The Burning Time by Robin Morgan


Word Press This claims to be based on historical fact, but it’s actually based on an early twentieth century theory which has been completely discredited and is, basically, a load of twaddle. It’s an entertaining book, with some wonderful, vivid descriptions – although it’s extremely infuriating that the author puts t’is and t’was instead of ’tis and ’twas, and her attempts at Irish dialect sound like a bizarre cross between Scottish, West Country and Yorkshire – but it’s presented as being historically accurate when it really isn’t.

It’s based around the Kilkenny witch hunt of the 1320s, something which definitely did take place. Witch hunts in the British Isles are usually associated with the late 16th and the 17th centuries, but they went on before and after that as well. Dame Alyce Kyteler, a wealthy woman living in the Kilkenny area, and several people associated with her, were accused of witchcraft by a fanatical churchman called Richard de Ledrede. Alyce herself escaped, and is thought to have lived out the rest of her life in England. Her son was, thanks to his powerful connections, let off fairly lightly … on condition that he pay to have the local cathedral re-roofed. The poorer people accused, without money or connections, were imprisoned, and one of them, Dame Alyce’s servant Petronilla de Meath, became the first person burned as a witch in Ireland, in 1324.

The whole witch hunting thing was utterly horrific. I was in the Pendle area on Sunday, and being there always makes me think about witch hunts. People murdered – there’s no other word for it – because of a bit of hearsay, the word of someone who had a grudge against them, knowing a bit of herbal lore, having a mole on their body … it was just horrendous. And, as Robin Morgan says, a lot of it was about misogyny and a lot of it was about money. However, she claims that up to nine million people may have been killed as a result of witch hunts, whereas the usual estimate is around fifty thousand. And the way things are portrayed in this book … well, as I’ve said, it’s all based on a totally discredited theory.

The idea is that pre-Christian, pagan ideas continued to be practised across the British Isles and Europe well into medieval times and beyond. Now, there is an element of truth in this. Hallowe’en is very definitely pinched from the Celtic festival of Samhain, and a lot of traditions relating to Easter, and indeed the very word “Easter”, are also pinched from pre-Christian times. Some old traditions lasted … well, probably until industrialisation and urbanisation. But what’s shown in this book is nonsense. For a kick off, some old traditions may have lasted but that doesn’t mean that people were worshipping pagan gods and goddesses, setting themselves up in covens, casting spells and carrying out pagan rituals. The way it’s shown is actually a bit insulting to the memory of pagan times: some of it sounds as if Mildred Hubble and Miss Cackle are about to turn up!   Most of it doesn’t, to be fai;, but it’s based on modern Wicca, which was only developed in the twentieth century. There is an idea that Wiccan traditions have been handed down from pre-Christian times, and that’s all tied up with this theory that the witch hunts were really all about persecuting Wiccans, but it just isn’t the case. This isn’t in any way meant as a criticism of modern Wicca – the world would be a much better place if all religions would concentrate more on nature – but it was not practised in today’s form in the 14th century.

These ideas all seem to be linked up with the growth of interest in folk culture in the 19th century, which again is all tied up with nationalism. And another issue with this book, linked in with that, is the strange ideas which some American authors have about Ireland. I read a book last year, called “Away”, by an author who seemed quite convinced that everyone in 19th century Ireland thought that people could literally be away with the fairies.   The idea that the witch hunts were about persecuting Wiccans isn’t particularly associated with Ireland, but Robin Morgan seems to’ve got it all mixed up with this idea of Ireland as a land of faerie folk!   She claims that Christianity in medieval Ireland was a syncretic religion of pre-Christian traditional beliefs and a bit of Catholicism. Maybe she’s got Irish Catholicism confused with the genuine syncretic religions found in parts of South and Central America!  Even better, she claims that Catholicism in Ireland was imposed by the English! In the High Middle Ages. I’d love to know who she thinks St Patrick was, in that case!

This version of events is actually considerably more interesting than what really seems to have happened, which is that Alyce Kyteler was denounced by her stepchildren because of bad feeling over money, and various other people sadly got caught in the crossfire. But it’s quite frightening how these alternative theories of events – not this particular witch hunt, but witch hunts in general – can be presented as fact. There are a lot of theories about … well, a lot of things. Take the idea, famously presented in The Da Vinci Code but around well before that was published, that Jesus was married to Mary Magdalene and they had children and their descendants have for nearly two thousand years been protected by a secret society. Some of the ideas in The Da Vinci Code, about the suppression of the idea of the mother goddess by misogynistic religions, come across in this book too, incidentally – and the fact that most, if not all, major religions are misogynistic is one thing that certainly is true. Anyway, the point is that long, involved theories about history can be formulated with very little evidence. Sometimes they can be very dangerous, when they’re used against a particular group of people.  This idea about the widespread practice of Wicca in the Middle Ages, and witch hunts being all about attacking it, really isn’t given any credence by any respected historian. This is an entertaining book, but it claims to be based on historical fact and it just isn’t.

4 thoughts on “The Burning Time by Robin Morgan

  1. Val,yates

    “All major religions are misogynistic” That’s a very sweeping statement Alison, not sure that I’d agree — interesting and informative article, particularly regarding witch hunts


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