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Chapter One "A Strange Man" Opposition Emerges at the Council of Saragossa
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Strategy and Performance in the Conciliar Acta

I. All women who are of the catholic church and faithful are to be separated from the reading and meetings of strange men, but other [women] are to meet with those [women] who read in pursuit of either teaching or learning, because the Apostle commands this. By all the bishops it was said: Let those who do not observe this judgment of the council be anathema.[44]

Following Roman legal tradition, the published judgments of church councils typically begin by naming the person or group of persons to whom the decision is directed.[45] In the first judgment of the Council of Saragossa, the naming of the target of "women" is given particular emphasis. With the intensifying qualifiers piled onto the named target, the bishops move immediately to delineate the boundary between insiders and outsiders and to communicate an implicit threat: those who transgress this ruling will be placed beyond the pale of catholic orthodoxy. The subsequent juxtaposition of "faithful catholic women" (mulieres . . . ecclesiae catholicae et fideles ) with "strange men" (virorum alienorum ) further heightens the emotional tenor of the judgment's language. Here the bishops raise the specter of women meeting familiarly with nonfamilial men and emphasize the impropriety of mixed-sex gatherings. With a single word—"strange"—the council is able to invoke deeply embedded conceptions of female virtue and honor in order to excite moral outrage at the implied


violation of women's essential privacy. At the same time, fear of the heretical "other" is manipulated through the suggestion that the boundaries of a vulnerable community have been penetrated by hostile invaders.[46]

Although the bishops open with an implicit prohibition of mixed-sex study groups, they quickly shift to a positive injunction.[47] The common themes of women's activities and of reading provide a link between the two parts of the judgment. The phrase "reading and meetings" (lectione et coetibus ), which highlights the activity central to the offensive mixed meetings,[48] is almost immediately followed by the reference to "those [women] who read" (ipsas legentes ) at proposed all-female meetings. The bishops' message is therefore that women are not to attend study groups to read with men, but should study in the company of literate women. The enthusiasm for reading that the bishops attempt to control seems to echo the zeal of learned ascetics like Priscillian, who urges that Christians have a "responsibility to read" and will be held accountable if they have not "read all that has been prophesied about God" in both canonical and extracanonical books.[49]

Having evoked the image of women mingling scandalously with unrelated men, the council here seeks not to prohibit but to redirect the female zeal for study.[50] It does so by constructing a separate and implicitly subordinate female sphere within the publicly defined church, a sphere in which the fictive privacy of those women who meet to read and study can be maintained. This first judgment is one of only two that include an invocation of scriptural authority.[51] The council probably has in mind 1 Cor. 14:34—"women should keep silence in the churches"—and 1 Tim. 2:12—"I permit no woman to teach or to have authority over men; she is to keep silent." These scriptural references support the bishops' publicly defined social order and underline the violations of hierarchy hinted at in the objections to mixed-sex study groups where women not only speak freely but may even presume to teach men.

The judgment closes with the formulaic language of conciliar agreement, which in this case serves both to invoke episcopal authority and to communicate the threat of punishment to potential offenders, now indicated with an inclusive masculine grammatical form (futuros qui . . . ).[52] Here the bishops threaten excommunication without specifying whether or how the offender may be received back into the community. The severity of this punishment reinforces the emotionally loaded language of this first judgment: it appears that the topic of mixed study groups inspires passionate opposition from at least some of the bishops present. But, at the same time, the bishops at Saragossa seem either to disagree among themselves or to feel uncertain of support in the broader Christian commu-


nity.[53] They therefore choose their words carefully, couching even their initial prohibition in grammatically positive terms and then offering an approved alternative. Furthermore, they hesitate to put their authority to the test by specifying either penance or perpetual exclusion from the community.[54]

II. One is not to fast on Sunday, for the sake of the day or belief or superstition; or, rather, those who persist in these opinions are not to be absent from the churches during Lent, nor to lurk in the hiding places of cells and mountains, but they are to keep the example and precept of the bishops, and they are not to meet on strange estates in order to hold meetings. By all the bishops it was said: Let the one who does this be anathema.[55]

