Saturday, March 17, 2018

St. Patrick was not named "Maewyn Succat"

Today is the Feast of St. Patrick, the day set aside for commemoration of the life and deeds of the grat Apostle to the Irish. Unfortunately, its also the day a lot of rubbish about Patrick get spreadall over the interwebs. For example, have you ever heard people asserting that St. Patrick's real name was not Patrick, but Maewyn Succat?

The theory is that St. Patrick was born Maewyn Succat and only took the name Patrick upon his ordination to the priesthood. I first came across this bizarre assertion a few years ago when I overheard it on the Veggie Tales St. Patrick video. Since then, I have heard it with increasing frequency, especially from writers who have this smarmy "I know better than you" attitude about St. Patrick's Day; you know, the kind of articles that are like "Ten Things YOU Didn't Know About St. Patrick!" Number ONE...he was not Irish! (mind blown!), Number TWOOOO, his name was not actually Patrick. Number THREEEE...there were never any snakes in Ireland!!!! Whoaaaaa!

Reasons for Skepticism

The general tenor and scholarship of such articles obviously gives me pause, as well as some other facts. For one thing, I am very familiar with the writings of St. Patrick. He left only two authentic documents behind, the Confessio and the Letter to Coroticus. In neither of these does Patrick give any indication that his name is other than Patrick. He begins his Confessio with the beautiful and humble phrase, "Ego Patricius, peccator rusticissimus et minimus omnium fidelium", "I am Patrick, a sinner and a simple rustic, the least of all believers." Nowhere in the Confessio or his other letter does he give his name as anything else. So at least from primary sources, there is no justification for thinking Patrick's name was anything other than Patrick.

I also knew that it would not make sense for Patrick to have some sort of Gaelic name when he was clearly Romano-British. Patrick tells us as much in the opening of the Confessio. He gives his father's name as Calpurnius and his grandfather as Potitus, both ordained men and Latin speakers. The family came from the town of Bannavem Tiburniae - a Roman settlement. Remember, Patrick was born around 387 AD, about 23 years before the Roman legions left Britain. It was still a Roman province. He was educated in Latin and came from a Romano-British family. He was thoroughly Romanized. Some even say they came from Gaul originally, which would have made a Gaelic name even less plausible.

Given this, it is extremely unlikely that his birth name would have been the Gaelic Maewyn Succat while his father was Calpurnius and his grandfather Potitus. It would be like suggesting that  a German family where the grandfather is Hans and the father is Gunter would name the next in line Gomez. Is it possible? Certainly. Is it likely? Probably not. If I had to look at that genealogy and someone told me, 'The son is known as Heinrich, but some say his name was Gomez,' I'd bet my money on Heinrich. Similarly, it does make perfect sense that a father named Calpurnius would name his son Patricius since they were Romano-British, but it makes much less sense to think they would name him Maewyn.

Shoddy Research

The Maewyn Succat theory is characterized by shoddy research and the repetition of unfounded assertions. As I searched, I found that every article or essay which held to the Maewyn Succat theory did not cite any source for their assertion; or, if they did, they cited a source which itself was a secondary source and offered no primary reference or did not assert what the authors assumed. For example, the Wikipedia page or St. Patrick says Patrick was originally named Maewyn Succat and offers a citation. The citation leads to the website Sacred Space, run by the Irish Jesuits. The Sacred Space page cited on Wikipedia gives several details about St. Patrick's life, but does not include any claim that his name was Maewyn Succat. And even if it did, the Sacred Space article is not a primary source; it's simply a contemporary article written by some Irish Jesuit. So the Wikipedia claim that Patrick was named Maewyn Succat is a dead end. Most of my other attempts to track this down were as well. People are just repeating things without knowing where they came from.

But it did come from somewhere. People did not just start repeating the Maewyn Succat theory in a vacuum. Where was this coming from?

The Hymn of Fiacc

St. Fiacc, Bishop of Leinster (d. 520) was born from a Christian family who had been converted by St. Patrick. He had met the saint personally and is known for composing a metrical hymn in honor of St. Patrick. The hymn begins with the lines:
Patrick was born at Emptur:
This it is that history relates to us.
A child of sixteen years (was he)
When he was taken into bondage.

