Friday, 22 October 2010

A monstrous deed...

Going directly to meet with then new emperor was clearly a grave mistake as the charges against Priscillian now included witchcraft as well as heresy, and witchcraft was a capital crime. The Priscillianists had estates, money; Maximus needed to pay his war debts. He had no need of further difficulties with his bishops and even less interest in church matters. Instead of receiving the fair hearing they expected, their case was handed over to the secular arm for judgement. Priscillian's execution could only benefit the Emperor who was seriously short of cash. He made no move to stop the court proceedings.

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 those who were Christians themselves. Ambrose of Milan, Pope Siricius, and Martin of Tours protested against Priscillian's execution. But Priscillian had, fatally, 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. For us today, the charges themselves may seem innocent enough: 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 determine truth from falsehood at this point.

Priscillian’s “confession” was extracted under torture. He confessed to "magical" practices, meetings at night with women, and praying naked. All of these were likely true. But it was the demonic interpretation put upon them by the Catholic inquisitors which were to lead to the death penalty. Priscillian and six of his closest followers, including Euchrotia were executed according to the Roman law.

However, 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. For at least another hundred and fifty years we hear of synod after synod convened with the express purpose of dealing with the still existent Priscillianists. In 405, The Synod of Carthage, for example, endorsed use of force by the state if persuasion failed to convert the heretics. These were not exclusively Priscillianist as there were many deviations from the state religion of Roman Catholicism by this. Some simply vanished, some were absorbed into mainstream Catholicism.

Priscillian was long honored as a martyr, not as a heretic, especially in Galicia and what is now northern Portugal, where his body was reverentially returned from Trier. Prof. Chadwick and others, including myself, have made the tentative claim that the remains found in the early 9th century at the site rededicated to Saint James the Great— Santiago de Compostela - belong not to the apostle at all but to Priscillian. This, of course, is the mainstay of the historical thread of Pilgrimage to Heresy.

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