The length and complexity of the second judgment suggest that its wording may have emerged out of a protracted discussion, and the passage offers a number of difficulties of interpretation.[56] The judgment can be divided into two main parts. The phrase "those who persist in these opinions" (qui in his suspicionibus perseverant ) appears to link the two parts, referring back to the Sunday fasters whose activities are forbidden in the first clause and at the same time serving as the grammatical subject of the second series of clauses, which amend the initial prohibition.[57] The council first attempts to dissuade Christians from fasting on Sunday by prohibiting the practice and casting vague yet damaging aspersions on the motivations of the fasters.[58] The bishops then back off somewhat from their initial stark prohibition. Their primary concern is that the targeted Christians, whether or not they continue to fast on Sunday (during Lent only?),[59] should not withdraw from the episcopal congregation during Lent. The initial prohibition is accompanied by vague innuendoes, which may imply doctrinal unorthodoxy as well as social subversion; later, Augustine was to suggest that the supposed Priscillianist custom of fasting on Sunday associated them with the Manichaeans.[60] However, the longer and weightier second series of clauses focuses exclusively on the social implications of practices that fragment the community and deviate from the norms defined by the bishop. Underlining such concerns is the positive injunction to follow those Lenten observances exemplified and commanded by the bishop. As in the first judgment, the goal is not simply to prohibit but rather to redirect ascetic zeal, in this case by channeling it into practices that support rather than undermine the authority of the bishop and the publicly defined community he represents.

The council's preoccupation in this judgment with episcopal authority and the integrity of the episcopally led community is further emphasized by the strategies employed for stereotyping the opponents. Those who ob-


serve separate fasts and withdraw from the congregation during Lent are described in terms that evoke the image of the secret and seditious gatherings commonly associated with the Manichaeans or other religious or political sectarians. They are followers of a superstition (superstitio ); they seek out hiding places (latibula ); they come together for private meetings (conventus ).[61] Such meetings furthermore take place on "strange estates" (alienas villas )[62] : like the women who mix with "strange" men, the Christians targeted in this judgment are perceived to participate in inappropriate and subversive relationships by frequenting the private homes of those with whom they have no legitimate social connection. Priscillian's Tractates include what appears to be a set of Lenten sermons, and it is clear that he—like many ascetically inclined Christians—placed great importance on the penitential season of Lent;[63] it is thus probable but not certain that he is among those whom the bishops here attack.

As in the first judgment, potential transgressors are threatened with anathematization. Again, the invocation of this relatively harsh threat suggests the likelihood that there were strong feelings among some of the bishops present, while at the same time either lack of unity or lack of confidence about enforcement deterred them from defining the punishment in more specific terms.

III. If someone is proved not to have consumed the grace of the Eucharist received in church, let that one be anathema in perpetuity. By all the bishops it was said: It is agreed.[64]

Although this third judgment is brief and far simpler in structure than either of the first two, questions nevertheless remain as to what exactly is being proscribed. Are the targeted offenders crypto-Manichaeans who secretly abstain from the chalice? Or is the council perhaps opposing the apparently common and seemingly less alarming practice of reserving some part of the eucharistic elements for later consumption?[65] Manuel Sotomayor argues persuasively, based in part on a comparison with the thirteenth and fourteenth judgments of the Council of Toledo (400), that this judgment is directed against Christians who attend the eucharistic assembly but—for unclear and possibly varied reasons—do not partake of the elements at all.[66] The goal of the bishops gathered at Saragossa was thus to eliminate the ambiguous category of persons who seated themselves with the community yet did not fully "commune." The judgment attempts to draw clear boundaries between insiders and outsiders and, as in the second judgment, to oppose those who foster the creation of subgroups within the episcopally led Christian community.


The severity of the threatened punishment—perpetual anathema—is striking. The Manichaean associations of eucharistic abstention may account in part for the bishops' willingness to take such a strong position on this issue. Still more significant, however, is the centrality of the public act of eucharistic communion for the definition of the episcopally led Christian community.

