previous chapter
next section


Why do I speak of Priscillian, who has been condemned by the secular sword and by the whole world?
Jerome, Ep. 133.3

Deviance is the mirror-image of conventional morality and therefore of existing boundaries.
Nachman Ben Yehuda,  Deviance and Moral Boundaries[1]

A theory of difference, when applied to the proximate "other," is but another way of phrasing a theory of "self."
Jonathan Z. Smith, "Differential Equations"[2]

The question posed by Jerome at first appears easily answered: for a fourth- or fifth-century Christian, to speak of a Priscillian so universally condemned was to delineate the contours of an acceptable social "self"; to denounce "heresy" was to control the definition of "orthodoxy." But this historical investigation of late-ancient talk about Priscillian has necessarily pressed the issue further: why this person, why this construction of heresy, why this place and time? The goal has been not so much to provide final answers as to complicate and continue the process of inquiry: how, indeed, did late-ancient Christianity come to construct itself around a distinctly and all-too-comfortably patriarchalized and institutionalized conception of orthodoxy? A stance of intentional naivete or even feigned surprise undergirds the posing of such a question, and my interest has been precisely to locate and explore pivotal historical moments in which we may be per-


suaded to perceive the openness of the historical process—despite the weight of an "unsurprised" historiographic tradition. Late-fourth-century Christianity appears particularly productive of such moments, and the diverse perspectives that collided in the Priscillianist controversy highlight the variety and malleability of contemporary conceptions not only of orthodoxy but also of asceticism, canon, creed, episcopacy, and even maleness and femaleness. In spite of my desire to "reopen" the world of lateancient Christianity, I have obviously not resisted the temptation of narrative closure: both implicitly and explicitly, this study contrasts the relative fluidity of the late-fourth-century west with the greater stability of the period immediately following, onto which I have projected the crystallizing of a "public" and "accommodating" catholic orthodoxy.

Resistance to the frequently assumed historical inevitability of such a catholic orthodoxy led to the choice of a chronological approach to the Priscillianist controversy, allowing careful delineation of the unfolding of the complex discursive and social processes by which Priscillian was constructed as "other"; the study thereby frequently became entangled in the reconstruction of the controversy's gesta rerum , as well as in the analysis of its central social and theological issues. The desire to combat impressions of orthodox inevitability also necessitated a stance of intentional sympathy for Priscillian and the other "losers" in the various interlocking debates. Only by becoming sympathetic, it seemed to me, could we understand that the losers might have been winners, and indeed, that there may not have been any clear winners and losers after all: the process by which religious controversy influences "tradition" is rarely as simple as language of "victory and loss" or even "compromise" implies.

The account began with the local conflict between Priscillian, a learned ascetic exegete, and Hydatius, bishop of Merida. The earliest documented evidence for the conflict is provided by the Acts of the Council of Saragossa (380), at which Hydatius' hostility toward Priscillian seems to have been a crucial factor. The conciliar text is marked by an emphasis on the centrality of the episcopally led eucharistic liturgy and the authority of the clerical hierarchy, positioned to resist the centrifugal tug of the "private" ascetic groups in which Priscillian presumably participated. Implicitly invoking the terms of the public discourse of separate male and female spheres, the Acts insists that women should remain separate and subordinate within the Christian community and identifies the meetings and eclectic reading habits of small, mixed-sex study groups as both immoral and seditious.

After the council, Priscillian and his associates apparently responded to the attack on their manner of life and of reading with accusations


against Hydatius, whom Priscillian's Tractates depict as both "schismatic" and "unlearned." Hydatius and his allies charged Priscillian in turn with the dualistic cosmological views, the use of apocryphal texts, and the moral crimes of socially subversive and sexually intemperate Manichaeans and sorcerers. The intensity of the competition between the two parties and their distinctive strategies of Christian self-definition was such that the conflict overflowed the boundaries of the western Spanish communities in which it originated and became entangled with the strands of analogous disputes in such significant urban centers as Bordeaux, Milan, and Rome. The labels of Manichaeism and sorcery ultimately succeeded in defining Priscillian as a threatening outsider and thereby mandating first his departure from the Christian communities of Spain and later his execution in Trier (circa 386). The well-born Euchrotia and three others who had been Priscillian's companions in Christian asceticism were also his companions in death. By seeming to validate the accusations that the authority of a learned teacher derived from illicit sources, the conviction and execution of Priscillian and his associates compromised the legitimacy of privately construed authority per se and thus represented at least a partial, initial triumph for a public and culturally accommodating definition of Christian community.

