Elizabeth Dawson: The evolution of Patrick as a patron saint from the 7th to 12th century

How did Patrick, an escaped slave and foreigner who voluntarily returned to Ireland to minister to his erstwhile oppressors, turn into the figurative leader and representative of the whole medieval Irish Church and its communities — to say nothing of the symbol of Ireland and Irish identity that he has become today?

Addressing this question, my research considers the evolution of Patrick’s persona in the medieval period through an analysis of the saint’s Latin Lives written from the seventh to twelfth century. The product of successive Irish Christians, these writings are a window on the concerns and beliefs of the communities who created them. Carried out in conjunction with the Dictionary of Medieval Latin from Celtic Sources project housed at the Royal Irish Academy (who have already carried out extensive work on Patrick, http://www.confessio.ie), my research utilises the unique electronic resources of the Dictionary to analyse the dissemination of the Patrician legend over time in an objective and scientific manner.

Combining historical and linguistic methodologies this study assesses the Latin Patrician corpus as a whole for the first time, asking why particular elements of the Patrician story remained, while others were changed, omitted or added. In doing so, my work will establish a greater understanding of the central role Patrick came to play in the formation of Irish Christian identity. Indeed, it can tell us much about our own modern-day assumptions of Patrick and his legend.