Christianity Among the Picts
Were the Picts Christianised in the time of Saint Patrick? The letter written by Saint Patrick to Coroticus is generally acknowledged as being an indirect confirmation that Christianity had reached the Picts by the first half of the fifth century. The wording in Saint Patrick's letter, though, is incoherent with regards to the Picts, who are three times mentioned in it, and twice referred to as “apostate Picts”.
The feasible interpretation of the wording “apostate Picts” is that Saint Patrick is referring to Christian Picts who he believed had diverged from the Law of Christianity, or possibly from some established and even questionable doctrines of the Church.
Raid Conducted by Coroticus
The context of the letter, which is addressed to Coroticus and his soldiers, describes a raid that had taken place in Ireland, in which a number of Christians had been slain, while others were taken prisoner to Britain and sold as slaves to the Scots and the Picts.
The letter does not give light to the title of Coroticus, who may be a local chieftain of the Britons or a governor acting within the authority of Rome. Patrick merely describes him as a tyrant. There is no reference to the geographical area where this leader governed, which could be anywhere along the western coast of Britain from Strathclyde to Wales.
Saint Patrick Condemns Coroticus
The letter excludes the participation of Scots and Picts in the raid, but condemns Coroticus for having carried out the raid and for selling the Christian prisoners to the Scots and the Picts rather than releasing them at the request of Saint Patrick.
Patrick's letter does not indicate that Christians among the Picts had any participation in the whole affair. Similarly, Saint Patrick's own deportation from Britain to Ireland at the hands of Irish raiders could not be attributed to the Christians of Ireland.
Saint Patrick's Fulminations at the Scots and Picts
The letter to Coroticus is particularly emotional, being written by the same man who had previously converted the people who had been either slain or enslaved, which could explain the anguish in his words as being generally directed against whole populations, including any Christians among them. Furthermore, it does not explain whether Saint Patrick is interceding only for enslaved Christians, or also for any other Irish people who may have been among those enslaved.
However, the episode that took place, by no means the only of its kind in that period, has served, paradoxically, to confirm that Christianity had already reached the Picts by the middle of the fifth century, which is the period when Saint Patrick's letter was written.
It is unlikely that fifth century Pictish Christians living among the greater Pictish population would have held deported people as slaves, and there is no evidence in Saint Patrick's letter to Coroticus to justify the belief that Christianity among the Picts was in any way apostate.
Written by D. Alexander
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