I’m pretty sure this is the most entertaining description of a religious sect I’ve ever read. I hadn’t heard of the Circumcellions, and I’m guessing most of you haven’t either; the OED decorously limits itself to “A name given to the Donatist fanatics in Africa during the 4th c., from their habit of roving from house to house” (hence the name: Latin circum ‘around’ + cella ‘cell’), but the linked article says:

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[…]

Sociologically, the Circumcellions were the Roman equivalent of trailer trash — rural, uneducated and less-than-notable in terms of contribution to the gross national product. The only job of a Circumcellion was simply “being a Circumcellion.” Despite this, members of the sect didn’t starve to death… because that would take too long.

Although they considered themselves breakaway Christians, one would be hard-pressed to develop a theological justification for the Circumcellions. Its parent cult, the Donatists, was founded on the basis of an extremely complex stand that generally extolled the virtues of Martyrdom.

The Circumcellions took the premise to lemming-like proportions (literally) and decided that martyrdom was the ultimate Christian value. They set out to accomplish it… by any means necessary.

According to the gospels, Jesus told Peter to put away his sword in the Garden of Gethsemane, shortly before the Crucifixion. Many Christians have taken this command as an injunction to nonviolence and evidence of Christ’s pacifism.

The Circumcellions, on the other hand, took this passage to mean that they shouldn’t use bladed weapons. Instead, they favored large clubs, which they inexplicably called “Israelites.”

Using their “Israelites,” the Circumcellions whacked their victims around in the hopes of provoking their own martyrdom, all the while shouting “Praise the Lord!” in Latin[…]

There’s more where that came from, including an argument (I don’t know if accurate) that it was the Circumcellions who were responsible for the doctrine of the “just war”: “it was in response to the wacky shenanigans of the Circumcellions that St. Augustine wrote the first major theological justification for the use of violence by Christians — so that they could defend themselves against the club-wielding morons.” (Via Kattullus’s MetaFilter post on a podcast lecture series about the Byzantine Empire by Lars Brownworth.)


  1. Salvation by cop :o)

  2. Elemental warning; do not go randomly browsing around unless you have a strong stomach, people 🙂 .

  3. John Emerson says

    An unjustly maligned group, in my opinion, from whom we could learn much if we were only able.

  4. John,
    surely you mean “if they had only let us”…

  5. Monty Python lives.

  6. I fear that most here are hardened souls incapable of receiving the message.

  7. Google Books offers the start of a chapter giving a more modern interpretation, which sees as much of the social as the religious in their motivations.
    Augustine’s many complaints are online. Sometimes they sound like thugs recruited by the Donatists and other times just gyrovagi, the unsettled monks that Benedict sought to get under control. Once things settle down, the standard picture is then already one that Isidore summarizes. So that Cotton Mather sees a good tactic in comparing the Quakers to them.

  8. “Monty Python lives.” Indeed.
    I very much enjoy reading your and your fans’ posts. To get in the spirit, I’d like to comment on the link’s reference to “lemming-like” as a suicide en-masse context. can sometimes unearth and de-bunk something that, in this case, has become accepted as fact since 1958.
    Check out their article.
    Carl Haiasen would love this.

  9. Oh, and the Agonistici’s battle cry was, “Laudes Deo“. I guess “Praise the Lord!” is close in spirit, if not so literal.

  10. Of interest from a linguistic point of view is the fact (I *might* be able to dig up the reference, if anyone’s interested) that many Circumcellion leaders (and most of their followers too, I suppose) were *monolingual* speakers of Punic, with whom the Roman authorities had to negociate through interpreters.

    My favorite part is that they called their clubs “Israelites”. I would love to know where that usage came from.

  12. Far off topic, but I’m pretty sure that LH will enjoy this Wiki entry:
    Attempts have been made to establish a genealogic relationship between Burushaski and Sumerian,[citation needed] and the Caucasian, Dravidian,[citation needed] and Indo-European language families; Burushaski is also part of the Dené-Caucasian hypothesis, along with Yeniseian, Caucasian, and Sino-Tibetan. However, none of these efforts have met with general acceptance.

    Exactly. And may I say that while in general I am all in favor of sober historical truth, in this particular case I much prefer the popular myth.
    I’m pretty sure that LH will enjoy this Wiki entry
    If by “enjoy” you mean “clutch his head and groan theatrically,” then yes.

