The Bonosiacs were the followers of Bonosus, a fourth-century bishop from Naissus, whom the Synod of Capua had branded a heretic in 391 or 392. They make an unexpected appearance in sources from the Burgundian, Visigothic, and Merovingian kingdoms (ca. 500 – 636). This article claims that, as a distinct community, the Bonosiacs were never a part of the religious landscape of the sixth- and seventh-century West. Rather, the term “Bonosiacs” was used in the letters of Avitus of Vienne (494/6 – 518), in conciliar legislation, and in penitential and hagiographical compositions as a means of expressing the needs of the ecclesiastical elite, primarily to exclude those who would challenge institutional power. The image that arises from these sources of Bonosiacs, and of heretics more generally, is often helpfully contextualized by examining the political background. In a body of work that reflects a century of theological thought, heresiology was ultimately circumscribed by power dynamics, in which the boundaries of orthodoxy were negotiated with an eye toward the material.
The Bonosiacs were allegedly followers of Bonosus, a late fourth-century bishop from Naissus, or modern-day Niš in Serbia.2 After the Synod of Capua, convened in 391 or 392,3 condemned his teachings, Bonosus split from the Church and established his own clerical hierarchy, which was still functioning two decades later. We know of this through two letters, sent by Pope Innocent I to Bishop Marcian of Naissus, probably Bonosus’ successor, and concerned with the handling of priests ordained by Bonosus before and after his condemnation.4 The actual teachings of Bonosus are almost impossible to reconstruct, as are the subsequent beliefs of his following. In the literature that has come down to us, they have become hopelessly confused with the doctrines of other errant groups, and their portrayals heavily doused with heresiological cliché. What we can say is that Bonosus’ theology—which may or may not have had something to do with the abiding virginity of Mary5—was a point of contention with his superiors, who thereafter considered him and his followers heretical and worthy of denouncement.
That communities adhering to the teachings of a Dacian schismatic bishop who flourished around the turn of the fourth century should resurface in an entirely different context—early medieval Gaul and Spain—separated by thousands of kilometers and more than a hundred years from their original point of inception is unexpected. Yet it is in the sixth- and seventh-century West, of all places, that we find a cluster of compositions pertaining to this obscure heresy. In a collection of theological theses, official letters, and acts of conciliar legislation, these heretics are perceived as an issue warranting ecclesiastical attention. While Bonosiacs could have moved to the West and could even have developed there organically, there seem to have been different motivations at work, chief among which was the use of Bonosiacs as a convenient blanket term with which to rearticulate the parameters of orthodoxy.6
The evidence we have of Bonosiacs in the West was produced in times of profound religious or political change. In the Burgundian kingdom, it came on the heels of Sigismund's transition from Arianism to Catholicism and later, his ascent to the throne; for the Franks, it emerged either in conciliar legislation enacted following sweeping political changes or in literature emanating from Columbanian monasteries, both closely tied to the upheaval of 613 and its aftershocks. Visigothic sources also contain several mentions of the Bonosiacs, although, for the most part, they fall outside the scope of this paper.7
Tensions between Arianism and Catholicism, in whose context these dormant heresies were first reawakened in the post-Roman West, are relevant to our understanding of the terminology employed, especially when we consider that the earliest block of sources always associates Bonosiacs with Arians.8 At times, the two are discussed as though they were identical or very similar; on other occasions, they are described as distinct, but one thing is clear: Bonosiacs never appear in isolation. It is worth emphasizing here that what we call “Arian” was, in essence, a wide spectrum of doctrines, some perhaps more palatable to Nicene sensibilities than others. Though it was useful, for polemical reasons, to treat these groups as though they comprised a single threat, it would be more helpful to regard the boundaries between them and what we would recognize as more “orthodox” communities as entirely malleable and—more importantly—negotiable.
This article argues that references to Bonosiacs should be understood not as proof that a splinter group of the fourth-century Illyrian sect or some organic evolution thereof continued to flourish in Gaul and its environs. Rather, it endeavors to show that many of the sources employ heresiological terminology with the aim of marginalizing rivals by “othering” them theologically. The language used to accomplish this could either sharpen or blur perceived differences, but it did so in a way that corresponded very partially to the actual theologies of the groups in question.
While orthodoxy would have been their prime motivator, for many of the sources discussed here, the boundaries of heresy mirrored the political divisions that beset the societies in which they were composed. Movement between categories could therefore signal shifting alliances, and the theological language used to legitimize and facilitate it bears witness to this notion. Our sources use a series of baptismal, liturgical, and penitential gestures, but their aim can be contextualized as part of a broader discussion of inclusion that went on in late antique Christian societies.
