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

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

On October 4th in the year 380, twelve bishops gathered at Saragossa to discuss certain disturbing innovations in Christian lifestyle and worship. Their gathering provides the earliest evidence of the influence of the Spanish lay teacher Priscillian. The historical record of the Saragossan council is, however, perplexing. While the writings of Priscillian and the early-fifth-century historian Sulpicius Severus clearly indicate that the council was hostile to Priscillian, the Acts of the Council of Saragossa does not mention Priscillian by name. Priscillian denies that the bishops who gathered at Saragossa went so far as to condemn him or his associates by name; Severus, however, contradicts Priscillian on this point, reporting that the Council of Saragossa explicitly denounced four individuals—Priscillian, Elpidius, and the bishops Instantius and Salvianus. Were Priscillian and his associates condemned by name at the Council of Saragossa in a proceeding whose records no longer survive, even though this is explicitly denied by Priscillian? Probably not, but the contradictory testimony remains. Do some or all of the eight preserved judgments of that council directly oppose the practices of the unnamed Priscillian? Probably so, but the sources do not allow us to prove this, and any conclusions regarding Priscillian's circle are therefore necessarily tentative.

If there is much about the Council of Saragossa that must remain obscure, the Acts of the Council of Saragossa nevertheless supplies reliable and


important evidence of the values and concerns of bishops hostile to Priscillian. By allowing us to define the nature of the opposition, if not always to see clearly who and what was opposed, the document provides a valuable key to interpreting the roots of the dispute, which do not seem to lie primarily in a disagreement over doctrine or even about asceticism per se. Hinting that their opponents are seditious and disorderly rebels, the Saragossan bishops locate their offense in failure to acknowledge the centrality of the public liturgy, the supreme authority of ecclesiastical office, and the necessity for the separation and subordination of women. The Saragossan council thereby attacks private-sphere representations of authority and gender, while at the same time attempting to construct and defend an alternative and equally innovative public model of Christian community. Patterned on the minutes published by both municipal councils and the Roman Senate itself, the Acts of the Council of Saragossa reinforces the close link between the judgments issued by the council and the emerging public definition of Christian community and episcopal authority.

This chapter begins with a preliminary examination of Priscillian's and Severus' descriptions of the episcopal gathering at Saragossa in order to place the council firmly within the context of the Priscillianist controversy. Attention then shifts to the chapter's primary focus, the Acts of the Council of Saragossa , which enable us both to explore the social roots of the early opposition to Priscillian and his circle and to examine the form that opposition took at a very early stage of the controversy. Negative stereotypes begin to emerge, but are not yet crystallized into labels, and vague threats hurled at unnamed targets seem designed to intimidate dissenters into conformity rather than to exclude them from the community. Priscillian does not yet appear as a heretic. He is not even explicitly portrayed as a rival. He remains at this point the unnamed representative of a perspective on Christian community and authority that is troublingly at odds with the emerging sense of identity of the bishops gathered at Saragossa.

Contextualizing the Council of Saragossa: The Evidence of Priscillian and Sulpicius Severus

The accounts of Priscillian and Sulpicius Severus provide an outline of the events that led to the convening of the Council of Saragossa. According to Priscillian's Letter to Damasus (c. 381), he and his companions had lived quiet lives dedicated to God for several years before the council:

After we had been renewed by the regeneration of the living bath and had cast off the filthy darkness of worldly acts, we had given ourselves


wholly to God; for we read that whoever loves anyone more than God cannot be his disciple. At that time, while some of us had already been chosen for God in the churches and others of us labored with our lives so that we would be chosen, we pursued the quiet of catholic peace.[1]

Priscillian's implicit characterization of himself as a layperson with episcopal ambitions serves an apologetic function in the later context of the Letter to Damasus . Nevertheless, he is probably accurate in claiming that his early zeal for the ascetic life was shared by a group of Spanish Christians, which included some who were "already chosen for God" (electi Deo ) in the clerical leadership of their communities.[2]

Severus' Chronicle (c. 403) supports Priscillian's picture of a network of Spanish ascetics that included both laypeople and clergy, and he supplies the names—Instantius and Salvianus—but not the sees of two of the bishops associated with Priscillian during the period before the council. Severus further reports that the first opposition to the ascetics came from Hyginus, bishop of Cordoba in the southern Spanish province of Baetica.[3] Hyginus is described as being "from the neighborhood" of Priscillian and his episcopal associates (ex vicino ),[4] and we furthermore know from Jerome that Tiberianus, one of Priscillian's early lay supporters, was a Baetican[5] —two possible indications that Priscillian and his friends were initially active in Baetica. However, subsequent events suggest that the three were more likely from the nearby western province of Lusitania, and Severus' narrative quickly shifts the scene to that province.

