Pocket-sized Oudewater, about 11km east of Gouda, deep in the countryside, is a compact and delightful town that holds a unique place in the history of Dutch witchcraft. Apart from the Heksenwaag, there’s not much else to see in Oudewater, but it is a pleasant place, whose old brick houses spread out along the River Hollandsche IJssel as it twists its way through town.Read More
Witch hunts and Oudewater
Witch hunts and Oudewater
It’s estimated that over one million European women were burned or otherwise murdered in the widespread witch hunts of the sixteenth century – and not just from quasi-religious fear and superstition: anonymous accusation to the authorities was an easy way of removing a wife, at a time when there was no divorce. Underlying it all was a virulent misogyny and an accompanying desire to terrorize women into submission. There were three main methods for investigating accusations of witchcraft: in the first, trial by fire, the suspect had to walk barefoot over hot cinders or have a hot iron pressed into the back or hands. If the burns blistered, the accused was innocent, since witches were supposed to burn less easily than others; naturally, the (variable) temperature of the iron was crucial. Trial by water was still more hazardous: dropped into water, if you floated you were a witch, if you sank you were innocent – though those deemed innocent were more than likely to drown before being rescued from the water. The third method, trial by weight, presupposed that a witch would have to be unduly light to fly on a broomstick, so many Dutch towns – including Oudewater – used the Waag (town weigh house) to weigh the accused. If the weight didn’t accord with a notional figure derived from a person’s height, the woman was burned. The last Dutch woman to be burned as a witch was a certain Marrigje Ariens, a herbalist from Schoonhoven in Zuid-Holland, whose medical efforts, not atypically, inspired mistrust and subsequent persecution. She was killed in 1597.
The Emperor Charles V (1516–52) made Oudewater famous after seeing a woman accused of witchcraft in a nearby village. The weigh-master there, who’d been bribed, stated that the woman weighed only a few pounds, but Charles was dubious and ordered the woman to be weighed again in Oudewater, where the officials proved unbribable, pronouncing a normal weight and acquitting her. The probity of Oudewater’s weigh-master impressed Charles, and he granted the town the privilege of issuing certificates, valid throughout the empire, stating: “The accused’s weight is in accordance with the natural proportions of the body.” Once in possession of the certificate, a woman could never be brought to trial for witchcraft again. Not surprisingly, thousands of women came from all over Europe for this life-saving piece of paper, and, much to Oudewater’s credit, no one was ever condemned here.