Scandalized Women in the Writings of St. Patrick

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A day late, but in keeping with time-honoured blog tradition, I nevertheless present my annual Patrician-themed rambling extravaganza – a deep forensic examination of lesser spotted aspects within the writings of the Historical Patrick. This year, I thought I’d take a look at one of the more neglected passages in his Confessio (Chapter 49) concerning women. Despite initial appearances and a lack of previous (male) scholarly attention over the years, Chapter 49 when fully appreciated, actually contains far more than meets the eye.

Before jumping in though, and for anyone approaching Patrick’s writings for the first time, there are a few things worth bearing in mind.

Patrick letters are a kind of open bulletin to multiple audiences and recipients. He was primarily writing for elite Christian audiences in Britain, but he sometimes changes focus within and addresses some of his Irish converts and supporters. Its helpful to be aware of whom he was addressing at any one time as certain themes or episodes would have made little sense to one or the other. His multiple audiences in Ireland and Britain, despite being under a shared umbrella of Christianity, knew little to nothing of each others daily cultural or political realities.

Patrick can be read via several layers of meaning. There are the actual words that he used; and there are the words/phrases within those words that are designed to hint or reference certain biblical passages that would resonate among an elite Christian audience. Throughout his writings, Patrick uses sub-textual references to reinforce his arguments, his sense of righteousness and sometimes, as an sub-qualifier or comment on his own text. A lot of the time, it is these biblical allusions, or expansions, which are key to understanding his underlying meaning.

With that, lets take a look at the matter at hand.


Confessio 49 occurs in a section of his text where Patrick emphasizes the extent of his caution so as not to bring the new religion, or any of its new practitioners, into disrepute among those pagans he was continually living and working alongside. The background to this seems to have been some kind of accusation from other Christians elsewhere that he was somehow cheating or taking advantage of Irish pagans and fresh converts. Patrick indignantly refutes this and articulates that to do so would not only be wrong, but would have disastrous consequences for all of his new converts, let alone himself.

At this point, he is directly addressing some of his Irish supporters – his (Christian) brothers and fellow (missionary) servants, who knew him and how he had conducted himself in Ireland since his youthful captivity. This is a crucial aspect. For one, such a defense would not have carried any currency or weight among his Irish audiences if it wasn’t already known, witnessed and accepted as true. Two: his British audiences would have had no interest, concept or understanding of the cultural nuances to which he was speaking about. Only a recently converted minority Christian Irish audience, living and working in a wider pagan Irish culture, could have fully appreciated the significance of his actions portrayed in Confessio 49.

Lets take a look at the passage itself.

Nam etsi imperitus sum in omnibus tamen conatus sum quippiam seruare me etiam et fratribus Christianis et uirginibus Christi et mulieribus religiosis quae mihi ultronea munuscula donabant et super altare iactabant ex ornamentis suis et iterum reddebam illis et aduersus me scandalizabantur cur hoc faciebam; sed ego propter spem perennitatis, ut me in omnibus caute propterea conseruarem, ita ut <non> me in aliquo titulo infideli caperent uel ministerium seruitutis meae nec etiam in minimo incredulis locum darem infamare siue detractare.

For even though I am unlearned in all things, nevertheless I have tried to some degree to save myself, even also for Christian brothers and virgins of Christ, and religious women who kept giving me voluntary little gifts, and they kept hurling some of their own ornaments over the altar, and I kept giving them back again to them, and they kept being scandalized in response to me because I kept doing this. But I on account of the hope of everlastingness, so that I would preserve myself cautiously in all things on that account, so that they would not on any legal charge of unfaithfulness capture me or the ministry of my slavery, nor would I give a place even in the least degree to unbelievers to defame or detract.