PHOTINIANS, BONOSIACS, AND AVITUS OF VIENNE
A structure we can identify as the “Burgundian kingdom” comes into view very late; perhaps even as late as the 480s.9 Gundioc and Chilperic, members of the Gibichung family who consolidated power in the Rhône Valley during the second half of the fifth century, were Roman military officers, not kings. A significant settlement of Burgundians in Sapaudia in the 440s, which is often seen as the nucleus from which the Burgundian kingdom sprang, is impossible to establish; even more so the Gibichungs’ connection to that settlement.10 It was Gundioc's son Gundobad (d. 516) who laid down much of the political, legal, and diplomatic infrastructure for a kingdom, transforming the territory he inherited into a meaningful player in the sixth-century Mediterranean.
At least formally, Gundobad was an Arian, but this deceptively simplistic description conceals a much more complicated religious state of affairs, and should not be taken to imply that the Burgundian kingdom itself was somehow “Arian,” although it doubtless contained an Arian ecclesiastical structure.11 In fact, even the epithet “kingdom” is somewhat inaccurate for an entity that perceived itself primarily as a province of the Empire.12
Gundobad's form of Christianity, probably a remnant of his involvement in imperial affairs under his uncle, the magister militum Ricimer, was likely shared by the military contingent that followed him into Gaul and later made up the core of his warrior elite. The Arian clergy in Gaul, of which we know precious little, may have originated with this group. Still, we are unable to clearly associate Arianism with any particular segment of Burgundian society, not even this military elite. In fact, we cannot name one Burgundian Arian outside the royal family.13 We do, however, have evidence that points in the opposite direction.14
As in all things pertaining to late antique Gaul, our understanding of the Burgundians’ religious affinities has been shaped, to some extent, by the writings of Gregory of Tours.15 Burgundian Arianism played a prominent role in the Histories, although Gregory's narrative program leaves very little room for nuance. The members of the Burgundian royal family emerge from the text as little more than caricatures, fashioned to serve as cautionary opposites to their Merovingian contemporaries.16 Whatever the extent of their Arianism, it is nevertheless clear that there were Catholics among the royal family,17 and that Gundobad himself had a productive and amicable relationship with the Catholic episcopate and with its most prominent member, Avitus of Vienne.
Avitus is the source for most of our evidence regarding Bonosiacs in the Burgundian kingdom. The first piece of the puzzle appears in a theological composition, Contra Eutychianam haeresim, which Avitus composed at Gundobad's behest. The king, eager to learn of developments in the East, entrusted Avitus with the task of providing him with an explanation of the Acacian schism.18
The product of Avitus’ labors, however, was aimed not only against the Monophysitic teachings of Eutyches but also at the Arians, whom Avitus probably deemed a more immediate concern.19 That Avitus was able to express criticism of the king's religion publicly illustrates the growing confidence of Catholics in Gundobad's final years. Avitus’ diatribe against the Eutychians mentions the Bonosiac heresy, which it seems to bundle together with the teachings of another heretic named Photinus.20 In so doing, Avitus was accusing Bonosiacs of denying the divinity of Christ, seemingly a separate charge than the one leveled against the Eutychians, who rejected his corporeality altogether.21
The confusion between Photinians and Bonosiacs is not unique to Avitus. Marius Mercator, a correspondent of Augustine and Jerome, mentions Bonosiacs alongside Ebionites and, again, the followers of Photinus.22 Writing in the early fifth century, Mercator's inability to distinguish between the two heresies indicates that the exact meaning of two terms had become blurred very soon after Capua. A similar conflation recurs in the Collectio Dionysiana, which reproduces a letter by Pope Innocent I addressed to a certain Bishop Lawrence, advising him on how to rid himself of the Photinian heretics plaguing his diocese.23 In this canonistic collection, the author Dionysius Exiguus provided the letter with the misleading heading: De Bonosiacis, quod Iudaeis sint comparandi: “of the Bonosiacs, who are comparable to Jews.”24 This has led some to speculate that the Bonosiac schismatics had, since their break-off from the mainstream Church, embraced the adoptionist views of the Photinians as a survival method, thus making them similar to Jews in their denial of Christ's divinity.25 There is nothing on the theological level that makes the teachings of Bonosus and Photinus especially compatible, although the sources do not allow us to accurately trace the evolution of these groups’ theology in the years after Capua. In any event, the causes of this confusion are not immediately apparent. Avitus was certainly aware of—and influenced by—the Dionysiana.26 Through his work on the Contra Eutychianam haeresim and his contacts with Rome and the papacy, Avitus would have been exposed to Eastern heresiological thought, and his information on the Bonosiacs may have arrived through this channel.27