Severus relates that Hyginus sent a report to Bishop Hydatius, whose Lusitanian see of Merida was well connected with Cordoba by road.[6] This communication—the content of which remains unspecified—produced a vehement reaction on Hydatius' part.[7] "Provoking Instantius and his companions without measure and more than was necessary, he put a torch to the nascent fire, so that he irritated the evil ones rather than suppressing them."[8] Many struggles followed, as Severus summarizes all too briefly, before an episcopal meeting was convened at Saragossa at which "even Aquitanian bishops were present."[9] The reasons for convening the council in the northeastern province of Tarraconensis are unknown. Saragossa was well connected by road with most parts of Spain but was at some distance from the areas where the conflict raged most fiercely, and this may have been seen as advantageous for a successful resolution of the conflict.[10] The desire to include bishops from Aquitaine may also have been a factor: there are indications of close links between Aquitaine and northern Spain in this period.[11]

Attendance at the council was relatively low, with only twelve bishops present, no more than ten of them from Spain, in comparison with the nineteen Spanish bishops and twenty-four Spanish presbyters who had


gathered at the Council of Elvira (309) some seventy years earlier, or the nineteen Spanish bishops at the Council of Toledo twenty years later. The esteemed Aquitanian bishop Phoebadius of Agen heads the list of attendees in the council's Acts ,[12] probably owing to his seniority in years of consecration;[13] Phoebadius may also have presided over the council, since such documents typically name the presider first. The name of another Aquitanian, Delphinus, bishop of the prominent see of Bordeaux, is listed second; he was later to number among Priscillian's staunch opponents, perhaps in part because of his consternation at the success of Priscillian's ascetic teachings in his own congregation.[14] Little or nothing is known of the next four bishops listed: Euticius, Ampelius, Augentius (probably of Toledo), and Lucius. Ithacius, bishop of Ossonuba in Lusitania, emerges after the council as a violent opponent of Priscillian and a close ally of Hydatius. Splendonius and Valerius (probably of Saragossa) are otherwise unknown.[15] Symposius later joined Hyginus in supporting Priscillian and his friends[16] and is probably identical with the Galician bishop Symphosius whom the Acts of the Council of Toledo (400) describe as having left the Council of Saragossa after the first day.[17] Carterius is perhaps the Spanish bishop criticized for his second marriage, and, if so, he is not likely to have been a friend of censorious ascetics.[18] Hydatius of Merida, who may have summoned, if not presided over, the council, is the lastnamed attendee.[19]

Priscillian's friends Instantius and Salvianus did not attend the council; nor did Hyginus of Cordoba, who by this point had ceased to oppose Priscillian, receiving him in communion both before and after the council.[20] Severus implies that the council was perceived to be hostile to Priscillian from the start,[21] and it is likely that Priscillian's closest supporters stayed away from a meeting that they viewed as prejudiced by the accusations of Hydatius. However, we have seen that Symposius, known to have supported Priscillian immediately after the council, did attend for at least one day. Other bishops present may have had more conciliatory goals and more moderate positions than either Hydatius or Priscillian's active supporters.

Whatever the initial intentions and inclinations of the attending bishops may have been, Hydatius exerted considerable effort to turn the council against Priscillian. Priscillian reports that the bishop of Merida came to the council prepared with a memorandum, which evidently presented a program of Christian lifestyle and worship aimed at correcting the supposed abuses of Priscillian and his circle. Priscillian's language is vague and dismissive, whether owing to ignorance as to the precise contents of the document or to awareness of his own vulnerability to its criticisms. "I


know not what memorandum was given there by Hydatius," he writes to Damasus, "which laid out instruction as if for the life that should be led" (quod velut agendae vitae poneret disciplinam ).[22]

Priscillian then goes on to defend the ascetic discipline that he himself advocates. He first describes it in seemingly unobjectionable terms as the elimination of "the wicked habits and unseemly standards of life that actually fight against the faith of the God Christ." He next urges that neither those who reject all family ties, education, possessions, and worldly honors nor those who strive to live a life dedicated to God without fully renouncing their ties to the world should be opposed in their pursuit of a true Christian life.[23] Priscillian's defense suggests that Hydatius' memorandum sought to establish a definition of ascetic practice that excluded his own way of life. Hydatius may also have accused Priscillian of denying the possibility of salvation for more worldly Christians. If so, such an accusation was probably unfair. Priscillian endorses the possibility of salvation for ascetic and non-ascetic Christians alike, as well as the need for mutual toleration, not only when under attack by Hydatius, but also in less defensive contexts;[24] moreover, his sermons clearly address not an ascetic elite but a diverse congregation.[25] It is possible that Hydatius' memorandum on Christian life served somehow as a basis for the council's judgments,[26] which are directed toward the same goal of reorienting and controlling ascetic practice.

