A Flemish ghost in the throat: Imagining who Cathelyne van den Bulcke was

One week earlier, I walked with S., a friend, in the Flemish town Lier, once a rich city with Game of Thrones intrigues. The city has installed a walking tour, with different stops and QR codes, to learn more about the witches that were burnt, and in particular Cathelyne, the last woman was burned as a witch in Lier. When we were at the first stop, the old market square, we were surrounded by a fair with bump cars and shooting, and by huge decorations and ads encouraging people to shop, and have fun, to consume. The presence is so different from the past, you would think… until you hear your friend reading that watching people getting burned was the way of leisure in the 16th century.

Our feet were pointing towards the monument, the stone, saying that she broke the wheel, the end of false witch accusations. People before her, under torture, gave names of others – which lead to more women (and few men) getting prisoned, tortured and burned. Cathelyne did not give any names, although she was heavily tortured. Instead, she used her imagination -or that is what we believe- and told about werewolves, father devil (Moonvaeyer) and other creatures whose origin was mythologically and could not be traced back to fellow people. Who was she? What kind of person was she? A lot of history, especially about women, is erased. When my friend and I walked, we discussed if we can do some fiction and imagination, drawing inspiration from figures as Anne Boleyn (We had both seen recently the first two episodes of Netflix series Blood, Sex and Royalty, we discovered. And we were not surprised to also discover that we both had not found the courage (yet) to see the third and last episode) . Was Cathelyne like Anne Boleyn? Or like the fictional character Margaery Tyrell. Both played by the amazing Natalie Dormer once (coincidence?). Was Cathelyne a highly intelligent women, part of a rich and ambitious family, therefore blessed and cursed at the same time? Her family were involved in the constructions of the channels. Cathelyne was not a woman with wraths who lived at the edge of the forest. No, she was a rich woman in a rich town. But who was she as person? Was she surrounded by open-minded men? How did she know about all the folklore? How could she not betray anyone- under torture? Where did she get her strength from? Is she an example of female courage? (and is female courage differently than male courage… in this time period?)

One week later, I returned to the book “a ghost in the throat” by the Irish writer Doireann Ní Ghríofa. I struggled always with the beginning, because I cannot connect with her descriptions of everyday motherhood. Several times, I stopped. However, a January Saturday, I finished the book and loved it. I have been making notes about the ecofeminism in this literary work, and how Doireann is also aiming to restore (almost) erased female stories. She uses the same kind of methods as I do in digging up almost erased Flemish female folklore and stories, but she is a bit more obsessed and focused (on one person), doing archival work too, something for which I do not have the patience, or time, and I am not often in Flanders and its archives.

The methods I recognise is visiting the places where the woman have lived – and deeply listening and observing to the sounds of the creatures there, trying to stitch the fragments you got with imagination inspired by own memories and own lived experiences of being a woman, and in case of Doireann and the historical female figure she studied: motherhood, giving milk to babies and a big desire for their husband. Towards the end of reading, I thought often that I should do the same for Cathelyne, or at least write this blog:  

Sorry to the burned witches

Cathelyne van den Bulcke (Nijlen, circa 1542- Lier, January 20, 1590) was a woman from the Kempen town of Nijlen who ended up burned at the stake in the Grote Markt of Lier after being accused of witchcraft. The suspicions against her began with gossip in Nijlen. Her mother had also previously been burned for witchcraft. On Jan. 20, 2021, she, along with two others, received tribute from the city of Lier.

Hundreds years of later, there is a wave in Flanders to restore the honor of the women and men falsely accused of witchcraft (Flemish: eerherstel). During the Re(*)Rooting series of talks, that I hosted in 2021, this friend S. told us about this Restoring movement and in particular about Catelyne, as she was burned in the same town where she was rooting now. I invited S. to give a whole presentation to other participants of this series at the end. Now, almost a year later, in January, S. and I visited live, with our bodies, the place where Cathelyne has lived and died. We passed places which are known for textile, walked through the beguinage, sites where women could live independently and do some craft like weaving and earn their own income. In the Flanders of 12th-early 19th century, women had three choices (simply said): to marry, to become nun or become a beguine. I would have been probably a beguine, me and other female independent friends have often said. Lier, S. and I realised aloud and positively surprised, had still a lot of female texts.

