Preferred Citation: Burrus, Virginia. The Making of a Heretic: Gender, Authority, and the Priscillianist Controversy. Berkeley:  University of California,  c1995 1995.

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


The Acts of the Council of Saragossa allows a partial reconstruction of the conciliar drama of which the document is but "the last verbalized stage."[100] By observing the pattern of the council's discussions, we can both identify the issues of greatest concern to the assembled bishops and uncover some


of the strategies employed to combat their opposition. Such a reconstruction of the council's concerns and strategies can be applied directly to our understanding of the early stages of opposition to Priscillian. The works of Priscillian and Sulpicius Severus indicate that the council was convened in large part to counter the influence of Priscillian and his associates. In addition, at least three of its twelve participants—Hydatius, Ithacius, and Delphinus—left the council strong and active opponents of the Spanish ascetic, while only one—Symposius—is said to have supported him afterwards. We should not assume that all of the council's judgments were necessarily directed against Christians associated with Priscillian, but the Acts of the Council of Saragossa as a whole clearly reflects the attitudes of Christians who were disturbed by Priscillian's influence.

When they came together at Saragossa, the twelve bishops seem to have immediately positioned their discussion within the context of the public-private distinction in order to construct and defend a particular definition of Christian community. Their initial debate over women's participation in mixed-sex study groups cuts to the heart of the issue of communal location. Spanish Christians like Priscillian may have presented their meetings as the private gatherings of men and women joined in a shared—indeed, a familial—scholarly and ascetic pursuit. However, by interjecting the adjective "strange" into their description of the relations between those men and women, the bishops denied the legitimacy of such a reading of their activities. They insisted instead that all Christian gatherings took place in the public eye, a context in which women related to men not as familiars but as strangers. The mixed-sex study groups thereby acquired a taint of scandal, seeming to represent a violation of a fundamental principle of social order in the public sphere—the separation and subordination of women.

In their first judgment, the bishops did not prohibit small-group meetings but were content merely to urge that such meetings be segregated by sex. In their subsequent three judgments, however, the bishops tried actively to prevent practices that created a "centrifugal" pull away from the centralized public structures of the urban congregation and toward the decentered social organization typical of a sphere of social life in which individuals were connected by more complex networks of personal relationships.[101] The powerful social symbolism of food in defining the locus of community is evidenced in the bishops' concern with fasting and the Eucharist. The second judgment opens by prohibiting fasting practices that diverge from those of the episcopally led congregations and thereby challenge the unity of those congregations. The third explicitly confronts offenders who remain aloof from full participation in the congregational


Eucharist, while the second and fourth deal implicitly with the same topic by opposing seasonal absence from episcopally led worship. Symbolism of place as well as of food is highlighted in the second and fourth judgments, where withdrawal to private and rural spaces—houses, estates, mountains—is unfavorably contrasted with constant public presence in the urban churches where the bishops preside.

In the midst of these discussions focusing on the definition of Christian community, a shift in the emotional tenor of the meeting took place. The first two judgments formulated are recorded in complex, highly charged language, suggesting the lively, involved participation of a number of bishops. In both cases, the judgment's language, although inflammatory in some respects, also sounds a conciliatory note and suggests a willingness to compromise so long as the offenders comply with the basic demands for sex-segregation within study groups, on the one hand, and faithful church attendance during Lent, on the other. In both the first and second judgments, the bishops invoke the threat of the harsh punishment of anathema while remaining vague with regard to its conditions or duration. All of this suggests strong convictions on the part of at least some of the bishops, tempered either by disagreement at the council itself or by anticipated resistance in the Spanish communities.

