Freeman (Classics/Washington Univ.) sticks close to authenticated sources in this quick and rangy popular biography, which serves up a taste of life and times in Ireland and late-Roman Britain during the fifth century.
Since the author prefers to expostulate on the facts as they are known and to set one piece aside another without forcing the fit, there is little narrative drive to his life of Ireland’s patron saint—but then, Patrick wasn’t given to high drama. Freeman’s strength lies in his ability to bring a place to life in the mind’s eye. Britain in the weak final years of Roman rule, before the medieval Anglo-Saxon community took hold, was an unstable terrain subject to raids by the Picts, Saxon, and Irish. A group of the latter spirited Patrick away from his family and into slavery on (most likely) the west coast of Ireland. The author is patient with the material; when he notes that Patrick’s family were nobles and farmers, he discusses the nature of Roman governance and the look and feel of a typical British villa/farmstead, all of which adds terrific color to the story. Infectiously smitten with the age, if perhaps less so with the saint, Freeman delights with overviews of the political and social landscape Patrick entered upon his return to Ireland, as well as the spiritual environment that was already in place. He delivers a sharp, elementary course in traditional local religions, including Druidism, and the role of celibate women in the early Christian church. He describes Patrick’s Confessions, actually one of only two extant letters from the saint, as a “window into the soul of a person,” far more intimate than Cicero’s letters or Augustine’s Confessions and, as such, “like no other document from ancient times.”
A solid grounding to the saint’s life that provides the footing necessary to explore more speculative works like, for example, E.A. Thompson’s Who Was Saint Patrick? (1986).