Karen Maitland
Delacorte Press ($26)

by Spencer Dew

That certain British and Irish churches have Sheela na Gigs carved above their doors—so-called Divine Hags crouching so as to spread the lips of their exaggerated, massive labia—is, as with much of such history, a mystery, and one into which no end of theories has been thrust. Does the figure signify a warning against Christian notions of sexual sin, or is it a symbol of an agricultural society’s desire for fecund fields? Was this grotesque carved as some kind of magical protection, a bawdy reminder of the human spirit, or is it a trace of a preexisting (or simultaneous, yet covert) religious system?

The idea of such a religion—one that locates the power of women not merely in sexuality but also in wisdom, thus offering women the very sort of earthly authority and respect Christianity stripped away—appeals, of course, to a wide variety of neo-pagans as well as those secular folks interested in historic precursors to contemporary feminism. As pagans and Christians shared certain rites and festivals in medieval times, so today do Wiccan theologians and Catholic reformers turn to the same speculations about history to bolster their respective claims.

Karen Maitland’s The Owl Killers will be of interest to both camps, for the fictional village in which she sets her scene, near the coast of west Norfolk in the year 1321, sports both a Sheela na Gig above the church door and a Beguinage in the nearby woods. The Beguines were not a religious order but, rather, laywomen who lived together, working to support themselves and controlling their own money and time, praying and writing. Responding to another historical mystery—the notable lack of such communities in the British Isles—Maitland makes the Beguinage in her novel the first outpost of the Beguine movement in England, sent from the sizeable and famous community in Bruges. She even has one of the most famous Beguine-written books make a cameo: “‘This isn’t a Jewish book,’ I told Ralph. ‘It’s not written in their tongue. If it was I wouldn’t be able to read it, but I can read this. It’s in French. It means The Mirror . . . of Simple Souls,’” a manuscript that would later be attributed to Marguerite Porete, burned at the stake in 1310.

Maitland’s contrast of the horrible, toothy hag Black Anu and the city of women the Beguines set up in the woods—where, as one character explains, “you had the freedom to be yourself, do what you thought was right, not what others told you to do”—highlights two ways in which the feminine was (and still is) feared. Fantasies of monstrous vaginas can be contained, kept in their place. These women in the woods are a different matter. Or, as a character argues in the book: “Beguines are pernicious tares sown by the Devil to destroy the order of man and God. It was women that destroyed the order in the Garden of Eden—Lilith, Adam’s first wife, refusing to lie beneath her husband, and Eve seducing Adam into forbidden knowledge. Now they are hell-bent on destroying the very priesthood itself, and with it the Holy Church and all Christendom.”

The plot hinges upon this conflict between women and the priesthood, a popular and barely less incendiary topic today. There’s an anchoress subsisting wholly on Holy Communion, and when she’s deposited at the Beguinage, the women are presented with a riddle as to what she will eat. Does a woman have the right to stand “unshielded in the terrible light of God” if “no bishop had laid his hand upon” her? And, for that matter, are the sacraments even necessary; is the priesthood really nothing more than “a guard barring the way,” controlling “who will eat and be saved and who will be refused and damned”? But lest it seem like this novel is all a matter of theological debate, there are also those Owl Masters to which the title alludes, beast-whisperers and demon-conjurers who do creepy things in the woods involving wicker figures, masks, and flayed human skins.

Amidst the assorted lepers, philandering priests, and incestuous rapists of the period, Maitland scatters tidbits of historical data—on the manufacture of salt cats and the uses of dog dung, for instance. In a pleasant method of dividing chapters and tracking chronology, she also gives a sense of the medieval calendar, from the threats and pranks of Plough Monday through the parodic inversion of Feast of Fools or Saint Thomas’s day, when “all liquids in the home have to be kept covered” because the menstrual discharge of Lilith was believed to fall from the sky.

While not exactly a thriller, The Owl Killers is not without its thrills, and while the prose can clunk at times and the multiple points of view can get a little fuzzy, Maitland effectively renders the familiar strange and the strange familiar, offering a new imagining of both Christian and pagan history. She also sets herself up for a sequel, having one of her Beguines (a giantess) say: “I’ve a hankering to see more than this poxy village before I die. We might not make it, and if they catch us, we’ll likely burn together. But they’ll have to catch us first and we’ll give them a run for their money. . . . You and me together, lass. I reckon with your learning and my brawn, together we could take on the world.” This will be a sentiment shared by those who most enjoy this book, for the struggle of its early 14th-century heroines continues into the present day.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Spring 2010 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2010