Petronilla de Meath was the first Irish woman to be burned at the stake for the crime of heresy. She served as a maid to Lady Alice Kyteler, one of the earliest women to be accused of witchcraft.
In Kilkenny, Ireland in 1324, Lady Alice Kyteler, along with her son and ten others, became one of the earliest targets of witchcraft accusations, centuries before the more famous rash of witch trials in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. She was charged by the Bishop of Ossory with a wide slate of crimes, from sorcery and demonism to the murders of several husbands. Lady Alice was believed to have illegally acquired her wealth through magical and devilish means.
To extract her confession, the bishop ordered the torture of Lady Alice's maid and confidante, Petronilla de Meath. Petronilla claimed that she and her mistress applied a magical ointment to a wooden beam, which enabled both women to fly. She was then forced to proclaim publicly that Lady Alice and her followers were guilty of witchcraft.
With the help of relatives, Lady Alice used her connections to flee to England, taking with her Petronilla's daughter, Basilia. Lady Alice's followers, including Petronilla, remained behind. Some were convicted and whipped, but others, Petronilla included, were burned alive at the stake. This was not the first recorded sentence of death by burning for heresy, but was the first known trial to treat women practicing witchcraft as an organized group. Petronilla serves as an emblem of the many women tried and convicted of witchcraft during the Middle Ages.
Petronilla's place setting employs many of the most familiar symbols of witchcraft from both Petronilla's time and today, including the broomstick incorporated into the illuminated letter "P" on the front of her runner.
The interlacing patterns on the front and top of the runner are based on Celtic motifs drawn from The Book of Kells, a book of illuminated manuscripts dating to the 9th century. On the back of the runner there is a horned form, representing the goat that was worshipped by many covens, or groups of witches. The red cords lining the black front edge echo the red witch's garter, which signified higher rank in the coven.
The plate also incorporates other symbols of witchcraft, including a bell, a book, and a candle. The cauldron represents both the Great Mother, to whom witches pay honor, and the meeting place of covens. The flames that "envelop the center of the plate are a terrible inversion of the sacred fire that once burned in honor of the Goddess…" (Chicago, A Symbol of Our Heritage, 78).
Related Heritage Floor Entries
Madeline de Demandolx
Angéle de la Barthe
Maria de Zozoya
Joan of Arc
Proceedings Against Dame Alice Kyteler. 1324. Harley MS no. 641. Archived at the British Museum, London, UK.
Translations, Editions, and Secondary Sources
Barstow, Anne Llewellyn. Witchcraze: A New History of the European Witch Hunts. San Francisco: HarperCollins, 1995.
Curran, Bob. A Bewitched Land: Ireland’s Witches. Dublin: O'Brien, 2005.
Davidson, Sharon, and John O. Ward, trans. The Sorcery Trial of Alice Kyteler: A Contemporary Account (1324). Asheville, N.C.: Pegasus Press, 2004.
Jones, Prudence, and Nigel Pennick. A History of Pagan Europe. London and New York: Routledge, 1995.
Kors, Alan Charles, and Edward Peters, eds. Witchcraft in Europe, 400–1700: A Documentary History. 1972; 2nd ed., Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2000.
Levack, Brian P., ed. The Witchcraft Sourcebook. London: Routledge, 2004.
Oldridge, Darren, ed. The Witchcraft Reader. London: Routledge, 2002.
Purkiss, Diane. The Witch in History: Early Modern and Twentieth-Century Representations. London and New York: Routledge, 1996.
Williams, Selma R., and Pamela Williams Adelman. Riding the Nightmare: Women and Witchcraft from the Old World to Colonial Salem. New York: Harper, 1972.
Wright, Thomas, ed. A Contemporary Narrative of the Proceedings Against Dame Alice Kyteler, Prosecuted for Sorcery in 1324, by Richard de Ledrede, Bishop of Ossory. London: The Camden Society, 1843.