Advent Calendar of Witches, Day 8, Angela de la Barthe

Angela de la Barthe was wealthy. She owned her own property and thus wielded some degree of influence in the city of Toulouse, which was a stronghold of those who would resist the authority of the Church. To the inquisitors a woman in authority was confusing and created a sense of disorder – you might call it a feeling of bedevilment – among those friars loyal to the papacy who witnessed it.

I wrote about Angela de la Barthe in this essay in Meridian. It’s about sexism, perfectionism, bedevilment, wolf-headed babies, the Cathar heresy, and bad break-ups. But if you just want a taste, here are some excerpts.

Thomas Aquinas, who is also buried in Toulouse, wondered if our atmosphere was a punishment for demons. He concluded no, but also wondered if demons could experience sorrow. He concluded no, but wondered if the will of the demon was obstinate in evil. He concluded not really, but wondered if they, being coagulated creatures of air, could produce spawn by copulating with witches. He concluded no, but what if they disguised themselves as women to steal the seed of men?

This must be how Angela de la Barthe came to be a mother at age 52 (Or was it 64? Accounts vary…) Wolf-headed, serpent-tailed, her child, it was said, fed on the fresh corpses of infants for two years, before he ran away in the night.

Or so she said after the inquisitor Hugo de Beniols tortured her and threatened to burn her alive if she did not confess.

Or perhaps she said. In 1275, congress with demons was not yet listed as a crime. And there are no transcripts of her trial, though there is no shortage of them from other trials in that same year. So serious historians consider the 15th century chronicle of her so-called life to be specious and apocryphal, imperfect to the point of meaninglessness.

When reading about Angela de la Barthe, I find it hard not to think about that boyfriend I once had who was so excited when we stumbled on Aquinas’s grave in Toulouse. Who knew, we said to each other, that Toulouse had once been at the center of so much philosophical inquiry and intrigue? Not me, whose Catholic education was designed to inculcate a spirit of obedience and discipline. And not him, who had been raised to inherit the earth. He went on and on about how Aquinas was his favorite philosopher, the one who proved the existence of God. It seemed to me Aquinas must have been the only philosopher that boyfriend of mine had ever read and that what had been proved was nothing.

Having read the Summa Theologica the summer before, just to prove I was smart, it was tempting to spit on the grave of yet another man pretending to know so much. But it was important to me then to be nice, so I waited until we got home to break up. He called me a bitch, naturally, and said I didn’t know how to love and I was going to die alone. It took a certain amount of will power not to laugh right into his teary face. Perhaps he deserved it, but he was so sad to be this mean. He was under the impression he loved me and also that he knew anything about me.

If I were Angela de la Barthe I would have confessed to whatever bullshit they wanted to hear too. And when they burned me after all, for what I said, instead of what I didn’t say, I guess, like most of the people in this situation on a pyre, I wouldn’t bother with pleas or curses either.

Like some chronicler out of the 15th century, I have been asking dead people to help me understand what my life is for. I imagine how this woman would have watched the sun rising beyond the crowd, noticing how nice it feels when a beam of morning light warms the skin of your shoulder like the hand of a person you desire or a very fine silk fabric that proves itself worth its cost when you feel the thrill of how it slips down your arm, almost but not quite, as if it was never meant to be there in the first place.

Thomas Aquinas wondered what knowledge was and who might have what portion of it. He proposed, “The proper knowledge of the angels is twofold; namely morning and evening. But the demons have no morning knowledge.”

Goodness as a form of morning knowledge is a beautiful idea, but let’s not forget Aquinas also said children resulting from demonic congress, children like the one Angela de la Barthe was tortured into admitting she had, were “icy creatures that rode the winds and assailed the bodies and minds of their human prey.”

You can read the complete essay at Meridian.

Published by Kathryn Nuernberger

Kathryn Nuernberger's latest books are THE WITCH OF EYE (Sarabande), an essay collection about witches and witch trials coming out in February 2021, and RUE (BOA, 2020), a collection of poems about plants historically used for birth control and pissed off feelings about patriarchal bullshit. The End of Pink (BOA 2016) won the James Laughlin Prize from the Academy of American Poets. Her collection of lyric essays is Brief Interviews with the Romantic Past (The Ohio State University Press, 2017). A recipient of fellowships from the NEA, American Antiquarian Society, Bakken Museum of Electricity in Life, H. J. Andrews Research Forest, She teaches in the creative writing program at University of Minnesota. Recent work appears in 32 Poems, Cincinnati Review, Copper Nickel, Gulf Coast, Paris Review, The Southern Review, and Waxwing.

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