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17 Mar

Patrick, Augustine and a blackbird

A blackbird (13th century manuscript) Digital image courtesy of the Getty’s Open Content Program.

When philosophy and the name Augustine are mentioned, one immediately thinks of the North African bishop, reluctant convert and writer of classic works like the Confessions and The City of God.

At about the same time a man who shared Augustine’s fathers’ name was on a mission to Christianise Ireland. While not in the same literary or philosophical league Patrick’s Confessions mark the start of a long Christian tradition and his Letter is a very early statement of a belief that slavery (of Christians at least) is wrong.

The collapse of the Roman Empire (Augustine died in a city under siege) left turmoil. The works of the ancients were preserved in the East, in the Arab world, and in Ireland.

The monks not only preserved works but also created their own commentaries and treatises. In the 7th century an Irish monk later known as Augustinus Hibernicus (the Irish Augustine) produced a Latin treatise De mirabilibus sacrae scripturae (in English: On the miraculous things in sacred scripture). This treatise was widely circulated (76 copies at least extant) though possibly because they thought it was by the better know Augustine.

The treatise is called a “rationalisation” of the Bible, but this is slightly misleading. To put it in modern terms Augustinus Hibernicus argues that God does not break the rules of nature he has created to perform a miracle. Instead miracles are performed using the natural possibilities within the object. This applied to both Old Testament and New Testament miracles. Both the water turned to blood in Egypt and the water turned to wine in Cana are to Augustinus Hibernicus the performing of a natural process, only greatly accelerated. Water becoming wine (in a vine) or blood (in an animal) is part of nature.
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