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The Real Story of St. Patrick, Part II

In this post, Christian author Mark Fisher continues the real story of St. Patrick, Part II.

The Amazing Story of St. Patrick

As we approach St. Patrick’s day, we’ve been examining what really happened in the life of St. Patrick. As one of the main characters in my upcoming novel, The Bonfires of Beltane, I have a special interest in this amazing, early medieval icon. This is the second of a four-part series of posts. (Click here for Part I or Part III or use the navigation buttons on the left and right.)

Alone With the Sheepirish-sheep-in-the-mist-joe-bonita

When we left Patrick last week, Irish raiders stole him from his home and sold him into slavery in Hibernia, the Roman name for ancient Ireland. Slavery was much a part of Celtic and British culture then. Possibly in Foclut, somewhere on the western sea, Patrick spent the next six years tending sheep in a remote pasture. Ireland’s ancient economy was based on cattle, so tending sheep was considered even lower than herding cows or pigs or serving at the farm. Suddenly, the child of privilege found himself out on the cold, rainy moors, leading sheep from one field to the next, or taking them back to the farm. Sometimes he slept in a stone hut in a remote field, keeping a lookout for wolves who would prey on young lambs. Most often he’d sleep with the other slaves inside the farmstead, a cluster of buildings surrounded by an earthen ring, topped by wooden stakes. He complained of having little to eat and was often starving.

And Then He Began To Pray

But as the years passed, something within him began to change. The young man who’d once made fun of the priests remembered the biblical stories of his youth. And then he began to pray. He would rise before sunrise to say a hundred prayers and say another hundred before going to bed. The Irish slaves began calling him “holy boy”. He also began to fast. Gradually, his faith grew. His attitude changed and he served his master obediently. Then one night, a voice called to him in a dream, saying, “You have fasted well—soon you will be going home.”

Planning Escape

But how was going home to Britain even possible? Foclut was in the far northwest, as far from the eastern and southern ports as one could get. Anyone seeing an escaped slave would quickly capture him. Yes, escape seemed impossible. Yet the next night, the voice came again, saying, “Behold, your ship is ready.” The voice even gave him directions to find a ship on the southern coast. He realized this had to be the voice of God. So he saved up some food, and one night, he left his sheep and set out for the south.

Crossing Ireland Alone

Now he was an élúdach, a fugitive on a par with murderers and thieves. He traveled only at night, swimming across rivers naked, holding his clothes above him. He crossed bogs on the wooden roads that traversed many of the worst fens. Unable to make a fire for fear of discovery, his food dwindling, and fearing capture, he traveled south for about a month, covering possibly 185 miles. Then he arrived at a port.

A Ship Sets Sail

In the village below, a ship lay at anchor. But he feared the moment the villagers saw him, they would capture him. Their reward would be great. But he screwed up his courage and passed by the roundhouses of the small village. He crossed the gangway onto the ship’s deck and approached the captain, who was ready to set sail with a cargo of Irish hounds. But after one look at the escaped slave and his ragged, dirty tunic, the captain probably saw trouble and sent him away. Devastated, Patrick trudged back toward the dock, praying all the way. Then suddenly, sailors approached from behind. He turned around. They asked him to return. Back at the ship, the captain offered him a position among the crew.

As the ship sailed away from Hibernia, this land where he’d spent so long in slavery, he gave thanks to God. Patrick had escaped. But then his journey home took an unexpected turn. We’ll continue with Part III next week.

(Note that this history was gleaned from a variety of sources: Patrick’s own Confessions, Philip Freeman’s St. Patrick of Ireland, Thomas Cahill’s How the Irish Saved Civilization, and T.W. Moody and F.X. Martin’s The Course of Irish History.)

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The Real Story of St. Patrick, Part I

In this post, Christian author Mark Fisher begins the real story of St. Patrick, Part I.

St. Patrick, An Early Medieval Icon

St. Patrick’s day is approaching. As one of the main characters in my upcoming novel, The Bonfires of Beltane, I have a special interest in him. So for the next few posts, let us forget green beer, rowdy celebrations, and funny green hats, and find out what this early medieval icon was really like. (To fit it all in before St. Pat’s day, I’ll be reviewing Michelle Griep’s novel, Undercurrent, later. Click here for Part II or use the navigation button on the right.)

An Atheist From Childhood

Patrick was born at the end of the fourth century in a Roman villa near Bannaventa Berniae, a village somewhere on Britain’s western coast. His family probably had a small house in this small agricultural town of about one hundred houses. His father was Calpornius, a Roman patrician and wealthy farmer, and a deacon in the local Christian church. They were Christians despite the fact that many Romans paid homage to deities like Mars, Jupiter, Mercury, and Minerva. His family baptized Patrick as an infant, and he learned stories from the Bible. But by his own admission, he rebelled against his parents’ faith. He even said that, from childhood, he was an atheist.

Born to Wealth and PrivilegeRomanVilla

Patrick was part of the Roman elite, and became a privileged, spoiled child. Green pastures filled with sheep probably surrounded his father’s farmstead. As a young man, he was schooled in the classics—Virgil, Homer, Cicero, and Aristotle. But always he struggled with Latin and had barely begun studying public speaking. His family probably spoke in the “British” tongue, which at the time was related to Irish Gaelic.

