Last updated 6 months ago by Michael Darmanin
Torture, trials, imprisonment and being burnt at the stake. Witch hunts in Europe accounted for 50,000 people during a torrid period between 1580 to 1630. Of those killed, around 80% were women, most often over 40.
The Netherlands was less affected than most countries, with only Portugal having less cases of this barbaric manifestation of fanaticism. And the low country also gained fame for becoming the first land to discontinue with the trials.
But while the blaze of witch hunt raged across Europe, some of the flickering flames did affect the Dutch. They did not remain totally unsinged by the atrocities.
Yet, it was the small town of Oudewater in the Utrecht province that led the way for the accused to save themselves. Not only the Dutch, but people from all over Europe, accused or fearing accusation, travelled to this ancient town for their literal get out of jail card.
The ancient town of Oudewater with its uncertain origins lies 31.5 km from the city of Utrecht. Today, it takes about 35 minutes to drive there from the city via A12.
Saved by the scale
The Waag of Oudewater was built in 1482 as a freight weighing house. In 1545, Holy Roman Emperor Charles V blessed Oudewater with the privilege of carrying out fair weighing process. Essentially it meant that the town’s weigh house could weigh individuals and determine whether or not he or she was actually a witch. Oudewater was the only place in Europe recognized as a place for fair weighing.
At the height of the witch trials of the 16th century, this weighing house helped many to prove their innocence. Since then it has been known as Heksenwaag (the witches weighing house)
It was in the Oudewater Waag, with tested scales that were not rigged, people could be weighed and thereby obtain certificates stating that they were too heavy to be a witch. Certificates would state “the body weight is proportional to build”. The prevailing ‘logic’ behind branding someone a witch was that the person was soul-less and hence lighter than what he/she should weight based on his/her build. This was the reason witches could supposedly whizz around on a broomstick.
How many people were thus saved in this curious way? Opinions vary.
Historical study by Kurt Baschwitz suggests that while less harmful than the deliberately rigged scales that were designed to denounce the accused as witches, Oudewater Waag also used the system for commercial purposes. The city authorities cut lucrative deals to generate certificates of innocence. It remained a source of income for the town.
Museum de Heksenwaag
Today The Waag remains open as a museum, with a red and white logo featuring the silhouette of a witch on a broomstick. At Museum de Heksenwaag, Oudewater, ‘official certificates’ are still handed out to tourists, reiterating that the person weighed is not a witch. Of course, with burning at stake out of the equation in modern times, there are facilities to dress up as witches, complete with hooked nose and broomstick, and get your pictures taken.
With Corona regulations in vogue, there are currently pictures of witches with their hooked noses hidden by face masks, and the request to keep a 1.5 m distance denoted by a the drawing of broomstick as a measure.
There are other attractions in Oudewater as well. The town hall dates from 1588 and features a stork’s nest. The city centre has more than 250 protected houses.