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

Chapter Five "Gnostic" Priscillian Reinterpreted by Sulpicius Severus and Jerome

Sulpicius Severus

In 394 or 395, Sulpicius Severus withdrew from public life at the height of a successful rhetorical career.[88] Influenced by the ascetic zeal of Paulinus of Nola, Martin of Tours, and his own mother-in-law, Bassula,[89] Severus divested himself of most of his landed property[90] and determined to dedicate himself wholly to Christ. Within a few years, he had established an ascetic household on a country estate at Primuliacum in southern Aquitaine.[91] Severus may have been living there by the time of his publication of the Life of Martin in 396; it was certainly at Primuliacum that he wrote his account of Priscillian in the Chronicle , published between 403 and 406, as well as the contemporaneous Dialogues .[92]

The evidence for life at Primuliacum is meager, deriving primarily from Paulinus' letters to Severus and secondarily from the fictionalized depiction of Primuliacum in Severus' Dialogues . It is difficult to know to what extent the social organization of the community differed from that of a typical country estate—or, in other words, how far Primuliacum had moved along the path toward the more formalized social organization of "cenobitic monasticism." Primuliacum was, in ideal, a community composed entirely of Christian ascetics in which a new spirit of equality reigned. Severus gave up his legal ownership of the property and rejected the social privilege of a luxurious life;[93] Paulinus goes so far as to claim that Severus lived as a fellow slave to his slaves and as a slave to his poorer "brothers."[94] But Paulinus' description of Severus' servant Victor's attention to Paulinus' physical needs contradicts his own rhetoric.[95] In fact, Primuliacum appears to have retained much of the social structure of an aristocratic country estate, and Severus presided over the community with


the natural grace of assumed class superiority. His household consisted largely of slaves and other social inferiors, including young boys sent for an education in Christian discipline.[96] In addition, Primuliacum housed frequent visitors, notables of the local ascetic community and travellers from further afield;[97] several of these possessed some clerical rank, and one later source reports that Severus himself was an ordained presbyter.[98]

It is not known whether the community at Primuliacum included women. Neither Severus nor Paulinus explicitly mentions female residents, but if Severus' mother-in-law, Bassula, did not actually live at Primuliacum, she must have resided nearby, and other women may also have belonged to the community.[99] Bassula provided her son-in-law with stenographers,[100] and she was intensely interested in Severus' literary activity,[101] as well as in his building projects at Primuliacum.[102] Paulinus was ready to detect analogies between Severus' partnership with Bassula and his own relationship with his wife and "fellow servant" Therasia, who lived with Paulinus in the ascetic community founded by the couple at Nola.[103]

Even less is known of the daily routine at Primuliacum than of its social structure, but it is fairly certain that no formalized rule was employed. Severus constructed a new basilica and baptistry,[104] but the sources do not indicate whether daily offices were observed communally. If Severus followed Paulinus' recommendation, he and his fellow "monks" were tonsured, dressed in uniform simplicity, and lived on a diet of gruel and beans; however, Paulinus seems to have had reason to fear that this was not always the case.[105]

If the precise regime of Severus' asceticism is unclear, somewhat more is known about the response it elicited from contemporaries. Both Martin and Paulinus had provoked controversy by their zealous championing of asceticism,[106] and Severus likewise encountered serious opposition to his own choice to pursue an ascetic life. The Life of Martin was written in order to glorify and defend Martin and his disciples, including Paulinus and Severus himself. Severus had several audiences in mind: addressing the international ascetic community, he set out to prove that Gaul had produced monks as impressive as any in Egypt or the Orient; addressing the traditional Gallic aristocracy, he sought to demonstrate that Christianity could produce sophisticated literature in the tradition of the pagan classics; addressing a largely anti-ascetic Gallic clergy, he argued that it was the ascetic who was the true Christian and bishop. Not surprisingly, Severus' work seems to have intensified the controversy surrounding Martin, who died shortly after its publication. Severus found it necessary to defend the Life of Martin in his Letter to Eusebius and in the Dialogues , in


which he answers the criticism of skeptics who claim that his biography includes lies about Martin's miraculous powers.[107] Although its apologetic function is less obvious, Severus' Chronicle likewise defends Martin by placing him within the broad context of salvation history. Presenting the ascetic bishop as one of the apostolic and prophetic figures expected to appear—and to be rejected—at the end of time, Severus transforms the opposition to Martin into but another sign of the holy ascetic's power.[108]