  14. I would love to know where that usage came from.
    Perhaps from the Passover instruction to carry a staff (Ex. 12:11)? A library is probably needed to see which of Philastrius etc. actually reported this detail in their heresy catalog; not enough of them are online.
    Gibbon of course relishes recounting this. How can it be that Google Books won’t even give any kind of preview of Tillemont, one of Gibbon’s main sources for this kind of stuff? It’s three hundred years old!
    Gibbon sees a prosaic lack of swords and spears rather than a no sharps rule. Dunno why the Wikipedia chose John 18:11 rather than the more obvious Matt. 26:52.

  15. It’s certainly clear enough that Burushaski is a Dravidian outlier, like Basque. Why Wiki creates all that confusion about the subject I don’t know.

  16. A reclassification linking Burushaski, Sumerian, Caucasian, Basque, and na-Dené? How can it be that this notion has failed to meet with general acceptance? Thank heavens we have Wikipedia.

  17. John Emerson wrote:
    An unjustly maligned group, in my opinion, from whom we could learn much if we were only able.
    Bulbul replied:
    surely you mean “if they had only let us”…
    What interests me is the structure of John’s conditional, which let me now transform progressively while preserving the sense:
    …from whom we could learn much if we were only able.
    [As given.]
    We could learn much from them if we were only able to learn much from them.
    [Moving away from a relative construction; supplying what had been elided.]
    We could φ if we were only able to φ.
    [Substituting φ for learn much from them.]
    We could φ if only we could φ.
    [could for were able to]
    P if only P.
    [P for we could φ]
    Now, having performed this analysis and exhibited the tight circularity of the remark, I wonder whether something like it underlay Bulbul’s query. Please explain!

  18. Why Wiki creates all that confusion about the subject I don’t know.
    Don’t you see, John? It’s all a conspiracy of narrow-minded fools unwilling to recognize the obvious truth!
    I bow to your superior skills in syntactic analysis. What I meant was simply that we are unable to learn anything from the Circumcellions because they died out as their faith commanded them to. I tried to point out the obvious lack of planning on their part and the contradiction inherent to their beliefs.
    At least I think I did…

  19. Thanks Bulbul. I understood the substance of your query, but I wondered whether the circularity had a part in motivating it. I see now that it did not. (“Superior skills in syntactic analysis?” Nah. I make it up as I go.)

  20. “There would be much to learn from them, if we were only up to the task”.
    I’m gonna get me one of them “Israelites”. No longer will I slash my victims with bladed weapons. I’ve seen the light at least to that extent.

  21. Theresa, only I have realized the Dravidian — Basque — Burushaski connection. That is my theory which is mine.

  22. No longer will I slash my victims with bladed weapons.
    Now all I can think about is Dr. Rogers pronouncing those faithful words “A blunt force trauma to the head.”
    And Mr. Eko’s staff. I don’t know why, but I expect you will adorn your Israelite in a similar manner, John.

  23. FATEFUL. Goshdarnit, it’s too late in the evening for it to be early in the morning….

  24. Another minor clue:
    Herman Witsius, a 17th century Dutch theologian, writes in De Schismate Donatistarum that they called their weapons baculos Israelis. That is, ‘staffs of Israel’, not ‘Israelites’. Which is still perfectly consistent with Exodus or the more martial Is. 10:5.
    So now it would be even more interesting to see what earlier sources really said. If no lurking heresiologist pipes up. The nearby Catholic university is still finishing up their school year. But soon they all go home: the drunken leavings in front of our house cease, and their library is practically empty.

  25. I think The Lurking Heresiologist would be a stupendous name for a blog(ger).

  26. “Laudes Deo!” I will cry, my faithful Israelite in hand, and the Linguistic Society of America will finally unanimously accept my Dravidian Origins theory, which is mine, of the origins of all languages in Dravidian, which is the origin of all languages.
    An evidently true theory whose rejection heretofore is a shame and a disgrace, but vengeance shall be mine!

  27. David Marjanović says

    Wow. Just… wow. Sounds exactly as if Monty Python had made it up. I kept laughing for minutes!

    A reclassification linking Burushaski, Sumerian, Caucasian, Basque, and na-Dené? How can it be that this notion has failed to meet with general acceptance?

    Because most of the evidence was published by an obscure and somewhat idiosyncratic Russian, or rather, much of it was only published online (in English, though!) because the good man died before getting it into print. It follows that few people have looked at the evidence — debate is whatcha put on de hook to catch de fish. There are, however, regular sound correspondences, matching personal pronouns, and as much morphology as the near-total lack of morphology in Sino-Tibetan has allowed so far. Check out the Wikipedia article — it has grown a lot over the last half year.
    Oh, BTW, don’t worry about Sumerian. There’s little evidence for Sumerian belonging to anything. 🙂

  28. Do not confuse John Emerson’s theory of Dravidian-Burushaski Universalism with garden-variety Nostraticism. It is his own theory, which is his, and backed up by his mighty and non-edged Israelite.

