A modern confusion between St Piran, and the “Saint” Pir who died while drunk

March 5th is St Piran’s Day.  St Piran was a celtic saint who probably lived around 500 AD.  In recent years there has been increased media interest in St Piran, as the symbol of Cornwall.  The Cornish flag is called “St Piran’s flag.”  I suspect most of this stuff is from incomers, and that it leaves the native Cornish feeling rather bemused.  But celebrations were reported by the BBC here, but with a curious claim included:

According to the legend St Piran lived for 200 years, meeting his death when he fell down a well drunk.

This remarkable claim can be found in a number of places around the web.  But it is not to be found in the medieval Life of St Piran,[1] which merely tells us that he came from Ireland and founded a monastery in North Cornwall, at Perranzabuloe, where he died.

The story instead relates to a “saint” Pir (or Piro, Pyr, or Byr, or Pyrrus), although I have found no evidence that anybody ever considered him a saint.  Instead he was the abbot of a Celtic monastery.  He lived on Caldey Island in the Bristol Channel at some point during the 5th century.  We learn from Gerald of Wales that he owned the island, which was known as Yns Pir (= “Pir’s Island”), and also a “castle” on the coast in Wales.  From the Itinerary through Wales, book 1, chapter 12 (here):

The castle called Maenor Pyrr, that is, the mansion of Pyrrus, who also possessed the island of Chaldey, which the Welsh call Inys Pyrr, or the island of Pyrrus, is distant about three miles from Penbroch.

What we know of the man comes from the Life of St Samson (here), who had the misfortune to be one of Pir’s monks.

20. … Now there was, not far from this monastery, a certain island I recently inhabited by one, an eminent man and holy priest, Piro by name. In this island I too have been, and it was with him, I say, that St. Samson wished to sojourn, but he greatly feared, as I have already said, lest he should offend his chief.

21. … And there he (Samson) was in such wise received by the same abovementioned priest Piro. an old man already advanced in years, as if he had the appearance of an angel of God sent down from heaven.

23. … However, while they were lamenting and mistrusting the one the other, St. Piro delighted now spoke as follows : “ Behold Samson whom you have sought with so much fatigue of travel ; now , what you have to tell , tell me.”…

36. Indeed not long afterwards an unexpected thing happened. One dark night the same Piro took a solitary stroll into the grounds of the monastery, and what is more serious, so it is said, owing to stupid intoxication. fell headlong into a deep pit. Uttering one piercing cry for help, he was dragged out of the hole by the brothers in a dying condition, and died in the night from his adventure. And it came to pass when the bishop heard of it, he made all the brothers to remain just where they were and spend the night together; and then, having assembled a council, after Mattins, all the men of this monastery, with one accord, chose St. Samson to be abbot. And when he submitted (to be abbot), though not willingly, he trained the brothers gently to the proper rule. And while he held the primacy in this place, which was not more than a year and a half, the brothers regarded him as a hermit rather than as a member of an order of monks. And consequently, amidst feasts of plenty and flowing bowls, he made a point of fasting always from food and drink. Of vigils there is no need to say anything, inasmuch, as I have already stated, he never at any time allowed his body to rest in bed.

The bishop was a certain Dubricius, or Dyfrig in Welsh.  He seems to have been one of those decent, hard-working men who, in the middle of an immense disaster to society, too vast to be prevented, try somehow to keep things going by whatever means possible.  If Pir owned the island, then it is no wonder that he became “abbot” of the Celtic monastery.  No doubt Dubricius felt that the drunkeness of Pir and his monks was secondary to establishing a secure base in bad times.

There is an amusing modern version of this story on a blog here by Jay King which I think deserves wider circulation:

Abbott Pyr of Ynys Byr,
In his cups fell in the well.
By the time they fished him out
He was dead and gone to hell.
His brother monks without complaint
Canonized their peer a saint.
And so to heaven he arose
At least that’s how the story goes.

But in truth there is no evidence of any canonisation.

