The Conversion to Christianity in Medieval Ireland: St. Patrick vs. St. Bridget
By Moriah Gerrish
Published Online (2010)
Introduction: The study of the lives of saints, or hagiography, has always been a fascinating field. Historians and everyday people study saints, not only in order to find a connection to God through his disciples on earth, but because many saints were influential in historical events, such as the spread of Christianity or the development of Church doctrine. Two saints, in particular, were responsible for the dramatic spread of Christianity throughout medieval Ireland, and their activities have been recorded in medieval texts. These saints are Saint Patrick and Saint Bridget of Ireland. Saint Patrick worked as a missionary in Northern Ireland during the early half of the fifth century. Saint Bridget was an abbess of Kildare in the central eastern portion of Ireland from roughly 450 to 520 A.D., and is famous for being the only female bishop in the Christian Church.
Both St. Bridget and St. Patrick are patron saints of Ireland, but each had very different methods of converting people to Christianity from paganism during medieval times in Ireland. The main reason for the differences in their approach was due to their difference in origins and target audience. St. Patrick’s approach was more aggressive and was aimed towards people in the druid class who were advisors to kings. St. Bridget’s approach, which was gentler and welcoming to the Irish people, was directed toward commoners who continued to follow pagan rituals until her influence. Although their methods varied, it is evident that St. Bridget’s approach to conversion yielded greater results than St. Patrick’s, because it did not impose religion on the people, but instead molded their previous pagan beliefs into a genuine and devout acceptance of Christianity.
Saint Patrick originated from a high ranking Roman family in Britain and was born in the early 400s A.D. His father was a deacon named Calpurnius and his grandfather was a priest named Potitus. Married clergy were not unusual during this time, although Pope Siricius insisted on the celibacy of the clergy. He lived on an estate owned by his grandfather near the village Bannavem Taburniae. At the age of sixteen, Patrick was captured by Irish raiders and taken to Ireland with thousands of others to become a slave. Once in Ireland, he was sold to a slave owner in what is modern Co Mayo and worked as a shepherd on the mountain sides for six years. Patrick described his time as a slave as a humiliating experience, since he was originally a high ranking Roman nobleman. During this time, Patrick felt that he became closer to God and gradually developed his faith as a Christian. Patrick states in his Confession of Grace, “more and more the love of God and fear of Him came to me, and my faith was increased, and my spirit was so moved that in one day I would pray as many as a hundred times…”