THE WITCHES

“Are you a good witch or a bad witch?” Glinda never asked Dorothy how much she weighed.

Twelve minutes from my home is a quaint, beautiful town called Oudewater (old water). Once I heard the history of this town, I knew I had to write about it.

In the medieval times, in the 16th  and 17th centuries, Oudewater was well known for being a major maker and trader in ropes. Hemp was grown in the surrounding areas, and this led to a very successful business for the town. Their ropes were purchased throughout Europe. The people of Oudewater were known as honest and fair traders.

In many countries, women were accused of being a witch if they used herbs for medicinal purposes, if they hunted for specific plants or if they had some home made remedy to make you feel better. Once someone was accused of being a witch, there was a trial (which was usually rigged) and when found guilty, they were burned or drowned.

But Oudewater had a reputation of being honest and so it became the place to go to prove your innocence. Once accused of being a witch, people made a beeline for Oudewater. The woman would be weighed in an official town building, that is now a museum, and they would get a certificate stating their innocence. The weighing was a public event, like a town fair, and I imagine it was the only time someone would want to be weighed with an audience. But why be weighed?

There was a belief that a witch had no soul and therefore weighed less than an ordinary person. So if they weighed over a certain amount, they could not possibly be a witch, because witches have to be able to fly on their broomsticks. If you weighed “too much” then the broom would not get off the ground. No one was ever found guilty in Oudewater of being a witch. In fact, the Dutch did not believe in witches and would not try anyone from the Netherlands. The accused were always from other countries.

Today, visitors will see witch images along the streets and you can even buy witch cookies. This story certainly brings in the tourists, but the town maintains its beauty and is not tacky in anyway. We had coffee in a café built in 1609. The town hall was built in 1588. And you can still admire the design detail on houses built 400 hundred years ago. The canal and river that got the ropes out of town to the rest of the world, are still there. Oudewater has a wonderful history where they proved the innocence of women who were considered a “little odd”. But we all are familiar with witches in films and literature. We have heard about Salem, Massachusetts. Here in this dinkie country, one small town was a safe haven for those who stood accused of making magic potions. And in this town it was proved, that you had to be extraordinarily small to fly on a broom.

The legacy of the Netherlands has always been tolerance for a variety of people and beliefs. I love finding out that the Dutch simply did not believe in witches and therefore no one could be accused of being a witch. If you wanted to skip off to the meadow and make tea out of tree bark and a fruity tooty plant, the Dutch would send you on your way with a smile on their face. The idea that the Dutch were known as brilliant rope makers and fair traders of rope, and so that made them the ideal judges of the life or death or an accused witch, is fascinating to me. And the fact that it was the practical Dutch who said you cannot fly on a broom if you weigh over this amount. I cannot give you a better example of how practical these people are.

Dorothy Gale was not a witch. She was a farm girl who got caught in a tornado and whose house eventually fell on a witch. Naturally, people assumed she must have special powers or plants, and that she must be a witch too, like the Munchkins did. All I can say is that it is a very good thing that Dorothy landed in Oz, and not Oudewater. She would have never met  Glinda or the Wicked Witch of the West. What if L. Frank Baum was Dutch and not American? We never would have had the books or movie The Wizard of Oz. If he had been Dutch, that witch would never have flown.

Here are two photographs of Oudewater today. The first one is of the canal that transported rope and the accused to and from the town. The second is the actual building where the public weighing of the accused witch took place. It is now a museum.

 

Recommended reading: Witch Child and Sorceress by Celia Rees

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Comments

  • Sandra  On July 27, 2011 at 9:57 pm

    Jane, Nice story about this delightful town and its surrounds. An interesting combination of innocence and weight. Thanks. Sandra

  • aledysverr  On July 29, 2011 at 12:01 pm

    Delightful story – I truly loved it. Oudewater goes on my list of places to visit as of now. Thank you for sharing this!

  • Alison  On July 29, 2011 at 4:28 pm

    The couple we bought our house from moved to Oudewater, and since we’ve been lucky to become friends with them, we’ve visited the beautiful town quite often. The history of the town is fascinating and it’s such a charming place to look at, as well.

  • Holly Anne  On July 30, 2011 at 12:52 am

    Hi Jane, Thanks so much for your continued informative stories about Holland and its history. I so enjoy them.

  • siobhan duff  On July 30, 2011 at 6:26 pm

    Hi Jane,
    Thank you for sharring such a delightful ancedote. It sounds like a wonderful town to visit.
    Siobhan

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