  29. marie-lucie says

    A reclassification linking Burushaski, Sumerian, Caucasian, Basque, and na-Dené? How can it be that this notion has failed to meet with general acceptance?
    I assume that this is a serious question and not tongue-in-cheek, but in any case, many people are very interested in this kind of topic.
    There are currently several schemes for linking large numbers of languages usually considered to be unrelated, many of them little known outside a very small circle. Some of the same languages have been linked differently by different people, so that most of these large scale classifications do not inspire confidence and cannot at the moment “meet with general acceptance”, even if some aspects of them might seem promising. For instance, there is more than one version of “Nostratic”, which includes many languages of the Old Word, but many of the same languages have been made part of “Eurasiatic” (one of Greenberg’s proposals) along with a different set of other languages. The proposals cannot all be right, but which one of these groupings (if any) should “meet with general acceptance”? As for the languages quoted above, it would be safe to group them together under the general title “languages or families which are little-known and which have not been demonstrated to be related to any others”.
    What is meant by “general acceptance”? by whom? how many people are in a position to give an informed opinion? very, very few. It is true that some scholars, even linguists, who are not familiar with the particular difficulties of language classification and history (and this is far from being a fashionable area within linguistics at the present moment, let alone outside of it) have been inclined to accept anything new in this area as exciting and probably right, and the public has followed suit, but not too many people, even linguists, have an idea of what serious work in the field entails, and very few have the training and experience to disentangle the certain, the possible and the improbable, even within an area that is well-known and has been worked on by large numbers of linguists pooling their knowledge, which is not the case with the languages quoted above.
    When a startling new discovery in the “hard sciences” is announced, as with “cold fusion” some years ago, there are dozens of labs with qualified personnel who immediately try to replicate the experiments, and if they can’t, the new “discovery” crashes to the ground and the scientists involved are discredited among their peers, and forgotten by society. Not so in historical and classificatory linguistics, where the public has a field day when the specialists do not accept a proposal, especially if it is told “see? you can do just as well if not better than those old fuddy-duddies, the so-called specialists!” (this has been Greenberg and Ruhlen’s approach).
    That said, I personally have no expertise in any of the languages listed above, nor have I read anything on the subject, so I cannot express an informed opinion, whether positive or negative. However, work which, although known to just a few people, is not picked up, translated, advanced or built upon by anyone else who would be qualified to do so, is sometimes deservedly ignored. Skepticism is recommended.

  30. marie-lucie says

    p.s. David, I tried clicking on “looked” in your post, but nothing happened. I will gladly look at the source you mention, or at another, if I can.

  31. Speaking as a lurking heresiologist, redirected here from Making Light, I have to say that the picture of the circumcellions is pretty unlikely. I haven’t read Brent Shaw’s chapter as linked to above, but AFAIK all the stories about the circumcellions derive from Augustine and Optatus of Milevis, who were not exactly the most impartial witnesses.
    So the image of the circumcellions looks to me like a confection of exactly the kind of thing you would say about the bandits on the road from Hippo to Carthage, especially if they were associated with a church that you were desperate to portray as fanatical (because they regarded the Catholics as unreasonably lax), and especially if it was in your interest to make them seem lower-class and uneducated and generally risible.
    Aha: here is a different version of Brent Shaw’s piece, which adds more sources only to dismiss them, but which otherwise says much the same thing.
    I don’t know about the “Israelites” thing, though.

  32. Sorry to post again: having read Brent Shaw’s piece more closely it strikes me that his dismissal of the Augustinian De Haeresibus looks rather like special pleading. I don’t think that the argument will work that it was, in effect, written by Augustine in a fit of absence of mind. Clearly he actively wanted to present circumcellions as suicidal fanatics.
    The explanation is probably in his Letter 185, in which he is setting out to defend the use of judicial coercion in converting Donatists to the “Catholic” church. (See especially paragraph 23.) To make this argument work – and it evidently caused disquiet at the time, or he wouldn’t have had to write and preserve the letter – he needs to establish the Donatists as not only heretics but also criminals. So first of all he links them with the omnipresent bandits on the roads of North Africa, who may well have been Donatists if only because it was a popular cause, especially among the less Romanised population. Then he needs to neutralise the powerful claim that the Donatists have to be a rigorous church of martyrs (which was already part of their claim, and was about to get a lot of fuel with judicial trials raising the spectre of the Great Persecution again). This was best done by defining what they did as not martyrdom but suicide – and making it self-evidently pointless and ludicrous.
    So Augustine is faced with a potential martyr church with popular support among the lower classes; and he is trying to justify a policy of judicial coercion, to a man (Count Boniface) who is obviously a high-ranking Roman official (even if North African in origin). It seems to me that these are precisely the terms in which you would most effectively portray them. And even then, Augustine is forced to rely on telling stories without giving any real details, and which (in one case) he frankly admits are little more than rumours. I doubt you could have found a single contemporary “circumcellion” who would have fitted the description.
    Of course, none of this is amenable to proof and you may prefer to trust Augustine. But it looks to me that the whole modern image comes from a very credulous, and to my mind implausible, reading of the evidence. And this is stuff I care about.
    So you probably didn’t want all this here, and the myth is fun in itself, but I thought it might be worth saying.