IV. On the twenty-one days from December 17th to Epiphany, which is the 6th of January—on these continuous days, let no one be allowed to be absent from the church: they are not to be concealed in houses, nor to stay on estates, nor to head for the mountains, nor to walk with bare feet, but to flock to the church. Let whoever of the baptized who does not observe this be anathema in perpetuity. By all the bishops it was said: That one will be anathema .[67]

The fourth judgment is closely parallel to the second in structure, wording, and content, and it seems to represent a continuation of the earlier discussion of seasonal retreats; the language of the fourth judgment, which gives the impression of being somewhat more carefully crafted, is probably modeled on that of the second. Evidently some Christians were observing practices of withdrawal during the pre-Epiphany season similar to the Lenten practices opposed in the second judgment. The bishops, in turn, advocate attendance at daily services during the three weeks before Epiphany: on these continuous days, they declare, Christians are to come together in church. The careful identification of the pre-Epiphany season implies, as the paucity of external evidence for such a practice confirms, that many Christians were unfamiliar with the custom of observing this Advent period of penitence.[68] The council here seems to propose novel congregational Advent observances in competition with the opposed ascetic practices.

The new element introduced in the fourth judgment is the opposition to the practice of walking barefoot. The parallel construction of the infinitive phrases, "to hide in houses" (latere in domibus ), "to stay on estates" (sedere ad villas ), "to head for the mountains" (montes petere ), and "to walk with bare feet" (nudis pedibus incedere ), suggests that these were alternative ascetic practices observed during the pre-Epiphany season. Within this series, the sedentary and indoor practices of staying in houses and on country estates are paired and contrasted with going to the mountains or walking barefoot. Walking barefoot, the judgment suggests, is a mobile and outdoor ascetic practice parallel to periodic withdrawal to the mountains; it may be associated with pilgrimages, or may simply represent an ascetic discipline valued in itself. Henry Chadwick has pointed out that the practice of going barefoot was also a point of contention among Chris-


tians in the northern Italian city of Brescia; those who defended it were able to argue their position based on both Old and New Testament passages.[69] The practice was not, however, necessarily controversial: Augustine reports no outrage against his friend Alypius, who walked barefoot in the cold months of Lent as part of his preparation for baptism in Ambrose's Milan.[70]

Chadwick has also argued alternatively that going barefoot may have had magical associations for the Christians who formulated this judgment. A number of ancient pagan rites, including rites to ensure agricultural productivity, required bare feet. And Priscillian was later to defend himself against the charge, put forth by Ithacius, of taking part in magic rituals involving the consecration of firstfruits and curses to the sun and moon.[71] Although there is no evidence that Ithacius mentioned bare feet in the context of his accusations of magic, Chadwick speculates that such a suspicion of magic may lie behind the council's prohibition of walking with bare feet.[72] If Chadwick is right—and this is difficult to prove or disprove—Ithacius did not succeed in persuading the other bishops to include explicit reference to magic in the language of the council's judgment.[73]

The fourth judgment, like the third, closes with the most severe of threats, permanent exclusion from the Christian community. There is a clear discrepancy between this penalty and the vaguer punishment prescribed by the otherwise closely parallel second judgment. This discrepancy probably derives more from a shift in the general level of interest or excitement at the meeting than from any rational perception of difference in the severity of the transgressions.[74] In the third and fourth judgments, the bishops most passionately defend the public gathering of the urban congregation for the worship of God.

V. Those who through the instruction or judgment of a bishop have been separated from the church are not to be received by other bishops. If bishops do this knowingly, let them not have communion. By all the bishops it was said: Let whoever of the bishops does this not have communion .[75]

The fifth judgment addresses the need for episcopal solidarity in order to achieve the goals of the first four judgments. With the introduction of bishops as the named targets, the strident cry of "Anathema!" is replaced with the more neutral reference to communion withheld, and there is no explicit mention of the possibility of deposition. Nevertheless, the judgment represents an aggressive move to enforce episcopal compliance with the council's judgments.[76] While the problems created by episcopal disunity were by no means new, no previous council had dared withhold communion from bishops who failed to enforce the rulings of their colleagues.[77]


Severus appears to offer evidence that this judgment was in fact used against the supporters of Priscillian.[78]