 Confessio 49 (Trans: Howlett, 1994)

Previous Interpretations

Traditionally, the passage has been largely taken at face value. Patrick, anxious to appear above board and not be seen to be accepting any kind of gifts or payments in return for religious services provided, apparently returned unsolicited gifts (ornamentis: “ornaments, decorations, embellishments”)  to those women who tried to do so. Others have interpreted it as perhaps a reflection of cultural misunderstanding – a case of silly women, obviously incapable of complex cosmological interplay, misinterpreting the new religion and infusing it with pagan ritual and offerings. Some have even used it to imply that Patrick was a bit of a ladies man and that this was an unintended consequence of his erstwhile charisma and missionary focus on flighty (and flirty) high status women.

All such interpretations are, of course, bunkum.

They suffer from a perennial failure to appreciate, let alone apportion, agency and intention to women in the past. They share a rather condescending colonial-esque view of native Irish pagans coming to a new religion via ‘foreign outsiders’. Most of all, they simply fail to comprehend Patrick’s literal and biblical meaning and its underlying implications in a wider context of insular Irish society in his day.

An Alternative View

To start with, its widely under-appreciated that Confessio 49 contains the only reference to Christian ‘architecture’ in Patrick’s writings. That of an simple unqualified altar. Patrick never mentions anything else. No churches. No monasteries. No crosses. Nothing.

Not only that, but alongside a fleeting reference to communal baptism in his Epistola, Confessio 49 represents the earliest contemporary depiction of regular Christian ritual in Ireland. i.e. multiple occasions of Patrick officiating at an altar with a crowd of participants and/or onlookers.

And of course, there is the very presence of insular women at the dawn of Early Irish Christianity. Not as silent onlookers or meek participants, but as active independent agents in such close proximity as to interact with ritual proceedings (seemingly without fear or obstruction) by physically throwing objects over the altar.

His depiction of objects being thrown is particularly interesting. Patrick uses the third person plural form of iaciō, (throw, cast, hurl”) to indicate the action super altare, (“over, on top of, beyond”… the altar”). To me, this does not suggest a placid, respectful act during some form of processional Christian offertory. It is an explicitly deliberate act of energy and force. A visual, aural and physical intrusion on to any contemplative ritual proceedings.

Although Patrick doesn’t specify if the altar was inside or outside, such a term suggests to me, that it was the latter. To throw or hurl hard objects over or beyond an altar probably wouldn’t go down well in a confined or crowded space. In the same vein, even if outside, there appears to have clear space beyond the altar for the objects to be thrown or hurled, without obstruction or injury to anything or anyone.

Taken altogether, I like to imagine this scene: an outside mass, with something like a large rock or boulder for an altar. Patrick facing east. His back to the congregation and onlookers. And then suddenly, unsolicited ornamental missiles flying over his head, crashing down and landing beyond.

Either which way, that act of throwing objects from within a crowd, in full view of the crowd, over and beyond the focus of the crowd, was a remarkable action and deserves to be fully appreciated. These insular Irish women were all attempting to specifically express (or reject) something, in front of their peers, in a very public forum. Most significantly, this was not a once off occurrence.

As Patrick says, wherever he went (and he traveled widely as a missionary) certain women kept throwing their ornaments; he kept returning them afterwards; and they kept being offended because he kept doing the same. Something about that portion of Christian ritual seems to have instigated  a shared response by a series of successive women in disparate locations.

Whatever it was, Patrick wouldn’t, or couldn’t, acquiesce. If anything, his deliberate, presumably public, returning of the objects to them afterwards seems to have caused them more offense, rather than the actual rejection of their gifts. Most importantly, the women were not merely ‘offended’, they were ‘scandalized’ by him. 


In an earlier passage, Patrick makes reference to the offending of his own family and friends by his refusal of gifts which were offered to him in an attempt to implore him not to leave them again for Ireland. The term he uses there is offendi. Yet, despite being a similar case of gift refusal, in the case of these women, Patrick uses an alternative term scandalizo (cause to stumble, give offense”) to describe their reaction. This is not a random choice. That one simple word scandalizo carries significant biblical baggage. It occurs only six times in the Vulgate:

I Corinthios 8:13

His specific use of the term would have resonated with anyone fluent in the bible in his day, i.e. his elite Christian audiences. To ‘scandalize,’ or to be ‘scandalized’, in the (western latin) biblical sense, carried associations of taking care not to cause others to stumble, of punishments incurred on (innocent) others, of the loss of inheritance, of the male gaze inadvertently impinging upon the (public) honour/reputation of young women.

