17.01.03, Freeman, The World of Saint Patrick

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Máirín MacCarron

The Medieval Review 17.01.03

Freeman, Philip. The World of Saint Patrick. New York: Oxford University Press, 2014. pp. x, 225. ISBN: 978-0-19-937258-4 (hardback).

Reviewed by:
Mairin MacCarron
University of Sheffield

Modern translations of Saint Patrick's writings by eminent scholars are astonishingly plentiful these days. There have been several in-depth and analytical treatments of his letters in the last twenty-five years, including three from 1993 presumably to coincide with the fifteenth centenary of one of the dates of his death. [1] Each of these works have contributed greatly to our knowledge of the familiar, yet mysterious, Patrick. These have recently been followed by the Royal Irish Academy's impressive website http://confessio.ie, launched in 2011, which makes Patrick's letters freely available in the original Latin and translated into several modern languages. Thankfully the RIA's excellent resource has not occluded any further such ventures, however, as Philip Freeman's The World of Saint Patrick allows the reader to encounter Patrick and early medieval Ireland anew in a most engaging and accessible collection.

The book opens with Freeman's new translations of the earliest surviving written sources from Ireland, namely Patrick's "Letter to the Soldiers of Coroticus" and his "Confession." Both are highly readable and vividly present Patrick's voice to a modern audience. The remainder of the volume supplements Patrick's writings with lively translations of related texts, including: the First Synod of Saint Patrick; the Hymn of Secundinus; 'Saint Patrick's breastplate'; Muirchú's Life of Saint Patrick; Cogitosus' Life of Saint Brigid; and The Voyage of Saint Brendan. The reader thus encounters a range of sources from the fifth to the ninth centuries, of various lengths and representing diverse genres including letters, church regulations, hymns, hagiographies, and voyage tales. Although all of these are readily available in modern English translations, presented together they create a composite picture of the beginnings of Christianity in Ireland and provide insights into the first flourishings of the cult of Patrick and early Irish spirituality. The first six all concern Patrick and combinations of these have frequently appeared together in some of the above-mentioned works and earlier editions of Patrician material, such as the trail-blazing contributions of Ludwig Bieler. [2] Including all six in one volume affords the reader an unusually broad appreciation of both the man and the legend as these texts complement each other very well. The decision to also add Cogitosus' Life of Brigid and the Voyage of Brendan helpfully expands our understanding of Patrick's World by introducing two other heavy-weights of the early Irish Church. All together this collection provides an excellent introduction to the literary output of the first centuries of Irish Christianity.

The book's stated aim is to bring together "the most important sources on early Irish Christianity for readers interested in this remarkable period of history" (vii) and it will surely satisfy such a target audience. Indeed, it would also serve as a most helpful resource for undergraduates new to this period of history, not least due to the accessibility of Freeman's translations. This reader could not help but wonder what criteria were used to classify these texts as the "most important" though, as surely other works could stake such a claim: for example, the letters of Columbanus provide an insight into the early Irish Church's view of its origins. And could more attention have been paid to Tíreachán's Life of Patrick? The absence of figures such as Columba of Iona (Colum Cille), though understandable, is also a pity as he--more than Brendan--completes the triumvirate of ecclesiastical power-houses in early medieval Ireland. The Lives of Patrick and Brigid here and Adomnán's Life of Columba were almost certainly written when their respective churches of Armagh, Kildare and Iona were in competition for dominance of the Irish Church.

Such quibbles aside, this is an excellent collection. In keeping with the author's wish that the documents should speak for themselves (vii), the introductions are short, but they successfully address key ideas and provide the general reader with sufficient context to engage with the texts in a reasonably informed manner. Freeman also identifies other editions of each text and highlights important analyses for those who wish to proceed further. The endnotes provide additional information and the preponderance of scriptural citations throughout indicates the high level of learning and deep knowledge of the Bible attained by many early Irish Churchmen. The notes on the Life of Brigid, in particular, reveal a substantial amount about early Irish society and point the reader to relevant further readings, which is complemented by the volume's concise but useful bibliography. The book is beautifully produced and easy to navigate, for the most part: the lack of section numbers or breaks of any kind in Patrick's letters, especially the "Confession," does seem an oversight, particularly as the three longest texts in the book (Muirchú, Cogitosus and the Voyage of Brendan) are all very clearly and helpfully subdivided. This volume's greatest attribute, however, is that in presenting wonderfully fresh, lively and engaging translations of Patrick's letters and other relevant sources from early medieval Ireland, it succeeds in bringing the world of Saint Patrick to life for a modern readership.



1. These include: Liam De Paor, Saint Patrick's World: The Christian Culture of Ireland's Apostolic Age (Dublin: Four Courts Press, 1993); Daniel Conneely, St Patrick's Letters: A Study of Their Theological Dimension (Maynooth: An Sagart, 1993); David Howlett, The Book of Letters of Saint Patrick the Bishop (Dublin: Four Courts Press, 1993); and Thomas O'Loughlin, Saint Patrick: The Man and His Works (London: SPCK, 1999) and Discovering Saint Patrick (Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 2005).

2. The Works of St Patrick (New York: Newman Press, 1953); The Irish Penitentials (Dublin: Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies, 1963); The Patrician Texts in the Book of Armagh (Dublin: Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies, 1979).

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