VI. If one of the clerics leaves his office of his own will on account of presumed luxury and vanity and wants to seem to be some sort of observer of the law in a monastic lifestyle, rather than a cleric, he must thus be driven away from the church; unless he makes amends by beseeching and begging many times, he is not to be received. By all the bishops it was said: Let it be so .[79]

It is not clear whether the offenders targeted in this judgment are actually rejecting their clerical status (officium ) or are merely redefining their understandings of the lifestyle and duty (also officium ) appropriate to that status. Regardless of the actual position of the monastic clergy here condemned, the Saragossan bishops clearly wish to set up a strong opposition between the rightful clergy and those living "in a monastic lifestyle" (in monacho ). The monks follow "their own will" (suo sponte ) and abandon their duty to their congregations; they pronounce judgment against the established church for its vanity of luxurious living; and they want to appear superior to the other clergy in their observance of the law. The bishops are outraged by the monks' arrogance, their audacious choice to cultivate their personal virtue and authority rather than to serve the bishop and his public congregation dutifully. Such a "presumption" is itself "vanity."[80]

The punishment threatened evokes powerful visual imagery: the monks are not to be "anathematized" or "excommunicated" but rather "driven out of the church" (de ecclesia repellendum ). Conditions for reacceptance are specified, uniquely among the judgments of the Council of Saragossa. The offenders may be received back by the bishop if they have "beseeched and begged" him repeatedly (rogando atque obsecrando ), thereby concretely symbolizing their acceptance of their subordination to the bishop and the needs of the congregation. While less severe than perpetual anathema, the penalty is nevertheless harsh, implying a lengthy penance and leaving the determination of the limits of that penance to the judgment of the excommunicating bishop.

VII. One is not to take for oneself the name of teacher, except those persons to whom it has been granted, according to what has been written. By all the bishops it was said: It is agreed .[81]

The seventh and eighth judgments continue to address situations of tension arising from competition between various forms of leadership recognized in the Spanish churches. The seventh sets out specifically to restrict the authority of independent teachers. The mention of teachers


recalls the first judgment, with its reference both to the "strange men" (virorum alienorum ) who meet and read with others and to the literate women who gather with others to teach and learn.[82] Here, however, innuendoes of sexual impropriety are absent, and the opposition is more tentatively expressed. As in the previous judgment against monastic clergy, the bishops hint at an inappropriate presumption or assertion of self, which constitutes a form of insubordination. However, the vagueness of the language and the unwillingness of the bishops to threaten any punishment of potential offenders indicate that the Saragossan council was not confident of its ability to challenge the authority of independent teachers directly.[83]

Who might legitimately grant the authority implied in the title of teacher? The judgment implies that it is the bishop's right, but this is not explicitly claimed. The invocation of scripture is likewise vague and unpersuasive. If the reference is to Matt. 23.8, which restricts the title of teacher to Jesus, it seems to contradict the council's assertion that some Christians have been legitimately granted the title; other possibilities include James 3.1 ("Let not many become teachers . . .") or 1 Tim. 1.6-7 ("Certain persons . . . have wandered away into vain discussion, desiring to be teachers of the law"). The bishops know that the authority to teach is popularly recognized in certain individuals possessing particular education or insight or eloquence. "The work of the teacher," notes Priscillian himself, "is reading and preaching the gospel."[84] The bishops attempt not to oppose this authority altogether but rather to subordinate it more firmly to the bishop and the episcopally led congregation.[85]

VIII. Virgins who have dedicated themselves to God should not be veiled unless of proven age of forty years, which the priest shall confirm. By all the bishops it was said: It is agreed .[86]

The council's new note of tentativeness persists in its eighth and final judgment, which also omits any threat of punishment. This judgment seeks to establish a distinction between two different categories of dedicated virgins: the veiled and the unveiled. This may be a novel distinction, since there are no earlier instances of differentiation between virgins who have merely taken a private vow and "consecrated" or "veiled" virgins.[87] The judgment restricts the category of the veiled to those who are at least forty years old and further specifies that this age limit is to be enforced by the bishop. The council's intention seems to reduce the visibility and status of young ascetic women in particular, and to exert some degree of episcopal control over ascetic women in general, by placing severe limits on the number publicly honored by the veil. The use of a minimum age requirement to limit women's access to special status in the church was not un-