Religious Women

In relation to his missionary work, Patrick references women from various levels of insular Irish society throughout his writings – female slaves, daughters of chieftains, female members of the nobility. But in Confessio 49, Patrick uses a specific qualifying term – that of ‘religious’ women (religiosis, ‘pious, devout, religious’). He not only separates them from other types of women (‘Virgins of Christ’); he clearly specifies that it was these religious women who repeatedly threw their ornaments at the altar.

et fratribus Christianis et uirginibus Christi et mulieribus religiosis quae mihi ultronea munuscula donabant et super altare iactabant ex ornamentis…

…Christian brothers, and virgins of Christ, and devout/pious women who kept voluntarily giving me small gifts, and kept hurling some of their ornaments over/on the altar…

 Confessio 49 (My translation)

These religiously devout women were not prospective converts confused about the new religion and its practices – they were women who were already invested and baptized (see Patrick’s similar usage of the term to depict baptized women in his Epistola). The fact they had personal ornaments on their person to throw away also suggests that they were not from the lower levels of insular Irish society. And yet, in some way, he considered them different to that of his other female converts, such as those he describes as living the life of a virgin of Christ, or widows, or celibates.

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Taking everything into consideration, I think we can be fairly confident of identifying those type of women the Historical Patrick was referring to. His underlying biblical associations of certain women being ‘scandalized’; his separate textual classification of their femininity; and his comments elsewhere in his text on the severe parental disapproval, persecution and accusations of impropriety towards certain daughters who articulated their intentions to become a virgin of Christ – all suggest that he was talking about younger women. i.e. those who were still under parental supervision and who had yet to make a public transition or ceremonial commitment to that of a ‘wife’ or ‘bride-to-be’.

If so, then a public rejection of any such intention or commitment that was culturally expectant of them, would surely have been seen, to unbelievers and other men at large, as something socially subversive, and quite possibly, ‘scandalous’. However, without more of an indication as to the social and cultural significance of their personal ornaments which seem to have played a central role in everything, we cannot really be certain.

Or can we?


Collecting together the Collectanea

Tírechán was a late seventh century Irish bishop from North Mayo who wrote one of the earliest hagiographical texts on St. Patrick, known as the Collectanea. Although it is firmly a product of later propaganda and ecclesiastical aggrandizement (written two centuries after Patrick had lived) – Tírechán nevertheless explicitly references certain passages of Patrick’s own words in his Confessio. Intriguingly, they are not just any random passages, or indeed, any of the more famous ones. In fact, they just happen to coincide with certain passages in the Confessio where the Historical Patrick supplies a (rare) tidbit of insular custom or practice.

I have previously written at length on one such example, that of Confessio 53, where Patrick mysteriously tells of having paid native Irish judges the price of fifteen men in order to guarantee freedom of movement in certain territories. Tírechán elaborates on this in his own work, precisely because the underlying formulaic legal motifs would likely resonate with his own ecclesiastical audience i.e. he recognized and seized upon tidbits of genuine insular details, legal processes and commonalities within Patrick’s own writings – that were still recognizable cognitive entities in the seventh century.

The other example in Patrick’s writings that Tírechán seizes upon, is Confessio 49.

Here’s how he presents it:

Et uenit per diserta filiorum Endi in …Aian, in quo erat Lommanus Turrescus. Post multa tempora uenit … Senmeda filia Endi filii Briuin et accipit pallium de manu Patricii et dedit illi munilia sua et manuales et pediales et brachiola sua quod uocatur aros in Scotica.

