I was never a fan of history class back in my early years of high school. One, my teachers were terrible, and two, the curriculum focused on brain-numbingly boring topics like Medieval Times and The Egyptians (yes, with the capitalisations and everything).
I actually don’t remember a lot of meaty, historical stuff that I learnt during those units. I remember making some sort of pointy hat that I reckoned a princess would find fashionable. I think we looked at some pictures of castles. There was something about cats? And apparently nobody liked witches. That was it.
So when we had a car last weekend, and Paul asked me if I’d like to see Oudewater, I asked why. It’s not like I didn’t want to go, I just wanted to know a bit about the place. He told me that the town was famous for a set of scales, used to weigh women (and some men) to assess whether they were witches back in those Medieval Times. Apparently they were still in use. I was instantly fascinated, so off we went.
The fastest way between Dordrecht and Oudewater is via Rotterdam, but Paul and I decided to take the scenic route through the countryside. In such a small country like the Netherlands, and particularly in the built-up Randstad area, it’s pretty easy to forget that the countryside is absolutely stunning.
In only ten minutes we were out of Dordrecht and driving on single-lane roads on top of dikes and alongside canals, weaving in and out of villages full of thatched-roof houses. It’s so flat that you can see for miles, and because it’s only been a mild winter it was still relatively green.
Being a Sunday, and with the area being known as the country’s Bible Belt, not a soul was around. In only around fifteen kilometres, we saw at least twenty windmills, all looking like they’d received their last coat of paint yesterday.
Before long, we were pulling up to the River Lek, where we jumped on a ferry. Dutch people might think I’m crazy when I say I love the old-school little ferries that are sprinkled all over the watery country. Bridges are expensive, so they’re pretty much limited to the busier motorways. Here we made the short hop without too much of a delay; crossing from Nieuwpoort to Schoonhoven in only a few minutes, and for the tiny price of two euro.
We jumped off in Schoonhoven (we’d visited Nieuwpoort a couple of times in the past), where the wind resembled something like the opening scenes of The Wizard of Oz. The town had a couple of pretty parts, sure, but it didn’t have the oomph. Plus, there was nobody around. I was a bit cranky and windswept so we hopped back in the car after about twenty minutes and continued towards Oudewater.
If I wasn’t too impressed by Schoonhoven, Oudewater was a knockout. Tiny little lanes full of gorgeous medieval buildings, cute canals and a couple of churches that demanded respect. It was the exact place you’d be thinking of when you picture a small Dutch town. It ticked all the requisite boxes.
I was having such a dandy time that I sort of forgot about the whole witch thing, until Paul stepped in front of a building on the main square. ‘This is it,’ my perpetual tour guide announced.
In a small miracle, the building was open. On a Sunday! We patted ourselves on the back for our good fortune and headed inside. I didn’t really know what to expect, but inside I found one of the best specialist museums I’ve ever visited.
Something that I didn’t learn in high school history class was that from the fifteenth to the seventeenth centuries (the trials went on until the early nineteenth century, but this was when it was at its height), over 100,000 people were tried as witches in Europe, with over 50,000 put to death. Around eighty per cent were adult women, with the remainder being men and children.
The numbers are shocking, as are the reasons why these people were unfairly prosecuted. Usually a bit of gossip was all that was needed, so a tiff with a neighbour could lead to you being burnt at the stake. Various unscientific tests would sometimes be carried out, from throwing the accused in the water (if they floated they were a witch, if they sunk they were innocent) or weighing them. It was thought that a witch needed to be light in order to ride a broomstick, so if the accused was of ‘normal’ weight, then they were in the clear.
I know, it’s ridiculous. I swear I’m not making this up.
The museum could be all doom and gloom, and parts of it are, I suppose. It’s not the nicest of subject matters. But this is where Oudewater comes in, and this is where the story gets a little more positive.
You see, Oudewater was a type of pilgrimage site for many Dutch accused of being witches in the sixteenth century. Just like many Dutch towns, there’s a waag right in the centre, a place for weighing things. Usually, cheese and hemp are weighed at a waag, but in Oudewater the town hall would often receive requests to weigh people. Charles V of Spain had travelled through Oudewater and was aware of the honesty of the scales of the waag, and had bestowed upon the building his official seal of approval. You can still see his little crown on the facade of the building today.
In short, if you had a certificate from the Oudewater Town Hall stating that you had been weighed at the town’s waag and were of normal weight, you were untouchable. Not a single person who received a certificate from Oudewater was found guilty of practicing witchcraft.
The museum is divided into two sections. Upstairs there’s a little video, in Dutch and in English, that gives a short background about the witch trials and its specific history in the Netherlands. There’s a collection of precious artifacts, including certificates that date all the way up until World War II. And there’s stuff for little kids, such as a scavenger hunt hidden all over the floor.
But it’s downstairs where the highlight lays. It’s the original set of scales, and you’re welcome to get weighed. If you’re deemed too heavy to be a witch, they’ll even give you your certificate, complete with the city council’s stamp of approval.
Well I had to, didn’t I? Particularly as I knew that if I was thrown into the water, I would float without question. I needed this certification.
Back in the day, they used to make you strip down to your bedclothes and you were patted down, just to make sure you weren’t hiding any weights in your knickers. Thankfully, they let me stay in my Paddington coat this time around, and with Paul clicking away with my camera, I was publicly weighed.
Despite the fact that a public weighing was something previously only residing in my nightmares, it was pretty cool. The attendant didn’t rely on anything digital; no, she used proper weights on the other side of the scale to balance it out. She then bellowed out my weight across the room (ugh), to which another attendant duly nodded and prepared my certificate.
I loved the little museum in Oudewater, and Oudewater in general was pretty perfect. It’s small, almost entirely stuck in medieval times architecturally, and has a story. If it was any closer to Amsterdam (it’s about halfway between Gouda and Utrecht) tourists would be filing in by the tour bus load, all posing for photos with their certificate in one hand and making the peace sign with the other.
According to Paul, the vast majority of Oudewater’s tourists are Dutchies, with the odd German or Belgian. We ended up having lunch just across the square, and could see the types of people heading into the museum. They were almost all young couples. So basically a whole lot of Paul and Caitlyns.
When we got back to the car (and I almost lost my certificate in the howling wind) I was pretty damn happy. Just when I would think that I’d seen everything there was to see in the Netherlands, I got a little surprise. I’d had a nice little history lesson (just think of how cool Year 8 history class would have been with a bit of witch weighing going on) and a very handy certification.
I knew all of those pork knuckles and pierogi last year would serve me well in the long term.