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Witch hunts and Oudewater

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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.

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