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  • Writer's pictureMary W. Craig

The Witches' Scales of Oudewater

We're grateful to welcome back writer and researcher Mary W. Craig for another of her monthly blogs. This month, Mary is comparing attitudes towards witches in Scotland and the Netherlands by highlighting the heksenwaag in Oudewater.

Photo credit: Alan Grinberg, Flickr

The town of Oudewater in the Netherlands is famous for the Heksenwaag (Witches’ scales). This weighing house was an official town building, originally used as in many other towns to weigh the likes of farm produce. It became famous during the 16th and 17th centuries because people accused of witchcraft were offered a chance of proving their innocence. The belief was that as witches had no soul they would weigh less than an honest woman.

The weighing house in Oudewater was said to have been approved as a fair weighing site by the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V. Due to Charles’ position as the Holy Emperor those who were weighed on the scales and who were given a certificate to prove they were an honest woman could not be prosecuted as a witch. This resulted in many accused ‘witches’ travelling to Oudewater to prove their innocence. Courts across Europe would accept the certificate from Oudewater as proof of innocence. There is no record of any individual who was ever weighed at Oudewater being prosecuted as a witch.

There is no record of any individual who was ever weighed at Oudewater being prosecuted as a witch.

However, travel to Oudewater was costly and not without danger. Those who could afford the trip would probably have been in a position to demand the right to the test of the scales. For many ordinary women and men, however, leaving your village after a witch accusation could be seen as ‘proof’ of guilt. Was the witch trying to escape? There were also worries such as what would happen to your family if you left. To travel to Oudewater from Scotland was expensive but also held its own dangers. During the second half of the 17th century the Dutch and the English were at war with each other with numerous naval battles fought between the two such that crossing the sea from Scotland to the Netherlands was no easy matter.

One interesting element surrounding the Oudewater scales, which stands in stark contrast to the attitudes in Scotland, is that the initial assumption was that a person wanting to be weighed was an honest woman proving her innocence. An accused person was innocent until proved otherwise in the Netherlands.

The last witch executed in the Netherlands was Anna Muggen of Gorinchem in 1608, however the scales continued to be used throughout the 17th century by accused women and men from across Europe.




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