Gennadius of Marseilles’ Liber ecclesiasticorum dogmatum, probably composed around the time Avitus ascended to the episcopal throne in Vienne,28 contains another Photinian/Bonosiac conflation. In this text, Gennadius equates a group he calls “Bonosiac” (who, he adds, were previously known as Photinians), with a coterie of defunct heresies, most notably Ebionites, Marcionites, and Sephorians. His continuation to Jerome's De viris inlustribus repeats the reference, citing a composition by a Spanish bishop, Audentius.29 According to Gennadius, apart from Bonosiacs, Audentius’ polemic took aim at the Arians, Manichaeans, and Sabellians. As may be deduced from Gennadius’ description, the essence of the heresy he identified as Bonosiac is clearly Photinian, in the sense that its adherents rejected the co-eternality of Father and Son, preferring instead to see a beginning to Christ's divinity. In other words, it put them on the “Homoian spectrum.” Finally, in the long list of heresies included in Isidore of Seville's Etymologies, Bonosiacs are indistinguishable from Photinians in that they regard Christ as the adopted son of God.30
Not a word is uttered in Gennadius, Mercator, Audentius, or Isidore about ideas that are unique to Bonosus, such as Marian post-partum virginity, or lack thereof. The elusiveness of Bonosus’ dogma had prompted Knut Schäferdiek to postulate the existence of two distinct heretics, Bonosus of Naissus and Bonosus of Serdica, ascribing adoptionist teachings only to the latter. While it does offer a solution, Schäferdiek's theory depends on a creative “reverse engineering” of Mercator and other later sources, not on any historical indication that two separate bishops had indeed existed.31
Be that as it may, Avitus’ sources of information regarding these heresies considered Bonosiacs and Photinians to be essentially interchangeable.32 Avitus, who was doubtless familiar with Ambrose's ideas on virginity,33 could have amplified the Marian aspects of the “Bonosiac” error, had he been aware of it. That he fails to do so strengthens the claim that Avitus regarded the teachings of the Bonosiacs as an approximation of a Homoian theology. We should remember this when we attempt to understand the implausible survival of Bonosiac communities in the West.
Avitus’ other allusion to Bonosiacs occurs in a letter to Gundobad's eldest son, Sigismund, datable to 501 or shortly thereafter.34 Sigismund is best known for his decision, probably not long before the composition of this letter, to embrace Catholicism. This marked a visible break with his father's religious policy but antedated Sigismund's own ascent to the kingship by more than a decade. Gundobad's Arian priesthood, which continued to function throughout this time, probably received the news of Sigismund's conversion with some consternation.
Ruling as sub-king from his court in Geneva,35 Sigismund wanted to prepare his subjects for the religious transition that would doubtless come when he took full power. This would have to be done carefully, since the Arian church he stood to inherit as king still commanded influence and owned significant property, the fate of which would have to be determined in any future agreement.
Another concern would have been Sigismund's diplomatic alliances with other barbarian courts, equipped, as it were, with their own Homoian clergies.36 One example that immediately comes to mind is the court of the Ostrogothic king Theoderic, whose daughter Ostrogotho-Areagni Sigismund had only recently married.37 Sigismund therefore instituted an annual meeting intended to serve as a platform for discussion between Catholics and Arians.
It is perhaps in this context that we should read Avitus’ Letter 31. The letter is an interesting attempt by Avitus to gauge the religious situation and to lay the groundwork for what was to come. In the letter Avitus speaks to Sigismund as a fellow Catholic and an heir to the throne. All the while, however, Avitus remembers that Sigismund's father was the one holding the reins of power. Recalling Gundobad's recent nomination of a Genevan bishop, Avitus describes the appointment as a scourge not only for the Catholics but for the Arians as well. While Avitus is very clear in his disdain for the Arians, at least for now they emerge as equally wronged as the Catholics by the nomination of the bishop, whom Avitus styles “Bonosiac.”
How should we understand this? Episcopal nominations in the barbarian kingdoms were, as we know, highly charged, performative acts of symbolic power.38 Gundobad himself was certainly not a Bonosiac, and for him to give such a post to an adherent of a fringe heresy would have been an unheard-of act of political self-sabotage.39 Thus, two options remain: either the Bonosiacs were an established community in Geneva, deserving of a bishop of their own; or, the bishop was not really a Bonosiac, and only called by that name for polemical reasons. For the first option, no evidence has survived, although this need not necessarily imply that no such community existed. Still, if we are to believe that the bishop was an authentic Bonosiac, or a Photinian for that matter, we would then have to question his ability to preside over a diocese in which some significant fraction of the clergy and congregation would have considered him a schismatic.40
The second option, therefore, is that this was not a matter of Bonosiacs or Photinians at all but of partisanship within the Arian ranks. The politics behind these conflicts is unfortunately lost to us, and yet it is tempting to offer some speculations. Perhaps we are meant to infer from the use of the term Bonosiac (read: Photinian) that this was an especially radical Arian bishop. From everything we know about the variety within the Homoian community, it would not be difficult to believe that the Arian episcopate centered on Gundobad held within it competing currents. This internal tension could have been rooted in theology; considering the flexibility with which these terms were understood, the transition from a “mainstream” Homoian to a Photinian-style adoptionist position is not an impossible leap to make. It is nevertheless an ironic one, given Photinus’ training under Marcellus of Ancyra, a staunch proponent of anti-Homoian teachings.41 Then again, maybe it was something else entirely.