Hydatius probably arrived armed with another document, or set of documents, aimed at damaging the reputation of Priscillian. According to Priscillian, Hydatius attacked Priscillian and his followers at the council for reading apocryphal scriptures, and he urged the bishops gathered at Saragossa to "let what ought to be condemned be condemned, what is unnecessary not be read."[27] Later, in a work explicitly defending the reading of extracanonical interature, Priscillian mockingly rephrases Hydatius' inflammatory cry: "Condemn what I do not know, condemn what I do not read, condemn what I do not seek by pursuit of sluggish leisure!"[28] At some point around the time of the council, Hydatius collected a few of the apocryphal scriptures purportedly read by Priscillian and his companions, and it was perhaps at the council itself that he "brought them forth from his own cupboard and introduced them with calumnious tales," as Priscillian relates.[29] Since the published judgments of the council contain no prohibition of the use of apocrypha, Hydatius must have been unable to convince his fellow bishops to endorse such a ruling. Priscillian's defensiveness indicates, however, that Hydatius was not altogether unsuccessful in his attempt to use the issue of apocryphal literature to prejudice others against Priscillian and his circle.


In spite of Hydatius' efforts to turn the council against Priscillian, the bishops at Saragossa do not appear to have been prepared to attack Priscillian or his associates directly. On this point, we have not only the silence of the council's Acts but also Priscillian's explicit and repeated denials: "At the episcopal assembly in Saragossa, no one of us was held as a defendant; no one was accused, no one convicted, no one condemned; no crime was charged against our name or vow or manner of life; no one had to be summoned, or was even anxious that he or she would be summoned."[30] Priscillian refers to a letter written by Damasus of Rome urging that no one be condemned without a hearing. At the council, this letter "prevailed against the wicked," Priscillian assures Damasus,[31] indicating that some had indeed desired his condemnation and had perhaps very nearly achieved that goal.

Later accounts seem to contradict Priscillian's persistent denials of conciliar condemnation: the Acts of the Council of Toledo (400) refers to a judgment being made at Saragossa against certain persons,[32] and Severus reports quite specifically that Instantius, Salvianus, Elpidius, and Priscillian were condemned by vote of the council.[33] It is highly unlikely that Priscillian would lie about his own condemnation in a letter to the Roman bishop if such a condemnation had actually been issued. But there was probably real ambiguity in the situation, and this ambiguity could have been exploited in different ways by authors in different circumstances. It may have been widely known in the Spanish congregations that the council had been convened in a spirit of hostility to Priscillian and his supporters. Their practices had been the topic of discussion and had been judged negatively by some of the bishops present. Moreover, Priscillian and his associates were almost certainly the explicit target of at least some of the council's rulings; this may, in fact, be the only meaning of the reference in the Acts of the Council of Toledo . It has also been suggested that Priscillian and the three other prominent leaders of the group named by Severus—Elpidius, Instantius, and Salvianus—may subsequently have been excommunicated on the basis of those rulings.[34] If so, Priscillian conveniently suppressed this information in his letter to Damasus, while Severus, writing many years later, simply merged two originally separate rulings: the general judgments issued by the council and the personal excommunications that may have been enacted by an enforcing bishop like Hydatius.

The Form of the Conciliar Acta

The Transcript of the Judgments of the Bishops of the Saragossan Council, October 4, 380 , as the original document was entitled, has come down to us as


part of a seventh-century canonical collection known as the Hispana .[35] A prefatory clause sets the scene of the council, identifying the consistory of Saragossa as the place of meeting and listing the names of the twelve episcopal participants. The account of the proceeding begins to unfold with the recording of the bishops' command that their judgments be read aloud. One of their number, Lucius, recites a series of eight judgments. After the reading of each judgment, the gathered bishops pronounce their approval in unison: "It is agreed"; "Let it be so."

