Wednesday, 13 October 2010


With the publication of Pilgrimage to Heresy, and before, I have been asked many times why I decided to walk the Camino de Santiago and to this day I can't give a definitive answer. I like the one given by Jack Hitt in his wonderful book Off the Road". When as he is about to get his Compostela at the cathedral he is asked his reasons for walking the Camino de Santiago he replies: "To find out my reasons for walking." I would have to say those were mine too.

Along the Way of St. James, I met a man from Salt Lake City, Utah. We walked and talked about the nature of pilgrimage in a secular age. "You know, Tracy,": he said, "the chances are that it is not St. James buried in the cathedral anyway."

I was a bit miffed. "Whad'ya'mean?" I said, stopping. "If old Santiago isn't there, why am I walking 760 kilometres to see him?"

Lance Owens, who I was later to find out was a priest of the Gnostic church as well as an M.D. and teacher of Jung at the University of Utah, mentioned this name beginning with a "Pru-" something adding that he had been written about in a scholarly book by an Oxford professor, and I can remember very clearly a sensation that said: "That's it! That's what you have been waiting for." Unfortunately, I forgot the name immediately and it wasn't until a year later that I decided to begin my investigation. I wrote to Dr. Owens.

Priscillian, he wrote back: Priscillian Bishop of Avila.

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 wrote about Priscillian, and also wrote the earliest biography of St. Martin of Tours. Martin, while a follower of the traditional Roman church of the time, was severely critical of the judgement 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 Priscillianist sympathiser himself. Severus goes to great lengths to disassociate his hero from Priscillianism and from the serious charge of Manicheanism. Quite rightly as Martin of Tours was merely a concerned but sympathetic bystander, not a Priscillianist himself. Pity that Severus couldn´t have been a bit more open-minded about Priscillian himself because in many ways, even today and through the Catholic Encyclopaedia (published by the way over a 100 years ago) what you will read even today has the taste of Severus' distaste...

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. It is this book that Lance Owens had mentioned to me. In the last ten years, information about Priscillian has increased tenfold on the Internet although unfortunately much of it is still taken from Catholic sources such as the 1906 Catholic Encyclopaedia which is hardly sympathetic.

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 Prof. Chadwick's book. More recently, Mario Conti's translation into English was published February 2010 as The Complete Works of Priscillian of Avila(OUP) and is gaining a good deal of notice as this is the first time scholars have had the chance to read Priscillian's words in anything other than Latin or German.

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 and I am by no means alone in this. 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 ever existed”! Now there are only two explanations for this. Either this priest was ignorant of the history of his own church, which I very much doubt, or, he was lying through his Catholic teeth.

More on Priscillian and a very tentative Cathar link to come...

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