Bewitched in Oudewater

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.

Oudewater, Netherlands

Oudewater, Netherlands

De Grote of Sint Michaëlskerk, Oudewater, Netherlands

De Grote of Sint Michaëlskerk, Oudewater, Netherlands

Oudewater, Netherlands

Oudewater, Netherlands

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!

The Heksenwaag, the Witches Weighing House, Oudewater, Netherlands

The Heksenwaag, the Witches Weighing House, Oudewater, Netherlands

The scales at the Heksenwaag, the Witches Weighing House, Oudewater, Netherlands

The scales at the Heksenwaag, the Witches Weighing House, Oudewater, Netherlands

The scales at the Heksenwaag, the Witches Weighing House, Oudewater, Netherlands

The scales at the Heksenwaag, the Witches Weighing House, Oudewater, Netherlands

Weights at the Heksenwaag, the Witches Weighing House, Oudewater, Netherlands

Weights at the Heksenwaag, the Witches Weighing House, Oudewater, Netherlands

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.

Oudewater, Netherlands

Oudewater, Netherlands

Oudewater, Netherlands

Oudewater, Netherlands

Oudewater, Netherlands

Oudewater, Netherlands

De Grote of Sint Michaëlskerk, Oudewater, Netherlands

De Grote of Sint Michaëlskerk, Oudewater, Netherlands

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.

Oudewater, Netherlands

Oudewater, Netherlands

Sint Franciskuskerk, Oudewater, Netherlands

Sint Franciskuskerk, Oudewater, Netherlands

Oudewater, Netherlands

Oudewater, Netherlands

Oudewater, Netherlands

Oudewater, Netherlands

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.

The scales at the Heksenwaag, the Witches Weighing House, Oudewater, Netherlands

The scales at the Heksenwaag, the Witches Weighing House, Oudewater, Netherlands

Oudewater, Netherlands

Oudewater, Netherlands

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 its 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…

Cycling through the bewitching Dutch countryside

It was the weekend and the sun was shining. This has been such a rare event recently that I dragged myself out of bed early. I took a train to Woerden, the start point for a lovely cycle ride that took me through traditional Dutch landscapes to the small town of Oudewater. Then, turning  south, I headed to the cheese town of Gouda, from where I could catch a train back to The Hague.

Oukoopse Molen, cycling through the Dutch countryside near Oudewater, Netherlands

Oukoopse Molen, cycling through the Dutch countryside near Oudewater, Netherlands

Cycling through the Dutch countryside near Oudewater, Netherlands

Cycling through the Dutch countryside near Oudewater, Netherlands

Cycling through the Dutch countryside near Oudewater, Netherlands

Cycling through the Dutch countryside near Oudewater, Netherlands

Oudewater, of which (or should that be witch?) more later, was my main destination. Oudewater holds a unique place in Dutch and European history. During the 16th and 17th centuries, the town’s Weigh House was the only place in Europe where you could be weighed to prove you weren’t a witch. Strange but true.

First, I had to navigate a cycle through the countryside of Utrecht Province. Cycling through the Dutch countryside can often feel like you’ve wandered into a tourism advert or onto a chocolate box. The landscapes seem too perfect, too manicured to be real. In reality this is a landscape crafted and shaped over centuries by agriculture and an epic battle against water.

Cycling through the Dutch countryside near Oudewater, Netherlands

Cycling through the Dutch countryside near Oudewater, Netherlands

Oukoopse Molen, cycling through the Dutch countryside near Oudewater, Netherlands

Oukoopse Molen, cycling through the Dutch countryside near Oudewater, Netherlands

Cycling through the Dutch countryside near Oudewater, Netherlands

Cycling through the Dutch countryside near Oudewater, Netherlands

Cycling through the Dutch countryside near Oudewater, Netherlands

Cycling through the Dutch countryside near Oudewater, Netherlands

Cycling through the Dutch countryside near Oudewater, Netherlands

Cycling through the Dutch countryside near Oudewater, Netherlands

Canals and water channels criss-cross the landscape. Polders, the low-lying strips of farmland that the Dutch have artificially created by draining the land of water, line up in neat rows. Dykes, preventing this hard won land from flooding, are everywhere in evidence. There is very little that is natural about this landscape, but that doesn’t stop it being picturesque.

As the saying goes, “God created the world, but the Dutch created Holland”. Polders, which make up about 20 percent of the landmass of the Netherlands, are proof of the massive effort it has taken to create the modern Dutch landscape. For perspective, without all this effort, some 65 percent of the Netherlands would flood on a daily basis; and my daily cycle to work would probably require a canoe.

Cycling through the Dutch countryside near Oudewater, Netherlands

Cycling through the Dutch countryside near Oudewater, Netherlands

Cycling through the Dutch countryside near Oudewater, Netherlands

Cycling through the Dutch countryside near Oudewater, Netherlands

Cycling through the Dutch countryside near Oudewater, Netherlands

Cycling through the Dutch countryside near Oudewater, Netherlands

Cycling through the Dutch countryside near Oudewater, Netherlands

Cycling through the Dutch countryside near Oudewater, Netherlands

Cycling through the Dutch countryside near Oudewater, Netherlands

Cycling through the Dutch countryside near Oudewater, Netherlands

Look at this region of the Netherlands on Google Earth and you’ll see that it’s almost entirely made up of polders. An intricate patchwork of green strips interspersed with thinner strips of water. Some of the farm longhouses with thatched roofs are 200 or more years old, many are listed as national monuments. This is classic Dutch farming country, the Netherlands that you don’t get to see on a weekend trip to Amsterdam.

It’s well worth the effort to explore if you have the time…and exploration is easy. I never stop admiring how good the network of cycle paths is in the Netherlands. Not only traffic free on many routes, but with a supporting network of signposts and distance markers. It’s basically impossible to get lost for long in the Dutch countryside.

Cycling through the Dutch countryside near Oudewater, Netherlands

Cycling through the Dutch countryside near Oudewater, Netherlands

Cycling through the Dutch countryside near Oudewater, Netherlands

Cycling through the Dutch countryside near Oudewater, Netherlands

Cycling through the Dutch countryside near Oudewater, Netherlands

Cycling through the Dutch countryside near Oudewater, Netherlands

Cycling through the Dutch countryside near Oudewater, Netherlands

Cycling through the Dutch countryside near Oudewater, Netherlands

Cycling through the Dutch countryside near Oudewater, Netherlands

Cycling through the Dutch countryside near Oudewater, Netherlands

Cycling through the Dutch countryside near Oudewater, Netherlands

Cycling through the Dutch countryside near Oudewater, Netherlands

Cycling is definitely the best way to explore and experience the Netherlands, made all the easier by the flatness of the land. I sometimes find myself shocked to be cycling uphill, although to be fair the uphills are usually only bridges. The flatness of the land also means that you can spot the spires of churches from miles away.

I could see the towering spires of Oudewater’s Sint Franciskuskerk and De Grote of Sint Michaëlskerk from a long way away. They seemed to be beckoning me towards a coffee, a snack and a chance to prove I wasn’t a witch…