1972: Evelyn Anderson and Beatrice Kosin, missionaries 1818: Matthew Clydesdale, galvanic subject

1324: Petronilla de Meath, the first Irish woman burned for heresy

November 3rd, 2011 Headsman

On this date in 1324, Ireland entered the witch-burning club by burning to death servant Petronilla de Meath for the infernal traffickings of her escaped mistress.

Alice Kyteler, the stock of a successful family in the prosperous medieval trading hub, was the real target of what Jeffrey Burton Russell reckoned “complex machinations prompted by politics and greed.”

Kyteler was on to her fourth husband and had done well from her previous matches: a little too well, in fact. The various stepchildren from Kyteler’s various marriages were aggrieved that she took the assets she married into, and lavished them on her own son from the first union — a lad sporting the unfortunate handle of William Outlaw, and the unfortunate profession of moneylender.

When these restive relations presented to the local bishop a complaint couched in a supernatural hocus-pocus, family spat met an emerging and violent continent-wide jurisprudence around hunting impiety. That bishop was English-born and French-trained Franciscan Richard de Ledrede, who saw behind the tissue of rumor and folklore a diabolical hand bent on tearing down the edifice of faith.

In this he was merely a man before his time. Civil law in these parts had previously treated witchcraft as a petty criminal offense, but in the century to come it would be promoted to existential menace, with the body count to match. That transformation was already well underway closer to Europe’s continental heart.

A veritable witches’ brew of dangerous charges against Alice ensued: that she spellbound men to steal their money; that she conducted arcane magical rituals to summon demonic aid; that she took a supernatural familiar to bed; and more. Alice and William had their own clout, however, and the case graduated into a rousing political donnybrook against the controversial bishop, “this vile, rustic vagabond from England”** — who, not obtaining the cooperation expected, outraged and/or terrified his congregants further by placing his diocese under an interdict.*

Alice eventually escaped Ireland no worse the wear — at least bodily — while William Outlaw got off with a penance.

But their politically punchless servant Petronilla (or Petronella) de Meath was left holding the bag and achieving an unwanted milestone. She would be made to confess to a litany that, while familiar by now, must have been exotic stuff in 1324 Kilkenny — a brand-new import courtesy of the church hierarchy. We’ll give this as translated from the Latin Contemporary Narrative of the proceedings by William Renwick Riddell in “The First Execution for Witchcraft in Ireland,” Journal of the American Institute of Criminal Law and Criminology, Mar. 1917

On this same day was burned Petronilla of Midia, the heretic, one of the accomplices of the said Dame Alice, who after she had been flogged by the Bishop through six parishes for her sorceries, then being in custody, confessed publicly before all the clergy and the people that at the instance of the said Alice she had wholly denied the faith of Christ and of the Church, and that she had at Alice’s instigation sacrificed in three places to devils, in each of which places she had sacrificed three cocks at cross-roads without the city to a certain demon. who called himself Robert Artson (filiam Artis) one of the inferior order from Hell, by shedding their blood and tearing them limb from limb, from the intestines of which, with spiders and black worms like scorpions with a certain plant called millefoil and other plants and disgusting worms along with the brain and the swaddling bands of a child dead without baptism, she, in the skull of a certain thief who had been beheaded, and on the instruction of the said Alice, made many confections, ointments, and powders for afflicting the bodies of the faithful, and for producing love and hatred and for making the faces of certain women on the use of certain incantations appear to certain persons to be hored like goats. She also confessed that many times she at the instance of the said Alice and sometimes in her presence had consulted devils and received responses; and that she had agreed with her (Alice) that she (Alice) should be the mediator between her and the said devil Robert, her (Alice’s) friend.

She also confessed publicly that with her own eyes she was a witness when the said demon in the form of three Ethopians carrying three iron rods in their hands appeared to her said mistress (Alice) in broad daylight and (while she was looking on) knew her (Alice) carnally, and after such a shameful act he with his own hand wiped clean the place where the crime was committed with linen from her bed.

Amongst other things she said that she with her said mistress often made a sentence of excommunication against her own husband with wax candles lighted and repeated expectoration, as their rules required. And though she was indeed herself an adept in this accursed art of theirs, she said she was nothing in comparison with her mistress, from whom she had learned all these things and many more; and indeed in all the realm of the King of England there was none more
skilled or equal to her in this art …

Publicly confessing her detestable crimes, she was burned in presence of an infinite multitude of people with due solemnity.

And this was the first heretical sorceress burned in Ireland.

A podcast about this case for Irish Heritage Week can be found here or here. (Two different links, but the same podcast.)

Feminist artist Judy Chicago set a place for this unfortunate woman at her Dinner Party, an installation piece featuring dining places for 39 notable women from history.

Here’s a picture of Petronilla’s place setting at the “dinner party”, and an interpretive description from the Brooklyn Museum.

* More on the political jousting in Bernadette Williams, “The Sorcery Trial of Alice Kyteler,” History Ireland, Winter 1994.

** Comment by one of Dame Kyteler’s kinsmen and allies.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 14th Century,Arts and Literature,Burned,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,God,Heresy,History,Ireland,Milestones,Public Executions,Torture,Witchcraft,Women

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One thought on “1324: Petronilla de Meath, the first Irish woman burned for heresy”

  1. Thank goodness we live in more enlightened times, although another ‘faith’ practices similar brutalities today.

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