The World of Saint Patrick

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Philip Freeman
  • New York, NY: 
    Oxford University Press
    , September
     240 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Philip Freeman's The World of Saint Patrick is, without a doubt, a unique and strangely paradoxical object. Its size, which makes it feel both like a children’s storybook and a prayer book, appears at first to undermine its importance. As a classical scholar and translator, however, Freeman offers with this collection of works a vibrant and harmonious narrative of early Christian Ireland that deserves full recognition. His choice of texts is a testimony to his desire to “gather for the first time the most important sources on early Irish Christianity” (vii). Unfortunately, for the more seasoned reader, the introductions and notes to the translated texts (from Latin and Old Irish) have been kept to a necessary minimum, with endnotes featured at the end of the book. This common practice forces the more curious (or impatient) reader to go back and forth, sometimes to be left with just a hint of something fascinating, but nowhere else to go.

Through the letters of Saint Patrick (Saint Patrick's Letter to the Soldiers of Coroticus; Saint Patrick's Confession), the reader is introduced to fifth century Britain and Ireland, and some of their more brutal ways of life. Taken as a slave at the age of sixteen, Patrick was kidnapped from a Briton family of Roman nobility and sailed to Ireland, where he heard the voice of God and escaped. Back home in England, Patrick once again heard the voice of God and returned to Ireland as a missionary and his letters offer a glimpse at a world of political, legal, and religious negotiations. These letters are followed by The First Synod of Saint Patrick, The Hymn of Saint Secundinus, “Saint Patrick's Breastplate,Muirchú's Life of Saint Brigid, and The Voyage of Saint Bredan. Each text is briefly introduced and placed in context, always with a sense of caution and nuance that is welcome considering the complexity of the subject.

Despite a wish for more information and facts (dates for the First Synode, for example, or remarks on the Trinity quarrels), I must admit that reading The World of Saint Patrick is a real joy. It is easy to get lost in these words from the past, and to remember how different religious views came together—for better or for worse—at a time when (at least) two civilizations collided. The important role played by nature as a guardian against temptation the of the flesh and the magic spells of women and druids is so beautifully expressed in Saint Patrick Breastplate that I couldn't help but follow the author's advice and read it aloud. What this book lacks in scholarly material is balanced by the simplicity and fluidity of the texts, proving how contemporary Saint Patrick's words and world remain.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Geneviève Pigeon teaches Religious Studies at UQÀM (Université du Québec à Montréal) and is Research Associate at the Centre de recherche bretonne et celtique (CRBC) in Rennes, France.

Date of Review: 
September 30, 2016
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Philip Freeman earned his Ph.D. at Harvard University and holds the Orlando W. Qualley Chair of Classical Languages at Luther College. He is the author of over a dozen books on the ancient and medieval world and has been a visiting scholar at the Harvard Divinity School and the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton.



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