Back in 2007 I posted a tendentious and hilarious description of a North African group called the Circumcellions, which began:
The Circumcellions were a Christian suicide cult of the fourth and fifth centuries. Their religious practice consisted of delivering random beatings to strangers along the road, with the purpose of goading the strangers into killing them. If that didn’t work, they just threw themselves off a cliff instead[…]
There was much convivial discussion, with the usual divagations (including a prolonged one on Burushaski as “a Dravidian outlier, like Basque”), in the course of which a few sober souls pointed out that modern scholarship was pretty dubious about the whole “wacky club-wielding suicide sect” thing, and since I’ve gotten to a point in Peter Brown’s Through the Eye of a Needle where he discusses them, I thought I’d give modern scholarship equal time. He’s been talking about the large gangs of harvesters, often tied to their employers by debt, whose “hope of reward depended on the random oscillation of crop yields in a dry region”:
A wave of violence had rocked southern Numidia in the late 340s. Significantly, the principal aim of this violence had been the cancellation of debts. What is equally significant was that the violent bands of which we happen to know were led by Christians. Two otherwise unknown figures, Axido and Fasir, were acclaimed as “leaders of the saints.” The bands that were mobilized at this time were called by their supporters Agonistici: “Fighters [for the Lord].” Their enemies called them circumcelliones—Circumcellions. in all probability, “Circumcellion” was originally a religiously neutral term. It was used of the laborers who attempted to scrounge a living by gathering around the warehouses, the cellae, on the great estates in the hope of employment or of handouts of food.
We know of the Circumcellions largely through Augustine’s account of them. He presented them as a religious phenomenon. He spoke of them as dangerous “crazies”—as a species of terrorist monks given to murder, mayhem, and suicide. The outside world was encouraged to believe that the Circumcellions were a constant threat to law and order throughout the countryside of Africa and that they were the strong-arm men of the rival church to Augustine’s own Catholic community. In this way, a phenomenon born of the gray misery of rural Numidia has come to be known to us almost exclusively from the works of Augustine writing hundreds of miles away, in the distant coastal city of Hippo. He consistently presented them as a melodramatic, religious phenomenon.
We should always be aware of Augustine’s distortion of the evidence. When we talk of Augustine’s Africa we must bear in mind that what Augustine presents is a landscape deliberately viewed through religiously tinted glasses through which we can see only so much of a vast and complex world.
And now you know… the rest of the story.