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A Disconnect Leads to Scarcity :: History 229: The Age of the Witch Hunts

A Disconnect Leads to Scarcity

Early Modern Ireland Countryside.

Irish Countryside.

The fourteenth century marked a period of increasing intensity in early modern European witch-hunting. Witchcraft and sorcery, originally stemming from ritualistic Pagan practices, were initially punishable by penitence. As the Church came to view these practices as heresies, a sweeping change in attitudes toward witches enveloped Europe. It was not until this point that witchcraft and sorcery were considered not only secular crimes, but ecclesiastical crimes as well.[i] Although not all countries persecuted supposed witches with as much vigor and intensity as some, there was no question of the existence of witches, but rather a question of their prominence and roots of practice. The fourteenth century also marks a time of religious dispersion and increased religious dissent amongst the majority of European nations. As another prime religion was spreading through Europe, so too was the bond between secular and ecclesiastical court systems. These patterns help explain in part the force driving the increase in witch hunts beginning in the fourteenth century, and so too explain why witch-hunting did not increase in some areas. Witch hunting in Ireland differed in spectrum, zeal and severity from the majority of early modern Europe due to its’ historical cultural beliefs, distinction between secular and ecclesiastical courts, and it’s lack of religious variance.

Witchcraft was widely believed and accepted in medieval and early modern Europe, and Ireland “was believed to abound in sorcerers and warlocks,” yet it is interesting that Ireland did not have any accusations of witchcraft until 1324[ii]. Ireland was home to magic practitioners and herbal healers, and had a cultural acceptance of the supernatural in the mortal world. Dating back to before Christianity, Celtic culture has believed in “faeries”, a term that “refer[s] to the nature or powers of these sacred beings, as well as their supernatural realms of existence.”[iii] It was common belief that these spiritual creatures were omnipresent in a sort of parallel existence to the mortal world, and could interact with the human world in various ways. These interactions could be bad or good; bad interactions were considered more spiteful than evil. The fairies “had the potential to bestow blessings or assistance, or present challenges to human beings ranging from mischief to danger.”[iv] When something went awry in everyday life, the Irishmen were likely to attribute this occurrence to the work of these supernatural creatures. Most early modern European countries did not have such beliefs, and thus were more likely to associate an unordinary event with witchcraft or the work of the Devil. As the Church took steps to eliminate magic and healing by deeming them heresies, there grew a divide between the views of Ireland and other major European powers. It is said that, “The church frowned on people who had dealings with the fairies, but the country folk were more lenient. Certain folk seers and healers said that they worked through the fairies and obtained cures or information from them.”[v] Typically in Europe folk seers and healers were believed to learn their information from the Devil, as was taught to them by the Church. It is interesting that the Irish public ignored the Church’s warnings and continued to trust their connection with the supernatural. Because Ireland had such deep-rooted cultural beliefs crediting fairies and the supernatural, they did not delve as deeply into witch accusations or fear inexplicable happenings as other countries did.

Although witchcraft was a commonly believed in concept throughout Ireland’s history, there are no specific accusations or trials of witchcraft until 1324 and the case of Dame Alice Kyteler of Kilkenny, a wealthy three-time widow. In 1318, a Franciscan friar, Richard de Ledrede, was sent to Ireland by the papacy as Bishop of Ossory.[vi] As an outsider, Ledrede clashed immediately with the Anglo-Irish yet maintained an extreme dedication to finding and combating supposed witches. Despite witchcraft having already been declared a heresy by the Church, Ledrede made sure to note witchcraft as a heresy in his own bull, Super illius specula, which he used with his previous experience to try to enforce the inquisitorial process on the people of Ossory.[vii] Alice Kyteler’s stepchildren went to Ledrede claiming their stepmother performed either maleficium or witchcraft in order for her and her son to acquire the inheritance of her previous husbands. It is likely her stepchildren went first to a member of the ecclesiastical system, rather than a member of the secular courts, because they knew such a basic claim would be “treated by English law as a petty criminal offence.”[viii] Alice’s stepchildren succeeded in drawing attention to their allegation by going first to Ledrede, however the secular courts did not take action on the claims as Ledrede had expected them to.