While Gundobad was not prepared to make the transition to Nicene Christianity himself, his portrayal in Avitus’ Homilia in dedicatione superioris basilicae certainly sees the king as an avid supporter of the Catholics.42 Gundobad's positive approach clearly gave Avitus cause for optimism, as did the imminent ascent to the kingship of his Catholic son. Sigismund's annual meetings were attended by both sides of the religious divide, so it would seem reasonable to assume that both saw it in their interests to keep the channels of communication with one another open. It is not inconceivable, then, that Sigismund's forums were intended to work out a new religious status quo, perhaps even the eventual absorption of the Arian ecclesiastical structure.
Cordial and cooperative relations between Catholics and Arians were not unheard of, even before they were actively encouraged by politically minded kings like Sigismund. The realities of life in mixed communities would have proven stronger than any doctrinal divide, and, as Ralph Mathisen has demonstrated, the evidence for intense socialization between Catholics and Arians is compelling.43 At this juncture in Burgundian history, it is perhaps even possible to imagine that necessity had produced enough theological leeway to occasion a re-drawing of confessional lines.
Gundobad's decision to appoint a problematic bishop was obviously a disappointment for Avitus. The “Bonosiac” terminology could have been meant as a strategy for redrawing the map so as to exclude the bishop of Geneva and his supporters from the ongoing religious discussion. Seen in the context of Sigismund's activity, it could perhaps mean that, for Avitus, “Bonosiacs” were those elements in the Arian church that hindered any future accommodation with the Catholics.
“Bonosiacs” and their “Photinian” alter-egos were mentioned enough times in the heresiological literature to appear menacing. More importantly, their teachings were sufficiently obscure to apply to almost any circumstance. Weaponizing this terminology was therefore a prudent strategy; for us, it is also a way to interpret its use in the letter. Certainly, the word “Photinian” was well-suited to make a point about exclusion; after all, unlike Arians, Photinians had to undergo baptism to be received into Catholic communion, a near future possibly envisioned by Sigismund's forums.
ARLES II, ORLÉANS, AND CONCILIAR TRADITION
Baptism as a condition put to heretics who wished to embrace Catholicism was an important issue for the bishops gathered at the second council of Arles. This council poses several difficulties, not only in dating it precisely but also in determining which of the canons that are attributed to it in the manuscript evidence actually originated with the bishops who convened at Arles. For our purposes, most interesting are canons 16 and 17, which deal with the baptismal procedures required of Photinians and Bonosiacs wishing to join the Catholic ranks.
The Photinians, says canon 16, should be made to undergo baptism if they wish to join.44 Whatever the term may have meant to the legislators at Arles, Photinians were apparently significant enough to warrant special mention. The subsequent canon addresses the Bonosiacs, but unlike what we have seen so far, groups them with the Arians as heretics who do not require baptism to join the Catholics, only chrism and the laying on of hands.45 In fact, Bonosiacs and Arians are mentioned as being ex eodem errore venientes, “emerging from the same error.”46 In many of its canons, the Council of Arles dutifully reflects the precepts of Nicaea but on these two heresies Arles contains additions to the original Nicaean text.47 Regrettably, the canons do not go into any detail about the specifics of either heresy. If Mathisen's dating is correct, Arles was convened sometime between 490 – 502, so its terminus ante quem would have coincided perfectly with Avitus’ Letter 31.
Insofar as it is possible to clarify the language of the canons, we may conclude that the technical understanding of the terms Bonosiac and Photinian would not have diverged significantly from what we read in Gennadius or Avitus, both active at around the same time. Still, there were some noticeable differences between the council's decrees and the views held by other authors in Gaul. Ascertaining the nature of these differences is, as always, dependent largely on interpretation.
In his disquisition on the Trinity in the Contra Arrianos, for example, Avitus determines that the validity of baptisms performed by Bonosiacs and “other heretics” should be upheld and that any remaining errors are to be remedied with only a blessing.48 It is possible to see this statement as an indication that Avitus’ thinking on the matter reflected the precepts of Arles, and that the Photinians, who remain unmentioned, merited different treatment.49 Following this logic to its ultimate conclusion, one might even conjecture that by referring to the Genevan bishop in Letter 31 as a Bonosiac and not a Photinian, Avitus was leaving the door open to rapprochement. A similar sentiment was voiced by Mathisen, who saw the “laying on of the hands” as a provision designed to refrain from offending the Visigoths, although the different treatment prescribed to Bonosiacs and Photinians in this context remains cryptic.50 Compared to all other sources that have expressed an opinion about Bonosiacs and Photinians, Arles remains unarguably dissonant and therefore difficult to unpack.
