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Excursus: A Selective Review of Priscillian in Twentieth-Century Scholarship

Investigations of the broader social and cosmological aspects of the Priscillianist controversy have been under way since the discovery of the tractates, and the present study rests on the insights of previous scholarship.[62] Of particular significance is E.-Ch. Babut's 1909 monograph Priscillien et le priscillianisme . Babut places the conflict surrounding Priscillian within the context of the divergence between ascetic and anti-ascetic currents in


fourth-century western Christianity. As the "new gospel" of asceticism arrived from the east and swept the western provinces, there arose simultaneously a movement of reaction and protest against the ascetic "saints." This protest centered above all in the clergy, explains Babut, and was frequently expressed by means of accusations of Manichaeism.[63] "Mutual hostility could not fail to arise. The clergy considered themselves raised above the common run and brought closer to God by ordination, the monks by the practice of sanctity. Each of these two aristocracies, the one sacramental, the other purely moral, was inclined not to recognize any kind of excellence other than its own."[64] Babut goes on to argue that Priscillian should be viewed, not as the leader of his own movement, but rather as a member of a broader network of ascetic "fraternities" scattered throughout Gaul and Spain. The members of these fraternities were not concerned merely with their personal spiritual growth, Babut further suggests; they also pursued the broader goal of educating an ascetic clergy and thereby countering the growing trend toward the secularization of episcopal office.[65] The attempt to link Priscillian closely and directly with other western ascetics appears to have been poorly founded, as does the emphasis on the explicit clerical ambitions of Priscillian and his followers.[66] Nevertheless, Babut's basic positioning of the Priscillianist controversy in the context of the fourth-century ascetic movement and the related conflicts of authority is fundamental to any discussion of its social roots.

In an unpublished 1957 dissertation, Willy Schatz builds on the foundation laid by Babut.[67] Not content with a generalized discussion of the conflict between ascetics and anti-ascetic bishops,[68] Schatz attempts a more precise social analysis of the forces which gave rise to the fourth-century proliferation of ascetic splinter-movements. Ultimately, he identifies the underlying cause of division between the mainstream church and these ascetic sects as "the polarity between office and charisma."[69] Acknowledging that Priscillian and some of his ascetic associates were themselves bishops, Schatz nevertheless argues that their authority was essentially charismatic, remaining deeply embedded in an ascetic spirituality: "they based their priesthood, not primarily on office, but much more on their charismatic gift."[70] The conflict between office and charisma at the heart of the Priscillianist controversy was defined primarily from the point of view of those who identified themselves as officeholders. "Spiritual" Christians like the ascetic Priscillian did not typically perceive any inherent conflict or contradiction between official and charismatic authority.[71] Nor was it Priscillian who initiated the schism in Spain. Rather, the Spanish bishops made the first move to exclude Priscillian and his followers


from the Christian community. "The heresy is therefore at first actually artificially created . And the purpose of this is equally clear: with the constitution of the 'sect' the bishop gains the possibility of proceeding against the ascetics in order to enforce their acknowledgement of his authority and their incorporation into the hierarchically determined ecclesiastical order" (emphasis mine).[72] Schatz here emphasizes the bishops' initiative in labeling Priscillian's movement heretical or sectarian and thereby enforcing either conformity or exclusion from the community. But he also adds that Priscillian and his followers played a part in provoking such opposition: first, they implicitly claimed a competing ecclesiastical authority on the basis of their ascetic calling, and second, they organized themselves into a separate group (Eigenorganisation, Sonderorganisation ) whose existence threatened the unity and integrity of the episcopally led urban congregation.[73]

In the broader context of a work that traces the emergence of western monasticism, Schatz presents Priscillian's brand of asceticism as an intermediate stage on an evolutionary path leading from more primitive forms of asceticism to the fully developed structures of monasticism.[74] This transitional positioning of the movement has certain strengths as a strategy for interpreting Priscillianism. Schatz is surely right to point to the inadequacy of such traditional categories as either "primitive asceticism" or "monasticism" for characterizing Priscillian's movement. In addition, he highlights the apparent instability of the social organization of the early Priscillianists and points to possible explanations for that instability in the movement's failure to adapt to the increasing institutionalization of the church. However, Schatz's transitional positioning of the movement risks inconsistency or even anachronism. Stressing that Priscillian and his followers remained closely identified with the urban congregation, he explicitly characterizes their asceticism as "intra-congregational" (innergemeindlich ).[75] Moreover, as we have seen, Schatz suggests that the impression of the sectarian nature of Priscillian's movement derives primarily from the polemical rhetoric of Priscillian's opponents. Here he seems to be moving toward an analysis that criticizes the use of the categories "heresy" or "sect" and at the same time illumines both the factors that motivated the polemical invocation of these categories and the social and ideological function of such labels in shaping subsequent events. However, as Schatz discusses the ascetics' private meetings and their periodic withdrawal from the urban congregation, he also refers repeatedly to the separatism of the Priscillianist movement in language that implicitly invokes the Weberian-Troeltschian polarities of "church" and "sect," as well as "office" and "charisma."[76] The result is a somewhat predictable portrait of


