Friday 22 October 2010

"For your own good...!"

By applying this name of heretic, it was a simple step to branding the Cathars as a dualist movement, inspired from the east, and thus led to them being also referred to as "false prophets": heretics for whom the ultimate penalty of burning was appropriate, if they did not immediately recant, "to save their souls". After Constantine the emperor in Rome had "converted" to Christianity, the church achieved the highest power over life and death: those who lapsed from the state religion could be saved from eternal perdition by torturing and if necessary putting them death as cruelly as possible! A law of 407 against the Donatists puts heretics on the same level as traitors to the emperor. The punishment for treason was to be burnt alive. Such extraordinary thinking allowed the Roman church to accuse, and arrange for the torture and murder of those who sought to exercise their "choice" - the true meaning of the Greek word "hairesis", and with a clear and divinely- justified conscience that they were acting in the best interests of the accused! In this way, of course, the Dominican friars in the 13th and later centuries were able to carry out their gruesome and loathsome task with impunity, afterwards handing over the sacrificial victim to the secular authorities for burning.

And so to return to the time of the Cathar persecutions, perhaps what worried the church most of all was the translation of the Bible into the vernacular. In France, this meant Provencal and the Langue d'Oc (quite literally the Language of Yes). Magee, in Heresy and the Inquisition, says that by 1100 educated people were starting to read the bible by themselves, but the Pope was roundly against it. If people could read God's words for themselves they might begin to doubt or to dispute the Catholic practices which were not in line with the scriptures. Magee claims that the Popes wanted to see the power of the church, which was their own power, dominating men's lives. He quotes the novelist HG Wells in saying:

"It was just because many of them secretly doubted the soundness of their vast and elaborate doctrinal fabric that they would brook no discussion of it. They were intolerant of doubts and questions, not because they were sure of their faith, but because they were unsure.".

The Good Men...

In this culturally and spiritually explosive atmosphere there appeared, seemingly in the early years of the 1100's an extraordinary movement whose Christian beliefs were noticeably different from those of the Catholics. It spread like a wildfire and lasted, with its believers living quite comfortably side by side with Catholics, for many years, but as they began to attract the notice of the papal church it became the custom to refer to them as "Manichaeans", just as the charges against Priscillian had also been that he was a follower of the Persian prophet Mani.

Despite what we have read about the throwing of early Christians martyrs to the lions, this was confined to relatively short periods of time and very specific emperors. A far worse fate was exclusion within the church. Early church writers seem to agree that religious liberty up to a certain point was a matter of personal choice. Hence we find Tertullian in the 3rd century in Ad Scapulum writing:

It is a fundamental human right, a privilege of nature, that every man should worship according to his own convictions. One man's religion neither harms nor helps another man. It is assuredly no part of religion to compel religion - to which free will and not force should lead us.

Soon after the adoption of Christianity as the state religion of Rome the persecution of people for holding different religious opinions began. In the year 38 Theodosias, soon after his baptism into Roman Catholicism, issued, with is co-emperors,the following edict which is worth quoting in full:

We, the three emperors, will that our subjects steadfastly adhere to the religion which was taught by St. Peter to the Romans...let us believe in one Godhead of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost, of equal majesty in the Holy Trinity. We order that the adherents of this faith be called Catholic Christians. We brand all the senseless followers of the other religions with the infamous name of heretics, and forbid their conventicles assuming the name of churches. Besides the condemnation of divine justice, they must expect the heaviest penalties which our authority, guided by heavenly wisdom, shall think proper to inflict.

For the most part this meant excommunication. This was a serious matter. Ex-communication meant exclusion from God and delivery to Satan. It meant everlasting death, a far worse thing to countenance than simply the taking of life
However, in 381, Christians requested the emperor to strip the Manichaeans of their civil rights. By the end of the following year, the death penalty had been pronounced for all the Manichees. They were accused of magical and obscene practices.

And within five years of Theodosius' edict, the "heaviest penalty" had been enacted on Priscillian, Euchrotia and the others.

After Priscillian...

With the Sueve occupation of Galicia, Priscillianism was more or less tolerated especially since the rejection of the Trinity was shared by both the Sueves who practiced Arianism and the Priscillianists, although initially, in the opening years of the fifth century, the barbarian invasions of Spain threw the whole Peninsula into confusion as the Sueves were for the most part pagan upon their entry into Spain. But those that followed mainstream Christianity were permitted to worship according to their own practices.

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. It is only after Recared the Visigoth's conversion to Catholicism in the mid 7th century that we cease altogether to hear anything about the Priscillianists.

But where did they go? Did they simply die out, or be absorbed by the Catholic church, a church notably antipathetic and entirely different to their views?
Or did the movement go underground, only to re-appear as a synthesis somewhere else, somewhere where Priscillianism had had a distinct foothold 800 years before? Did Priscillian survive in the guise of the Good Men?

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.

The Priscillianists...

The decapitation of Priscillian and some of his followers in Trier was the first case of capital punishment through the Catholic "inquisition" in the history of the Church.

