suggest a little bit of patrician passive aggressiveness. In other words:  “Give me a break folks. I’m not lying. I’m not trying to ‘lord’ it over you, looking for praise for my hardship (although, you might want to check the small print on the previous promise/contract we made when I was spending similar amounts of money on you). There’s a bigger plan at work here, and I need you to trust me. You have no idea of the real profits that await.”


A carefully balanced, yet precarious situation, with Croagh Patrick in background.
Image: Allen Henderson / Flickr / (CC BY 2.0)

Boldly Going Where No One Had Gone Before

So what could all this possibly suggest about the makeup of early Christian converts/communities in fifth century Ireland? Well, aside from the sheer realistic humanity of the situation (grumblings, complaints, demanding of answers, public accounts, justification of expenses – some things never change), I think it holds potential for insights into a crucial aspect of Patrick’s mission. Aside from the people he targeted and the methods he used – in a strange way – it may shed light on the extent to which Christianity could have been viewed as socially subversive in fifth century Ireland.

We know Patrick had dealings with all levels of society, from kings, chieftains and judges, to warriors and noble women; sons & daughters of chieftains, fellow Britons, servants and  slaves. Some of these could easily have been free members/base clients of his, but not so others. For example, at one stage, Patrick makes a point of admiring the courage and commitment of both high and low status female converts, despite hardships and persecutions directed at them from others:

Their fathers don’t like this, of course. These women suffer persecution and false accusations from their parents, and yet their number grows… In addition, there are the widows and the celibates. Of all these, those held in slavery work hardest – they bear even terror and threats, but the Lord gives grace to so many of the women who serve him. Even when it is forbidden, they bravely follow his example…

Confessio 42

A ‘Captive’ Audience

From a purely economic/status angle – such people were in no social position to become either ‘clients’ in their own right or exercise free choice or movements on a wide scale. Servants, slaves, unmarried women ‘belonged’, quite literally, to their relatives and/or owners. Patrick’s  successful conversion of some (despite social hardships)  suggests that while he may have secured a certain amount of access to them – this was not unfettered and unlimited. These people had existing ‘lords’ and masters as well as existing social roles, functions and day to day commitments within pagan Irish society.

Bear that in mind, while we turn to the main reason for Patrick’s second document, the Epistola, or Letter to Soldiers of Coroticus – concerning Patrick’s outrage at the killing and kidnapping of a group of his Irish converts by pirates/slavers:

The newly baptised and anointed were dressed in white robes; the anointing was still to be seen clearly on their foreheads when they were cruelly slain and sacrificed by the sword of the ones I referred to above. On the day after that, I sent a letter by a holy priest (whom I had taught from infancy), with clerics, to ask that they return to us some of the booty or of the baptised prisoners they had captured. They scoffed at them.

Epistola 3

The implications of the above are rarely, if ever, discussed. Here we have a group of Irish Christian converts who, having recently been baptized, were apparently still together after the ceremony, in numbers. i.e. there was seemingly no need, or requirement for them to go back to any other role/master/occupation. Patrick may have presided over the ceremony, or perhaps his other clerics – if he did, then he seems not to have been there when the raid occurred. Either way, he was not far away from the location, having heard the news and dispatched a letter to those responsible within a day. Note his initial request asked for the return of baptised prisoners and booty taken – to us.


Implications: the converts who were baptised together were a distinct social group who seemingly stayed together afterwards. While this may have been a relatively short period (Dominica in Albis Depositis), they nevertheless seem to have had associated ‘booty’ worth robbing too. Not the kind of things one necessarily brings to a group baptism away from home on your ‘day off’; which suggests that they were ‘at home’, whatever that may have meant. Also implied: the ‘booty’ and people taken do not apparently ‘belong’ to anyone else – as Patrick asks for them to be returned ‘to us’ i.e. in the plural. In other words, these people do not seem to have, or be associated with any other kindred, lords or ‘owners’.

Secondary implication: the very fact of a raid on this level, at this precise time, suggest that the raiders knew when and where exactly to strike for maximum effect (i.e. group activity at specific times at that location was well known). It further suggests that the raiders were seemingly unconcerned about ‘trespassing’ into another territory of a king/chieftain, taking the slaves and booty of said king/chieftain, or indeed, suffering any delayed retribution for killing, stealing and enslaving them.

Pft. Why can't things be easy, just for once...

Image: makeshift123 / Flickr / [Modified] (CC BY-SA 2.0)

On the contrary, they scoff at Patrick’s initial request for their return. There seems to be no overriding issues of external protection, either physically, or legally, with the particular group of converts – and Coroticus and his band, do not fear retaliation of any kind. Something which is reinforced by Patrick’s very letter – as leader and representative of the group – pleading their case and seeking wider Christian condemnation of their actions.