The medieval Life of St Piran itself is of no value, or so I learn from Gilbert Doble’s account in part 4 of his collected The Saints of Cornwall.  In fact it is an arrant fraud, in that it is identical to the Irish Life of St Ciaran of Saighir, but with the names changed.  Indeed St Ciaran was unlucky enough to be pirated, not once, but twice: the Life of the Breton saint Sezni is also a copy of the Life of St Ciaran which has undergone the same process.  This sort of thing was a natural consequence of the medieval church services, which expected that a portion of the life of a saint should be read out during the commemoration on his saint’s day.  The abbey of Exeter came to own St Piran’s oratory, and therefore must commemorate the saint.  No doubt some canon of Exeter was instructed to produce one.

The Life of St Piran had more adventures to undergo.  It was collected in the late middle ages by a certain John of Tynmouth, who wrote down somewhat abbreviated versions of a good many saints’ lives in the west country.  These in turn were published in Capgrave’s Nova Legenda Angliae.  A 1901 reprint edition of this, edited by Carl Horstman, is online.  But there is a Gotha manuscript of the Life of St Piran, containing a longer ending not found in the Capgrave text.  This ending is the only part of the Life to have historical value, and records that at the time the sands were encroaching upon the oratory at Peranzabuloe.

St Piran’s flag.

I don’t know if the modern interest in St Piran will extend so far as to translate his Life into English.  But let us hope so.  In the meantime, we can reject this legend of his death.

  1. [1]Horstmann, Carl. “De Sancto Pirano Episcopo Et Confessore.” In: Nova Legenda Anglie. Vol. II. Re-edited from the 1516 Edition of Wynkyn de Worde. Oxford: The Clarendon Press (1901), pp. 320-328.  Download here.

Gilbert Doble and his pamphlet “St Petroc, Abbot and Confessor”

Gilbert Doble did not have a clear mind.  He was fully capable of deep erudition, combined with a child-like inability to imagine what others might think about it.

He held office in Cornwall as an Anglican parish clergyman in the first half of the twentieth century, and was vicar of Wendron for almost twenty years until his death in 1945.  His knowledge of Cornish history, folksong and hagiography was enough to gain him membership of the Cornish college of bards, the Gorseth.

In his time Cornwall was almost entirely Methodist.  Dislike of “the church” was widespread.  Even in 1979 my own grandmother shared this feeling, and had no time for its Hymns Ancient and Modern.  There was good reason for this dislike.  The Anglican church was not the church of the people of Cornwall, who preferred “the chapel”.  Worse, within living memory, there were cases of evangelical clergymen being harassed out of their parishes.  Similarly arrogant behaviour in Wales led to the disestablishment of the church in Wales in 1906, and feeling in Cornwall was not less.

In such a world, in 1927 Rev Gilbert Doble solemnly proposed the “recatholicisation of Cornwall”.  He was foolish enough to do this at a time when he was promised the incumbency of a Cornish parish; which offer was promptly withdrawn, presumably on the basis that the man was clearly an idiot.  And so he was.  Down the centuries Oxford has produced many a learned fool.  Indeed I recognise something of myself in this combination.

Evidence of this failure is to be found in his pamphlet, “Saint Petroc, Abbot and Confessor”, which I have been browsing in the last couple of days.

The paper seems to have been first published as a standalone item in 1928, with a second edition in 1930, and a third in 1939, I think.  The final version was reprinted in the combined The Saints of Cornwall, part 4, (ed. D. Attwater, 1960-70), and in the Llanerch Press edition (1998) it appears on pp.132-163.

On the first page he states without footnote that:

The present writer in 1928 printed a translation of the Vita Petroci formerly kept at the Breton abbey of Saint-Méen.

Note how little information this conveys to the reader.  There is no indication of the title of the publication, or where it might have appeared.  Nor does he tell us any useful information about the manuscript.  Cunningly he tells us only that it was at one time at Saint-Méen, a statement utterly useless for locating it.  If you want to follow this up, you are stumped.

He then wanders off into discussion of an epitome by John of Tynmouth, then into a Paris manuscript (BNF lat. 9989, fol. 142) containing a text from which John seems to have made his epitome.  After more verbiage he says that he will give a translation of this below.

Then he starts to talk about another Life of St Petroc, in a Gotha manuscript, and in passing says that he will now refer to the Saint-Méen Life as “the First Life”.  Then off he goes into another unrelated subject, the medieval theft of the relics of St Petroc.  After almost five pages of rambling, he starts to talk about the defects of “the manuscript in the National Library in Paris” – no shelfmark – and finally presents a translation of it.