Given what we know about Avitus’ use of the terminology, it is more plausible to assume that, unlike Arles, for him “Photinians” were either already encapsulated in “Bonosiacs,” or at the very least included in the ranks of the other heretics. Contemporary understanding of these heresies was thus not universal or uniform, and Avitus’ usage of the terms was likely also affected by this theological ambiguity.
At the very least, we may say that in their treatment of these heresies, the canons of Arles ii anticipated the results of Vouillé, after which the need to decide the fate of the Arian clergy in Gaul took on new urgency. The Visigothic defeat and withdrawal foregrounded the issue of Arian churches and priests in Aquitaine and their assimilation into the Catholic ecclesiastical structure. The pragmatism voiced in canon 10 of the Council of Orléans, convened in 511 for provinces under Frankish rule, likewise echoes an accommodating approach:51
Concerning heretical clerics who join the Catholic religion in total faith and of their own accord, and concerning the basilicas which the Goths have hitherto held in their perversity, we think that, if the clerics are faithfully converted and confess the Catholic faith wholeheartedly and if they live a worthy life of high moral standards and good deeds, they should receive the office of which the bishop thinks them worthy, with the blessing of the laying on of hands. And it is right that churches should be consecrated following the same liturgy as that by which ours are dedicated.
The Burgundian council of Épaône was a different matter entirely. Held in 517 with great fanfare, it was the culmination of a process that began some 15 years earlier, with the conversion of Sigismund. A year before the council, King Gundobad died, leaving Sigismund as his heir. The first synod held under the new king was meant to project the image of a confident and triumphant ecclesiastical hierarchy, standing united with its orthodox royal family. Considering the conciliatory overtures of previous years, the language of Épaône is surprisingly harsh. On the subject of repurposing church structures, a problem dealt with in Orléans with such optimism, the Burgundian prelates had this to say: “We refrain from setting to sacred uses the basilicas of the heretics, which we hold as hateful with such execration that we cannot treat their pollution as being amenable to cleansing.”52
What had changed in the decade or so between Letter 31 and the council of Épaône? Certainly, similar ecclesiastical figures were in attendance, and, if anything, the religious situation had shifted in favor of the Catholics. We would then expect a similar attitude of magnanimity to the one voiced in Orléans, which sought to smooth out any differences rather than accentuate them.
There was, however, a fundamental difference between the Burgundians and the Franks. Vouillé had very powerfully broadcast Clovis’ military superiority, and the accommodating attitude expressed in Orléans was linked directly to Frankish triumphalism. Canon 10 presupposes the willingness, on the part of the Arian clergy of conquered Aquitaine, to merge with the Catholic ecclesia. Once cooperation was assured, the council was tasked with defining the criteria governing this transition. Tellingly, Orléans never mentions what is to befall those priests who refuse the demand that they be carefully converted and confess the Catholic faith wholeheartedly,53 but it is not very difficult to guess.
The process whereby Burgundian churches that once belonged to Arians were appropriated by Catholics seems considerably less amicable. Firstly, unlike their neighbors to the north, the Burgundians were accustomed to Arian and Catholic clergies existing side-by-side. As recognized by Épaône, the initial installation of an Arian ecclesiastical hierarchy included forcible confiscation of Catholic church buildings, still a visible blight on the tissue of coexistence.54
The relatively stable modus vivendi that was reached by the time Sigismund ascended to the throne would have been very poorly served by the specter of a large-scale seizure of ecclesiastical property, especially when the endgame would have been, as implied by the establishment of Sigismund's dialog forum, to achieve a peaceful transition. Nevertheless, as the canon also stipulates, this was not to be a complete forfeiture of proprietary rights; Catholic churches that had been confiscated by the Arians were considered fair play.
Épaône's canon 33 was a direct result of Avitus’ reasoning on this matter, explained in detail in a letter he wrote to Bishop Victorius of Grenoble.55 More than anything, the letter advises caution. It recognizes that the question of re-appropriation is a heated one and urges its recipient to refrain from repeating the past crimes of the Arians when they seized Catholic cult sites. To be sure, the tone voiced in Épaône is more stringent, but it harbors an identical sentiment, namely that Arian churches should not be reused by the Catholics.
