One trend that connects Martin Luther King Jr., Queen Victoria, Mahatma Gandhi, and Saint Patrick: Each year on their respective holidays, a sudden surge of people visit their Wikipedia articles. Last year, St. Patrick’s page received more than 425,000 views on March 17, about 150 times more than normal. Once a year, the apostle of Ireland is a Wikipedia celebrity.
Last year, I wondered whether all those people reading St. Patrick’s page on March 17 would be met with incomplete information or, worse, fake history. St. Patrick is so often shrouded in superstition, including the famous legend about him banishing all snakes—even though scientists say snakes were never indigenous to Ireland.
So I contacted Philip Freeman to review the Wikipedia entry. Freeman is a professor at Pepperdine University and the leading scholar on the historical St. Patrick. Freeman wrote back: “I looked over the Wiki page and actually think it’s very good. It separates history from legends well. No suggestions on my part.” I was shocked. Freeman has written two books and several scholarly articles on the historical St. Patrick. He’s a well-regarded and prolific historian. But when it came to St. Patrick’s Wikipedia article, he could think of literally nothing to add.
I contacted Christopher Snyder for a second opinion. He is dean and professor of history at Mississippi State University, affiliated faculty at Oxford University, and a regular contributor to History Channel and BBC documentaries. He’s also a huge St. Patrick fan—when we spoke, he was attending the St. Patrick’s Day Kick-Off Ceremony at San Francisco City Hall. After reviewing St. Patrick’s Wikipedia page, Snyder agreed with Freeman that the article was of unusually good quality.
Throughout high school and college I had been told that Wikipedia was full of shoddy scholarship that could not be trusted for accuracy. Wikipedia was the site to learn Plato was Hawaiian. Now I had two historians telling me that this specific page was pretty great. Why?
Turns out, there are a few forces contributing to this unexpected Wiki excellence. St. Patrick is the rare 5th-century figure who left behind authentic first-person sources. Two Latin works are generally accepted as being written by the saint: the Letter to the Soldiers of Coroticus and his autobiographical Confession. St. Patrick writes that he was born into an aristocratic British family, but his life was changed forever when he was kidnapped and taken to Ireland just before his 16th birthday. He spent six grueling years as a slave in Ireland before finally escaping and returning safely to Britain. His return stunned his family, who had long expected him to be dead. Then he surprised them again by training to become a priest in order to return as a Christian missionary to Ireland—the land of his captivity.
St. Patrick’s Confession features slavers, murderous pirates, and druids. It’s easy to simply enjoy the plot, but historians are more grateful for the style, which is unusually informal and personal for circa 490 A.D. “Patrick’s Confession is like no other document from ancient times,” Freeman wrote in his 2005 biography. “Unlike in any other contemporary letter, we have a window into the soul of the person.”
Snyder told me that he sees St. Patrick’s writing as in some ways analogous to the work of Frederick Douglass, the black abolitionist who escaped slavery in 1838. Despite living about 14 centuries apart, they can both be viewed as authors of slave narratives writing with common themes of spiritual and psychological redemption. Many years after he achieved freedom, St. Patrick wrote his second work, the Letter to the Soldiers of Coroticus, which is an impassioned diatribe against Roman Britons who had begun attacking and enslaving his Irish friends.
The existence of St. Patrick’s first-person accounts makes his page much better than near-contemporaries like King Arthur. The legendary British king’s Wikipedia page is basically a protracted argument about his historicity: whether he was real. Snyder told me that most legitimate historians would not touch King Arthur with a 10-foot pole because there is so little primary source material about him. St. Patrick’s page cites both recent credible scholarship and quotations from St. Patrick himself, whereas King Arthur’s entry relies primarily on a 20-year-old secondary source, The New Arthurian Encyclopedia.
St. Patrick’s Wiki page is also helped by the effort and ability of its worldwide contributors. The patron saint remains extremely popular in Ireland, where claiming that St. Patrick visited your hometown is the Irish version of the American saying “George Washington slept here.” And Irish immigrants to the U.S. have long venerated the saint. Remembering St. Patrick was a way for these immigrants to preserve their Catholic identity in a land where they were suddenly a religious minority. This global fan base may explain why St. Patrick’s page simply has a lot of content, including a section dedicated to his relationship with Irish identity and gorgeous photos of Slemish Mountain, Downpatrick, and other places associated with him.
Although most Wikipedia editors do not openly reveal their personal information, the wording of the article suggests that at least a few academics have been working behind the scenes to improve and maintain the page. For example, a line about how certain hagiographies that idealize St. Patrick “lack empiricism” reads like it could have been contributed by a graduate history student who decided to edit the page while working on a dissertation.
The article also reflects a change in the historical paradigm. Snyder reminded me that in the ’80s and ’90s, “Celtic” suddenly became a pop culture phenomenon. New Age religious trends like Celtic Christianity were stylish, and Braveheart won multiple Academy Awards. The problem was that the movement had a faulty historical premise: “There’s this notion of the Celt as this passionate, poetic, noble-savage type in contrast to the cold, rational, brutal colonial Romans,” Snyder said. “In fact, the term Celtic wouldn’t have meant anything to Patrick.”
Over the course of the late ’90s and early 2000s, scholars gradually won the argument. The “myth of the Celt” was gradually replaced with more accurate historical representation. St. Patrick’s Wikipedia page—created in 2001 during the site’s first year—is an example of this trend, clearly differentiating legends from history.
As Adrianne LaFrance noted in the Atlantic, there is no self-evident unifying theory about why certain Wikipedia pages are higher quality than others. But with its combination of primary sources, motivated contributors, and shared vision, St. Patrick’s entry could be hinting at the magic formula.
Luckily, the Wikipedia page doesn’t have to be your final source on St. Patrick. Both Freeman and Snyder wish more people would read the letters to encounter the real person. What struck me most about the letters were those lines where St. Patrick discusses his long-held insecurities in writing them: “I have thought about writing this letter for a long time, but I kept putting it off until now. I have been afraid that people would laugh at the way I write.” (The translation is from Freeman’s 2004 biography St. Patrick of Ireland.) Ultimately, there would be very little verifiable history to include on St. Patrick’s Wikipedia page if he hadn’t taken the all-important step of writing his story down. Perhaps this St. Patrick’s Day, along with celebrating Irish culture and the bizarre existence of green beer, we should also toast the human St. Patrick’s victory over relatable self-doubt.