Controversies and episcopal gatherings at Toledo (400) and Tarragona (circa 418) reflected continuing attempts to limit the scope of private-sphere authority and to subordinate such authority more clearly to the hierarchical structures of a publicly centered community. At both Toledo and Tarragona, the figure of the historical Priscillian was transformed into a symbol of deviance by which subsequent disputes could be negotiated. Like the more exotic labels of Manichaeism and sorcery, the home-grown label of Priscillianism functioned within the Spanish communities to redefine internal opponents as outsiders, and Priscillian's name remained associated with magical practices and secret books, as well as with private, mixed-sex study groups. At Toledo, the council demanded greater respect for episcopal authority and a more careful observance of the separation and subordination of women, while the threat of association with Priscillian was used to force Galician bishops like Symphosius and Dictinius to conform to a more decisively public communal structure.

Almost two decades later at Tarragona, a certain equilibrium was attained through the still greater overlapping of the public and private spheres in Christian communal life, which further diminished the influence of lay teachers and groups. The authority of education, birth, and eloquence was more closely linked than ever with the authority of office in figures like the Huescan presbyter Severus and the Ilerdan bishop Sa-


gittius, and even accusations of heresy or Priscillianism were ineffective in discrediting the standing of these learned and aristocratic ecclesiastics in the communities of the Tarragonese province. The rhetorical manipulation of both class and gender qualified the individual experience of this blurring of the boundaries of public and private: Fronto, possessing neither aristocratic birth nor clerical office, was openly disdained by the leaders of the Tarragonese communities but was nevertheless able to attain a public hearing not only in those communities but also in Arles and on the Balearic islands, where Consentius resided; the well-born Severa, on the other hand, while escaping the consequences of heresy accusations through her family connections, was referred to dismissively as a "little woman" by both parties in the dispute, and she and the other women of Fronto's tale were to some extent confined to family circles.

In western regions outside Spain, the structures and ideals of Christian community evolved along distinct, if not altogether dissimilar, lines. Sulpicius Severus' and Jerome's portraits of Priscillian as a gnostic seducer reflect one such variant evolution. Both Severus and Jerome used the publicly centered rhetoric of public and private to defend their controversial understandings of Christian community. Such a rhetorical strategy enabled the articulation of two distinct domains of public urban and private monastic communities, the latter implicitly subordinated to the former, while at the same time retaining a significant degree of autonomy. Publicprivate rhetoric also informed Severus' and Jerome's apologetic construction of a monastic social order in which women were separate and subordinate; by this means, the ascetic scholars protected themselves against accusations of anarchic immorality such as those that had eventually defeated Priscillian. But for all the striking prominence of this publicly centered discourse in the rhetoric of Severus and Jerome, their own authority and lifestyle appear to have been linked more closely with the private than the public sphere, and gender does not in fact seem to have been a primary distinction of the social order of ascetic communities that acknowledged the authority of women like Marcella, Paula, Eustochium, Melania, Therasia, and Bassula. By making significant concessions to the public order and its rhetorical traditions, Jerome and Severus succeeded in at least partially preserving a private model of Christian community. However, this strategy produced both theoretical inconsistencies and disjunctions between discourse and social experience, particularly in the area of gender roles and relations. Both men attempted to minimize such inconsistencies and disjunctions by developing a powerful rhetoric for the control of women, which in turn led to the further eroding of the private basis of personal and communal self-definition. The elements of gender and sexu-


ality were emphasized in the elaboration of the content of the gnostic label, an emphasis that functioned not only to narrow the boundaries of legitimate private authority for men but also to enforce greater separation and subordination of women even within monastic communities.

While this study has tended to focus on the social and rhetorical dimensions of the controversy, I have tried not to lose sight of the fact that significant theological issues were also involved and indeed were closely linked to the disputed issues of gender and authority. Unlike Pelagius, Priscillian does not seem to have faced theologians of great stature among his original opponents, and it is in part as a result of this lack that his "heresy" has failed to claim a distinctive place in the history of Christian thought. Traditionally summarily categorized as "Manichaean," Priscillian's thought and the conflict it provoked are more helpfully located in relation to the contemporary controversies surrounding the figures of Evagrius and Pelagius, as Jerome himself recognized. Under debate was a sharp cosmic and anthropological dualism that undergirded an ascetic agenda and a soteriological vision that threatened not only to decenter episcopal authority but finally to relativize all social difference, including distinctions of gender. It was not Jerome but Augustine who was able to articulate a coherent alternative to this powerful late-ancient worldview, simultaneously alienated and optimistic. However often he may be written and rewritten as the "winner"—not least through his own literary efforts—Augustine's complex accommodation to the pressures of a worldly and public model of Christianity is, of course, still hotly contested today.

To "speak of Priscillian" yet again is, I hope, not merely to solidify long-established patterns of western Christian thought by recalling their original moment of closure, but rather to reopen questions of body and cosmos, of canon and creed and "textuality" itself, of spiritual leadership, and finally of the constructions of maleness and femaleness that support broader social relations of dominance and submission. In the process, what is sought is not so much a reshaping of orthodoxy, feminist or otherwise, as a new language of difference that would remain open to the vision, and revision, of the "other," and therefore of "self."


previous chapter
next section