Why the difference? For one, a move like the one taken at Orléans had every chance of backfiring in Burgundy. Catholicism was doubtless on the right path, but it was not inconceivable that Arianism would return, especially if Sigismund's brother ever managed to take power.56 The prospect of increasing dependence on Burgundy's Arian neighbors was not out of the question, either. So, while the rationale guiding Épaône's legislation was theological, it was nevertheless grounded in the bishop of Vienne's political pragmatism. In fact, Avitus displayed impressive foresight, since both “nightmare scenarios” materialized within a decade of having written the letter.57 For now, however, Nicene ecclesiastical and secular elites had other, less invasive, ways of gaining ground, such as the royally sponsored monastery of Saint-Maurice d'Agaune, a powerhouse of prayer organized around a military-style liturgy dedicated to the preservation of king and country.58
Notably, Épaône was not coy in how it used its terminology; heretics were heretics and they now apparently came in one size only. The utility of “Bonosiac” as a term with which to woo undecided Arians had run its course, since, as the council acknowledges, those among them who wanted to join the Catholics had either already done so or were in the process of making the switch, using the fast-track process made available to them.59
Those who resisted, on the other hand, would just go back to being run-of-the-mill heretics. Since power lay squarely with the Catholics, there was, for the bishops at Épaône, no need to tiptoe around the issue. That this really was a question of breaking down Arian opposition is spelled out in canon 29, which apportioned a mitigated penitential period to apostates returning to the Catholic fold, and likewise meted out severe punishments for those who persisted in their obduracy.60
In the annals of the Burgundian kingdom, the Bonosiacs had a fleeting moment in the sun. Avitus died in 518, and the Gibichung kingdom began to fall apart shortly thereafter. Having murdered his son and alienated his clergy, Sigismund hobbled from one catastrophe to the next until he was ultimately captured by the Franks and killed. Godomar, Sigismund's younger brother, managed to hold off the Franks for a few years longer, but in 534 it was all over. Burgundy was swallowed up by the descendants of Clovis and became a Frankish sub-kingdom. The “Bonosiacs” would again lie dormant for over a hundred years, reemerging in the early seventh century under different circumstances.
CUM BONOSIACIS AUT CETERIS HAERETICIS: THE COLUMBANIAN CONNECTION
The second chapter of this story unfolds under Frankish rule. It involves conciliar legislation enacted under the Merovingians, and the activities of the Irish monk Columbanus (d. 615), and later his disciples, pursued in the regions bordering the regnum Francorum to the east. Columbanus arrived on the Continent ca. 590, and in the following years managed, with considerable help from his Merovingian patrons, to establish a cluster of monasteries in the Vosges forest, in the north of Frankish Burgundy.62 After several years, however, his relationship with King Theuderic II soured, resulting in his branding as persona non grata. Forced to flee, he found temporary haven with Theuderic's brother Theudebert II, who ruled the kingdom of Austrasia to the north.
Theudebert encouraged Columbanus and his followers to establish a monastic outpost on the easternmost fringe of his kingdom. While initially successful, Columbanus deserted the project when war broke out between Theuderic and his brother, resulting in Theudebert's defeat, deposition, and eventual murder. In the new political climate, Columbanus was forced out of Austrasia and made his way, together with most of his monks, to Lombard Italy. There, again under the patronage of the royal family, he founded the monastery of Bobbio, where he died two years later.
During his time in Gaul, Columbanus produced several compositions. Among those is a penitential,63 which contains a somewhat perplexing allusion to Bonosiacs: “If, out of ignorance, any layperson associates with the Bonosiacs or with other heretics, let him stand with the catechumens, that is, separate from the other Christians, for forty days, and then twice forty with the last grade of Christians, that is, among the penitents, to wash away the guilt of the insane communion.”
Since Luxeuil, Columbanus’ most important establishment in Gaul, was located within the confines of the old Burgundian kingdom, the remark in the penitential seemed to point to an encounter with actual Bonosiacs in areas they were known to inhabit.64 As ever, context is important for understanding this preoccupation with heterodoxy in general, and with Bonosiacs in particular.
As noted by Walker in his edition and translation of Columbanus’ works, it is doubtful that this canon came from the pen of Columbanus.65 His reasoning for this assertion is that the grades of the penitents and other aspects of the ruling reflect Roman, rather than Irish, practice. It has since become clear that Columbanus was open to, and influenced by, ideas he had encountered in Gaul, so Walker's remark cannot alone serve to disqualify Columbanus’ authorship.66 Nevertheless, the notion that this canon was composed at a later stage has found support elsewhere.67
In fact, a better setting within which to understand Luxeuil's fascination with Bonosiacs, and their subsequent inclusion in the penitential, would be the decade after Columbanus’ death. This period would see the Columbanian congregation plunge into a self-destructive episode, which has immediate bearing on the following interpretation of canon 25 of the penitential.
