Posted in 1689 & earlier: Medieval and Early Modern James Ussher John Toland Patrick

Appropriating Patrick: Keating, Ussher, Toland and the Early Irish Church

A statue of St Patrick in an antique shop window (c) david perry/flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)
A statue of St Patrick in an antique shop window
(c) david perry/flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

The very oldest texts in any language written in Ireland that have survived relate to St Patrick. One, the Confessio, outlines his own account of his life. To the modern reader, it may seem sparse. There is no mention of Pascal fires, of shamrock or of snakes.

The tale of St Patrick developed over time, and to fulfil different purposes. Muirchú’s Latin Life of Saint Patrick, compiled around the year 680 which includes tales of wonders, was written to confirm Armagh’s pre-eminent place in the Irish Church. Patrick was said to have arrived in Ireland in 432AD to undermine the earlier Palladius who was documented to have arrived in 431AD. The development of the myth continued into the 15th century, with examples to be found in the Book of Lismore and the Leabhar Breac. This tradition emphasised St Patrick as a wonder worker and a prophet. At the same time secular writings such as the 12th century Acallamh na Senorach include stories of Patrick meeting the Fianna.

The Norman invasion saw a parallel tradition emerge, starting with Gerald of Wales’ outline of Patrick’s life in Topographia Hibernica, which included a debunking of the legend of the banaishment of the snakes. Jocelin of Furness’ account, based on resources some of which are now lost, was written as part of the Anglo-Norman attempt to appropriate the saint. Written at the same time as the shrine in Downpatrick was established, it portrays Patrick as a miracle-working prophet, whose mother was related to St. Martin of Tours.
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Posted in James Ussher

Why Study…James Ussher

Why Study…James Ussher with Professor Alan Ford, University of Nottingham.

Ussher (1581-1656) is now principally remembered for just one thing: giving the date of the creation as 4004 B.C. (on “the entrance of the night preceding the twenty third day of Octob[er]”). The chronology from which this date comes has become a foundational text of creationists; as Prof Alan Ford writes

It is a neat irony that one of Ussher’s greatest works of scholarship, the summation of a lifetime’s investigation of biblical chronology, which combined the latest scientific and astronomical discoveries of his day with the profoundest scriptural and historical research, should now be upheld by those who reject the consensus of contemporary biblical and scientific studies.

Stephen J. Gould argued that, while obviously wrong, “I shall be defending Ussher’s chronology as an honourable effort for its time and arguing that our usual ridicule only records a lamentable small-mindedness based on mistaken use of present criteria to judge a distant and different past.” Those adopting and those dismissing Ussher both tend to break the rule that the context in which a philosopher worked should not be ignored; another irony is that Ussher did the same when exploring the history of the early Christian Church in Ireland, as the video explains.