There is a close proximity in time of the life of St. Patrick and the fall of the western Roman Empire. Also St. Augustine of Hippo was an important contemporary. Let us set the events of the two saints and the continent in a table to see how they fit together.
I have called this page “406-407 Rhine Freezes–St. Patrick Sneezes” to put the two events in a relationship to be easily remembered.
Patrick was born in about A.D. 385. He was kidnapped and made a shepherd in Ireland until he escaped in A.D. 407. That was the winter that the Rhine had frozen over and the hungry Germanic hordes had crossed the river and consumed the food of the land right up to Rome. When the ship that carried Patrick away from Ireland landed on the mainland, the crew nearly starved to death. Europe had become a wasteland.
In due time Patrick returned to his home, prepared for the ministry, was ordained and returned to Ireland as a missionary. Not since Paul the Apostle had the world seen a missionary. And, like Paul the Apostle, Patrick’s mission was wildly successful.
In Patrick’s time Ireland had no cities. Monks would go out and find a green space under a tree to study. Soon others joined them and the place became a monastery. Then began the copying of books and building of libraries. The Irish collected any book they could find. The monasteries became the centers of population and in time became universities. The Irish university is the model for a classical education. This model was taken back to Europe by Irish missionaries until once again Europe was repopulated and re-civilized. We call it the Renaissance.
The Irish monks copied and collected all the Latin and Greek texts they could acquire. We must thank the Irish that these texts are preserved unto us. Still many ancient texts were lost and only remain as partial references in newer books.
Not only did the Irish copy the teachings of the classical languages, they also cataloged the Ogham alphabets of their own language. It was this catalog of the Ogham scripts that allowed scholars in the twentieth century to interpret records inscribed on stones some great length of time before. Some of the Ogham on American stones was inscribed as early as 1700 B.C. To the Irish we owe the ability to read it.
Barry Fell, in America B.C., devotes an entire chapter to how Irish ogam was finally deciphered. In New England in 1680, a Puritan minster named John Danforth discovered some strange writing on a rock in Dighton, Massachuesetts. With fellow minister Cotton Mather, he reported the finding to the Royal Society, and the matter was recorded in the Philosophical Transactions for 1712. The Revolutionary War would delay interpretation of these writings for two hundred years.
Thirty years before Patrick was taken in chains to Ireland, a Romanized African teenager was brought to Carthage, the capital of Roman Africa. In 401 A.D., the year of Patrick’s captivity, Augustine published his Confessions. We will take another look at the Confessions under the Literature section.
As the Irish were prolific in copying and preserving texts, Augustine was prolific in writing. His City of God divides human reality into two realms: Bablylon, the City of Man, and the New Jerusalem, the City of God. This was written to contradict Roman pagans who blamed Christian converts for the barbarian assaults upon Rome, perhaps the earliest attempt to explain the rise and fall of the Roman Empire.
|b. 385 A.D.||b. 354 A.D.|
|Runs away 407||Rhine freezes 406||Publishes Confessions 401|
|d. 461 A.D.||d. 430 A.D.|
Patrick made a confession of his sin to a close friend in preparation for being ordained a deacon. This confession later came back to haunt him. Co-incidentally, the story of his life is called Confession.
St. Augustine’s Confessions is a milestone in literature. It is the first book written entirely in the first person. It is the foundation for biographic literature. Also, it is the foundation of all the psychological sciences.
Cahill, Thomas, How the Irish Saved Civilization, New York: Random House, 1995.