The rift between the Columbanian leadership and the rebellious monk Agrestius was reported in great detail in the Vitae Columbani abbatis discipulorumque eius, composed by a monk from Bobbio named Jonas between 639 and 643.68 The Vita Columbani chronicled the careers of Columbanus and four subsequent abbots and abbesses, but Agrestius undoubtedly emerges as the hagiography's most important villain. Jonas’ partisanship makes any assessment of the events pertaining to this episode difficult, especially when he names Luxeuil's abbot Eustasius as the clear victor in Mâcon, the council convened in 626 to put an end to the conflict. What is clear is that, during the deliberations in Mâcon, serious allegations of heresy were levelled against Luxeuil. The affair, which eventually saw Agrestius defeated and his following scattered, left the monastic community shaken and weakened, but also determined to repair its damaged reputation. Some of this renewed vigor was directed toward a mission to the Slavs and Bavarians.
Jonas’ description of the mission is intimately linked to the narrative of the Columbanians’ ability to overcome hardship. While it was Columbanus who initially thought up the mission to the Slavs,69 Eustasius was the one who made it a reality, fulfilling, as it were, the command of his master.70 Some of the Warasci, reports Jonas, were idolaters, while the others were Photinians and Bonosiacs.71 Once converted, the mission turned its attentions to the Bavarians, who were likewise impressed by Eustasius’ exhortations and came to the faith. Needless to say, the existence of Photinian-Bonosiac communities among the Slavs, whose acquaintance with Christianity had until that point been superficial, raises suspicion.72
A year or less after Mâcon another council was convened, this time in the city of Clichy. This was a large council, whose canons were signed by 37 bishops. It was likely convened alongside a meeting of secular potentates and was a clear display of power on Chlothar's part.73 Canon 5 of Clichy, which touts the pervasive effect the Catholic faith has had on Gaul, nevertheless cautions that some among the flock might fall prey to “Bonosiacs or secret heretics,” and empowers the clergy to conduct investigations to this effect.74
This canon harkens back to legislation promulgated in the third council of Orléans, almost 90 years earlier, which dealt with a very similar problem: the re-baptism of Catholics by Bonosiac priests or by other heretical clergymen.75 Here, the onus to investigate was placed on the iudex ciuitatis—ostensibly the comes—but the general spirit of the canon is almost identical.
Admittedly, the situation in 538 was somewhat different. Burgundy and Provence had only recently been incorporated into Francia, and it is at least conceivable that heretics—Bonosiacs or otherwise—were still lurking there in some dark corner, waiting to be exposed. Yet, other motivations appear to be at work.
Firstly, it is noteworthy that heretical communities were always described as constituting an amorphous group of which Bonosiacs were but one element. The canons, which both incorporate qualifiers—cuiuslibet alterius haeresis in Orléans, or occulte heretici in Clichy—are almost surely using formulaic phrasing. The mention of Bonosiacs should therefore not imply that the legislators at either of these synods were afraid of them in any true sense.
In fact, the appearance, in close conjunction, of the other well-known boogeymen of conciliar legislation—the pagans and the Jews—is suggestive of another program altogether.76 Orléans discusses Jews in canon 33, immediately preceding the discussion of Bonosiacs—who, we recall, were comparable to Jews—forbidding them from interacting with Christians during a four-day period of Easter.77 Canon 14 draws up restrictive conditions regarding the ownership of Christian slaves by Jews, followed by a series of interdictions on marrying and sharing meals with the Jews. Not surprisingly, this bears close resemblance to canon 13 of Clichy, which inhibits the sale of Christian slaves to Jews, severely penalizes attempts to convert slaves to Judaism, forbids the admittance of Jews to public acts, and advises strongly against sharing meals with them.78
Despite their pronounced interest in pagans, Jews, and, most importantly for us, heretics, the canons were probably not the result of a genuine concern with creedal dissent. One clue into the state of mind of the bishops at these councils might be found in a curious addition to the canons of Orléans. The church, say the canons, now thankfully finds itself under the benevolent rule of a Catholic monarch. The phrasing makes it patently clear that it was this condition that allowed such legislation to be enacted. Canon 33 opens with Quia Deo propitio sub catholicorum regum dominatione consistimus, while canon 34 declares quia reges nos constat habere catholicos, as though the Catholicity of the king were some startling novelty. A Catholic had ruled Burgundy since 516, followed by the Catholic Merovingians, so this would hardly have constituted breaking news. If the remark was meant to apply to Provence, which was recently acquired from the Ostrogoths, it is striking that no Provençal bishops were in attendance. More to the point, however, the canons were not very new at all, relying on the legislations of previous councils, most notably Épaône and Clermont.79
Orléans III brought together bishops from dioceses under the control of both Childebert I and Theudebert I, although the former probably took a leading role in its convocation.80 The flattery reserved for Childebert in these canons, and the fact that the council's two leading bishops—Lupus of Lyon and Pantagatus of Vienne—used his regnal years to date their signatures, suggests that royal interests were being brought to bear on the council. Childebert was cautiously building up a support base in the newly won territories,81 a policy equally noticeable in his episcopal appointments.82 It is therefore likely that the language we find in these canons had more to do with forging an episcopal-royal alliance and with presenting an image of unity in the church's ranks than with any concrete preoccupation with heretics, Jews, or other outsiders.
