I am currently reading my way through a long list of science fiction and fantasy titles. (http://www.npr.org/2011/08/07/138938145/science-fiction-and-fantasy-finalists if you are interested in the list).
"Of the Black Death, they said it was the end of the world; I knew better. The world can withstand the sickness of the body, but it remains to be seen whether it will survive the sickness that eats at the souls of our persecutors..." So professes Mother Marie Franoise, born Sybille, a poor midwife who is taught pagan ways and magic by her grandmother and is forced to take refuge among the Franciscan sisterhood as the Inquisition threatens. Her extraordinary life story unfolds when a monk is charged with determining whether the mysterious abbess is a saint or a witch.
Sybille is possessed of exceptional powers, and she is in full command of them -- practicing white and black magic, winning the hearts of people with her wisdom, and terrorizing church authorities with her cunning. But even witches are not immune to earthly love, and Sybille embarks on a passionate, dangerous quest to be reunited with her beloved. As she confronts an exceptional destiny -- one that will require her to face the flames in order to save others like her -- she relates a tale of impossible triumph that forever changes the inquisitor who hears it.
This was a decent book, although I had issues with it. I think the depiction of peasant life in the Medieval period is relatively well done, although I think it is hard for 21st century people to have any clue how difficult, dirty, dangerous, and restricted life was in that age. I wish that I had already read The Time Traveller’s Guide to Medieval England by Ian Mortimer, as I’m sure that Medieval France was very, very similar (and wouldn’t you just know that neither of my libraries have this book, so I may end up buying it).
My biggest issue with The Burning Times involves the depiction of witchcraft in the novel. I have read Margot Adler’s Drawing Down the Moon, and a number of other New Age/Wiccan books, nature religions being a minor fascination of mine. TBT depicts Medieval witches as doing the same things as the modern Witchcraft revival practitioners do (casting circles, raising a “cone of power,” etc.), all of which are highly unlikely in my opinion. I think when Witchcraft/Wicca was getting going in the 1960s and 1970s, everyone who went public as a Witch thought they had to have an ancient grandmother who initiated them into the religion. Nobody wanted to admit that they were making up a religion that they desired but couldn’t find and so “ancient” grimoires were published and circulated and Witches chose to ignore or deny the recent origins of their religion. Adler put it best, that Wicca and Neo-Paganism are religions that you find, they don’t find you. So TBT not only depicts modern witchcraft rituals, it perpetuates the mistaken idea that these rituals were passed down in an unbroken chain from time immemorial. I don’t think there’s any shame in manufacturing your own religion if that’s what gives your life meaning and I see no reason to try to avoid admitting that you have done so, but I do wish we could quit trying to impose the present on the past.
From what I have read, most of the women who were burned as witches did practice folk medicine or midwifery or they were old and alone and/or mentally ill/deficient and unable to act in self-protective fashion. There is absolutely no doubt that the Inquisition did torture people in hideous ways and “convinced” them to confess to damn near anything just to get the agony to stop. The power exerted by the Catholic Church to retain their power seems like using a sledgehammer to swat flies—until you realize that poor women were tortured to “reveal” who was in their covens, and they would often name high-born folks in order to defend their own family and friends. The Church could then put nobles on trial and could perhaps cash in on their wealth and property.
I should have guessed from the title, actually, that this would be the path of this book—read anything by Leo Martello about Witchcraft and you will hear plenty about The Burning Times (for example his Witchcraft : The Old Religion).
On a more petty level, I also rapidly tired of Sybille and Luc refer to each other as “My Beloved.” For heaven’s sake, just use the person’s name! (I actually had to pause for a little bit there to remember their names, as they used “My Beloved” so much).