In contrast to the first two judgments, both the third and fourth are relatively straightforward in wording and therefore appear to reflect less protracted discussions. And in both cases, the bishops boldly invoke the severest penalty available to them: perpetual anathema. Passions were still high, and the earlier ambivalence had dissipated. The bishops were now more united and confident in their opposition to liturgical and ascetic practices that challenged the centralized focus of the publicly defined Christian community. The order of the recorded judgments suggests that it was the discussion of abstention from the Eucharist that consolidated episcopal opposition, and that the excitement generated remained high during the discussion leading to the fourth judgment. The possible Manichaean associations of eucharistic abstention may explain this consolidation of the opposition, but it is equally likely that the centrality of the Eucharist for the public self-definition of the Christian community alone accounts for the strong terms of these two judgments.

Whereas the first four judgments are aimed at indefinite targets and focus on the public definition of the Christian community, the next four judgments target specific classes of persons and focus more narrowly on the public definition of authority in the Christian community. With this second set of judgments, the bishops attempted to assert control over groups that included the most powerful supporters of Priscillian and other


ascetics. The fifth and sixth judgments are aimed at members of the ecclesiastical hierarchy: bishops who dissent from conciliar opinion and ascetic clergy who presume to criticize their more worldly colleagues. The punishments invoked, while less severe than those of the previous two judgments, are nevertheless harsh, especially in light of the high status of the targets. The threat of excommunication of offending bishops and clerics suggests a somewhat more cautious and controlled, yet still aggressive, attitude on the part of the assembled bishops.

The language of the seventh and eighth judgments reflects a further drop in the emotional intensity of the discussions: these judgments are moderate in tone and include no threat of punishment. The failure to threaten punishment may indicate that the bishops were either relatively confident or relatively indifferent to the challenge represented by lay teachers and female virgins, individuals with little or no public authority. Other evidence, however, seems to counter this appearance of confidence or indifference. The seventh judgment concerning teachers recalls the strongly worded first judgment, which attempts to control the interactions of men and women who read and teach, while the eighth contains a muted echo of the bishops' initial preoccupation with the symbolic implications of women's activities for communal definition: here again, the bishops seem to express disapproval of women's apparent anomalous public manifestation of authority. In this case, the council focuses on female virgins, whose rejection of marriage offers a further implicit challenge to the principle of women's subordination. Given that the seventh and eighth judgments thus tap into issues of demonstrated concern to the council, it is likely that the bishops' failure to threaten to punish offenders stemmed, not from confidence or indifference, but rather from their awareness of their limited ability to control the authority of lay teachers and ascetic women.

It should by now be apparent that the eight judgments promulgated by the small episcopal gathering at Saragossa were not the confident act of an entrenched majority; rather, they constituted an early step toward creating consensus on the public definition of the Christian community and its leadership. Throughout the conciliar Acts , there is evidence of tension between the bishops' drive to consolidate their public authority and their assessment of the limits of that authority. In spite of the Acts' generic claims to quasi-senatorial authority and the document's careful adaptation of the literary form to emphasize not only confidence but unanimity, the language of the conciliar judgments betrays signs that the bishops found it necessary at points to compromise, to conciliate, and to avoid putting their authority to the test. They doubtless anticipated resistance in some


of the Spanish congregations. The suppression of the names of individual bishops in the conciliar Acts and the later reference to Symposius having left the council early suggest that the bishops also disagreed among themselves on some issues.

Although the Council of Saragossa's attempt to buttress public definitions of community and authority was an ambivalent or tentative first step, it was not without effect. Through the Acts of the council, the bishops successfully represented themselves as legitimate leaders contending in a heroic struggle with disorderly, insubordinate, subversive, or arrogantly ambitious opponents. The bishops' self-assertion was thus intimately intertwined with their dramatized opposition to ascetic Christians like Priscillian. That Priscillian and his most prominent associates were ultimately not only condemned by name but also executed, that his ascetic circle came to be consistently characterized as a movement of heretics, magicians, and loose women, and that association with Priscillian's name was eventually enough to mandate exclusion from the Christian community—these are all indications of the success of the effort begun at Saragossa.


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

Preferred Citation: Burrus, Virginia. The Making of a Heretic: Gender, Authority, and the Priscillianist Controversy. Berkeley:  University of California,  c1995 1995.