Sometimes you run across a reviewer who really hates the story you've woven around a character. Fine, that is their prerogative, but when they then attack you personally, and go one step further and post their review on a number of websites to make sure they complete the trashing of your work, it does get under the skin. This is what has happened with my lates book, Magnus Patricius: The remarkable life of Saint Patrick, the man. It is particularly frustrating as, in creating this story, I went to considerable lengths to research the background and St Patrick himself. It is writing as a fictional biography, in which I have used in the first person with the saint himself telling the story. One of the early Beta Readers was a Bishop, himself Irish and an expert on Patrick, and he loved the story. So, to be attacked by someone living in Texas, for daring to challenge her received 'expert' knowledge came as a surprise. So, perhaps, it is worth setting out how the book came into being.
I began writing this book almost 11 years ago. The research for it has taken me on a fascinating journey into the the 5th Century. Magnus (also Magonus or Maewyn) Sucatus Patricius left us two (and quite possibly more now lost) written documents, his 'Confessio' or Declaration, and a letter titled Letter to the Soldiers of Coroticus. In these he tells us a great deal, and leaves perhps more unsaid. The earliest 'biography' we have of him was written by a monk in Armagh some 600 years after the saints death, and, unfortunately, contains some rather fanciful embellishments. Muirchan's purpose in writing it was to 'prove' the superiority of the claim of his monastery over all others as the 'prime' establishment. It had the secondary purpose of establishing the monastic life as superior to the system of diocesan bishoprics then existing in parallel.
To get beyond all the accumulated mythology, claims and counter claims about him, I needed to understand the sort of society that existed in Ireland and in Britain during his lifetime, and that took me on a fascinating journey. While Roman authority collapsed progressively in Britain and western Europe, the society they left behind underwent changes, in some places radical, in others, more a simple transition to a new set of rulers. Interestingly, in southern Europe, one of the important manifestations of this change was the manner in which tradesmen and workers found themselves progressively reduced to what would become serfdom or peasantry. Large and powerful landowners consolidated their wealth and power, swallowing smaller estates and turning their owners into vassals, thus laying the foundation for what would become the feudal system. Many of these families were able to lay claim to bishoprics, and to the right to decide who would be appointed, usually a younger son, thus guaranteeing their control of parts of the Church. By the time of Gregory the Great, this situation was well established.
A key event in 407 AD was a particularly severe winter during which the Rhine froze along most of it's length. That paralysed the Roman naval patrol, and allowed the mass movement of the Goths, Franks, Saxons and others across this natural barrier, and brought a period of upheaval and conflict to an already disturbed region. The Goths seized their opportunity and colonised south western Gaul and North and Eastern Spain, the Franks seized what is today Normandy and Northern France and others moved into Italy, the Alpine areas and Belgium. Interestingly, they did not destroy the Roman cities, they simply moved into them and adapted themselves. The exception was Britain. First the tribal leaders reasserted themselves. Some hired Saxon and Angle mercenaries, who then brought their families, and eventually realised their employers were powerless to stop them simply taking control.
London ceased to be a major centre of occupation around 430 AD, and other cities in the east had largely been abandoned by then as well. Neither the tribal Britons, nor the invading Saxons wanted to live in cities, so these were progressively abandoned, and many quarried for the stone and materials of use to a less sophisticated people. London lay in ruins until revived by King Alfred in 829 AD, other cities simply vanished. The turning point in Britain was 409 AD when the last Legions were withdrawn. In 410 AD when the Emperor sent his tax officials, they were sent packing without the money. In fact, no 'new' coins appear to have been sent to Britannia after 401 AD, and by 410 AD most people were using barter for trade.
Even more interesting was the situation in Ireland. The Irish (Scotti) had no central authority except in war. The 'High King' was simply a war leader elected by the various tribal 'kings' who all exercised their own rights and laws in their territories. Overall the 'Law of the Brehon' formed the basis of all activity, and the interesting part of this is that this legal system made no provision for the release of a slave, for 'manumission' or for a slave to buy freedom. Female slaves had a higher value than males. A male slave without desirable skills, was valued below that of a good wolf hound. Escape was almost impossible without assistance, yet some managed it, St Patrick being, perhaps, the most obvious example.
Woven into all this history is a wealth of legend and 'local stories' about the saint. Some of these began to make sense once one understood the life, lifestyle and the impact that would have on health and development of a sixteen year old subjected to abuse and poor diet. Behind many of these 'stories' lays a gem of fact, and a great deal of that emerges when reading the learned studies of such Patrician luminaries as Archbishop George Simms and Msgr Liam de Paor. To really get to grips with st Patrick, the person, and to understand the purpose behind his Letter and the Declaration, one needs to have studied the development of Christianity at this period as well. Patrick left a church that was more in the 'Orthodox' tradition, than the 'Roman' one, and that is the church that was then reinstated across the North and West of England as people like Columba (real name Crimthann 'Red Fox', though he adopted the name Columcille 'the Dove'). Thus, when Augustine arrived in Kent in in the 600s, he found himself in conflict with a well established Church based on Patrick's system of 'Bishops in communities', rather than the Roman deveopment of the Bishop as a 'lord' of the Church. Bede's Anglo-Saxon Chronicle is, in part, a propaganda effort to paint Augustine and the Roman vision of the Church as superior and 'true' and all others as 'false'. To a large extent he has succeeded, few today realise the whole is a great deal more complex.
As I wrote at the outset, the research for this book has been fascinating, and has taken me into aspects of the history I suggest most folk do not even know exists. So, in the end, as an author, I must simply accept that this one reviewer holds to a strong belief that her version of the story alone is the only true one. I wonder if she has encountered the lates treatise on Patrick by a student in Cambridge University who concludes that Patrick, far from being a slave, was in fact a slave trader trying to make himself look better, or another book I encountered in my search, that paints the saint as a super Druid.
All I can really hope, in all truth, is that Magnus Sucatus Patricius regards my effort with kindness. Perhaps, at some future point in the next life, he'll tell me.