Don't Believe Everything They Tell You
Who was Priscillian of Avila?
Very little is known about Priscillian’s life. Most of what we have comes from various Catholic sources, and not surprisingly, they are not sympathetic. Sulpicius Severus (c. 363 – between 420 and 425), wrote about Priscillian, and also wrote the earliest biography of St. Martin of Tours. The latter, while a follower of the traditional Roman church of the time, was severely critical of the judgment meted out to Priscillian and his followers, and petitioned Maximus the Emperor to call off the inquisition sent to Spain after Priscillian’s execution. This, not surprisingly, led to accusations that Martin was secretly a Priscillian sympathiser himself.
Severus himself was an Aquitanian aristocrat intended for an administrative career and educated in the classical manner who, after the early death of his wife, renounced his career and entered a monastery. I have used this idea of bereavement causing a change of life purpose in my story of Priscillian, although we know nothing about his personal life except that he was from a wealthy Roman family, most likely of Senatorial rank.
By far the best contemporary source of information about Priscillian’s thought and writing, and what little historical detail we do have, comes from Priscillian of Avila: The Occult and the Charismatic in the Early Church (OUP 1976) by Prof. Henry Chadwick, Regius Professor of Divinity at both Oxford and Cambridge. Although when I began to research Priscillian in 2001 on the Internet there was very little available, interest in Priscillian seems to have increased tenfold in the last seven years although, I am sorry to say, much purported to be fact is entirely wrong, and still, in many cases has a traditional Catholic bias. Pilgrimage to Heresy does not claim to give an accurate account of Priscillian’s life; it is a work of fiction written to entertain, and hopefully encourage questions. However, Priscillian’s religious views, by and large, are taken from the Wurzburg Tractates discovered by Georg Schepps in 1885 and published at the Vienna Corpus in 1886, and which are covered in some depth in the aforementioned book by Prof. Chadwick.
It is thought in some circles that the much disputed "Johannine Comma" may have originated with Priscillian in the 4th century Latin book Liber Apologeticusor or may have been written by one of his followers, (Instantius has been suggested) and certainly it does seem out of place in the Authorised Version of the Bible.
(cf. Wikipedia for a place to start)
Since he was, and to some extent still is, especially venerated in Galicia, and since it seems highly likely that he was brought there for burial (which of course is the main thesis of my novel), I believe that there are some grounds for claiming this part of northern Spain as his birthplace. That he was executed in Trier in either 385 or 386 CE is beyond doubt, although it is worth mentioning here that at a visit to the cathedral in Avila while I was researching the book, I approached a priest there and enquiring about information about Priscillian I was told that “no such person existed”!
His was the first case of capital punishment for heresy in the history of the Church. Having decided that he would not get a fair hearing from his peers, Priscillian brought his case to the secular court of the new Emperor, Maximus. However, this was clearly a grave mistake as the charges against him now included witchcraft as well as heresy, and witchcraft was a capital crime.
Priscillian was clearly influenced by some sort of doctrine, or perhaps, as I have suggested, a book of some kind. He was visited by a woman who called herself Agape, and a man named Elpidius, who had come from Egypt. These two had become friendly with a man named Marcus of Memphis, who had connections with Gnosticism. There is no evidence to connect Agape and Egeria. This is sheer fiction on my part. On the other hand, there is no evidence not to connect them either! Egeria’s Travels still makes fascinating reading, and it is more than likely that she was from Galicia and certainly was a contemporary of Priscillian.
A Plea for Justice
His most notable opponents were Hydatius of Emerita Augusta (present day Merida), and Ithacius of Ossonuba (present day south of Portugal). Between them, they petitioned Gratian, the then Emperor (soon to be killed by Maximus “The Usurper”, who denied any involvement in Gratian’s death), and a Synod was held at Saragossa (Zaragoza in Spain) in 381. The Synod was not well attended, however, which begs the question as to whether Hydatius and Ithacius’charges were of much interest to the rest of the Iberian bishops, and neither Priscillian, nor any of his followers attended. A late message from the Pope absolved the Priscillianists of all possible charges since they had not been there to defend themselves. They were most certainly not, as I have read on the Internet, “ex-communicated” at this Synod.
After a Priscillianist delegation by Bishops Instantius and Salvianus to Hydatius in Merida was turned away, (and in which, the bishops were bodily thrown out of Hydatius’ presence!) they appointed Priscillian Bishop of Ávila, and Hydatius and Ithacius appealed to the emperor Gratian, who issued a rescript threatening the Priscillianists with banishment. Consequently, the three Priscillian bishops went in person to Rome, to present their case before Damasus the Pope. What had essentially begun as a church matter, now attracted the attention of the secular arm. It was ultimately to prove Priscillian’s downfall.
On the murder of Emperor Gratian in Lyon and the accession, at Trier (Trèves, in Germany) of the usurper Magnus Maximus (383), Ithacius fled to Trier, and in consequence of his representations a new synod was held (384) at Bordeaux, where Instantius was sent into exile in the Scilly Isles (Salvianus had died while the Priscillianists were in Rome). Priscillian appealed to Maximus, but the Emperor had other concerns to deal with, not least of which building up his coffers after an expensive war. The Priscillianists, although their lifestyle was simple, still held vast reserves of money and land, and their execution could only benefit the Emperor who was seriously short of cash. He made no move to stop the court proceedings, and after they were executed encouraged purges in areas known to be “infected” by Priscillianism.