  33. We of the faithful do not welcome so-called “critical investigations” of the truths by which we live and thump.

  34. So you probably didn’t want all this here
    No, no, one of the things I love about having this blog is that people who know far more than I do come along and educate me! Thanks very much for those enlightening comments.
    And John Emerson, you can put that Israelite down. Now. I don’t want to have to tell you twice.

  35. I didn’t see anything about weapons in Optatus’ De Schismate Donatistarum. But I only had immediate access to the English translation and the index is meagre. A 17th century Latin edition happens to be in EEBO, so that’ll allow full text search.
    In Contra litteras Petiliani, Augustine mocks the piety of not using swords, “An praeter Evangelium vos loqui arbitremini, si dixeritis: Qui fuste usus fuerit, fuste morietur?” ‘Should you think that you were going beyond the words of the gospel if you should say, All they that take the cudgel shall perish with the cudgel?’ (English or Latin; search for para. 195.) But I don’t see him giving them a special name here.
    Oh, and that same Latin site has the text of Letter 108, where is says (para. 14.) that they needed to have things translated into Punic for them, which was mentioned above. Dunno why the English for that letter isn’t online.

  36. Steve, we few remaining Circumcellions are negotiating mergers with Rastafarians, rude boys, hard core punks, death-metal-heads, Hell’s Angels, and gangsta rappers. Negotiations are difficult and often fatal, but we expect to end up with a lean, mean, spiritual teaching.

  37. I don’t know if this was said already, but Michael Gaddis in the Princeton guide to Late Antiquity claims that the use of clubs (which he says were called “Israels”) was a way of avoiding the (strictly-defined) shedding of blood. Concussive trauma indeed.
    I’m just off to read Optatus, in case he says anything interesting on the matter.

  38. Nothing much in Optatus, but this book by Michael Gaddis is not only entertaining but very useful. He refers to the “Israels” usage and derives it from Augustine, Enarratio in Psalmos 10.5 (available here) which he quotes as terribiles fustes Israelis uocare. This might make them “staffs of Israel”, as MMcM said above.
    The Latin text I linked to there has the reading Israeles, though, which would indeed have them being called “Israels”, as in this translation. (Note that the numbering is different: look for 11.5.) Since this is what Gaddis seems to call them, I presume he must be reading Israelis as an accusative plural.
    The fullest reference to these fustes Israeles seems to come in Augustine’s Psalmus contra partem Donati, and seems to link the name to Jacob’s renaming as Israel (“a name bestowed by God with honour” – referring apparently to Genesis 32:28, and not 32:23 as the footnote there says). But that might not be the real reason for the naming, if there was one, because it seems to make a point for Augustine: Israel in Hebrew apparently means “he who struggles with God”, which would be a nice way of defining a heretic. There doesn’t seem to be any English translation of the Psalm Against the Donatists, sadly. Perhaps I shall have to do it myself.

  39. Frend’s The Donatist Church says, “They adopted a monastic-looking habit, and besides their clubs, ‘Israels’, they carried martyrs’ relics with they sold.” His reference is Isidore, De Officiis ecclesiasticis, ii 15. You can see the passage in the footnote here, so I don’t have to type it in. It justifies the first and last qualifications, but not the middle: nothing about the name of their clubs.
    In one of the same footnotes, Frend suggests, “The name ‘Israel’ may be a corruption of ‘Azael’ = ‘strength of God’.”
    A proximity search in CLCLT at the library for circumcellion* and israel* only comes up with Augustine (Enarrationes in Psalmos 10 and Contra Gaudentium, the second being just a coincidence). So, it looks like you’ve found the one source unless there’s something too obscure for them.
    I wonder who before Gibbon translated it ‘Israelites’, which now seems to be the standard English version.