Behind these literary defenses of Martin, we catch glimpses of the dispute, or series of disputes, that took place between Severus and the opponents of asceticism in southern Gaul. As early as 396, in concluding the Life of Martin , Severus remarks that many of those who criticize Martin, including some bishops, "are barking around me"; he protests that it is an honor to be slandered alongside Martin.[109] Similarly, some seven years later he closes his Chronicle with the observation that "the people of God and every excellent person are held up for abuse and laughter," clearly including both Martin and himself in the number of the virtuous persecuted.[110] These vague allusions give way in the Dialogues to more specific references to conflict with local bishops and clergy, on whom Severus' resentment now focuses; he complains that, of all the world, only the bishops and clergy of his own region have failed to recognize Martin's virtue and authority.[111]

In the opening passages of the first Dialogue , Severus asks the traveller Postumianus pointedly whether Christians in the east "are permitted to live even in the desert"; the clear implication is that local Christians do not enjoy the freedom to pursue their chosen way of life. Postumianus responds by asking whether the local bishops are still the same as they were before he left—i.e., actively opposed to asceticism. Not only are those bishops just as hostile as they were before, answers Severus, but one of his former friends has also grown cooler and less constant in his support.[112] Rumblings of a recent worsening of relations between Severus and local ecclesiastical authorities continue throughout the Dialogues . Severus Gallic companion refers to an associate of Severus whose anger has influenced a number of people to turn against Severus. In the same passage, Gallus makes mention of an "ungrateful" freedman who has deserted Severus, seemingly led astray by another (the angry associate?); Severus admits that it is only with great difficulty that he has restrained his own anger against the two.[113] In the third Dialogue , Postumianus mentions a notable figure in their neighborhood who, although often wise and judicious, is also quick to take offense and attack both clergy and laity—including, the context suggests, Severus' circle. Finally, the third Dialogue closes with an elaborate but enigmatic reference to a recently deceased Pomponius, who


appears to have defected from Severus' circle of supporters; he is perhaps to be identified with the freedman mentioned earlier. Severus notes that Pomponius should have listened to Severus or Postumianus and followed the example of Martin rather than "that one whom I do not wish to name"—perhaps the person who led the freedman astray. Some have blamed Severus for Pomponius' unfortunate death at sea, but they should instead examine their own role in the affair, suggests Severus.[114]

Although his references to opposition and dispute are frequent and unmistakable, Severus appears reluctant to discuss the details of the controversies in which he found himself involved. Fortunately, an external source, Jerome's polemical work Against Vigilantius , allows reconstruction of some of the issues at stake. The Vigilantius attacked in Jerome's work was a presbyter who carried a letter from Paulinus to Jerome in 395, subsequently returned to the west and accused Jerome of Origenism, and came to Jerome's attention again circa 404 by reason of his opposition to certain ascetic practices in southern Gaul.[115] Vigilantius also appears as the name of a member of Severus' community who carried letters between Severus and Paulinus in 396.[116] If the two Vigilantii are the same—which is quite possible, given the common link with Paulinus and the relative rareness of the name—then it would seem that around 403 a former member of Severus' community began to attack the way of life pursued at Primuliacum.[117] But even if the two Vigilantii are not the same, it is probable that the disputes we glimpse in Severus' Dialogues and Jerome's Against Vigilantius belong to the same context, since both reflect debates over asceticism taking place in the first few years of the fifth century in the Christian communities of southern Gaul.[118]

The practices opposed by Vigilantius, whom Jerome describes contemptuously as a humble innkeeper (caupo ),[119] can be matched on many points with those advocated and defended by the aristocratic Severus. Severus sought relics for his new basilica at Primuliacum.[120] Vigilantius attacked the veneration of relics and the associated practices of candlelighting and vigils, urging that the souls of martyrs are not dispersed in bits of bone or ash but gathered under the heavenly altar of God.[121] Severus had devoted much of his Life of Martin to the recording of the saint's miracles. Vigilantius questioned the function of miracles within the believing community.[122] Severus, like his friend Paulinus, emphasized the importance of ridding himself of his property in his conversion to the ascetic life.[123] Vigilantius criticized the irresponsible wasting of resources whose income could be managed to support the poor.[124] Severus withdrew to a country estate. Vigilantius called for faithful church attendance and active involvement in the urban communities.[125] In short, Vigilantius opposed the centrifugal dispersal of authority in the shrines of dead martyrs


and the persons of aristocrats and ascetics like Severus; in its place, he advocated centripetal focusing of authority, which might be represented by the cathedral, its public liturgy, and its official leaders. If Jerome is right in claiming that he had the support of more than one bishop, Vigilantius' campaign was not without success in southern Gaul.[126] The pro-ascetic presbyters Riparius and Desiderius—the latter perhaps the original recipient of Severus' Life of Martin[127] —seem to have felt sufficiently threatened to seek the support of Jerome in faraway Palestine.[128]