Hamilton Hess has identified the Acts of the Council of Saragossa as belonging to a small group of conciliar documents that represent a "rudimentary stage of canonical preservation, being simply a stenographic record of the essential phases of the parliamentary process."[36] While these documents are admittedly not as detailed as other extant verbal transcriptions, their form nonetheless identifies them as procedural minutes, "either in abridgement or as the only minutes which were taken at the sittings in question."[37] According to Hess, the distinguishing characteristics of the form are:

(1) the introductory phrase ". . . Episcopus dixit "; (2) the putting of the question: si omnibus (hoc) placet ; and the vote: placet, placere sibi or other expressions of assent, usually introduced by omni or universi dixerunt ; (3) the informal, discursive phraseology of each proposal.[38]

Behind these verbal patterns, we can glimpse elements of the procedure adopted by the Christian synods in imitation either of the Roman Senate or—more likely—of local town councils:[39] a speaker, usually but not always the presider, briefly set forth the problem (relatio ); each council member offered his judgment (sententia ); a "vote" was taken by reading the proposed judgments aloud until one received majority approval; and, finally, the majority judgment was officially recorded by the presider as the formal judgment of the council. Alternatively, a speaker might incorporate both problem and proposed judgment into a single proposal, which could be ratified immediately by acclamation without other judgments being offered; this streamlined procedure was commonly followed in the late empire.[40]

Hess distinguishes conciliar documents that take the form of procedural minutes from those modeled on the liber sententiarum , or published resolutions of the Senate.[41] He designates the latter the "placuit form," since its judgments are typically introduced by the clause "it was agreed that." The placuit documents abandon the direct discourse of the procedural minutes, and the phraseology of their judgments tends to be somewhat more concise and consistently patterned. Hess's analysis would indicate that the Acts of the Council of Saragossa , like other documents of its


type, reflects the actual discussions of the council to a greater extent than do the majority of contemporary conciliar documents, which are in the placuit form. The casting of the Saragossan Acts in the form of direct discourse and the inclusion of the formulaic language of acclamation actually used in such assemblies suggests that the Acts derives directly from the procedural minutes of the council. In addition, the discursive, informal phraseology of the judgments appears to result from the relatively close adherence of the Acts to the wording of the original discussion.

The Acts of the Council of Saragossa departs, however, from the typical form of procedural minutes in at least one respect. The document is presented as a transcript of only the final moments of the council: the reading and approval of the council's previously recorded judgments. Thus, whereas typical minutes of a council's proceedings introduce each judgment with the name of the bishop who originally proposed the problem or opinion—"Bishop X said "—the Saragossan document substitutes the name of the council's secretary—"Bishop Lucius read ." Curiously, the Acts nevertheless gives the illusion of representing an abridged form of the minutes of the council's entire proceedings. Whereas in the case of the final reading and approval of the council's minutes one would expect introductory and closing formulae to be found only at the end and beginning of the recitation, the Acts repeats both the introductory phrase—"Bishop Lucius read"—and the episcopal acclamation—"It is agreed"—before and after each judgment. It furthermore interweaves the acclamations with the judgments in such a way as to suggest that those acclamations are emerging out of the original discussion.[42] The unusual literary form of the document thus paradoxically combines the dramatic immediacy of procedural minutes with the anonymous unanimity of a recorded secondary approval of those minutes. The official authority that all conciliar acts implicitly claim is thereby heightened, while the roles of individual bishops are masked.

Samuel Laeuchli has suggested that even conciliar judgments like those of the earlier Spanish council of Elvira, published in the more formalized placuit form, preserve traces of the sequence of encounters and conflicts that produced those judgments. The conciliar documents reveal the Christian appropriation of the secular decision-making process, as Hess and others before him have shown; even more important for the analysis of an individual council, they also preserve the original, seemingly spontaneous, order in which topics were raised and discussed. This fact allows the reconstruction of the "flow" of the original meeting: by noting which topics were raised earliest and which recur most frequently, the highest priorities and concerns of the gathered bishops can be identi-


fied; by observing the juxtaposition of topics, the chain of associations that linked one to another can be reconstructed; by analyzing the use of more and less highly charged language, shifts in emotional intensity can be detected. In addition to calling attention to the order of judgments, Laeuchli highlights the significance of inconsistencies, first, in the language of the published judgments and, second, in the punishments threatened. These inconsistencies may reveal relative levels of agreement or conflict, indifference or anger, hesitancy or strength of authority.[43]

Because the judgments of the Council of Saragossa are relatively few in number (eight compared to the eighty-one drafted at Elvira), there is only limited basis for comparison among them. However, this limitation is balanced by the advantage of the Saragossan Acts ' seemingly closer adherence to the original language of the discussion. A careful reading of the Acts allows one, not only to identify and analyze the council's major concerns and strategies of opposition, but also tentatively to reconstruct the dramatic event of the meeting itself, mapping probable shifts in levels of passion, agreement, and confidence in the bishops' discussions.

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.


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.