Another female text: a ghost in the throat – by Doireann Ní Ghríofa 

The book of the Irish poet, mother, writer, Doireann Ní Ghríofa, is addressing erasure of women in history. She introduces different female texts. Her book starts with the sentence: This is a female text. At some point, she is reminding that text comes from Latin and means also weaving. So, a female text can be a list of household tasks, as highlighted in the beginning of her book. But it can be knitting, spinning, weaving. It can be milk, or white tattoo ink on a body. She explains also how the poem that she is translating is the result of oral storytelling, yes written down by a man, but who listened to an old woman repeating it hundred (or more) years after Eibhlín Dubh Ní Chonaill had gulped the blood of her murdered husband and make a lament, a poem full of grief and feelings of revenge. This lament is often quoted as Irish best poem of the 18th century. The poem is passed through oral tradition, from one grieving woman to another. While the men around Eibhlín Dubh Ní Chonaill can be traced back through written texts and still-standing buildings, is she absent. Like many women, Doireann Ní Ghríofa remarked. Men do not write often about women. The buildings where she lived as child or later are demolished or unaccessible.

So, Doireann Ní Ghríofa visits the places, observes, makes notes about strawberries and other plants that also could have been there hundreds years ago. She listens deeply. She spends pages on the mare of Eibhlín Dubh Ní Chonaill, illustrating how the Unnamed Horse is also an example of an erased female story. Towards the ends, she goes more into relational thinking, writing pages about bees. She also said that by digging into the hidden, covered soil that Eibhlín Dubh Ní Chonaill is, she transforms too, and finds new meaning in interactions with the natural world around her.


In Lier, we looked at the buildings, some of them centuries old. There were still buildings connected to women history in Lier. But we also gave attention to the sound of a a woodpecker and the huge trees nex to the Nete flowing and feeding Lier. We dreamed, and made interpretations, and we made jokes. It was a day full of belly laughs and deep reflections. We passed the Zimmertoren, in my childhood eyes a symbol of time travel, because of all the clocks and measures to understand time and space. In some way, we walked through time, because every landscape, every city, is a palimpsest. We have to just take care that the stories about a (mostly white, male) elite does not erase the stories of vulnerable groups of people, like women, immigrants, animals and other often invisible creatures.

After the visit in Lier, I was in the train for an hour and wrote quickly a note on my iPhone. I got suddenly inspiration to write down a female text, a text that Cathelyne could have thought, dreamed, some days before her death. It is written very quickly, still fragmented and for sure not ready. It is inspired by the witch tour walk in Lier and conversations with my friend, and also some encounters with the uncanny and other creatures in Flanders in the two weeks before I visited Lier. I wrote it in Flemish, see this Instagram post. Scroll down to read the English translation by the Deepl Machine. One week later, after reading Doireann Ní Ghríofa‘s work, I feel this is right.

There had never been a way back for me. The dice had been rolled years ago and the eyes were not favoring me. Alea iacta est, father often said. He liked to take risks. Just like the rest of our family. In Lier, if you want to get to the top, you have to gamble. If you want to get there, your risks have to be calculated. It’s a political game. Our family built the canals. They were the beavers among the sheeple. Ingenious. They observed the waters, imagined the unseen, read about….
I went with them to the outside. I observed, listened, composted.
I liked it better there.
In the inside, you had to be careful not to get caught up in circles of drama. They are all connected. Even if you don’t see wires.

I had no more nails. 🩸.

The spinning wheels in the attics of Xx street turned back. Lace bobbin. Loom.
Vrouw Holle could still be smelled in the air. It was January. Still too cold, not much was visible, but I saw hazel kittens. The seed was already in the ewes’ bellies. The mistletoe of southern Limburg had already burned, as had the other evergreens. Already almost two weeks ago.
I was learning things women weren’t supposed to know. Not just in books, secretly smuggled in. No, the Nete whispered secrets to me. The bees in the beguinage danced according to the rhythms of the mysteries. The sheep mewed without noticing me. And I watched, in the shadows, like ivy, learning and growing. Only too late did they see how the ivy had overtaken the house and began to decay, to turn into something new, or just something very old. Older than the stardust in my ovaries and bones.

Last days I had slept a lot, dreamed a lot. Like Sleeping Beauty.
I slept too.
I had also pricked myself.
I dreamed. About devils.
About Moonvaeyer.
He looked like Walterius, the alderman of games and entertainment.
More Needles were thrust into me.
I created in the darkness of the Eikel.
About seven werewolves.
Who were they? Voices asked.
Children left behind in the woods.

I went deeper.
Even more needles. The spinning wheel turned and turned.
I weaved and weaved like Vrouw Holle.
My dreams were like curtains and wall carpets. They concealed passageways and separated reality from bare cold walls.
More nails.
Who are witches, too? The voices asked.
I went deeper.
I weave veils. Isn’t the veil more beautiful than the face itself?
I don’t imagine faces.
Imagining faces is not what a woman does. We finish bad things.
And the wheel broke.

More information about Cathelyne: https://www.visitlier.be/nl/doen/wandelen/heksentoer (the walking trip with texts about each stop, in Flemish)