precedented; however, the establishment of a lower age limit as high as forty for veiled or consecrated virgins was uncommon at this time.[88] The assertion of episcopal control only in the area of confirmation of the age requirement is nevertheless remarkably restrained: it suggests that the bishops gathered at Saragossa could not lay claim to a right of consecration or ritual veiling of virgins.[89] The language of the judgment thus implies the existence, not of an institutionalized "order of virgins" whose membership requirements were being reasserted or redefined, but rather of informal and autonomous groups of ascetic women over whom the bishops were attempting to exert some minimal control. It is likely that the bishops could not realistically expect—and perhaps did not want—anything more than an acknowledgement of their symbolic authority over the virgins.

The origins of the ascetic practice of veiling are obscure, and the significance attributed to the custom varied even in late antiquity according to shifts in cultural context and perspective. In North Africa during the late second and early third centuries, for example, it was anomalous for a mature woman to appear in public with her head uncovered; the dedicated virgins seemingly embraced this anomaly, refusing to cover their heads in church in order to signify their unique position within the Christian community and to express their freedom from male authority.[90] On the other hand, in many western Christian communities of the fourth century, male writers compared the virgins' veil, not with a head covering signifying matronal status, but rather with the veil worn in Roman and Christian marriage ceremonies.[91] In this context, it was the wearing rather than the rejecting of the veil that expressed the Christian virgins' special condition:[92] permanent brides, poised for the duration of their lifetimes in a liminal state between childhood and marriage, they were adult women, yet under the authority of no husband, linked instead to Christ in a special, and theoretically inviolable, relationship. By refusing some dedicated virgins the right to wear the veil, the bishops at Saragossa would seem to be denying them a powerful symbol of status, independence, and spiritual authority.[93]

In general, fourth-century Christian men seem to have been well-night obsessed with cases (whether actual or merely anticipated) of virgins who broke their vow of sexual continence, and most modern scholars have been happy to assume that it was the high incidence of sexual transgression on the part of female virgins that led to the imposition of minimum age limits like the one established by this council.[94] By forty, the age of menopause,[95] a woman's passions and desirability were thought to have come to an end, along with her ability to disgrace herself publicly with


pregnancy;[96] she was therefore less likely to dishonor her vow. Peter Brown points out, however, that it was not only the weak morals of the young girl but also her family's desire to use her to as "a pawn in the game of family alliances" that might threaten her vow; he suggests that in countries such as Spain, where the minimum age limit for virgins was high, virgins may typically have been from families of high social status, for whom their role in the transmission of wealth and lineage was crucial.[97] In a period characterized by a certain cautiousness in approaching sacramental acts—consider the common postponement of baptism—and in a culture that tended to view a woman as property that must be handed over by her "father" (in this case, the bishop) to her "betrothed" (Christ) perfectly intact,[98] extreme care to avoid the tarnishing of the virgin's consecrated vow is perhaps not surprising.

But a high incidence of sexual transgression on the part of virgins—whether owing to their own weakness of purpose or to the dynastic machinations of their families—is neither a necessary nor a sufficient "explanation" of the doubtless overdetermined efforts of the bishops at Saragossa to reduce the status and visibility of young virgins. In the context of late-ancient culture, an unmarried woman of marriageable age was always a potentially disturbing figure, whose anomalous status was measured on a number of different psycho-social registers. The implicit social challenge of the young virgin's rejection of a husband's authority resonated with the perceived threat of her unfettered sexual potency: witness, for example, the Spanish poet Prudentius' awe in the face of the twelve-year-old virgins of his own literary construction whose eroticized ferocity is tamed only by a death figured as marriage to Christ.[99] By postponing the honoring and recognition of virgins, the bishops may have sought to reduce the appeal of the virgin life. As for those women who nevertheless persisted in the pursuit of asceticism, they were encouraged to live out their vows in quiet privacy until they had reached a stage of life at which singleness was no longer interpreted as an assertion of will and sexual energies were understood to have subsided of their own accord. Only then could a public expression of the "virgins'" anomalous status be tolerated.

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Chapter One "A Strange Man" Opposition Emerges at the Council of Saragossa
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