Finally, Clichy mimics the language of Orléans III when it expresses its gratitude for the Catholicity of the king: Deo iubente fides catholica iam ubique in Galiis perseuerat. Given the historical context for the council's convocation, it is another redundant statement. It is therefore difficult to accept the preoccupation of Clichy's canons at face value. While it was always the responsibility of the clergy to monitor its community for the emergence of errant views and to correct them when they arise, Bonosiacs and hidden heretics seem, in this instance also, to be terms of convenience rather than descriptions of reality. Even in Avitus’ day, the theologies connoted by these terms were not entirely clear to contemporaries, allowing them to be employed as catchall phrases with impressive elasticity; it is doubtful that this confusion was lifted after another century had gone by.
The conciliar legislation of Clichy provides the adequate backdrop with which to examine the appearances of Bonosiacs in Columbanian sources. When Clichy was convened, Luxeuil was still very much in the process of fighting for its survival, and the subject of heresy was no doubt on everyone's mind. Eustasius was initially accused of insisting on excessive benedictions,83 followed by a more serious allegation concerning the community's unorthodox method of calculating Easter, a thorny issue that had already plagued Columbanus’ abbacy.84
If we read the Vita Columbani as essentially a defensive document, the anti-Bonosiac activities of Eustasius and his monks look more like an argumentative bulwark, put in place to counter the accusations of heresy sounded against Luxeuil by Agrestius. Not only were the Luxovian monks orthodox in every way, Jonas would argue, they were committed to fighting heresy wherever they could find it, at home and abroad. In his attempts to reassert the orthodoxy of his community, it is perhaps not surprising that Jonas chose to echo Clichy's preoccupation with heresy and the need to resist it.85 Showing Columbanus as an early champion of the fight against Bonosiacs and his successor as the man who took the fight against them to its successful conclusion would be a powerful argument indeed. By extension, it would cast Agrestius, who had strong theological disagreements with the abbots of Luxeuil and Bobbio, as a heretic.
In the early medieval West, Photinians and Bonosiacs have appeared sporadically in conciliar legislation, formal letters, church histories, hagiographies, and penitentials, spanning from the early sixth to the early seventh century. In these sources, the two seem entirely mutually transposable, although the theologies they originally promoted, insofar as we can reconstruct them, were not necessarily similar. As an examination of the sources reveals, theology was not the only driving force that motivated writers to incorporate heresiological language into their compositions. More than anything, Bonosiacs could have been employed as terms of convenience, designed to brand undesirables that challenged establishments and their policies.
Avitus of Vienne's use of the Bonosiacs can be tied to the religious changes Sigismund was orchestrating in Burgundy. As communal lines were redrawn, new terminology needed to be found to address this process without alienating communities targeted for inclusion. Bonosiacs, a phrase that had come to express an uncompromising adoptionist position, became a useful weapon to brandish against those opposing the impending change.
In Merovingian Gaul of the sixth and seventh century, the conciliar language reflected a royal preoccupation with church unity and allegiance in territories that were only recently brought under Frankish dominion. The “othering” of heretics—Bonosiacs, but also unspecified heterodoxical communities—always went hand-in-hand with the “othering” of Jews and, very often, pagans, although the specter of paganism had long since vanished in Gaul itself. The heretics of conciliar legislation were, for the most part, rhetorical devices in the service of grander designs.
The compositions produced by the monks of Luxeuil made good use of this exclusive language. In his attempt to counter allegations of heresy, Jonas of Bobbio put forward a defense that used heresiological terminology to paint Eustasius and the monks of Luxeuil as defenders of the faith. This was framed as part of a mission to the gentes, one that Columbanus had already planned but never fulfilled.
The article of the penitential that discusses Bonosiacs, already suspected of being a later addition, can therefore best be understood as a retroactive attempt to portray Columbanus as the first to recognize Bonosiacs—and, by extension, heresy in general—as a threat. By casting Eustasius as the one to vanquish the heretics about whom his master had warned, the editor of the penitential showed the abbot of Luxeuil to be the true disciple of Columbanus, and a steadfast protector of his heritage against those who would challenge it.86
In late antique Gaul, heresy reveals itself as a malleable category. Since ecclesiastical councils outlined the conditions for reintegration into orthodoxy, their heresiological language was picked up and employed by a variety of other sources not so much to pinpoint theological errors as to divide society along a spectrum of alterity that roughly corresponded with the increasing severity of these perceived errors. Assigning heretical epithets to individuals or groups was not an attempt to define their creedal failures. Rather, it was convenient code, used to envision a redrawing of communal lines.