Free and Unfree

In other words: these people were ‘Patrick’s people‘. A community under his leadership  – legally, physically and religiously – existing within wider society, yet set apart from social norms. His letter gives further implications of this:

“the men-servants of God and the baptised women servants of Christ”

Epistola 7

This is why the church mourns and weeps for its sons and daughters whom the sword has not yet slain, but who were taken away and exported to far distant lands…where freeborn people have been sold off, Christians reduced to slavery…

Epistola 15

However late it may be, may they repent of acting so wrongly, the murder of the brethren of the Lord, and set free the baptised women prisoners whom they previously seized

Epistola 21

Referring to those killed and enslaved, Patrick specifies both males and females, while also utilizing language which carries an overtly religious tone. To be ‘a servant of God/Christ’, to be a ‘brethren of the lord’ strongly suggests members of a religious community of clerics and religious females living side by side. A location where it was deemed appropriate for groups of people to come for baptism. A location which seems to have all the trappings of a community settlement made up of people – slaves and freeborn – leading an ‘independent’ existence, beyond insular social norms under Patrick’s leadership. For want of a better word, an ecclesia, in all its original meaning.

A Social Subversive

How might this have been achieved, if some were not in a social/economic position to be ‘base clients’? One final example from the Letter to Coroticus carries an important implication. While criticizing his fellow British Christians for their non action or regard towards the ill treatment of his Irish converts, Patrick makes reference to:

The Christians of Roman Gaul have the custom of sending holy and chosen men to the Franks and to other pagan peoples with so many thousands in money to buy back the baptised who have been taken prisoner…

Epistola 14

Patrick admires such a custom. He admonishes his fellow Britons for not doing the same. As someone who seems to have had large amounts of expenditure at hand for similar purposes, this strikes me as just the kind of activity he might have engaged in, where necessary. Freeing those captured, perhaps ‘buying’ existing British Christian slaves within Ireland, or even – and this is perhaps most subversive – ‘buying’ some of those slaves he had already converted himself, but who were unfree to make their own way to him or his communities. Actions which would explain how there could be both slaves and freeborn people, side by side, within a fledgling Christian settlement.

IMG_20140319_022313 (2)

Cross Inscribed Standing Stone, Doonfeeny, Co. Mayo – Image: Author

An ‘independent’ settlement whose existence and activities seems to have been known about within insular society. An ‘independent’ settlement of funny looking people, slaves and free, going around in weird clothes, with oil on their faces and occasional wealth to beat the band – and yet – professing non-violence, charity and a weird new philosophy and way of living together. A people who seemingly did not formally belong to surrounding tribes and dynasties and the threat of physical retaliation/legal compensation that came with transgressing the boundaries of same.

As they use to say in early medieval Ireland: ‘Sure, they were just askin’ to be robbed. Askin.’

Early Irish Christian Communities

Such a prospective model of Early Irish Christian Communities would also, finally, help explain Patrick’s pessimism for the future of his mission following the Coroticus raid on his converts. If Patrick had indeed established himself and his ‘kindred’ on their own terms within insular Irish society – if he was finally seeing dividends in terms of his expenditure on converts and communities – then the prospect of seeing it all come tumbling down at that point was tangible.

What use would his being a ‘lord’ within insular Irish society be if he could not protect his people, legally and physically. What chance of future success if word got out that his new self styled communities were ripe for the taking – large groups of people, some already predisposed to slave occupations, living on their own, undefended and nonaligned within wider insular society. The last we hear of the historical Patrick – is someone who certainly seems to have been wrestling with such concerns.

The Price Is Right

If any of the previous is in any way accurate, then Patrick’s methods were nothing short of ingenious. Playing the system from within, utilizing inside knowledge and familiarity,  subverting social norms through economic processes and transforming such systems to fuel expansion – all the while running the risk of trespassing on, or angering, powerful insular authority figures and their spheres of influence. Against all this, he also had to endure a considerable lack of support from Christians elsewhere – both Britain, and occasionally, within Ireland itself. Perhaps most impressively, he did this on his own recognizance  – as a self appointed bishop – ‘at the ends of the earth, beyond which there was no one’.’

Its regularly said that Ireland was the first region outside the empire to have undergone widespread Christianization in the generations after Patrick; the extent of which is made more remarkable when one considers that fifth century Christianity – a literate religion of a foreign language, urbanized landscapes and organization – had to adapt to the illiterate rural makeup of late prehistoric/early medieval Ireland. The evidence of Patrick’s early mission activities, I think, provide fragmentary insights into how such processes may have been set in motion. If nothing else, it supplies a picture of a man who – in the space of a lifetime – went from being the lowest of the low, to one of the highest social positions available to non-royalty in early medieval Ireland.




With regard to Patrick’s stated admiration of the practice of ransoming Christian slaves, it should also be noted that the fragmentary version of his Life which occurs in the Historia Brittonum (attributed to Nennius) contains the following depiction:

“Saint Patrick…redeemed many captives of both sexes at his own charge, and set them free in the name of the Holy Trinity”

Historia Brittonum, #54, Trans: Giles (1847)

Now Nennius and and the Historia Brittonum are problematic in many ways, and of course, have little insight into the realities of fifth century Ireland. What it does illustrate, though, is that several centuries later, early medieval insular authors and audiences were apparently capable of, and inclined to, interpret Patrick’s own words in a similar vein to the above.

4 thoughts on “The Price of Patrick: Fifteen Men (On a Deadmans Chest) [3]

  1. Pingback: The Price of Patrick: Fifteen Men (On a Deadmans Chest) [2] | vox hiberionacum

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

  3. Pingback: 17 Things You (Probably) Didn’t Know About The Historical (St) Patrick | vox hiberionacum

  4. Pingback: St. Patrick: The Man From Nowhere | vox hiberionacum

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s