  40. Err, … which they sold …

  41. This entry, and the comment by candle, give context for Elaine Pagels’ and Karen L. King’s “Reading Judas: The Gospel of Judas and the Shaping of Christianity.” While the Gospel of Judas was written earlier than the emergence of the Circumcellions, this book interprets “Judas” as a repudiation to a Christian cult of martyrdom. At the time, it was accepting martyrdom by wild beasts in the arenas.
    In the 1950’s, martyrdom was still presented as a high and noble calling during my religious instruction as a Roman Catholic. We were not supposed to seek martyrdom, because that would be suicide, which is wrong. However, anyone who suffered and died “for the faith” was a hero of holiness.

  42. Curious that there has been no mention of the Artotyrites here – though of course they are covered adequately at the immortal but strangely dormant thread Tabellion.
    Nyeh… Tabellion, circumcellion, shlemiellion.

  43. Siganus Sutor says

    “Strangely dormant”? I don’t know what things look like from the Land of Oz, but in a third world country the said thread seems to have been locked again. Or maybe it committed suicide once more after being resurrected for a short while?

  44. I closed it again because the only visitants who left signs of their passage were the heretical Spamyrites. I will be glad to reopen it if any of the usual suspects wishes to leave a comment; you have only to let me know, here or via e-mail.

  45. Siganus Sutor says

    Maybe we could send you comments by e-mail, once a month or so, depending how talkative we feel (and how busy we are otherwise, in non-languagehatic life) — if you don’t mind of course. Les ciseaux d’Anastasie could even exercise their cutting edge right at the source, if need be…

  46. David Marjanović says

    p.s. David, I tried clicking on “looked” in your post, but nothing happened. I will gladly look at the source you mention, or at another, if I can.

    Sorry for the delay, I was on a congress. I also forgot to mention that Starosting himself (the “obscure Russian”) has done a lot of work on the Dené-Caucasian hypothesis, but not on whether Burushaski belongs in there.
    I suggest to start with the obvious and read the Wikipedia article on the Dené-Caucasian hypothesis. It has links to an article on the reconstructed sound system of the Proto-DC language which contains a long list of regular sound correspondences, an article that contains long, though unfinished, lists of etymologies, and to some primary literature in its two long (overlapping) lists of references.
    What is still missing from this article is a link to the Karasuk hypothesis (Burushaski and Yeniseian as sister-groups, with little or no consideration of the rest of Dené-Caucasian) and a link to this grammar of Burushaski (pdf) which makes interesting lexical comparisons to Yeniseian and one grammatical one to Sino-Tibetan.
    Any more questions? 🙂

  47. David Marjanović says

    Now, how did that g get at the end of Starostin? ~:-|
    The reason why clicking on the original “looked” didn’t work is simply that it was only bold for emphasis, not a link. It was late at night.

  48. marie-lucie says

    Thank you, David. I will have a look.

  49. Wow, thanks for those links, David, especially the final one on Burushaski! The first words turned my world upside down: “Burúshaski (stress on the second syllable)…” All these years I’ve been stressing the wrong syllable! I love those compact descriptions of languages, and it’s written in a very lively style: “For all its romantic and exotic associations, Burushaski is not much weirder than Latin, Turkish or Finnish…” I think I’m going to blog the sucker.

  50. David Marjanović says

    “Burúshaski (stress on the second syllable)…”

    Was a surprise for me, too, but much earlier — the German Wikipedia article on Burushaski, which BTW contains another lengthy description of the grammar, mentions the pronunciation right at the start.

    “For all its romantic and exotic associations, Burushaski is not much weirder than Latin, Turkish or Finnish…”

    Well, that depends on your background, at least. If all you know is Standard Average European, or even that and Chinese, Burushaski is weirder than Latin, Turkish or Finnish. For example it has a weird kind of *horror* split ergativity.

    I think I’m going to blog the sucker.

    Looking forward to it! 🙂

  51. David’s link to Burushaski is dead. I was rather intrigued by the following: ‘Another interesting feature is the consecutive, “which has no counterpart in English. It has the meaning of ‘after having done so and so’ or ‘when such and such state had arisen’; it is a kind of adverbial past participle and it is used very, very frequently in Burushaski.’
    I’m not sure what’s special about this from the description. There are plenty of languages that use something that somewhat resembles the description, including Japanese て and Mongolian -аад, -ээд, etc.

  52. David’s link to Burushaski is dead
    This one? It seems to be working, to me.
    Andrew West’s post on the Zhang Zhung and Bru sha scripts, mentioned as forthcoming in comments on the Burushaski post, is here.

  53. John Cowan says

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