As a parting gift to the baffled reader, he indicates the folio number at which the text starts in his translation – in Roman numerals!  Not all of us will realise without a moment of concentration that “cxlii” = “142”.  But this means that this is a translation of Paris BNF lat. 9989.

I suspect that some of those reading this will find this confusing, even in summary.

The text simply rambles.  Worse yet Doble seems to avoid using the same description twice for the same item.

The facts are actually simple.  He could have said this  (Imagine some references where I put [***]):

This paper contains an English translation of the medieval Latin Life of St Petroc, preserved in Paris BNF lat. 9989, folios 142-nnn, once the property of the Breton abbey of Saint-Méen.  This translation was first printed by me in 1928 and in a revised form in 1930.[***]  In 1937 a manuscript containing a different version of the Life was discovered at Gotha[***] which clarified certain points in the damaged Paris manuscript.  What follows is a revised translation to take account of this, together with a translation of certain passages from the Gotha manuscript.

That’s short, simple, and to the point.  It should appear at the start of the first page.  Once you know that, you can cope with his diffuse digressions.

Was it worth writing about all this?  I feel that it was.

It is a reminder to us all.  When we write, we write to be heard.  We write to convey information.  This paper fails to do so.  It alludes.  It hints.  It requires several readings to get the key points.  It is a burden to the reader.

If the reader has to strain to work out what we mean, then we have failed.  We all have much to read.  We do not need to spend time sifting and rereading, just to work out what the author has to say.

Sadly a failure of this kind is very common in writers of textbooks.  I still shudder at the memory of some of the chemistry textbooks – all long since sold – with which I suffered at university.

Poor Gilbert Doble.  So much learning, vitiated by a failure to sit back and think what a reader new to the subject will make of his words.

Maybe he should have been a blogger!


From my diary

Happy new year, everybody, in a few hours.

I’ve acquired some volumes of “The Saints of Cornwall”, by G. Doble.  I think there may be six in all.  Canon Doble was a Cornish antiquarian of the first half of the 20th century.  He issued individual pamphlets on Cornish saints – I think there might have been 48 of these or more.  These were then collected into volumes after his death.

I read through volume one last night, the saints of the Land’s End district.  It’s clear that the good canon was extremely learned.  Unfortunately his book is unreadable.  Each entry is a wodge of verbiage, full of information of various sorts, but the eyes just close.

We all remember the university textbooks with which we had to struggle!  I owned quite a lot of textbooks, some out of print, but I read many fewer.  Doble’s volume brought back memories of these.  I’m not sure quite why they are so bad, but bad they are.

It seems very clear that the history of Cornwall is largely lost.  It is obscure in the Roman period, and altogether vague in the sub-Roman and dark ages period.  All we have to work with is place-names, and largely later saints’ Lives.  These Lives are often late, stuffed with padding – Mr Doble is not hesitant in condemning this – and in many cases entirely fictional.

Some of this must be owing to the small population of Cornwall.  The county is long and thin and must always have been sparsely populated.

An old college friend of mine is a vicar in the west of Cornwall.  On my last visit to him, many years ago, he took me for a drive around the Land’s End district.  Everywhere there were deserted houses and villages.  This is something unthinkable in England.  But there is no work.  The tin mines are closed, and only so many can work in the tourism industry.  So the young people must leave, and the population remains thin even today in some areas.

This must have been far worse in the sub-Roman period.  If nobody lives there, then no history will be written, for history is largely about kings and cities and peoples.

However a couple of factors come to our aid.  It seems that many of the local Cornish saints are also recorded in Brittany.  Indeed often their cults are larger and more important there.  The Lives of these saints, and the presence of their cult, confirm the movement of people from Cornwall into Armorica at the end of the Roman period.  So there is information there, of sorts.

There are also links with Welsh legends, although less important, and even Irish legends.

All the same, it’s a poor record to have to sift through for something resembling real history.

It’s clear that Mr Doble was very well informed on all these sources.  It is a pity that he had no editor, and was obliged to self-publish.  All the same, his volumes are still an important source.

Fortunately Nicholas Orme published in 2000 The Saints of Cornwall through Oxford, which is a modern handbook of great value.  Less fortunately it is out of print and can only be obtained for hundreds of dollars.  Oh well.