Bishop Ledrede first brought Alice Kyteler’s case to the king’s chancellor, Roger Outlaw, citing the Ut Inquisitionis, a law stating secular powers had to adhere to the bishop of their diocese’s word and arrest and imprison accused witches.[ix] Roger Outlaw happened to be a relative of Alice Kyteler’s first husband and was rather displeased upon hearing the charges brought before him. Ledrede refused to drop the charges against Dame Alice despite Outlaw’s insistences, and still Outlaw refused to arrest her, stating that under the law she would have to first go through a public trial and be excommunicated for forty days. During this time Alice Kyteler fled from Kilkenny, and Ledrede sentenced her to excommunication for the forty days even though she wasn’t present at her public trial. Her son, William Outlaw, was accused of heresy and protecting a heretic.[x] Alice Kyteler and William Outlaw were from a prominent and wealthy family in Kilkenny, and once word of their accusations spread throughout the surrounding villages many were outraged. Arnold le Poer, seneschal and chief judge of Kilkenny, ordered Bishop Ledrede’s arrest upon hearing the charges brought against his friends.

Not only did this demonstrate Ireland’s opposition in witchcraft accusations, but also demonstrates a clear difference in opinion and process between the secular and ecclesiastical courts. More than simply being two separate entities, the Church and State entirely clashed in almost every aspect. Levack states that, “Irish authorities did not take legal action against witchcraft very often.”[xi] Ireland did however form an edict against witchcraft in 1586, which is similar to England’s edict of 1563.[xii] This shows the control England had over Ireland’s judiciary system, and helps to explain in part why there were virtually no trials in Ireland in comparison to the rest of Europe. Ireland’s legal system was very reluctant to accept the English judiciary practices. This reluctance was so strong that it is probable that Irish judiciaries declined to even allow cases like this to go to English operating courts.[xiii]

A depiction of a typical English Court in the 14th Century. The Irish Courts under English control would have looked something like this.

A depiction of a typical English Court in the 14th Century. The Irish Courts under English control would have looked something like this.

Alice and William’s friends’ dedication to combating their accusations also marks Ireland’s first trial unique from the majority of the witch trials throughout Europe. Most accused witches in early modern Europe were poor, elderly women on the lower end of the social spectrum that placed a burden on the other members in their villages. These lower class individuals did not have upstanding reputations or strong connections as Alice and William did, and there was no debating their indictments. One option the lower class accused did have, although not entirely reliable, was to create a petition stating their good character and have their townspeople sign it in agreement. These petitions were then presented in court, yet unfortunately did not have as much significance on the outcome of their sentencing as they hoped.[xiv] In Alice Kyteler and William Outlaw’s case, the perseverance of the high-ranking officials to question Bishop Ledrede’s credibility rather than Alice and William’s circumstances of good fortune separates Ireland’s witch-hunts from typical witch-hunts in demonstrating the difference in social status and court systems.

The arrest of Bishop Ledrede was the first of many steps the secular courts took to shut down the accusations of witchcraft, and the ecclesiastical presence, in Kilkenny and its’ neighboring villages. Arresting a church member was technically a violation of “Si quis saudente [which] forbade the laying of violent hands on a monk or cleric.”[xv] While Ledrede was imprisoned, le Poer sent a messenger through the surrounding villages asking if anyone had anything negative they could say to use against Ledrede in his case. His search only produced one outdated claim that proved to have no significance in the trial, further exemplifying the State’s disregard for the Church.[xvi] Eventually, Ledrede was released from prison by the bishop of Leighlin and the sheriff, and began pursuing the arrest of Alice Kyteler and William Outlaw once again. Bishop Ledrede requested to speak in the seneschal’s court in an attempt to arrest heretics, but le Poer refused. Ledrede attended the meeting anyway, and brought the Host with him. Le Poer ordered he leave, saying “’Take your decretals to church and preach your sermons there.’”[xvii] Ledrede was summoned to Dublin by the justiciar of Ireland because of le Poer’s objections about him and because of the interdict Ledrede placed on his diocese while imprisoned. Le Poer attended this meeting as well, and stated he had no obligation to listen to Ledrede, or any ecclesiastical court member, and said “if some vagabond from England has obtained his bill in the pope’s court, we do not have to obey it unless enjoined on us by the king’s seal.’”[xviii] Le Poer made no effort to hide his opposition to blindly obeying the Church despite the State’s opinion.

