St. Patrick’s Excellent Adventure

A pilgrim enters the cave of St. Patrick’s Purgatory; La tres noble et tres merveilleuse Histoire du purgatoire saint Patrice, 14th century; Paris, Bibliothèque nationale, fr. 1544, f. 105r

Last week we met St. Patrick, patron saint of Ireland and bane of snakes.  This week, while we are still wearing of the green (if laundry day has not yet come and gone and refreshed our closet with other colors) we will explore some more of St. Patrick’s legend. It is less well known today, but one of the most widely read stories about St. Patrick in the medieval period was that of St. Patrick’s Purgatory. Descriptions of St. Patrick’s Purgatory were written by several different authors and translated into various languages across Europe, meaning that the site of the miracle became a popular pilgrimage destination.  But what was it?

The earliest written account of St. Patrick’s Purgatory was written in the 12th century by one H. of Saltrey (he never spells out his full first name, although it is often assumed to have been Henry).  According to this account, St. Patrick was supposedly led by God to a cave where, it was promised, those who engaged in fasting would be given a vision of, first, the torments inflicted on the wicked and, if they persevered in their faith, the joys of the blessed.

Map of Station Island in Lough Derg, Jacobus Waraeus, De Hibernia et antiquitatibus ejus disquisitiones (London: E. Tyler and Jo. Crook, 1658), p. 222.

By the 12th century, this cave had apparently become a destination for pilgrims seeking to recreate Patrick’s spiritual journey.  It was associated with the real location, a cave on an island in the middle of Lough Derg in County Donegal, Ireland.  An Augustinian monastery on the nearby Saints’ Island cared for the site, and would ferry hopeful pilgrims across to the cave on Station Island  to experience the rigorous miracle.  Rigorous, because the pilgrimage was not without its dangers. In the story of a knight named Owein who successfully braved the feat, and whose story is a major part of H. of Saltrey’s account, the aspiring pilgrim is warned that many who went before had died in the attempt. It is not clear whether the danger resulted from the severe fasting that was the necessary preparation for the experience (which could stretch for as long as fifteen days!), or from the harrowing visionary journey itself. A trip to hell, after all, cannot be without its perils.

The first page of a German description of St. Patrick’s Purgatory; 15th century, Paris, Bibliothèque nationale, allemand 150, f. 246r

As in the Middle Ages, St. Patrick’s Purgatory continues even now to be an international pilgrimage destination, drawing people from around the world to fast and pray in the site believed to be the same as the medieval contact point with the three realms of purgatory, heaven, and hell.  Unfortunately for modern visitors, however, they cannot now get exactly the same experience as medieval pilgrims, since the famous cave no longer exists.  Its first appearance in the Irish historical record is in fact a report of its destruction, in the Annals of Ulster for 1497, when Pope Alexander VI ordered it to be “broken,” following an ill-fated visit by a monk who first antagonized the cave’s custodians by refusing to pay a requested fee to view the site, and then believed he had been cheated by them when he failed to experience any of the promised visions. The cave’s “breaking,” however, cannot have been absolute, since pilgrims were once again recorded as visiting the site as soon as 1512 — it is possible that the cave was rebuilt, that the destruction was never carried out, or that the authorities had been deceived by the destruction of a false cave.  In any event, the cave was recorded as being closed again in 1632, only to be rebuilt and reopened, and then again demolished in 1780, this time as a safety hazard due instability caused by heavy pilgrim traffic.  Even without the cave, however, the island itself continues to exert a powerful allure for those seeking a more direct contact with both Purgatory and the divine.

Nicole Eddy
Postdoctoral research associate
Medieval Insitute
University of Notre Dame

To read more about the history of St. Patrick’s Purgatory, see Theresa O’Byrne, “Dublin’s Hoccleve: James Yonge, Scribe, Author, and Bureaucrat, and the Literary World of Late Medieval Dublin,” PhD diss., University of Notre Dame, 2012, esp. ch. 2.


Happy Saint Patrick’s Day! (Watch Out for Snakes)

St. Patrick, with his bishop’s cross and miter, is surrounded by demons, gleefully torturing departed sinners; Saint Patrick’s Purgatory: The Vision of William Staunton, England, 1451; British Library, Royal MS 17 B. xliii, f. 132v

St. Patrick’s Day is just around the corner, and at Notre Dame, proud home of the Fighting Irish, it seems a fitting time to examine more closely this saint now synonymous with Ireland.  It may come as a surprise to learn, then, that the saint is not, by birth, Irish at all.  Instead, Patrick was born in Roman-occupied Britain, in the late fourth or early fifth century.  His first encounter with Ireland was not a friendly one, as he was captured by Irish raiders at sixteen, and sold into slavery.  Six years later, the young slave was able to escape, and made his way back to Britain.  Years later, he returned to Ireland, becoming the “Apostle of the Irish” for his efforts to convert the Irish to Christianity.  He was not the first missionary to come to the island – he was preceded by enigmatic figure St. Palladius, who was sent to Ireland by the pope in 431.  But for whatever reason, it is Patrick’s reputation that has proven the more enduring.

St. Patrick (with halo) reclines on a hillock, while, below him, visionary beasts frolic; Wauchier de Denain, Lives of the Saints, Paris, 2nd quarter of the 13th century; British Library, Royal MS 20 D. vi, f. 213

Popular myth credits him with “driving the snakes out of Ireland,” although this is not the Herculean task it might sound, since there do not seem to ever have been snakes in Ireland to begin with!  Scientists attribute this circumstance to Ireland’s lack of a landlink to mainland Europe following the last ice age.  The usual explanation for the snake tale (besides a desire to credit an observed anomaly to a well-known national hero) is that the story is in its roots an allegorical one.  In Genesis and elsewhere, the association between snakes and the demonic is strong.

Snakes, twined around the roots of a basil plant, which was thought to be effective as a deterrent against them; Pseudo-Apuleius Platonicus, De medicaminibus herbarum, Germany, 2nd half of the 12th century; British Library, Harley MS 4986, f. 43v

The medieval allegorical connotations of the venemous asp give a window on some of the associations that discussion of snakes might have brought up, and are not inapropos to Patrick’s story.  The asp, medieval bestiaries tell us, has a defense mechanism against that natural predator of asps, the snake-charmer, who draws it from its hole in these stories not with pipe music but with mystic incantations.  An unwary snake could find itself in trouble this way, bewitched from its protective home.  But the clever asp does the no-hands equivalent of putting its fingers in its ears, pressing one ear to the ground and sticking its tail in the other to block out the sound of the charmer’s chanting (a particularly tricky technique to execute, given snakes’ lack of external ear structures).  In this way, the asp can be read allegorically as a recalcitrant convert, with one ear to worldly pleasures, and stopping up the ear that might hear words from heaven advocating spiritual reform: an appropriate genius loci for an aspiring missionary to cast out. While you’re wearing your green this St. Patrick’s Day, then, don’t forget to watch out for snakes!

An asp, refusing to listen to the incantations of the snake charmer; Bestiary, England, 2nd quarter of the 13th century; British Library, Harley MS 4751, f. 61r

Nicole Eddy
Postdoctoral Research Associate
Medieval Institute
University of Notre Dame

Want to know more about Patrick?  The story continues with St. Patrick’s Excellent Adventure in Purgatory.