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 purportedly had become friendly with a man named Marcus of Memphis, who had connections with Gnosticism.
When I first read Professor Chadwick's book, I knew that this story was too good to remain in theological and scholastic obscurity. It was the stuff of best-sellers and I knew I would have to write it myself. The result was Pilgrimage to Heresy which has now been translated into Spanish and published as Peregrinos de la Herejia.

Priscillian gathered an immense following. His message brought men and women from all walks of life to his gnostic message of salvation, and not only from Galicia but throughout Spain, specially the north, into the south of France and even the northern states of Italy. For the Priscillianists, friendship with the world was friendship with the devil and thus enmity with God. He who called himself the Creator God was deluding himself since he had originated in a lie; however, humankind could not blame the Devil for his sins as he did retain free-will and had an obligation to extricate his soul from its earthly bondage by the practice of true Christianity and the reading and study of the Bible, `day and night`. Merely nominal Christianity was not enough. The resurrection of the body, Priscillian taught, was achieved by the realisation of the spirit. Thus, by implication, there could be no bodily resurrection of Christ in the literal sense. The material world, he wrote is `short-lived and evil`. Finally and perhaps most importantly, the true God would eventually reclaim all spirits back to his bosom and this earthly realm, and the false, blind trickster Samael would cease to be.

The Priscillianists were vegetarians, abstained from wine, and practiced voluntary poverty and celibacy. Priscillian said that men and women were equal as their spirits were equal and that slavery was horrific and must be abolished. We are talking 1700 years ago here!

Not surprisingly, he had enemies. Priscillian's most notable opponents were Hydatius of Emerita Augusta (present day Merida), and Ithacius of Ossonuba (present day Faro in the 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, as was put about by Priscillian's accusers.

It was well known that Hydatius had a wife and likely one or more children. He kept himself surrounded with a mafia-like protection unit. Many of his congregation had refused to take communion with him. But he was clearly disturbed at the Priscillianist presence and wrote to his Metropolitan Ithacius to complain. 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. Appalled and likely worried for their own survival, 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. Despite being refused an audience with either pope or emperor, some exchange of what was likely a considerable amount of money to the imperial questor secured the restoration of their churches.

Ithacius, Priscillian's main accuser, fled to Trier fearing that he would answer himself for his charges against a fellow bishop. But the die was caste. What had essentially begun as a church matter, now attracted the attention of the secular arm. It was ultimately to prove Priscillian’s downfall.

The murder of Emperor Gratian in Lyon and the accession, at Trier (Trèves, in Germany) of the usurper Magnus Maximus (383) was to cause the tide to turn against the Priscillianists. Maximus was a soldier who had no interest in church matters, but he was bound to listen to Ithacius' - who was now returned from exile - complaints. In consequence of his representations a new synod was held (384) at Bordeaux. The Priscillianists had dangerous enemies in the Aquitaine and faced a hung jury. Instantius was sent into exile in the Scilly Isles. Salvianus had died while the Priscillianists were in Rome and so was spared the questioning.

Priscillian, knowing that his protestations would meet with no sympathetic hearers, appealed directly to Maximus, but the Emperor had other concerns to deal with, not least of which building up his coffers after an expensive war.

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...

Sunday 10 October 2010

A Child´s Garden of Gnosticism, Part 2

Rather than give up, I began to read the bible independently. One of the first things I encountered was the bit in Genesis where Adam and Eve slink off to the Land of Nod, procreate, struggle with their unfortunate lot, and eventually watch their children find their own wives.


Where did they come from? Even a teenage brain can do process of elimination. a/ God created some more people? Doesn't say that anywhere, b/ Cain and Abel married their sisters? Ditto. Scandalous and forbidden too, c/ Cain and Abel went off somewhere and came back with their brides. Red light, red light...does not compute.

I began to read of a vengeful, vindictive and by his own admission "jealous" God (of whom?) who appeared to set up poor Adam and Eve - and especially Eve - right from the beginning just to make sure that they were stupid enough NOT to use the intellect he had somehow given them, and then had a temper tantrum when they did. I read of other gods... Wait a minute, haven't they been ramming down my throat that there is only one? Most of all I read that God was everywhere, all powerful, all knowing...all good.

Not the one I had been reading about.

I dropped God like a hot potato. And Jesus the revolutionary too.

Many, many years later, while working in a bookshop, I unpacked a box of books that had come in that morning. Out came a slim volume called The Gnostic Gospels. I sat back on the carpet and opened it up. I began to get the idea: Jesus actually said far more than what we had read in the New Testament. Many new "gospels" had been discovered years before and now they had only recently been translated into English. They included, Peter, Thomas, Mary even. I took the book home that night and read it from cover to cover.

Now I would like to say that my life changed from that moment, but it didn't. Pagel's book, however, did alert me to the fact that there was more to Christianity than I had so far been taught, that what was contained in these books helped to explain more about what I had rejected. In fact, Jesus DID seem to have a message that fitted in with my spiritual cravings. Like Mary Magdalene, I wanted to be the woman who knew the all.
This took me to philosophy where I learned to ask the right questions. But it wasn't enough.

I slipped back to my agnostic state. It would be a while before I met someone who challenged me to truly move forward on my spiritual quest.