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Chapter Four "Priscillianist" Heresy Inquisitions at Toledo and Tarragona
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Heresy Inquisition at Tarragona

The account of the heresy investigation contained in the letter of Consentius to Augustine brings readers into a very different world, in which "Priscillianism" emerges as a further linguistic abstraction in the heresiological vocabulary, while evidence of any actual continuing positive influence of Priscillian dissolves into "the emptiest mist of suspicion"—to borrow a phrase from one of the participants in the inquisition.[61] Apart from the meddling literary activity of Consentius, the conflict remained local, despite efforts to draw upon the influence of Patroclus of Arles—whose intervention seems to have been ineffective—and Augustine of Hippo—who was as dismayed by the tactics of the accusers as by the supposed heresy of the accused. In the absence of significant external intervention, the Christian communities of the Ebro valley in northeastern Spain were able to rally around their leaders and deflect accusations of heresy, even when those leaders were proven to have compromised themselves by lying publicly about their secret study of unorthodox books.

Consentius, an ascetic living on the Balearic islands off the eastern coast of Spain, had initiated a correspondence with Augustine in the second decade of the fifth century.[62] It was probably in the year 419 that he sent Augustine copies of his works against the Priscillianists, composed at the request of bishop Patroclus of Arles.[63] Accompanying Consentius' anti-Priscillianist writings was a letter in which he explained that while he had not initially intended to bore Augustine with these "inept and rough" works, circumstances had compelled a change of mind. Consentius goes on to relate that he had recently received a visit from Fronto, a fellow ascetic who had been living in a monastery in the city of Tarragona. Fronto had recounted an amazing tale of secret heretics in the Tarragonese province, which Consentius transcribes for Augustine "as I received it from his mouth."[64] Although Fronto had proven their guilt in public investigations at Tarragona, the heretics had not been deposed from the ecclesiastical offices they held; moreover, Fronto himself had been run out of town. He had fled to the sympathetic and influential Bishop Patroclus, who had summoned a council to rectify matters. But Consentius doubted that the Spanish bishops would attend such a council, and he was furthermore concerned because the supporters of the "Priscillianists"—as he identified Fronto's heretics—were using the example of Augustine's own lenient treatment of the Donatists in Africa in order to justify not deposing reformed heretics in Spain. Consentius urged Augustine to write a letter to Patroclus lending support to his call for harsh punishment for the Priscil-


lianists and deposition for their leaders. He also suggested that Augustine might recommend his own books for the training of young heresy hunters and modestly predicted that if such a training were provided, hordes of Priscillianists would be uncovered even in Hippo itself (in ista praecipue urbe ).[65]

Consentius was not an uninvolved or impartial judge of Fronto's actions against the heretics of Tarragona. It was he who had instructed Fronto in the art of combating heresy. To this end, circa 418, Consentius had sent Fronto a packet of writings that included his anti-Priscillianist works.[66] These works contained practical instructions on how to insinuate oneself into the confidences of a heretic in order to expose heresy. Consentius even composed a discourse written from the point of view of a heretic for use in the undercover investigation of supposed Priscillianists.[67] Augustine, who had read Consentius' works, summarizes the content of this discourse: cautious praise for Dictinius' life; reverent mention of Priscillian; discussion of the divine origin and substance of the soul; and, finally, extravagant admiration for Dictinius' Libra .[68] Leaving nothing to chance, Consentius seems to have supplied Fronto with not only a script but also a specific target in the person of Severa, whom Fronto describes to Consentius as the one "whose name you had expressed to me clearly."[69]

Fronto's behavior had come under serious attack in the course of the investigation, and he was anxious to establish legitimacy for his aggressive and duplicitous methods. Invoking the authority of Consentius' writings, he enhanced both his own prestige and that of the author by refusing to surrender the works to the bishops at Tarragona on the grounds that they were not meant for everyone's ears.[70] Fronto insisted that he had understood everything Consentius wrote and followed his recommended method of approaching heretics to the letter.[71] Consentius, for his part, was flattered to have such a receptive disciple and appears to have had no qualms about the controversy provoked by Fronto's use of his writings. But in spite of Fronto's and Consentius' agreement that he had adhered exactly to Consentius' recommended plan, it is at least questionable whether Fronto in fact approached Severa with the prepared script and whether the "heretics" whom he unearthed were actually secret followers of Priscillian. Fronto himself never once invokes the term "Priscillianist," consistently referring more vaguely to "heretics." Nor, as we shall see, do any of his accusations against those whom he identifies as heretics point specifically toward any connection with Priscillian.[72]

