Patrick, Augustine and a blackbird

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.

This is not an entirely novel idea – in fact Augustinus Hibernicus is developing ideas of Augustine, though dropping aspects where they do not agree with his interpretation (see Bracken below for a full exploration of the treatise).

Neither is Augustinus Hibernicus attempting to remove God from nature. He does, Bracken argues, seem to be turning his face against magical explanations and hence against pagan beliefs of, for example, souls appearing literally as birds. So Augustinus says that the rods Moses is said to have turned into snakes did not literally do so, but merely appeared to.

But in doing this he places all miracles inside nature itself. Every miracle is within; every seed contains a plan of what it shall become. This seems perfectly in line with the history of Irish monastic lyric poetry, the wonder at the song of a blackbird:

Int én bec
ro léc feit
do rinn guip

fo-ceird faíd
ós Loch Laíg,
lon do chraíb

9th Century Irish


The small bird
yellow neb,
a note-spurt.

Blackbird over
Lagan water.
Clumps of yellow

Seamus Heaney

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

Further Reading

See for texts by including the Confessio and Epistola in English and an article on Patrick.

Irish Augustine

Suburban Banshee blog has a short page with useful links and a translation of the introduction to De mirabilibus sacrae scripturae

Damian Bracken, Rationalism and the Bible in 7th century Ireland. This goes through the text in detail.

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