And he (Patrick) came through the waste lands of the Sons of Énde to Mag Aián, where there was Lommanus Turrescus. Then, after a long time, there came Senmeda, daughter of Énde mace Brioin, and received the veil from Patrick’s hand and gave him her ornaments, that is, (ornaments) for hands and feet and arms, which are called aros in Irish.

Tírechán, Collectanea 34 (2) (Tranlsation: Bieler, 1979)

Now, of course, we must be academically cautious about retrospectively applying meaning and interpretation from the seventh century back to fifth. However, in this case, I think we can take the risk. Tírechán would not have deliberately utilized and embellished Patrick’s own words  unless he was fairly confident that his audience would make the same connections. If so, then it seems that in the seventh century, there was at least the surviving concept of female munilia worn on hands, feet or arms, which were somehow associated with the Irish word aros.

The (wonderful and essential) Electronic Dictionary of the Irish Language has only one unexplained citation for the term aros, from the Vita Tripartite – an Irish text which in large parts is copied from Tírechán’s Latin Collectanea. However, casting around for terms with share the same components throws up some interesting examples of Early Irish legal terminology and concepts.

An Array of Aros

See, for instance, the term arrae i.e. the ‘act of paying something on behalf of another’ or ‘in place of something else’, or an ‘object or class of objects which has been stipulated for in `consideration‘ of a contract or in settlement of a debt’. See also the term árosc i.e. a legal ‘stipulation; condition, reservation’. Or indeed, the similar term airrosc, which is associated with set phrase under imm-airicc i.e. some kind of ‘formula for asking permission to begin anything’.

Framed against such concepts, Tírechán’s utilization of Patrick’s own words and similar situation in Confessio 49 is especially interesting. His equating of the two depicted events, alongside the invocation of an insular term aros, in an otherwise Latin text – suggests that he was intentionally harnessing a contemporary vernacular concept. He depicts Senmeda, a daughter, presenting such ornaments to St. Patrick after having been ‘veiled’ by him. However, unlike Patrick’s original, this is not contested by the saint. Tírechán’s underlying implication is that she no longer desired, or needed, said ornaments ‘which are called aros in Irish’.  Her ‘veiling’ by Patrick in some way negated any previous legal ‘reservation’, ‘down payment’ or outstanding ‘contract’ to others.

This is where everything starts to come together.

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Movable Property

Contrary to modern popular myth, in Early Medieval Ireland, women occupied positions which could be described, at best, as third class citizens, and more normally, as the movable property and currency of men. They were legally incompetent and dependent on male authority throughout their lives. Fathers, brothers and husbands. A daughter coming up to marriageable age would have been considered (however distasteful to modern sensibilities) a valuable ‘economic entity’ in terms of her ‘bride price’.

If Tírechán’s equating of Patrick’s words of Confessio 49 with insular legal concepts of ‘down-payments’ on young women (manifesting in ornamental form) was based on some sort of cultural reality in the seventh century, than its entirely plausible that a similar situation existed two centuries earlier in Patrick’s time. If so, then the entire background of Confessio 49 becomes exceedingly darker in tone and implication.

At the risk of over dramatization, here is possible way of interpreting the depicted events of Patrick’s own words.


Patrick evangelized at all levels of Irish society. He focused on women of various ranks and status. Many of them were seemingly attracted to the new religion and sought to live their lives in new ways based on Christian concepts of chastity, or virginity. In a society where women’s roles and values was defined in terms of their productivity, manual labour and reproductive/sexual potential – such concepts would have been seen as socially subversive and incompatible with the cultural norms of the day.

Despite this, there seems to have been many women who subscribed to the possibilities inherent in not being a wife, not being a mother, or not providing a prospective partner or husband (selected by someone else on their behalf) with the promise of sexual access. In other words: female agency and choice. An alternative way of living, with a form of quasi independence never previously afforded them within insular society.

