Review of The Burning Times by Jack Kapicka

Donna Read's film The Burning Times was produced with a grant from the National Film Board of Canada, and is frequently shown in "Womens Studies" classes.

from a "Religion" column by Jack Kapica in the Toronto Globe and Mail on June 12, 1991

Jack Kapica explains why a feminist film on witchcraft will not help the cause of women in the church

A curious offshoot of feminist reinterpretation of history is the idea that women have been the traditional keepers of folk wisdom (midwifery, healing, agriculture and so on), and men, threatened by their power have systematically supressed them. This historical revisionism, with some merit, has enjoyed a little popularity recently, and given birth to a body of literature supporting it.

It's easy to see why. Neo-paganism, as this idea is called, gives women 'empowerment' (a word freighted with warm meanings, suggesting restoration of rightful authority), and creates a sense of spirituality that women have long been denied.

It's also easy to see its threat to traditional religions. Instead of folk culture, Christians see witchcraft. Instead of benign paganism, they see polytheistic heresy. Instead of shamans, they see Satan.

A clash has been a long time coming. And so Robert Eady, a member of the Catholic Civil Rights League, has complained to the Canadian Radio- Television and Telecommunications Commission about a film called The Burning Times, shown recently on Vision-TV, the religion network.

A production of Studio D, the National Film Board's feminist section, The Burning Times looks at the embarrassing history, from the 15th to the 17th century, of the persecution of witches in Europe. Attractively filmed with sincere interviews with modern witches,The Burning Times, says that until Christianity came along, women were the keepers of traditional spiritual wisdom, midwives and organizers of fertility festivals.

These women, says feminist Margo Adler in the film, were witches, women 'at the edge of social change'. And over 300 years, the Church burned them at the stake, so many of them that it amounted to what feminist Thea Jensen calls the 'women's holocaust.'

All this talk of Earth-centered pagan wisdom sounds terribly appealing. But Mr.Eady complains that the film shows the Church as 'a wicked, patriarchal, misogynist institution,' and it 'deliberately employs... inflammatory language to manipulate the viewer to despising Catholicism.' Moreover, he takes the exception to the film's statement that 'it took the Church 200 hundred years of terror and death to transform the image of paganism into devil worship, and folk culture into heresy.'

He also disputes the numbers of witches executed. The Burning Times allows that its number - nine million - is high, but does nothing to correct it. Mr Eady, citing scholars, claims 200,000 is more reasonable.

The film itself plays grisly havoc with history right from the start. It places Trier, a centre of much witch burning, in France, when it is a German town on the banks of Moselle River - shop signs clearly visible in the film are in German. The narration then says that a stone Christian cross in the market square was erected in 1132 (historians place it in 958) as the 'symbol of a new religious cult that was sweeping across Europe, 'which ignores the Christian presence in the town dating back to martyrs in 286, and its first bishop, St.Agritius, who died in 333.

It's hard to be serious about a film that suggests the existence of a happy history of benign paganism that was stomped out of existence with the arrival of Chistianity in 12th century. It's difficult to believe a film that suggests the Church created the Inquisition to 'enforce its will' on women, without discussing heresy, the Inquisition's official reason which also caused men to die. It's hard to believe the intellectual integrity of a film that sympathetically interviews a character who is listed as a consultant in the credits (a woad-painted woman, she calls herself Starhawk, was born Miriam Simos, and presents herself as a practising witch).

Neo-paganism, as appealing as it sounds, was largely inspired by the theories of anthropologist Margaret Murray and the cobbling together of Masonic ritual, Asian and European magic, Aleister Crowley and nudity in a book called Witchcraft Today, by a bored British civil servant Gerald Gardner, who set out to create a popular, sanitized, magic-based religion in the 1940's and 1950's. It would have been nice to see these two credited.

Women have genuine grievances with the Church. The Burning Times, however, is not going to help their cause.

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