Whatever the precise nature of the monk's approach to Severa, she evidently responded positively to his overtures and confided in him some of the activities of the members of her social circle. From her, Fronto


learned of Severa's relative Severus, a man "famous for his wealth and power, as well as his scholarship," who was a presbyter in the church of Huesca.[73] According to Severa, Severus possessed three controversial books. Fronto describes the contents of these "cursed" volumes—which he almost certainly had not read—in vague terms: "they contained all kinds of sacrilege" and included "the shameful and sacrilegious knowledge of magic incantations."[74] Severus' possession of these books had been discovered through a remarkable series of events. When Severus was travelling to a fortified family estate, barbarians plundered his baggage, stole the books, and sold them to Sagittius, bishop of the nearby town of Lérida, midway between Tarragona and Huesca. Sagittius, concluding that the books were unorthodox and realizing that they had been taken from Severus, stored two of them away safely in the church archives and forwarded one to Tarragona for the consideration of the metropolitan bishop, Titianus. Titianus, in turn, sent the sample book back to Huesca and recommended that Syagrius, bishop of that town, investigate the orthodoxy of his presbyter Severus. Severus explained that he had inherited the books from his mother, who had recently died, and, not realizing their unorthodoxy, had been taking them out to his castle for a quiet and considered reading when they were stolen. Syagrius believed him, and the matter was laid to rest.[75]

None of this was news. But Severa told Fronto more. First, there were hints that the books did not, after all, come from Severus' mother, with the damaging implication that Severus had acquired them on his own initiative. More explicit and incriminating was Severa's revelation that Severus had in fact persuaded Syagrius and Sagittius to return the books to him quietly, promising certain favors in exchange.[76] Furthermore, Sagittius himself had masked the full extent of the books' unorthodoxy by sending Titianus not the most offensive sample, as he claimed, but rather a book from which he had carefully removed the most unorthodox parts.[77]

Fronto now felt that he had enough evidence to charge both Severa and Severus publicly with heresy.[78] But in attacking Severus, the respected member of a leading family of the region, Fronto, a man of few resources or connections, had bitten off more than he could chew. Severus' supporters charged that Fronto was uncultured and poor, motivated by envy to invent lies about so holy and noble a man as Severus, and the people of Tarragona were sufficiently aroused to threaten him with death. If we can trust his dramatic portrayal of the events, Fronto avoided this immediate disaster only by going on record as agreeing to a sentence of death by stoning if he were unable to prove his charges.[79] Meanwhile, Severus had solicited the support of the powerful Count Asterius, his relative by mar-


riage, claiming that Fronto had attacked their whole family with gross accusations. Asterius arrived on the scene along with his daughter, a woman of great influence. The daughter immediately extended her protection to her kinswoman Severa, who now denied all of Fronto's accusations.[80]

Bishop Titianus had agreed to hear Fronto's charges and had written to Sagittius and Syagrius, requesting them to come to Tarragona with the books in question.[81] However, it was clear that Severus had the strong support, not only of his influential family and the people of Tarragona, but also of the bishops Titianus and Agapius; the latter, whose see is not mentioned, had originally brought the packet of letters and writings from Consentius to Fronto[82] and was still in Tarragona at the time of the heresy investigation. When Count Asterius questioned them, the two bishops repeated that Fronto was a lying detractor who had deceived a defenseless woman, invented false accusations against a presbyter, and finally involved the count's entire illustrious house—including his daughter—in his vicious slander. Upon Fronto's countering that Agapius was not even worthy of reading the documents that Consentius had sent to Fronto under seal, Agapius physically assaulted Fronto in the count's presence.[83]

When Fronto finally succeeded in bringing his story to Asterius' ears, the count was evidently persuaded that he himself was not seriously threatened by Fronto's accusations and that it was neither necessary nor wise for him to intervene directly on Severus' behalf. He withdrew politely, asking for Fronto's blessings in his upcoming campaign against the barbarians and making it clear that his faith was not tainted by any possible heresy on Severus' part. Severus and his supporters were momentarily stunned by the count's unexpected neutrality, but did not cease to campaign actively against Fronto. Indeed, Fronto claimed that at this point he scarcely dared leave the church for fear of his life, and that even in the church he was threatened by a most powerful servant of the count. When that servant subsequently died, Fronto, who interpreted the death as an act of God, was accused of using magic against him.[84]

