I’m not a witch and I have a certificate to prove it. I’m not sure I need proof, but in the 16th and 17th centuries my certificate was worth more than gold to anyone accused of witchcraft, and accusing someone of witchcraft was very easy. Even a rumour was enough to get someone arrested and tried for being a servant of the Devil. Witches were as real as they were dangerous in the contemporary mind.
I got my certificate on a visit to Oudewater’s Heksenwaag, or the Witches’ Weigh House, where for a couple of centuries the most accurate scales in Europe were used to weigh people accused of witchcraft. Witches could fly and were thought to weigh almost nothing. If your weight was in line with your height, you’d be given a certificate to say you weren’t a witch. Remarkably, they still use the original scales.
Witch-related mass hysteria was very real in the 16th and 17th century, and the persecution of those accused of witchcraft was equally real. There was a time when the Catholic Church taught that witches didn’t exist. In the 13th century that changed. The Church approved the use of torture against people accused of witchcraft in 1252. It took six centuries for the Church to abandon its pursuit of witches.
In the intervening years, tens-of-thousands of people were accused of witchcraft and burned alive at the stake, hung from a gallows, or drowned. In the Netherlands there is a record of a women taking the ‘water test’ to prove her innocence as late as 1823; and in 1926 a woman was accused of casting a spell on her neighbour’s child in a place called Sliedrecht. Nineteen twenty-six!
Our ancestors were a superstitious bunch. It was simple to make an accusation and almost impossible to prove your innocence. One way to prove innocence (or guilt) was to tie the accused’s hands and legs and throw them into a river (ducking stools were popular accessories). If you floated you were a witch and put to death; if you drowned you were innocent but, inconveniently, dead.
The history of this gruesome period is told at the Heksenwaag. It makes clear that many of the victims were accused by envious neighbours, rivals in business or love, or those with an axe to grind. Offend someone and they’d accuse you; refuse to sell land to a neighbouring farmer, you’d be accused; a child falls ill, the nanny is accused. The tabloid press is still using this technique.
This madness was officially sanctioned and promoted by the Catholic authorities as a way of dealing with those who didn’t agree with them. Heretics were everywhere it seemed. The Catholic Church’s belief in witches wasn’t unique, plenty of Protestant churches joined in. Perhaps 100,000 people were accused of witchcraft in Europe, around half were executed, and 80 percent were women.
What becomes clear in the Heksenwaag is that, women and men accused of witchcraft but with resources could often be acquitted. Those without friends or money, particularly single women, most frequently ended their lives being burned alive at the stake.
The Heksenwaag shop had some witch dolls for sale. The friendly and informative woman who works there told me they came from Pendle in Lancashire. The 1612 Pendle Witch Trials are Britain’s most famous, and took place against a backdrop of political upheaval and insecurity. Anti-witchcraft laws were being used to root out Catholics in the newly Protestant England.
It made me realise how connected the Heksenwaag of Oudewater was, not only with the Pendle Witch Trials, but also the 1692 Salem Witch Trials in North America. It was the British and Dutch, and British Protestants who had lived in the Netherlands, who colonised New England. That’s the problem with ideas, they tend to travel.
In reality, natural events, and the inability of our 16th and 17th century ancestors to understand them, drove the hysteria. A period known as the Little Ice Age, a significant cooling of weather which lasted for approximately 150 years in Medieval Europe, saw crop failures and famine. People didn’t know how to interpret these terrible events, and it’s no coincidence that this was when the most intensive witch hunts occurred.
Oudewater, incidentally, is a lovely, prosperous feeling town. There’s not a lot to detain you in this small place, but it’s certainly worth a visit, whether you’re a witch or not…