Even though the Church and State were two separate entities, outwardly offending and assailing the Church was not accepted. Le Poer’s qualms against Ledrede were not acted upon and the meeting in Dublin favored the bishop. Knowing a trial was being compiled against her, Alice Kyteler fled from Dublin just before she could be arrested, and was able to escape her trial altogether. Her son, William Outlaw, and maidservant, Petronilla de Midia, were not so lucky. Outlaw admitted to his accusation of heresy, and his powerful friends essentially forced Ledrede to reduce his sentence from imprisonment to penance. Petronilla de Midia was convicted of sorcery, and after being whipped six times confessed to her charges and was subsequently burnt at the stake.[xix] John Clyn, a Franciscan reporter from Kilkenny said “it was neither seen not heard of that anyone suffered the death penalty for heresy in Ireland”, adding to the exceptionality of the Kyteler case.[xx]

The case in Kilkenny seems even more unusual perhaps when compared to a case that also occurred in 1324, in England that resulted in a much different outcome. The case in England revolved around a “pretended attempt to bewitch the king, the two Despensers, and others, in order to bring about their death.”[xxi] However it is not the subject of their cases that is interesting, but rather the difference in the way in which their cases were handled. The case in England went to a common law court and the accused were let off, as was common when witchcraft and sorcery charges were brought before the secular courts.[xxii] In 1372 in England a case of suspected sorcery went to the King’s court, and he too was acquitted, yet this time due to lack of evidence. Fourteenth century England classified witchcraft as a common law crime dealt with separately from the ecclesiastical court. It was not until the early 1400s that the Church began to actively search for witches in England, although they were concerned of witchcraft prior to this.[xxiii]

Another area to analyze in order to understand what set Ireland apart from other European countries lies within the difference of religion in these countries. Brian Levack argues that, “If witch-hunting was more widespread and intense in areas that were religiously divided, then the converse was also true.”[xxiv]   The rapid spread of Protestantism in countries like England crafted environments of religious upheaval, and sparked immense amounts of controversy and instability. Protestantism encouraged church members to be wary of temptations and heavily emphasized the Devil’s temptation. Protestants and Catholics alike began to look at one another with skepticism; Protestants accused Catholics of witchcraft on the grounds of their worship of relics and ritualistic services, and Catholics in turn accused Protestants of witchcraft, mostly claiming they were heretics and apostates. Both groups however made equal accusations.[xxv] Germany, like England, had extreme religious tensions, and accordingly had the highest number of accusations throughout all of Europe.[xxvi] This is not to say that there was no religious variance at all in Ireland. English and Scottish Protestants settled in Ireland and attempted to spread Protestantism, however Ireland maintained its’ Catholic predominance.[xxvii] Spain and Italy, which were also largely Catholic, and the Scandinavian territories, which were entirely Lutheran, also had low numbers of witch-trials.[xxviii] The lack of religious dissonance in Ireland led to less tension, and ultimately contributed to the shortage of trials.

Witchcraft accusations spread rapidly throughout early modern Europe, yet the intensity of the hunts never affected Ireland as it did these other countries. Traditionally a Celtic nation, Ireland had deep-rooted ancient beliefs in the abilities of the supernatural. Despite the increased pressure of the Church to persecute and actively seek out witches Irish beliefs remained unchanged, and instead of automatically associating a strange occurrence with maleficium or the Devil the Irish recognized the incident could have resulted from a number of things, including the work of fairies or healers. Laws were put in place to define a witch and how their trials should be carried out, however Ireland declined to bring these accusations to court because their courts operated under English control. Irish leaders refused to acknowledge religious officials, such as Bishop Ledrede, that came to Ireland trying to seek out witches and enforce the inquisitorial process. These efforts produced numerous accusations in other countries, however Ireland did not have conflict from religious variance and were less susceptible to the Church’s influence. Ireland’s belief in non-demonic supernatural forces, disjunction between Church and state and infrequency of religious dissonance were ultimately causal in their scarcity of witch trials.


