Friday, March 17, 2017

The Brit Who Wants To Turn St. Patrick Into a Slave Trader

The modern use of St. Patrick would seem to be turning ugly.  There are two stories bopping around today, one in which white supremacists have tried to conflate the maltreatment of the Irish under British subjugation with black slavery in the Americas - both were bad so I don't understand how one could be used to turn the other innocuous.  The attempt do so that is baseless, worse, it's based on blatant lies and appeals to bigotry.  Unfortunately, in this Age of Lies and the internet, it will probably get believed and, instead of reminding Irish Americans, Canadians, etc, that they have a moral obligation to not oppress others for they were once slaves of the Brits*, it will have the effect the neo-Nazis want.   By far, it is the more dangerous of the two and it needs to be opposed because lies have been so empowered. I'll need to hold my nose and do more research for that, the other one is relatively silly and self-inconsistent.

That other is a Brit, a Dr Roy Flechner, research fellow at Cambridge University's Department of Anglo-Saxon, Norse and Celtic who said the commonly accepted account of story of St. Patrick was "likely to be fiction."  He turns the escaped slave into a slave trading Roman tax collector based, it would seem, on a modern program of debunkery.    In the scant documentary record of the period, there isn't much to make the accusation from, he chooses to base his accusation on one thing.

Flechner says Patrick’s family were tax collectors for the Romans, a very dangerous job during that era.

Patrick's father, Calpornius, was a Decurion, a Roman official responsible for tax collection in Wales. Calpornius wanted out and used a Roman legal clause that allowed him to join the clergy and pass the job on to his son.

Which would seem to be based on St. Patrick's Confession, the earliest and, obviously,  most informed account of his life which we have, coming from the man, himself.   It's unlikely that any of the later accounts were based on anything as informed on the subject.  But, reading into the few facts given by Patrick for his own purpose, Flechner invents a lot of stuff, including his contention that if Calpornius wanted out that he'd want to give a dangerous position to his son in the decaying empire.  I will invent the suspicion that by that time the likely minimal system of Roman law, so far from Rome, was hardly as effective as that.

But there is a lot more that Dr. Flechner has to create to come up with his effort to debunk St. Patrick, into a slave trader.

"The traditional story that Patrick was kidnapped from Britain, forced to work as a slave, but managed to escape and reclaim his status, is likely to be fiction.

"The traditional legend was instigated by Patrick himself in the letters he wrote, because this is how he wanted to be remembered.

"Escaped slaves had no legal status and could be killed or recaptured by anyone. The probability Patrick managed to cross from his alleged place of captivity in western Ireland back to Britain undetected, is small. “

Well, so far as I've read, the entire identification of who Patrick's father was and where he was from is contained in the very same documents he wrote.  If you're going to depend on them for one thing you spin into an accusation, it doesn't seem to me that you get to then say that his own testimony is unreliable.  He does the same to try to discredit Patrick's opposition to slavery.   Either the saint was a liar or he wan't.   It's more likely that Patrick's account is accurate than Flechner's publicity attracting speculations are.

"The only objections to slavery known in this period and the early middle ages were cases in which Christian slaves were owned by non-Christian masters. Patrick is known to have attempted to free enslaved captives, but these were Christians whom Patrick had converted himself, and who were sold to Pictish masters."

Which obviously relies on Patrick's letter of excommunication addressed to the soldiers of Coroticus. It, like the letters of Paul, was a document sent to specific people in response to a specific set of problems.  The people who were abducted into slavery were specific people, who were converts, it isn't a general document.  If they had not been Christians who he had charge of, his protests would be dismissed on the basis of his not having standing.  Something which he noted himself, in his letter.

I am not forcing myself in where I have no right to act. I have a part with those whom God called and destined to preach the gospel,

If he had tried to make that argument for pagans, I imagine  a bunch of thugs like Coroticus and his soldiers would tell him to go mind his own business.

Flechner says that "he wanted to be remembered" as an escaped slave.  If he was so invested in the slave system why would he have wanted to be remembered as a slave?    It would certainly not have endeared him to any aristocratic, slave holding power.  If he were one of them, it's more likely that any biography padding would have been in his parentage, not his status as an escaped slave.  Flechner uses the danger that that status would have carried for Patrick in another part of his debunkery effort.

Adds Flechner: "Escaped slaves had no legal status and could be killed or recaptured by anyone. The probability that Patrick managed to cross from his alleged place of captivity in western Ireland back to Britain undetected, at a time when transportation was extremely complicated, is highly unlikely.

If it were not unlikely for slaves to escape then it would have been happening all the time.  But it was done.  There were people who escaped the slave labor of the modern Nazi and Stalinist states, not many and many of those who tried were killed.  It would hardly have been wise for Patrick, a slave-holder, himself, to have advertised himself as an escaped slave if it hadn't been the case.  As it is, if that endangered him, it is clear his willingness to risk martyrdom as others who had tried to convert pagans had suffered was authentic.

In the several accounts I've read of this, Flechner seems to like to use the phrase "it is likely" and other such hedging because the documentary record doesn't support his contention.  For me, it is likely that Flechner wants to get some media attention and as a Brit he turns to the still rampant anti-Irish, anti-Catholic tradition, about the least risky thing you can still do in a British university.  It would seem to me that he wants to claim that the few documents of St. Patrick that we have from him are to be believed when he can twist it into his claim and to be disbelieved when the don't.  That's no way to make something more reliable than the kind of ideological mythology that flourishes these days and which, in the case of British academics dealing with the Irish, has never much done anything bad for their careers.

*  The reminder to the children of Israel of why they shouldn't oppress aliens, wage earners, etc. "for they were slaves in Egypt" was continually repeated in the books of the Law.  It's something that the modern Irish should be reminded of at least as constantly.   Not that they were recently treated as African slaves, Native Americans, Australian aboriginal people, etc. but it was something we should certainly remember.

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