Priscillian's movement as a "charismatic sect" in conflict with an established hierarchical mainstream "church"—a depiction ironically close to the distorted portrait that Schatz himself characterizes as the rhetorical creation of Priscillian's opponents. Such subtle inconsistencies in Schatz's interpretations do not, however, undercut the value of his work, and Benedikt Vollman's 1964 review of Priscillianist sources and scholarship rightly highlights Schatz's significant contribution to the study of Priscillianism.[77] In a 1974 encyclopedia article that remains one of the most balanced and reliable surveys of Priscillian and his movement,[78] Vollman follows Schatz closely, while emphasizing even more strongly than his predecessor the tendencies toward separatism in the social organization of what he terms Priscillian's "school."

A Spanish study that placed the conflicts of authority evident in the Priscillianist controversy in a somewhat different interpretative framework, Abilio Barbero de Aguilera's significantly subtitled "El Priscilianismo: ¿Herejía o movimiento social?" was published in 1963, two years before Vollman's early monograph. Barbero de Aguilera opts for the second alternative, but he does so by suggesting, not that Priscillianist Christianity be viewed as a charismatic movement in conflict with a mainstream church, but rather that it be understood as the product of an indigenous, rural Spanish resistance to Roman domination represented by imperially coopted urban bishops.[79] Here he follows the lead of W. H. C. Frend's revisionist account of the Donatist movement in North Africa, and his provocative interpretation is subject to some of the same criticisms as Frend's, particularly insofar as he imposes an urban-rural distinction on material that most often resists such categorization.[80] In addition, his understanding of the politicized nature of the late fourth-century episcopacy seems to suffer from some of the same lack of nuance as does Schatz's Weberian representation of bishops as wielders of "official" or "rational" authority. At the same time, Barbero de Aguilera's work remains important, not only for its careful critique of the basis of the doctrinal charges brought against the Priscillianist Christians, but also for its attentiveness to the local dynamics that shaped the experience of Spanish Christians in the late fourth century.

Henry Chadwick's comprehensive 1976 monograph returns to the scholarly tradition of presenting Priscillian's movement as solidly sectarian, if not also heretical. In addition, Chadwick departs somewhat from the more apologetic line of interpretation represented by such scholars as Babut, Schatz, Vollman, and Barbero de Aguilera. Emphasizing the seemingly idiosyncratic and esoteric elements of Priscillian's teachings, Chadwick calls attention to what he describes as Priscillian's "frankly avowed


interest in the occult." He suggests that Priscillian may have taken part in magic rituals and worn a magical amulet, that he attached "deep importance to number mysticism," and that his interest in demonology led him into "cabbalistic investigations into such occult mysteries" as were found in gnostic and Manichaean texts.[81] "The evidence suggests, in short, that while Priscillian was not a Manichaean, his doctrine is not, as has been suggested by W. Schatz and others, explicable simply in terms of ascetic influences from the Egyptian desert. He has a place in the long line of Christians who have sought for hidden mysteries in the Bible or in nature."[82]

Conflicts of authority are implicit both in Chadwick's discussion of Priscillian's teachings concerning prophecy and revelation and in his detailed account of the social and political processes that led to Priscillian's execution and to the subsequent polarization of Priscillianists and anti-Priscillianists in Spain and elsewhere.[83] However, he does not address issues of authority in either explicit or theoretical terms. Chadwick's emphasis remains on the supposedly esoteric nature of Priscillian's teachings, in which he seems to find the explanation for Priscillian's vulnerability to accusations of sorcery and Manichaeism. Many of his arguments are based in large part on circumstantial evidence indicating that certain magical or quasi-magical practices were common among Christians in late antiquity[84] —evidence that, if accepted, seems to undercut the explanatory value of Chadwick's portrayal of Priscillian as a "sorcerer's apprentice."[85] Nevertheless, insofar as Chadwick's careful analysis of the tractates represents an attempt to take Priscillian's thought seriously on its own terms, his refocusing of interest on Priscillian's cosmology constitutes a valuable contribution to the study of this controversy.[86]