Succat was his name, it is said;
Who was his father is thus told:
He was son of Calpurn, son of Otidus,
Grandson of Deochain Odissus.

The relation between "Emptur" and Bannavem Tiburniae is uncertain; notice also that grandfather Potitus has become Otidus, and an additional relative Odissus is added. This is an example of what I would call the extreme elasticity surrounding Patrick's genealogy that anyone who has seriously studied the saint will acknowledge.

If there is an argument that Patrick's birth name was other than Patrick, I think Fiacc's poem would provide the strongest evidence. Yet even so, I do not think this is conclusive.

The interesting thing is that even though Fiacc had known Patrick, his knowledge seems to be from hearsay. Patrick was born at Emptur which is what "history relates to us"; Succat was his name, "it is said." By the time of Fiacc's old age, Patrick had been dead for almost sixty years and a substantial body of oral tradition had sprung up around him. One would think if Fiacc had first-hand knowledge of Patrick, Patrick's birth name would have been known to him from sources other than hearsay.

Fiacc's tentative naming of Patrick as Succat based on hearsay I think reflects not so much what Patrick was actually named by his Romano-British parents as much as what he was called by the Irish or by others. This is not an uncommon occurrence when a missionary or visitor comes to anew culture; for example, St. Isaac Jogues was called Ondessonk by the Hurons. Cortez, despite all his fame, was not called Cortez by the Aztecs; they called him Malinzin.

I believe this is what we have in the case of Patrick as well, at least in the first generation. The reasons for this will be explained below, but  think Fiacc is giving an authentically contemporary account of how Patrick was referred to by Irish converts in the early 6th century, not the name Patrick was baptized with.

Notice also that even if we grant the birth name Succat, we do not see any use of the name Maewyn in Fiacc's meter. Where did we get Maewyn Succat?

Tírechán Collectanea

Through a twisting academic goose chase the details of which I will not bore you with, I eventually found myself with the Latinized version of Maewyen Succat, Magonus Sucatus. This in turn led me to the writings of Tírechán (c. 684), Bishop of Connacht in County Mayo. Tírechán produced a work known as the Collectanea, which was a loose collection of stories about St. Patrick based on oral traditions. These oral traditions were gathered from the work of Tírechán's mentor, Ultan of Ardbraccan (d. 656) who had himself written a book on St. Patrick.

The Collectanea is interesting because it is written in first person, as if Patrick himself were speaking.

In the introduction to the Collectanea, we find the following passage:
"I have found four names for Patrick in a book written by Ultan, bishop of maccu Conchubair: the saint was called Magonus, that is, famous; Succetus [Succat], that is, the god of war; Patricius, that is, father of the citizens; Cothirthiacus, because he served four houses of druids" (Tírechán, Collectanea, 1).

Thus, we have four names given for St. Patrick. Notice right away that Maewyn Succat ("Magonus Succetus") is not one of them. Magonus and Succetus are two different names, as well as Cothirthiacus, which, presumably it is so cumbersome, is usually omitted by those who want to insist Patrick's name was not Patrick. Maewyn Succat is just an arbitrary mishmash of two separate names. We might as well call him Magonus Patricius, or Patricius Cothirthiacus, or Succeus Corthirthiacus or any other combination. Ludwig Bieler, the German Hiberno-Latin scholar who first translated Tírechán in 1951, noted that there was a "dubious selectiveness too often practiced in Patrician studies" when it came to Patrick's nomenclature (source).

So the name Maewyn Succat is just an arbitrary combination of two different names. But are Magonus or Succetus even proper names at all? This is hard to discern; clearly they are given in the same list as Patrick's given name, Patricius, which seems to imply they are. If Patrick is a proper name, then the others in this list may be as well. Then again, perhaps not. These other names may be titles or nicknames. For example, Succetus, god of war, according to Tírechán. Why would Patrick's Christian family - several of whom were members of the clergy - name him after a druidic war god? More likely than not, this was a title the Druids themselves may have given to Patrick. Similarly, Magonus, a corruption of Magnus (great), means famous and could have distinguished St. Patrick ("the famous Patrick") from others of similar name.