Competition between public and private understandings of community and authority is implicit in the attacks of Vigilantius and his anti-ascetic supporters; it is likewise implicit in Severus' defense. In that defense, Severus tacitly accepts the "public" terms of the debate. Invoking the rhetoric of public male and private female spheres, he uses gender to express symbolically the social legitimacy of his own privately centered life. This legitimating function of the gender hierarchy is evident above all in the Dialogues , where Severus delivers a set of surprising pronouncements on the necessity for a strict separation and subordination of women. Such a stance is hardly popular, he admits, and he warns his Gallic friend of the dangers of an open endorsement of Jerome's denunciation of intimacies between male and female ascetics.[129] Later, Severus recounts his own sobering experience:

I chastised a certain wandering and rather elegant widow who lived somewhat wantonly, and likewise a virgin who was clinging somewhat indecently to a certain young man who was dear to me—although I had indeed often heard her rebuking others who did such things. As a result, I aroused such great hatred from all women and the entirety of the monks that both bands undertook sworn wars against me.[130]

Severus declares that he had intended to remain silent from that point on, but his intention is blatantly contradicted by its recounting in a work intended for publication. He furthermore goes to considerable trouble to buttress his position on the separation of men and women with the authority of his hero Martin, framing the above account with three supporting Martinian anecdotes.

The first such anecdote occurs immediately preceding Severus' account of his criticism of the widow and virgin. Severus' friend Gallus relates how an empress, wife of the usurper Maximus, had lavished attention on Martin: following Gospel precedent, she had washed his feet with her tears and wiped them with her hair; like a servant, she had prepared and served him his meals. No woman had ever before touched Martin, claims Gallus, yet he praises the empress for her faith. Upon hearing this tale, Postumianus questions its dangerous implications: might it not seem


to legitimate free social intercourse between male ascetics and women? Gallus answers that the circumstances mitigate any suspicions of impropriety: first, Martin was quite old; second, the empress was not a "free widow" or "wanton virgin" but was "living under a husband" and acting under his instructions; third, the empress did not enter into a relationship of equals with Martin, but restricted herself to serving him; and fourth, the event was not repeated. Gallus emphasizes the second and third points with a concise statement of the hierarchy of the genders: "Let a married woman serve, not command you; serve, not recline with you." His presuppositions are clear: a "safe" woman is one who is subordinated to a man through marriage, obedience, and symbolic posture; her subordination implies chastity, whereas a claim to equality implies lack of chastity. Postumianus applauds Gallus' defense of Martin's behavior, but doubts whether he and the other ascetics of his region would ever be sufficiently free of suspicion to be able to observe such fine distinctions in their relations with women.[131] Severus' scripting of the dialogue between Gallus and Postumianus thus defends Martin and the possibility of pure interactions between ascetic men and virtuous women, while at the same time endorsing the general need for a strict separation and subordination of women even in ascetic life.

Severus' account of his own controversial criticism of ascetic women is followed by two paired, complementary tales, which underline the position supported by Severus and only seemingly compromised by the initial story of Martin and the empress. According to the first tale, a hermit and former soldier approached Martin with his desire to live together in spiritual marriage with his former wife, who was now also leading an ascetic life. Martin convinced the monk of the falseness of his desire, demanding to know whether he had ever seen a woman fighting alongside men in the line of battle. Although addressing an ascetic couple, Martin slipped from a military analogy into language appropriate to a traditionally defined marriage relationship:

Let a woman not enter the camp of men; let the battle line of soldiers remain separate; let the female, dwelling in her own tent, be far away. For it makes an army ridiculous, if a female crowd is mixed with the regiments of men. Let the soldier be in the battle line; let the soldier fight in the plain; let the woman keep herself within the protection of the walls. She also has her own glory, if she preserves her chastity when her husband is absent; this is her first virtue and perfect victory: not to be seen.[132]