A Skeleton in the Closet?

As a youth of fifteen, he committed some sin that haunted him all his days. We don’t know what it was, but when Patrick’s fellow bishops found out about it years later, they wanted to put him on trial and strip him of his office. The possibilities are some kind of sexual sin, an idolatry of some kind, or murder. Murder seems the most likely. We just don’t know.

Celtic RaidersThen the Raiders Came

Then on one tragic night, this idyllic, somewhat mundane life ended. Slave traders came from across the sea from the land called Hibernia, the Roman name for Ireland. His parents and sister had gone to visit relatives in the north, leaving him alone with the slaves and hired freedmen. The raiders appeared suddenly at night in the farmstead’s midst. They captured the younger servants and slaves. They murdered outright the older men and women, those too feeble for travel who wouldn’t bring a good price on Hibernia. They stole young Patrick, a youth of but fifteen years, and put a heavy iron chain around his neck. Then they carried him across the sea. He was headed for a mysterious land whose feared inhabitants had raided the British and Gallic coasts for centuries. It was a country of reputed wildmen, barbarians, and “cannibals”. We can only imagine what went through his mind.

Sold Into Slavery

When Patrick arrived on the island, he was quickly sold. He ended up with a single master, probably on the western coast. Philip Freeman, in St. Patrick of Ireland, makes a case for a town called Foclut in County Mayo. And there, for the next six years, Patrick toiled in remote fields as a sheepherder—cold, starving, and alone.

Next week, we’ll continue our look at St. Patrick with Part II.

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The Early Medieval Code of Honor

In this post, Christian author Mark Fisher looks at the early medieval code of honor in ancient, Celtic Ireland. That such a code exists is one more reason why writing about the era is attractive for Christian historical fiction and Christian fantasy.

The Early Medieval Code of Honor

Celtic+high+kingA medieval code of honor prevailed among the nobility of some, but not all, medieval cultures. Especially in fifth century Celtic, Ireland—my current writing era—the qualities men admired most were honor, bravery, loyalty, hospitality, and generosity. Mind you, this is long before the age of chivalry brought about by Christianity.

We don’t pretend the medieval era was some kind of paradise. It wasn’t. But even before Christianity arrived, God’s Moral Law—the knowledge of good and evil born within each of us—shines through in our list of moral ideals. Let’s itemize them:

  • Honor: Embracing truth and rejecting falsehood, maintaining personal integrity, being a man or woman of your word—these virtues were highly prized.
  • Bravery: When death or danger approached, the brave man didn’t flinch, but joined the battle or stood his ground.
  • Loyalty: When a man pledged fidelity to a lord or friend, he stood by that person, no matter what happened.
  • Hospitality: Long before they heard about Christ, they practiced the Christian virtue of hospitality, extending welcome and kindness to strangers and foreigners. (See Hebrews 13:2)
  • Generosity: Being generous with praise and goods to guests and underlings was highly valued. A king would be dishonored if his reputation didn’t include generosity.
  • Handsomeness: Okay, this is rather superficial, but personal beauty was held in high esteem. Given that the average lifespan was less than 32 years, the population was young.

 

Of course, everyone in the ancient world didn’t practice these ideals. Many are the tales of perfidy, deceit, and evil doings. But those who violated these idealswere not viewed as honorable men.

For the story writer, these virtues become rich material for heroes and villains. They give the writer a solid basis for plot and character. To the extent that the best ideals of ancient culture align with Christian virtues, it also gives the story added depth.

Today—What Happened?

Now I must ask: What happened to these virtues today?  Today’s politicians and leaders, with a few notable exceptions, seem to embody the antithesis of these qualities. (We’ll set aside “handsomeness”. We’ll not hold them to that.) Today, I fear honor in public life is all but lost. I make an exception for the military, which understandably embraces only the first half of our list.  This points out another reason why writing for the medieval era is so attractive—it stands in stark contrast to the character of our time. Many readers want escape. They want to enter another world, far from the cares of today. Our list of virtues, if brought out in our heroes and heroines, provides a welcome relief from the perfidy, dishonor, disloyalty, and small mindedness on display in today’s leaders.

Christian Virtues Far Surpass the Ancient Culture’s

And here my critique of today’s world, and its leaders also provides a powerful reason why Christian fiction itself is so attractive. For the virtues of Christianity—the fruits of the Spirit—not only align with many of these, they surpass them. The Apostle Paul gave us a summary in Galatians 5:22–23 (NLT): “But the Holy Spirit produces this kind of fruit in our lives: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. There is no law against these things!”

But the Medieval World Wasn’t All Roses

Thus far, I’ve given many reasons why writing for the medieval era is attractive. But lest I leave you with a Pollyanna view of that period, we must address reality. The ancient world was filled with violence, death, brutality, and deceit. But these, too, are reasons to write about the era. For conflict is the engine of storytelling. And here we enter a number of wide-ranging topics. When we pick up the subject again—after some intermission posts—we’ll continue looking at different aspects of the medieval world. Next week, I hope to review “Undercurrent”, by Michelle Griep.