July 2006

Maureen McClarnon


The Burning Time by Robin Morgan

Robin Morgan, the well-known Second Wave feminist, decided to take on the Inquisition (the Medieval Inquisition, or the six-century-long “Burning Time”), which was truly unexpected when it landed in Ireland in the 14th century. The Irish had happily been practicing both Catholicism and what is referred to in Morgan’s book as the Craft, or Wicca, for thousands of years, while the Church looked on indulgently. Then they were sent a bishop with a grudge and boom!, the whole country ends up plagued by religious strife for centuries.

I’m not sure why Morgan decided to go the fictional route with this story; for the most part, the book is too didactic to be enjoyable as fiction, while some parts have too much of a modern sensibility to ring true. Judging from the author’s note on the Melville House website, Morgan did a fair amount of research for this book, which is based on real people and events, and she definitely has an agenda, which would be better served outside of the pages of a novel, where readers such as myself might grow irritated at the constant slamming over the head. Putting aside my personal irritation, I think I can objectively say that agendas do not a plot make. (And, while I’m being personal, let me say that I happily and loudly proclaim myself a feminist, but what I want out of a story versus a tract are two different things. Now, the second can masquerade as the first, but only if it does so subtly and wears a good costume.)

Actually, I have a pretty good guess as to why fiction: Morgan was seduced by the temptation to put words in the mouths of her characters, and especially her main character, Dame Alyce Kyteler, an Irish noblewoman who is on husband number four (and she’s tossed him out of the house), can read and write, treats her serfs as equals, and practices the Craft. She’s a healer and acts as midwife for those who live on her land, and doesn’t dress or act like any of the other nobles. In other words, Dame Alyce would be an amazing woman by today’s standards, much less those of the 14th century, which makes her somewhat less believable. Was anyone in the 1300s so unaware of class? Morgan does show a struggle of sorts between Alyce and her people when they want to plot a different course to escape the Inquisition, but otherwise the Dame is, well, kind of a hippie.

Dame Alyce’s foil is Bishop Richard de Ledrede, who is smarmy and careerist and has a real stick up his ass over being sent to such a backwater. He focuses all of his hatred and, indeed, his entire portion of the Inquisition on Dame Alyce and her people with the force of a personal mission -- which, as Morgan frames it, this was. Ledrede could deal with her being a learned woman -- why, they might even have scholarly discussions! -- but he would not stand for her being uppity and, ultimately, snubbing him (and his attempts to save her soul). Ledrede sees Kyteler as the lynchpin of Ireland’s heretics; any other blood spilled in the process is collateral damage. The book makes the Inquisition seem much more personalized and vendetta-based, instead of scary and almost random, the product of a system that gives points to bishops and others who send bad souls to hell. Dame Alyce doesn’t bother to fear Ledrede’s threats until she’s on the run from his army. Fortunately, she has people who fear for her, mainly Petronilla de Meath, the only other member of the Kyteler homestead whose ultimate fate is well-documented.

If you’re at all like me, you will think, as you read this book, that these self-identified witches should work a spell, or brew up some poison, to get rid of the Inquisitors before they can do any harm. The Wiccans are Glenda Good Witches, too busy celebrating harvests and concocting herbal cures to use their knowledge otherwise. They’re also hampered by a Crafty karma: “Whatever you send out will return to you threefold.”

Morgan’s author’s note (which really should be part of the book) makes it pretty clear that she sees all of the Inquisitions as wars against women (females did bear the brunt of the casualties). This comes out in the novel as a host of flat characters: the women in the book are very wise; the men are vain, stupid, evil, or all of the above (and if they aren’t, they get killed); and anyone who steps outside of their allotted role is only doing it to further their own interests. If she’d written nonfiction, Morgan could have drawn in all three Inquisitions to make her case instead of forcing boring and somewhat predictable characters upon the reader (the end does have a surprise bit -- it’s set up in a scene at the beginning, and really was the main thing that kept me reading). She also could have gone into detail about feast preparation and other facts of medieval living without bogging down the story.

I could close this review with too many bad puns on the title, but I’ll resist and just suggest that if you’re looking for an instructive read, skip the book and go to the author’s note; if you’re looking for a ripping good historical read, umm, read something else. But if you want to learn something, with a bit of fancy thrown in, this is your book.

The Burning Time by Robin Morgan
Melville House Publishing
ISBN: 193363300X
300 pages