Gallus pairs this intended demonstration of Martin's wisdom with the story of a virgin who, in effect, taught Martin the same lesson that he him-


self had taught the soldierly monk. As in the case of his interactions with the empress, Martin "set aside the rigor of his way of life" and sought to honor a famed virgin with a visit to her place of withdrawal. Maintaining a chaste privacy appropriate to her gender as well as her ascetic calling, the virgin refused to see him. Martin departed in joy, moved by the unusual example of a woman who sheltered herself even from his eyes. Many women would have thrown themselves at any monk or priest in their path, notes Gallus, taking the opportunity to chastise more gregarious virgins. And many monks or priests would have labeled the virgin a heretic in outrage at her seemingly insulting and insubordinate behavior, he adds still more darkly. But both Martin and the virgin, implies Gallus, correctly valued and interpreted female privacy as signifying, not disrespect and autonomy, but respect for the public social order in which women are separate from and subordinate to men.[133]

Severus' criticism of the wandering widow and virgin, joined with the framing Martinian anecdotes, does not merely represent an attack on less rigorous ascetics. I have suggested that it also constitutes a defense of Severus' own ascetic practice in the face of the opposition of men like Vigilantius and his episcopal supporters.[134] By advocating a strict separation and subordination of women, Severus struggles to distinguish himself from the "heretical" ascetics with whom his opponents might identify him. He combats the hostile public image of the ascetic community as anarchic, as symbolized by the disorderly relations of men and women, with the alternative image of the ascetic community as carefully ordered according to the classical model of the separation and subordination of the private female sphere to the public male sphere.[135] While implicitly acknowledging that some might falsely perceive an element of impropriety or disorder in Martin's own relations with women, Severus uses the example of his hero to endorse the subordination of women to their husbands in particular and to men in general. He casts himself in the role of one who chastises ascetic women for their disorderly publicity and mingling with men, and then he returns again to the example of Martin in order to emphasize the ideal of ascetic women's strict separation from men and their restriction to the private sphere. In this effort to defend his own ascetic ecclesiology, the classically educated Severus invokes the rhetoric of public male and private female spheres even in the face of apparent contradictions with his own social experience: his close relations with Bassula, Paulinus' and Therasia's spiritual partnership, and the acknowledged and approved visits of ascetic women to the holy Martin.[136]

Severus' use of gender relations to express and defend his understanding of Christian community and authority is not only operative in


his Dialogues but also surfaces as a minor theme in his account of the Priscillianist controversy in the final passages of the Chronicle . In the first book of the Chronicle , Severus has set up a conflict between the prophets and kings of Israel that prefigures the conflict in the second book between the prophetic figures of Hilary and Martin and the corrupt bishops of Severus' own time.[137] However, in his concluding account of the Priscillianist controversy, Severus contrasts the prophetic Martin, not only with the worldly bishops who oppose him, but also with "heretical" ascetics like Priscillian, with whom Martin is falsely identified. As we have seen, Severus' Priscillian violates the boundaries that separate and subordinate private to public, female to male, ascetic to bishop. He not only leads simple and ignorant Christians astray by means of his deceptive eloquence but also further disrupts the social order by "seducing" other men's wives and daughters and mingling promiscuously with strange women. He challenges bishops and then lays claim to a false episcopal authority of his own.

By shifting from a simple contrast between Martin and the worldly bishops to a more complex positioning of Martin between the "heretics," on the one hand, and the worldly bishops, on the other, Severus is able to suggest that Martin transcends but does not eradicate the distinction between public and private spheres and alienated and accommodating stances toward the world. Martin is unmarried but careful to observe the hierarchy of genders, wise in knowledge of the scriptures yet not puffed up by worldly education, neither subversive of the social order nor corrupted by power. Severus' hero, unlike Priscillian, succeeds in uniting the private authority of the ascetic holy person with the public authority of the episcopal office. And Severus attempts to defend his own role in the Christian community by denouncing and thereby separating himself from the "heretic" Priscillian and associating himself instead with Martin. The gnostic seducer serves effectively as a receptacle for the accusations from which Severus must distance himself, and at the same time provides a fitting counterpart to his attempt to create an acceptable social ideology for the ascetic community and for authority within that community.

Chapter Five "Gnostic" Priscillian Reinterpreted by Sulpicius Severus and Jerome

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