Meanwhile, Severus was attempting to remove any evidence supporting Fronto's damaging accusations. He sent the monk Ursitio hurrying to fetch two of the books from his castle and return them to Sagittius. Sagittius received them with great relief and set off immediately for Tarragona in order to prove Fronto's accusations false. Armed not only with the apparent evidence of his own possession of the books, but also with his great power and learning, Sagittius swore on the gospels that the books had never left his archives; Severus likewise swore publicly that he had not seen them since they were first taken from him. Fronto was denounced as an envious liar when he persisted in his accusations against them, protesting that Severus must have secretly returned the books to Sagittius.[85]


Fortunately for Fronto, Severus' and Sagittius' attempt to cover up their covert exchanges of books did not ultimately succeed. Before receiving the books from Severus, Sagittius had already taken measures of his own to conceal his return of the books to Severus, and those measures now backfired. Writing to Bishop Syagrius, whom he understood to be in the same predicament of having returned the book now requested by Titianus to Severus, Sagittius had confessed that Severus had the two books that were supposedly in his own keeping as well. He intended to claim, however, that he had meant to send the books to Syagrius—since Syagrius was supposedly undertaking an investigation of Severus—and that it was only by accident that they had been delivered to his presbyter Severus instead.[86] Upon receiving this letter, Syagrius was frightened by the awkward situation in which he now found himself. He initially decided to support Sagittius' lie and thus protect both Sagittius and Severus. But a terrifying dream of future judgment caused him to change his mind. Armed with Sagittius' letter and, furthermore, with a written confession extracted from the monk Ursitio, who had by this point secretly returned the books to Sagittius, Syagrius set out on foot for Tarragona with the intention of exposing Sagittius' and Severus' lies.[87]

According to Fronto, it was on the very day on which he had been judged a false accuser and sentenced to death that Syagrius reached Tarragona. Impressed that one so old—and so rich—had undertaken such a long journey by foot, Fronto approached the quarters where Syagrius was staying and berated him for the lies that would cost Fronto his life. Not anticipating success in obtaining the aged bishop's support, Fronto was astonished when Syagrius immediately confessed to having returned a book secretly to Severus. Still shaken by his dream, Syagrius allowed himself to be persuaded to hand over to Fronto the damaging letter from Sagittius as well as Ursitio's confession.[88]

On the next day, when Fronto was supposedly scheduled to be stoned to death, he allowed his enemies to perjure themselves further before he brandished his proof against Sagittius, who now bore the brunt of Fronto's animosity, perhaps because of his personal attack on him the day before. Unable to defend himself in the face of the written evidence, Sagittius simply left, along with a number of his supporters. Fronto relates that he pursued him and charged him further with having cut out and kept some pages from one of the books. Sagittius initially denied this charge but later was somehow induced to return the pages, which were subsequently read aloud before a horrified crowd. The people pressed for Sagittius' condemnation, but Titianus demurred, offering the explanation that a greater number of bishops were needed to condemn a fellow bishop;[89] Fronto reports that seven, including Sagittius himself, were present.[90]


Eventually it was decided that both the books and the records of the investigation would be burned; no one was to be excommunicated or deposed, much less stoned to death. Fronto was outraged by what he considered a suppression of the truth and the sale of a judgment to the powerful, wealthy, and learned men who were the leaders of the Christian communities in the Ebro valley. As he continued his vocal protests, Bishop Agapius was once again moved to assault Fronto physically—an ill-advised act, which, as in the case of Severus' servant, had fatal consequences for the assailant—and Fronto aroused such general resentment that he was forced to leave town. He travelled first to Arles where he sought and obtained the verbal support of Patroclus; from there he journeyed to visit Consentius.[91]