[i]Richard de Ledrede,introduction to A Contemporary Narrative of the Proceedings Against Dame Alice Kyteler, Prosecuted for Sorcery in 1324, ed. Thomas Wright, (Buffalo: William S. Hein & Co, 1834), i-xxii, accessed October 31, 2014, http://www.heinonline.org/HOL/Page?collection=trials&handle=hein.trials/adpo0001&type=Image&id=1.

[ii] Brian P. Levack, The Witch-Hunt in Early Modern Europe (Harlow, England: Pearson Education, 1995), 203.

[iii] Sharon Paice MacLeod, Celtic Myth and Religion, North Carolina: McFarland & Company, Inc., Publishers, 2012.

[iv] Ibid, 148.

[v] Ibid, 149.

[vi] William Renwick Riddell, “The First Execution for Witchcraft in Ireland,” Journal of the American Institute of Criminal Law and Crimology 7 (1917): 828. doi:10.2307/1133665.

[vii] Bernadette Williams, “The Sorcery Trial of Alice Kyteler,” History Ireland 2 (1994): 21.

[viii] Williams, “Trial of Alice Kyteler,” 21.

[ix] Ibid, 22.

[x] Ibid.

[xi] Levack, The Witch-Hunt, 204.

[xii] Ibid.

[xiii] Ibid.

[xiv] Three Sovereigns for Sarah, directed by Philip Leacock (1985, American Playhouse, 1985.), DVD.

[xv] Williams, “Trial of Alice Kyteler,” 22.

[xvi] Riddell, “The First Execution,” 830.

[xvii] Williams, “Trial of Alice Kyteler,” 23.

[xviii] Ibid, 23-24.

[xix] Ibid.

[xx] Ibid.

[xxi] Ledrede,introduction, ix.

[xxii] Ibid.

[xxiii] Ibid.

[xxiv] Levack, The Witch-Hunt, 116.

[xxv] Class Discussion Notes, October 9, 2014.

[xxvi] Levack, The Witch-Hunt, 116.

[xxvii] Ibid.

[xxviii] Ibid.

Work Cited

Hutton, Ronald. “Witch-Hunting in Celtic Societies.” Past and Present 212 (2011): 43-71. Accessed November 19, 2014. doi: 10.1093/pastj/gtr003.

Ledrede, Richard De. Introduction to A Contemporary Narrative of the Proceedings Against Dame Alice Kyteler, Prosecuted for Sorcery in 1324. Edited by Thomas Wright, i-xxii. Buffalo: William S. Hein & Co, 1834. Accessed October 31, 2014.

Levack, Brian P. The Witch-Hunt in Early Modern Europe. Harlow, England: Pearson Education, 1995.

Riddell, William Renwick. “The First Execution for Witchcraft in Ireland.” Journal of the American Institute of Criminal Law and Crimology 7 (1917): 828-837. doi:10.2307/1133665.

“The Trial of Dame Alice Kyteler, 1324.” In The Witchcraft Reader, edited by Brian P. Levack, 39-42. New York: Routledge, 2004.

Williams, Bernadette. “The Sorcery Trial of Alice Kyteler.” History Ireland 2 (1994): 20-24.

Pisano, Victor. Three Sovereigns for Sarah. Directed by Philip Leacock. 1985. American Playhouse, 1985. DVD.

Image 1: http://www.bbc.co.uk/staticarchive/9f3a7b49ceccb2a55f537c01ec54268985ad16f7.jpg

Image 2: Mike Brown, 2007-2011, http://www.bpmlegal.com/ireland/aran.htm.


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