For those women coming up to marriageable age, already ‘promised’ to prospective husbands chosen for them, and perhaps literally wearing the ‘down payment’ on their bodies for all to see; expressing an interest in any alternative way of life outside the cultural norm would have created a significant problem. For those who really wanted to make a public statement of their Christian intentions, especially those whose parents had already disapproved of their wishes; removing and hurling such ornaments over and beyond the altar, in full view of their Christian peers, would have been an explicit act of public dissatisfaction. A physical rejection of their existing subservient role as a bodily vessel in society; a public statement of their intent of non-compliance; and a direct appeal to fellow Christians, even to Patrick himself, for support and assistance.

Which makes Patrick’s return of the ornaments, even more extraordinary.

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Risky Business

By the time he was writing the Confessio, the Historical Patrick was in old age. He had spent six years in his youth as a slave in Ireland, and at least several decades as a middle-aged missionary. Patrick would have been intimately familiar with the social complexities and nuances of insular Irish society. It is inconceivable that he was unaware of what these women were attempting to do. Yet despite them being willing converts and actively looking to live their lives as Christians – he rejected their rejection – by publicly returning the symbolic ornaments they had thrown away.

In terms of his missionary methodology, Patrick was interested in establishing new communities under his leadership – groups that could physically co-exist, legally and religiously, within wider society, and yet set apart from social norms. To do this, he needed to play the system from within, utilizing his inside knowledge and familiarity while running the risk of trespassing on, or angering, powerful insular authority figures and their spheres of influence. In terms of anyone who was not legally free – and especially those women who ‘belonged’ or were ‘promised’ to someone else – Patrick apparently considered them too risky to take on board, lest he open himself and his mission to accusations of social, sexual and financial impropriety.

But I on account of the hope of everlastingness, so that I would preserve myself cautiously in all things on that account, so that they would not on any legal charge of unfaithfulness capture me or the ministry of my slavery, nor would I give a place even in the least degree to unbelievers to defame or detract.

 Confessio 49 (Trans: Howlett, 1994)


This is why Confessio 49 deserves far more attention then it has previously had. The women who repeatedly threw their ornaments over Patrick’s altar were being scandalized twofold. Once, by seeking to live their lives according to a new religion that was deemed by others to be socially incompatible with their expectant subservient roles as women. Twice, by being publicly rejected by the very people who had provided the vehicle for change.

In demonstrating to disparate groups of fellow Irish Christians the lengths he had gone to to protect his fledgling missions reputation within pagan society, Patrick’s reference to his ‘scandalization’ of women is both an admission of failure of them on his part, and an attempt at metaphorical justification of having to do so. His use of the term ‘scandalized’ deliberately employed to echo biblical usage. Punishments incurred on (innocent) others; of not causing others to stumble or lose their family inheritance; of inadvertently impinging upon the public honour and reputation of young women.

By rejecting their rejection, we see the Historical Patrick at his most managerial.  Unwilling to take risks for those women who desired change and afraid of rattling the cages of powerful insular authorities. An acute awareness of the perceptions of the social unconventionality of living a Christian life in a pagan society.

Such events depicted in Confessio 49 are all the more ironic, when you consider that the earliest surviving articulation of a collective Irish identity is also to be found within Patrick’s writings: his poignant phrase ‘It is unworthy to them that we are Irish’, uttered in indignation and frustration at the lack of solidarity from fellow Christians abroad. ‘The injustice of unjust men has prevailed over us, as if we have been made remote outsiders’. Fledgling collective Irish identity and Irish Christianity are thus strangely linked at the very dawn of recorded Irish history. Curious bedfellows, yoked together by chance and necessity, united by a shared sense of discrimination and a desire for recognition, social justice and equality.

And yet, in the middle of that remarkable document, from a distance of 1500 years or so, we can detect those who were nevertheless excluded by Patrick for reasons which had nothing to do with them. Irish women, constrained by the traditions and legal system of their day, looking to a new religion – that of Christianity – in the hope of articulating and achieving agency, choice, bodily integrity and ownership of their own lives.