The Templars, the Witch, and the Wild Irish

Veneance and Heresy in Medieval Ireland

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Maeve Brigid Callan
  • Ithaca, NY: 
    Cornell University Press
    , February
     304 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Heretics in medieval centuries, Maeve Brigid Callan avers, did not call themselves such any more than modern fighters against what they perceive as injustice christen themselves as terrorists. Both pejoratives, Callan observes, as brandished by the dissidents regard their enemies as the true heretics or terrorists. Early on in this study of charges of witchcraft and heresy, Callan connects past to present. Most of this book, however, focuses upon the difficulties scholars face when examining those who defied the authorities in the early 1300s. Testimonies of the accused are heard through the voices of their judges. This deflection mirrors the impact of anti-authoritarian views in an Ireland that previously had little exposure to continental practices deemed a danger.

At the center of these trials, Richard de Ledrede introduces the modus operandi. Trumped up charges, lack of evidence, and opponents deemed a danger to the English crown characterize these case studies. Philip de Braybooke’s 1310 trial as a Templar can be traced back to a spat between two cathedral chapters in Dublin. Ethnic rivalries between the Anglo-Norman colonists and the native Irish heighten local tensions. As these surnames attest, those called to and exacting justice in these proceedings both tended to be from the English-speaking elite rather than the Irish-speaking masses. 

The rewards for those who conducted the courts could be rich, if not easily diverted to church and state, given that English feudal law allowed female inheritance rights. Callan demonstrates how this proviso underlies the summons in 1324 resulting in the conviction of Alice Kyteler (and some of her family and accomplices) for witchcraft. Her predicament has been well-documented. Callan emphasizes how de Ledrede’s power endured well before and long after her trial, and how intimately associated with ecclesiastical and royal influence his inquisitorial methods proved to be. Callan follows him over three decades after Kyteler’s conviction. De Ledrede dominated again, this time in struggles involving four archbishops of Ireland, King Edward II and III’s claims over Irish jurisdiction, and the crackdown on the Spiritual Franciscans by Pope John XXII. 

Turning towards the longer established Irish residents, Callan discusses the 1328 execution of Adducc Dubh O’Toole. Condemned more likely for his ethnicity than his “religious beliefs or lack thereof” (174), he became a martyr “for being Irish at the wrong place and the wrong time” (207). This may one of the first instances when a medievalist has enlivened her presentation of archival proceedings with a bit of an apt lyric by Shane MacGowan, of the London Irish 1980s punk-folk band The Pogues. Callan concludes that O’Toole’s death and what is likely another pair of 1353 executions of two indivduals from the MacConmara clan for blasphemy result from petty squabbling. The severe penalties exacted, she surmises, may have been to provoke papal force deployed for the complete conquest of Ireland by colonists and for the Crown. 

Investigating de Ledrede’s successors, Callan finds these clergymen were more skeptical about political panics over purported heresy. Determined as John XXII was to punish miscreants, even he did not mount an aggressive invasion of Ireland. The division in that island of its “pure” indigenous inhabitants from those of “mixed race” would widen, but the papacy refused to become entangled in internecine bickering among those who vowed to extirpate any who by doctrinal debates disagreed with the Crown.

Maeve Brigid Callan provides a valuable resource. The Alice Kyteler story has long occupied the short shelf of arcane lore from the early 14th century. With this publication about those who came before and after her brief rise to infamy, academic knowledge of those called heretics and worse in this tumultuous time may be enriched. Their tragic tales enrich current scholarship in history and religious studies.

About the Reviewer(s): 

John L. Murphy is Humanities Coordinator at DeVry University.

Date of Review: 
May 23, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Maeve Brigid Callan is associate professor of religion at Simpson College.


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