It is evident from Fronto's narrative that the status of the lay ascetic or monk was somewhat more clearly defined than it had been in Priscillian's day, but also correspondingly diminished. Fronto, who describes himself as the founder of a monastery,[92] is identified by Consentius and by Asterius in Fronto's narrative as a famulus Christi , or servant of Christ;[93] Consentius describes himself as a "servant of Christ" as well.[94] Augustine uses a similar phrase, servus Dei , in reference to Fronto.[95] Elsewhere in Augustine's writings, this term frequently serves to designate the private asceticism of cultured lay Christians possessing considerable wealth, education, and social status;[96] in this context, the term servus invokes a rhetoric of renunciation of power that in fact serves to enhance the authority of the speaker or writer. However, there is little sense of rhetorical paradox in the title famulus as it is used in Fronto's narrative. By his own account, Fronto's detractors denounce him as "a worthless man of mean character and an impoverished beggar"; he is repeatedly referred to as a "barking dog," and he himself feels like a "dead flea" when faced with the overwhelming power, wealth, and learning of his opponents.[97] Similarly clear is the inferior position of Ursitio, who is variously described in Fronto's narrative as a monk (monachus ), as a friend of Severus (amicus Severi ), as a dependent member of Severus' household (domesticus ), and finally as "Severus' monk" (Severi monachus ).[98] He is subject to the will of his clerical and social superiors, being "compelled" by Severus to deliver the codices secretly and then by Syagrius to confess to the same deed.[99] Lay "monks" or "servants of Christ" like Fronto or Ursitio appear, then, clearly subordinate to the higher clergy.

Perhaps responding in part to the exceptional opportunity created by the social and political instability brought on by the Germanic invasions of Spain,[100] Fronto attempted to enhance his personal prestige and authority, first, by standing before the public with accusations of heresy directed


against some of the most powerful men and women of the region and, second, by invoking the support and authority of Bishop Patroclus of Arles and of Consentius, a self-proclaimed theologian, who pursued a literary correspondence with such powerful bishops as Patroclus and Augustine. Fronto elaborated and memorialized his heroic role as accuser and his alliance with these influential figures in the dramatic narrative circulated from Arles to Hippo. By identifying Fronto's "heretics" as "Priscillianists" and framing Fronto's narrative in his own self-glorifying prose, the lay ascetic Consentius likewise attempted to enhance his authority, not only by constructing himself as a theologian, but also by placing himself and his own anti-Priscillianist writings at the center of a valiant combat and presenting himself as a peer of such great heresy fighters as the bishops Patroclus and Augustine.

The vigorous attempts of Fronto and Consentius to establish their authority outside the ranks of clerical office were not particularly successful. In Tarragona, Fronto was accused of sorcery and nearly killed, and his opponents retained their positions of power. Consentius himself seems to betray awareness of the need to deflect accusations of heresy through an elaborate—and indeed otherwise somewhat puzzling—protestation of his own aversion to scholarship.[101] And while Patroclus of Arles was happy to make use of both Fronto and Consentius in his own attempts to label Priscillianist heretics in Gaul, Augustine not only doubted the veracity of Fronto's report but also denounced the deceitful methods utilized by Fronto and actively promoted by Consentius. In the end, the "servants of Christ" could not compete with a Christian leadership in which the public authority of ecclesiastical office and the private authority of education, eloquence, or discipline of life had almost completely merged. The presbyter Severus was a man "famous for his wealth and power, as well as his scholarship," and related by marriage to the local potentate Asterius.[102] Severus' bishop, Syagrius, was considered by Fronto to be wealthy and was probably not as simple and credulous as Fronto depicts him in an effort to excuse his support of Severus.[103] Bishop Sagittius was "powerful and learned in higher literature."[104]

This merging of public and private authority in Christian leadership seems to have been accompanied by a lowering of anxieties about gender roles and relations. Such a claim cannot be supported by silence alone, but it is nevertheless noteworthy that in spite of the prominent appearance of a number of women in Fronto's drama—Severa, Severus' mother, Asterius' daughter—overt tensions concerning their roles as women and their relations with men are not evident.[105] Now confined primarily to the circle of their families, women become visible only when the men in their fami-


lies are highly visible, and all of the women mentioned by Fronto seem to have belonged to the same powerful Tarragonese family.[106] The sole instance in which a woman is described as interacting with a man outside her family is in the relationship between Fronto himself and Severa, who was probably an older woman and perhaps a widow as well.[107] There are slight hints that even this interaction between an ascetic male and an older woman or widow was perceived as somehow improper. Fronto brags about how "Severa, that little woman [muliercula ] . . . revealed all the secrets of her crimes to me, as if to a heretic," while the bishops charge him with having "craftily deceived an incautious and simple little woman [in-circumspectam ac simplicem mulierculam ]."[108] In both cases, Fronto—or the heretic in whose guise he presents himself—seems to be depicted negatively in the role of the false Christian of 2 Tim. 3.6 who wrongfully enters private households and deceives "little women."

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Chapter Four "Priscillianist" Heresy Inquisitions at Toledo and Tarragona
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