One of the most recent and significant accounts of Priscillian and Priscillianism, Raymond Van Dam's Leadership and Community in Late Antique Gaul , explicitly rejects both Chadwick's particular depiction of Priscillian as an "occultist" and the more generally prevailing tendency to externalize Priscillian, variously, as sorcerer, heretic, sectarian, or rural revolutionary. At the same time, this study offers a fresh analysis of the conflicts of authority that have interested so many scholars. Van Dam suggests that the Priscillianist controversy "was an internal problem generated by the rivalries appearing when a religious organization for which books were central acquired educated men as members" (emphasis mine).[87] Building upon the insights of anthropological studies of charges of witchcraft, Van Dam proposes that labels of heresy and Manichaeism functioned to mediate rivalries in the small, face-to-face communities of late Roman antiquity.[88] He further suggests that the failure of the labeling process to re-


solve conflict locally and relatively peaceably in Priscillian's case points to the structural and ideological inadequacies of Christianity for integrating converts from the upper strata of Hispano- and Gallo-Roman society.[89] In particular, the Christian community found it difficult to assimilate welleducated men—among whom Van Dam numbers Priscillian and many of his associates—and wealthy unmarried women, such as Priscillian's supporter the widow Euchrotia.[90]

In the case of well-educated men, Van Dam suggests, the problem was essentially an imbalance in the supply and demand of leadership. The location of the imperial court in Gaul and the presence of thriving schools of rhetoric in Gaul and Spain generated a particularly large population of upwardly mobile, ambitious, well-trained men in this period. When these men became Christians, their ambitions were often transferred to the ecclesiastical arena, where they assumed a natural authority by virtue of their aristocratic culture and established skill and reputation as speakers and interpreters of books. On the one hand, the church accentuated the authority of such men, insofar as it placed high value on the role of the teacher and exegete. On the other hand, Van Dam observes, the church provided a limited number of options for these men within its relatively simple and rigid hierarchical institutional structure, since few could be recruited into the clergy, and fewer still might expect to become bishops. Learned men could, however, be patronized as teachers without formal rank; they could become monks; or they could simply live as laymen under the jurisdiction of bishop and clergy. Under these circumstances, rivalries and tensions naturally arose among laymen, teachers, monks, ambitious clergy, and bishops.[91]

Wealthy unmarried women constitute the second group that lateantique Christianity failed to accommodate. Here again Van Dam points to the purported ideological and institutional rigidity of the church as the primary factor inhibiting the assimilation of a crucial sector of the urban population. The traditional patriarchalism of Christianity became problematic, he suggests, when the fourth-century church found itself confronting a large number of independent women among the wealthy converts who were its potential patrons. For such women even the limited ecclesiastical roles available to educated men were lacking. "Like Roman society in general, Catholic Christianity was a 'man's world,'" Van Dam comments.[92] But while he rightly highlights the problematic of women's authority in fourth-century Christianity, Van Dam's analysis here raises as many questions as it answers. It is not clear why wealthy Roman women should have presented problems of accommodation for a church that mirrored the secular world that had shaped the identities and expectations of


those women. In what respect was the problematic patriarchalism of the church distinct from the social and cultural environment to which these independent women were accustomed?

If Van Dam's analysis of gender roles is not completely satisfying, his tendency to depict late-fourth-century Christianity as rigid and inflexible also rings false at points. I would suggest that the uncontrolled escalation of charges of heresy in Priscillian's case did not primarily arise from institutional and ideological rigidity. Rather, it stemmed, first, from the lack of definition of social roles and beliefs in a period of rapid social and theological change and, second, from the difficulty of containing a local conflict in a society knit together by extralocal networks of patronage and friendship. Nevertheless, Van Dam's emphasis on ecclesiastical rigidity paradoxically opens the way for appreciating the fluidity of Christianity in a time of transition. For the rigidity that Van Dam describes is not the rigidity of a strongly entrenched institutional "church"; he invokes, rather, the image of an uncompromising "sect" unable or unwilling to assimilate the mainstream culture of the late Roman towns. By thus emphasizing the vulnerability and marginality of even mainstream Christianity in fourth-century Spain and Gaul, Van Dam challenges common depictions of western catholic orthodoxy and likewise calls for a reevaluation of the catholic church's relation to movements labeled heretical. This is a significant shift in Priscillianist scholarship.

Pursuing one set of implications of Van Dam's work, I begin by deliberately setting aside the Weberian-Troeltschian typology implicitly invoked in many twentieth-century studies, as well as the heresiological model that dominated earlier approaches to Priscillianism. In order to press beyond the insights of scholars such as Schatz, it is necessary to abandon the polarity of "orthodox church" and "heretical sect." In its place, we must seek new analytical frameworks that do not privilege Priscillian's opposition, but make it possible instead to view the Priscillianist and anti-Priscillianist factions as parallel, competing streams of Christianity that emerged simultaneously in response to the changed social, cultural, and theological landscape of the late fourth century. In this context, the invocation of labels of deviance may be understood, not as an indication of the inherent "heretical" or "sectarian" nature of Priscillian's movement, but as an available means whereby particular groups of Christians attempted to assert the dominance of their own theological and social models in situations of profound religious pluralism and ambiguity.


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