Thus, Tírechán's list is most likely not referring to Patrick's actual proper name (as if he were really named Magonus Succetus Patricius Corthirthiacus); rather, it is a amalgamated list of all names Patrick went by, both his proper name, as well as nicknames or titles given to him by others. Not to mention these might not have been nicknames used for Patrick while he was alive; Tírechán wrote in the late 7th century and these could have easily been titles that Patrick accrued posthumously.

Muirchú's Vita sancti Patricii

A generation after Tírechán wrote, a monk of Leinster named Muirchú wrote his own Life of St. Patrick. Muirchú's Vita sancti Patricii is based on Patrick's own Confessio as well as several oral traditions. Muirchú's work exists only in fragments and his not given too much historical credence as an actual biography of Patrick.

In the introduction to Muirchú's Vita, we see the following:
"Patrick, also named Sochet, a Briton by race, was born in Britain. His father was Cualfarnius, a deacon, the son (as Patrick himself says) of a priest, Potitus, who hailed from Bannauem Thaburniae" (Muirchú, Vita sancti Patricii, I.1).

We note right away that "Calpurnius" has been butchered to become "Cualfarnius." "Sochet", however, is spelled the same in Muirchú's Latin text; presumably this is the same title as Succat-Succetus in Tírechán's work. Muirchú is repeating an oral tradition here, as he says elsewhere he is unaware of any other biography of St. Patrick, other than that of Cogitosus (which does not mention the name Sochet or Succat). So clearly Muirchú is not simply copying Tírechán.

At any rate, this obscure passage "also named Sochet" from a hagiography c. 700, almost two and a half centuries after St. Patrick died, is of very little value in determining what Patrick was actually named by his family. He may have been drawing on the meter of Fiacc; but if so, are we to believe that Patrick's Christian parents - one of them ordained - baptized him in the name of a druidic deity?


Why do I seriously doubt Patrick was named Maewyn Succat? Just to be clear, I have no stake in Patrick not having a Gaelic name or something. It's really neither here nor there; I don't care if Patrick's real name was Maewyn any more than I care that St. Peter's real name was Simon. The reason I oppose this theory is because it is based on shoddy research and arbitrary nomenclature promoted by ignorant people looking for click bait. Just to review my reasons for opposing this theory:

(1) There is no primary source evidence that Patrick was named anything other than Patrick. Zero.
(2) Fiacc's meter, written 50-60 years after Patrick's death, mentions the name Succat but tentatively, suggesting "it is said" but gives no first hand knowledge of the fact. And he omits any mention of Maewyn.
(3) It makes no sense culturally or linguistically that Patrick's Roman family would give him a Gaelic name. But it makes perfect sense that he'd be named Patricius.
(4) It makes no sense that his Christian family would name him after a druidic war god.
(5) There's no documentary reference to Patrick's ordination, let alone that he changed his name on the occasion. Stories of Patrick's ordination (sometimes said to be by St. Germanus, sometimes by Pope St. Celestine) come from later hagiographies.
(6) The only other names given for Patrick do not appear in history until over two centuries after Patrick's death.
(7) These names may not be proper names at all but titles or nicknames given by the Irish or the Druids.
(8) These names may have been given posthumously.
(9) "Maewyn Succat" is not one of the names mentioned in either source; it is an amalgamation of two other separate names (Magonus and Succetus).
(10) This amalgamation is totally arbitrary because it omits the third name, Corthirthiacus.
(11) Bieler, the translator of Tírechán, also thinks insisting on this nomenclature is selective and arbitrary.
(12) Even if Tírechán and Muirchú were actually insisting that Patrick's given name was Maewyn Succat, this comes from two 7th century hagiographies which are generally not regarded as historically reliable sources of information about the historical St. Patrick.
(13) Nobody - or at least very few people - who assert the Maewyn Succat theory bother to track down its source. They just copy and paste and move on.

No, St. Patrick was not named Maewyn Succat, and I am fairly certain it s safe to insist on this.


Anonymous said...

I love historiography. Great work and thanks for posting this.

Jenna Campbell said...

I agree. I could see it being possible that maybe the Celts gave him a Gaelic nickname, but you're right insofar as that it makes no sense for his Roman, Christian parents would not give him a Gaelic name.