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17 March 2017

St Patrick's Confessio: A Medieval Autobiography

17 March is St Patrick’s Day, when the people of Ireland and those of Irish descent around the world celebrate the feast day of this famous saint. Patrick is one of the patron saints of Ireland and certainly the most celebrated! As a young man in the 5th century, he was kidnapped from his home in Roman Britain and spent years enslaved as a shepherd in Ireland. He eventually managed to escape back to Britain, and then returned as a missionary to convert the Irish to Christianity. Patrick describes his remarkable story himself in his Confessio, a form of autobiography. The Confessio survives in only 8 manuscripts, one of which is held by the British Library (now Cotton MS Nero E I/1). This fascinating text has been fully translated from Latin into English by the Royal Irish Academy and can be found online here.

'My name is Patrick, I am a sinner': Opening lines of the Confessio, Cotton MS Nero E I/1, f.169v

The British Library's copy of the Confessio and Epistola is part of the Cotton-Corpus Legendary, the earliest substantial legendary from England. This text originally formed two volumes, covering the whole liturgical year: they are now divided between Cotton MS Nero E I/2, Cotton MS Nero E I/2 and Cambridge, Corpus Christi College, MS 9. The majority of the text was copied in the second half of the 11th century at Worcester Cathedral.

Careful now! Depiction of St Patrick standing on a snake in Purgatory, from St Patrick's Purgatory: England, 1451, Royal MS 17 B XLIII, f. 132v

What may surprise many people about the Confessio is that it contains no mention of shamrocks, snakes being driven out or the naming of the mountain where Patrick tended animals as a slave, although these popular traditions have later grown up around his story. Patrick wrote the text when he was an older man, reflecting on his faith in God and referring to his life as a spiritual journey. Although he calls himself as ‘a sinner, a simple country person, and the least of all believers’, Patrick’s faith gave him inner strength and helped him through many experiences, including: temptation by Satan as he lay sleeping one night; his escape from slavery through the wilderness; and his later call to return again to the Irish (‘I never had any reason for returning to that nation…except the gospel and God’s promises’). We also see a more human side to Patrick as he describes the homesickness he felt while in Ireland (‘I could wish to leave them to go to Britain…to visit my home country and my parents’), and the joy upon seeing his family in Britain once more (‘They welcomed me as a son, and they pleaded with me…I should never leave them again.’)

Detailed map of Ireland from the Nowell-Burghley Atlas, 1559–1570, Add MS 62540, f. 3v

The Confessio is accompanied by Patrick’s letter to the soldiers of Coroticus, commonly known as the Epistola. Likely composed before the Confessio, Patrick uses his position as Bishop of Ireland to condemn and excommunicate Coroticus and his soldiers for attacking a number of Patrick’s newly baptised converts and carrying them off into slavery. With personal experience of this practice, Patrick expresses his sadness and grief at losing his ‘fairest and most loving brothers and sisters’ to ‘villainous rebels against Christ...who divide out defenceless baptised women as prizes, all for the sake of a miserable temporal kingdom’. The Epistola also reveals Patrick’s love of his Irish flock and belief in his mission: ‘And yet I rejoice within myself: I have not worked for nothing…thanks to God you who are baptised believers have moved on from this world to paradise. [You] leap for joy, like calves set free from chains, and you tread down the wicked, and they will be like ashes under your feet.’ We toast today to Paddy’s health and to your own, sláinte!

A medieval shamrock? Miniature of an alleluia or wood sorrel plant, from an Italian herbal, c. 1280–1310, Egerton MS 747, f. 12r

Alison Ray

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