Priscillian and his followers, including Eucrotia, the widow of a Roman noble with estates at Elusa in southern France, was beheaded at Trier in either 385 or 386, the first Christians martyred by Christians themselves. Ambrose of Milan, Pope Siricius, and Martin of Tours protested against Priscillian's execution. But Priscillian had, fatally as it turned out, presented his case outside of the ecclesiastical court for “justice”, his persecutors had made a case for witchcraft and sorcery as well as heresy, and the former was a capital crime. Priscillian had more than likely participated in some age old ritual common in the countryside which had clung to the old ways. Perhaps he was observed by someone for whom this was interpreted as a direct threat to the newly formed Roman Church. Perhaps that person or persons had an agenda of their own. We simply cannot extract truth from falsehood at this point. Priscillian’s “confession” was extracted under torture.
Priscillianism and Women
The Priscillianists included many women among them, who were welcomed as equals of men. Their insistence on celibacy explains some the charge of Manichaeism levelled against Priscillian. That the Priscillianists participated in “Orgies” at Euchrotia’s estate seems particularly suspect given such practices.
In Pilgrimage to Heresy, I have made a case for birth control for believers in Priscillian’s Gnostic message who could not follow all of his strictures to the letter for family reasons. There is absolutely no evidence whatsoever that Priscillian made any such claim, but, given his very clear understanding that not all could follow so strict a calling as to remain celibate, and acceptance that some are called to marriage and family, I do not think I have done him an injustice by suggesting this. This my interpretation alone.
Priscillianism, despite the very strict measures taken by Maximus to contain it, continued to spread in Gaul, especially on both sides of the foothills of the Pyrenees, as well as in Spain in general, and northern Spain in particular. The church-established view of Priscillian as a heretic and a Manichaean rested upon Augustine, Turibius of Astorga, Leo the Great and Orosius (who quotes a fragment of a letter of Priscillian's), although at the Council of Toledo in 400, fifteen years after Priscillian's death, when his case was reviewed, the most serious charge that could be brought was the mistranslation of the word innascibilis ("unbegettable").
Priscillian was long honored as a martyr, not as a heretic, especially in Gallaecia (modern Galicia and northern Portugal), where his body was reverentially returned from Trier. Prof. Chadwick and others have made the tentative claim that the remains found in the 8th century at the site rededicated to Saint James the Great— Santiago de Compostela— which even today are a place of the pilgrimage on the Way of St. James, belong not to the apostle at all but to Priscillian. “Kieran”, one of my main characters in Pilgrimage to Heresy, outlines the reasons why this may very well be in some detail early in the novel.
The barbarian invasions of Spain in the opening years of the fifth century threw the whole Peninsula into confusion. The Sueves were pagan upon their entry into Spain and those that followed mainstream Christianity did so according to their own practices, most of which were based in Arianism.
When they founded their Kingdom in Galicia in 464, Arianism was the State religion rather than Roman Catholicism. There is nothing to suggest that the Arian bishops at this time were active in suppressing paganism. Priscillianism was tolerated as many of its beliefs were similar in fact to the state religion, and it was not until St. Martin of Braga (not to be confused with St. Martin of Tours),the Apostle of the Sueves, that Priscillianism is seen to be driven back underground. As we learn from his De correctione rusticorum the paganism which Martin encountered in the country districts of Galicia consisted in magical beliefs and practices and the superstitious cult of trees, stones and fountains. St. Martin was initially relatively mild in his attitude towards those who practiced idolatry. Paganism in his opinion was due not to malice, but to ignorance.
However, at the Council of Braga (now part of Portugal) eight bishops took part. Twenty-two decrees were promulgated, among others that in the services of the church, the same rite should be followed by all, and that on vigils and in solemn Masses the same lessons should be said by all; that bishops and priests should salute the people with Dominus vobiscu without the alterations introduced by the Priscillianists; that Mass should be said according to the ordo sent from Rome to Profuturus; that the form used for baptism in the Metropolitan see of Braga should not be altered; that nothing should be sung in the church but the Psalms and parts of the Old and New Testament (and therefore no mention of Apocrypha was permitted); and that all priests who abstained from eating meat should be obliged to eat vegetables cooked in meat, to avoid all suspicion of the taint of Priscillianism.
Is Priscillianism still to found in Galicia today? I have been assured by those in the know that this is so, and I myself attended a service close to O Cebreiro where there were no seats, but the community gathered around the priest as he said the Mass in Gallego. Ask many, well-educated people in the province and they will tell you that St. James never returned to Galicia, that Priscillian’s message is far from unknown, and that the beautiful silver casket in the crypt in the cathedral contains one of their own.
There is much written about Priscillian in Spanish, and almost as much in German, yet despite the fact that last year, more people from other countries gained their Compostela than Spanish pilgrims, his name is still virtually unknown outside of his native Spain.
Do Priscillian's remains rest in Compostela rather than St. James?
Perhaps we shall never know for sure...As I have written:
Here is a download of Tracy Saunders' interview with Hannah Murray: