The largest collection of writings of the ninth-century Christian layman Álvaro of Córdoba is his letters exchanged with various people. Previously on this site I covered Álvaro's exchange of letters with Eleazar, a convert to Judaism. Now I turn to a later set of letters exchanged between Álvaro and Saul, who served as the bishop of Córdoba during the time of the affair of the martyrs of Córdoba and was imprisoned by the Muslim authorities in response to the rise of the martyrs movement.
The letters require some context to be understood better, and it should be noted, as Jessica Coope has suggested, that we probably do not have the complete correspondence between Saul and Álvaro. To summarise from the surviving content: Álvaro at some point fell seriously ill and therefore received the sacrament of penance, which at the time was supposed to be a once-in-a-lifetime event as the ill person expected to die soon. However, as Francisco Javier Simonet explains:
'In that time the practice was that the ill at great risk were obliged to fulfil a grave penance in case of recovering health. Among the requirements of this penance, one was not coming in a certain period of time to the Eucharistic mass, in so far as such people were found to be in the rank of penitents, and the absolution of this censure pertained to the appropriate bishop.'
As it turns out, Álvaro recovered from his illness and thus requested the bishop Saul to readmit him to communion. However, Saul rejects this request, telling him to seek the release he desires from those who originally imposed penance on him. The surviving correspondence concludes with an angry letter from Álvaro in which he suggests that Saul did not write the letter to which he is angrily responding, but rather some contemptible individual in his service did so. Even so, Álvaro proceeds to attack Saul's character and record, accusing him of having secured his position from the Muslim authorities through simony-like practices, as well as overseeing a number of practices contrary to proper regulations of the Church, including improper ordinations, consecrations and absolutions.
The primary issue of interest for historians looking at these letters is the question of relationships between the bishops, clergy and laypeople in this period. There are suggestions in this correspondence of the existence of groups of people who rejected the authority of bishops in Muslim-ruled Spain on the grounds of perceived closeness to the Muslim authorities, who had influence over bishop appointments in their areas of control. Álvaro, it seems, tried to show himself as someone in obedience to Saul's authority in seeking to have his request approved, but when it was denied he lashed out and highlighted issues of perceived corruption and lapses on Saul's part: these same criticisms likely spurred some of the more hardline and moral purist rejection of the authority of Saul and other bishops. Indeed, Álvaro and his friend Eulogius had already toyed with rejectionism prior to this series of letters.
For the text of these letters and the notes on Biblical references, I primarily rely on the edition contained in Corpus Scriptorum Muzarabicorum (Madrid, 1973). I welcome any suggested amendments to the translation.
XI: Begins the letter of Albarus directed to the bishop Saul
The suggestion of Paulus Albarus to my most holy master Saul the bishop
Many were the things which should have been written to your sanctity, if the storm of this era and the calamity of our time should not impede the duty of our tongue. But as the bitterness of these difficulties and the monstrosity of the whips have shut the fount of eloquence and removed the material of speaking with its mass, so briefly, with God the witness of all consciences, I present with sweet spirit and pure mind the duty of salutation to your paternity and I expound my own suggestion of my pity. I think that you have not been unaware of the loss I have incurred in this year through the danger to me and my illness, such that reaching the boundary of death I sought the remedy of penitence and after considerable despair I found the remedy of health. 'For the Lord, who brings death and brings life, leads to the gates of hell and leads back,'[i] after much vengeance of judgement and reproach of the whip that is worthy of His wonderful clemency and laudable piety and unique power, has called back from the door of danger through His accustomed mercy the one whom his crimes were already leading to Tartarus. May His name be blessed forever, whose just judgments are clear, bound as they are with justice and piety.
These things which happened, I have briefly noted for your paternity. Now those things which are to be done, again I humbly desire to implore them. Certainly from the time of illness until today I have remained shut out from the salutary remedy, and although I could enjoy reconciliation from somewhere, if I wanted, nonetheless those things which have been consecrated by the authority of the forefathers I wish to fulfil and I have wanted to seek your permission and through the order of your paternity I have arranged to have a return to communion, and from there I have not sought this elsewhere, for with God as witness I have feared the sentence of Jesus our God and Lord. Hence I ask that the letter of your paternity should reach the one you consider pre-eminent, better and more apt from among your priests and enjoin on him my reconciliation as you have wished. For I have been prepared to obey in all things and to give myself totally to your salutary precepts, so long as I am not deprived of the remedy of the communion, for plainly I am afflicted with huge tedium, while I grieve that I am banished from the banquet of the nuptials of the Lamb. But whatever sort of law of fasting, alms or temperance of good dead you have placed for me, I desire to accomplish it and not deviate in any way from the rules of truth or possibility. For our spirit is inclined to fulfil all the commands and keep in check with the reins of temperance the mind as it wanders through the side tracks, keeping it away from all the illicit commands and things prohibited by paternal ordination, as much as possibility has allowed.
So I ask and beseech with tearful entreaties that your paternity should enjoin on any of the priests for us to be released, but if something else is out there for us to do, let it also write this back to its humble one rather quickly, as in all things our tenuity arranges to obey you and does not desire to go across the boundaries of the forefathers[ii] with proud insolence. Nonetheless I beseech this reply of yours in this week; which if I do not deserve to reserve it, from your brothers and bishops I will arrange to implore the reconciliation, for I cannot stand to be deprived from the body of my God and His blood for such great time. So this I have noted to you, as I desire to see your quick response and as I am bound, I avoid retaining this festivity among others. May I deserve to enjoy happily and rather quickly your pleasant face in joy and delight. The end.
XII: Thus the reply of Saul the bishop directed to Albarus
We had many necessary things which we had to write to your faces, but through the impediment of fault everyday we are wallowing in lament, that neither our tongue can narrate that which our mind is suffering nor the characters of writing that which is due, as scripture says: 'The dwelling of the senses has failed the one who ponders many things.'[iii] But taking into consideration your utmost love, I have increased all the things that your pen explained in the same place, as I imagine it, but more fully so, and I have learnt that you have been released from the excess weakness of body such that you say that you have no approach to see us, but that you desire that one of the priests of Cordoba should be directed by me in writing to shape and release you and restore you to body of Christ, as you say that there were several who were compelled to err unwillingly.
What will we say to these things, as we bear the time of being silent today?[iv] For we do not prejudge anyone and we damn no one, nor do we justify that which we do not know, nor do we punish that of which we are ignorant. But you, who know their minds and weigh up the wills, as the approach for you to see us is denied, take up absolution from those, from whom you have also taken up penitence. For if then the imposition of their hand was worthy, absolution will also now be accepted without doubt. For, as we have intimated to you, it is not of my measure to make judgement about such matters, unless also our issue has been put out to their legitimate council with the inspiration of God. But as I have previously informed your sweetness, I note that this business has been forbidden to every cleric when the bishop is present: then the regular procedure says that this is permitted to whomsoever it has been enjoined upon, when either the longevity of the journey or the weakness of the body prevents it from being possible for the bishop. But now what can you place in opposition to these things? Since you have me present, why refusing the presence do you seek a letter and seek through writing that which you can hear with live conversation? But plainly you assert some people as being muddied in swampy water and mark them as near the Migentianians,[v] the Donatists[vi] and the Luciferians. Therefore I am surprised about you, a prudent and industrious men, concerning why you damn those who so far preserve the counsel censure and are not led by the example of the perishing multitude, but rather retain with unshaken mind those things that the authority of the forefathers has sanctioned, until the pronouncement of most of the bishops either confirms the edict or the consultation modifies the decrees. For, as we have said, we ought not to rebel against the church when we are those who are seen to be serving the ecclesiastical laws. Indeed previously, most loving one, we have written to you in semi-plain form, as we were ignorant of the characters of your letter. But now, as we have found with our own letters and we notice your hand, therefore we have written to you in a friendly manner for the sake of the remedy of your mind, though we ask you with all our efforts to seek out those things which are holy and avoid the company of the wicked. For since it has been said: 'He who touches tar, will be made equally defiled by it,'[vii] what absolution will be able to apply for you to take the sacraments, if you are seen carried tomorrow by some pact to a pseudo-bishop? This is the pronouncement of the Lord, not our own: 'Do not fear those who kill a body, for truly they do not harm to the soul.'[viii] Salomon says something similar to this: 'He who fears men, will quickly fall. But he who has hope in the Lord, will be strengthened,'[ix] and other things that are not hidden to your prudence. This things and things similar to them I ask you to bear in mind always as before and thus admit yourself to the sacrament of reconciliation. But if something else pleases, do that which seems good to you or what which you have observed through the teaching of your prudence. With these things aired out I have said as much as I have been able to say. I have been aware of very many things, but I have directed a few to your kindness. The saints of God are mindful of you, and I am for all. We greet all in the holy kiss, whom the prison retains among your kin. May I merit to see you in joy. Amen.
XIII: Thus the letter of Albarus directed to Saul the bishop
We have received the letter directed in your name to us, and we have known it to be not your recitation, but of that little man, whom we have often known to be the disturber of the homeland and the sower of many heresies. And although we write purely and simply with our own hand seeking to obtain the remedies of the soul, you on the contrary offer to us not the cups of life, but poisons and you do so in a biting and deceitful manner not from your own mind, but from a stomach wounded by many potions. And you cast far away the son from your kindness.
And you think that not only one, but the whole flock is morbid by some counsel, whom not through medicinal treatments, but with rabid teeth you tear apart, and you destroy your limbs by your own hands. Oh what great javelins have had to be thrown to destroy the wicked one, if he should struggle face-to-face as a strenuous man in fighting, and not secretly, as a testudo, should he sharpen his sword on the shoulders like women! He having been condemned by his own judgement is neither properly a confessor nor a priest, whom the habit approves as a confessor and the tongue as a derider, whom the threads and wool approve as a religious sheep and the length of the beard[x] affirms to be a layman, whom the feigning of God shows to be a holy man of work and the emulation of detraction shows to be a haughty man. For what surprise is it if he who tries to infringe on the teachers detracts the priests of our time, if he who does not hesitate to distort the struggles of the martyrs is eager to damn the clerics? Oh what great testimonies had to be intended to destroy this person who is not most wise, but a foolish little man, and what great things had to be broken in the [?][xi] of the unfounded letter, if the reverence of your honour should not bind us!
For the end destroys the beginning and not going forth as it began wrote things contradicting itself in the end. So the stupid editor, circumventing sanctity and wisdom, did not avoid stupid locution, and while denouncing the condemned, he busied himself to release the bound person, but he himself did not find him released even as he should release him from his own invective. I, my lord, as I have expounded the misery of my danger by the testation of the divine power, demanded a remedy. And you not from yourselves purely, but rather you seek a sophist who should respond to me as if I were an enemy, or rather you ask not a sophist, but a solecist, and you incite us to react even as we are at rest and grieve for your blessedness. But we notice the pronouncements of Salomon and we have known that they have long since been dispersed by you, as we have seen prior to your bishop honour that you have participated so many times with a certain person declared anathema, contrary to the institutes of the forefathers and the decrees of the predecessors, and we have experienced after the honour that you shared in such action along with the priests participating in it and this occurred with no fear of terror, no occasion of fear, but rather only with the will of the mind and the affection of delight. Certainly you recall, when you display to him the casula[xii] for wearing for the sacrifice of mass, what great things I suggested to you in those days, driven as I was by love of you. What great people declared anathema by the forefathers are irrationally absolved by your order without council, certainly you are not unaware. Recall, I beseech, the not unblemished beginnings of your consecration and things rather near to the error of simony. For the beginnings of your undertaking could have been approved canonically by anyone's assertion, if the forty solidi had not been paid openly to the eunuchs and others, indeed not secretly, but through Arabic signature, having been delegated to the debtors from the prosperity of the church (which is illicit) and gathered from that ministry by which it is not permitted to bestow things even to faithful lay people, if over the priests alone the trifles of the church are dispersed. How many priests, I ask, have been ordained without testimony, how many people have been consecrated without the participation of the clerics and sons of the church, how many churches have been divided contrary to the institutions of the forefathers through the duplicated priesthood- that is, two pastors each, how many men have been put in place by you in various orders against the canons through all the basilicas: I ask you please to see this for yourselves.
But all these things you cast behind the back and so much, instead of us, do you have open eyes on these priests of our time, and this is not so in any other time except when our suggestion gets you. For face to face you have both seen the honourable abbot Atanagildus and you have wanted to say this to him in person and you ordered Eulogius to perform sacrifice in the first attack of the persecution[xiii] and now you fight against your very selves solely because of us. Oh happy and much happy person whom the time of council that you wait for has found! If only now the serenity would return, and the storm would go away! I think that the tongue of many have been growing silent and those mouths have been imposing a restraint on themselves as not knowing how to speak they so far whisper through the caves. For what you say: 'He who fears men will quickly fall. But he who places his hope in the Lord will be strengthened,' and that Gospel saying: 'Do not fear those who kill a body, for they can do no harm to the soul'- you say these things truly and religiously. But I am surprised why the one teaching the most brave things is hidden and isolated from his own on account of fear of men he wanders through various areas. But indeed as in the beginning you order me to be ironically released by those who have bound me, adding: 'For if then the imposition of their hand was worthy, absolution will also now be accepted without doubt,' that sciolist could never notice what he has said against himself in this place, and avoiding the saltiness of the Sardians[xiv] he does not know how he has incurred the swampy water. For if indeed he has also not said this ironically, why has he forbidden us in the end from company of the wicked and affirmed that such people have been made unjust with the touch of tar? If indeed, as the text of the letter teaches, he brought this forth in derision in the beginning and tried to insult us through this, let the nervous one hear, as he will applaud himself, the assertor and woody one, not the palace dictator: what therefore of your own does the pastor properly busy himself to release in person, when the transgressors, not having an order of binding, have hardly bound him? Therefore how will the one who has not been bound be able to be released? For if you take away from them the power of binding, therefore cease to ask for the release of the one who has not been bound. And let this be the response to him. But we have the Lord of all as the judge of our conscience, as He is capable of taking care of the invalid without reproach. For although the Levite and the priest have dismissed the one wounded by thugs, the merciful Samaritan brought him back half-dead to an inn, poured oil on his marks, gave money to the inn-keeper.[xv] Nonetheless, my lord, I will not seek further your opinion flowing from the mouth of another, as plainly we are wearied by serving the opinions of others and not your most pure ones.
[i] 1 Samuel 2:6.
[ii] Cf. Proverbs 22:28.
[iii] Wisdom 9:15.
[iv] Cf. Ecclesiastes 3:7.
[v] As Coope suggests, the letter in which Álvaro made these assertions and to which Saul is referring does not appear to survive. For the specific term here: it refers to followers of an eighth-century Iberian writer called Migetius, an account of whose doctrine survives in the letter of Elipandus (bishop of Toledo) to Migetius. In summary, Migetius taught that the Trinity was embodied in three persons: David (the Father), Jesus (the Son) and the Holy Spirit (Paul).
[vi] A trend that originated in North Africa and stressed the need for administration of sacraments by sinless men. As a result the Donatists and those dubbed by this name are associated with rejection of valid Church authority.
[vii] Ecclesiasticus 13:1.
[viii] Matthew 10:28.
[ix] Proverbs 29:25.
[xi] Lacuna in the original text.
[xii] On this garment, cf. De Habitu Clericorum.
[xiii] The incident in question is discussed in Álvaro's Life of Eulogius. According to the biography, Eulogius, partly drawing on encouragement from Álvaro, refused to perform the function of sacrifice required by his position in the priesthood, protesting the policies of the bishop Reccafredus, who opposed the martyrs movement. However, Saul threatened Eulogius with being marked as anathema if he did not return to perform the priestly sacrifice. Eulogius gave in.
[xiv] Cf. Revelation 3:1-6 on the church of Sardis and its shortcomings.
[xv] Cf. Luke 10:30-37.