Heksenwaag, 16th century witches weighhouse in Oudewater, Netherlands
About twenty minutes outside of Utrecht is the sleepy little town of Oudewater. Which holds a secret in the form of a 16th century witches weighhouse (Heksenwaag). Oudewater is a picturesque little town crisscrossed with the canals which are so ubiquitous in the Netherlands. And lined with chocolate-box-style houses and shops selling flowers, cheese and home wares. It feels as if time has stood still in Oudewater. There are no Garish neon signs, no loud music or modern buildings, just the sound of the water babbling through and the locals gently chat. In fact, the busiest part of the town seems to be the herring stand in the center with its short queue of those in need of a pickled snack.
Oudewater town feels almost too quiet. But I can’t decide if that’s because I know the secrets hiding away in one of those beautiful town houses.
My family are used to being dragged to slightly off-the-wall places. And I pride myself on finding those quirky locations that are a little off the usual tourist trail (like the time we all ended up in the prison in the Cook Islands buying souvenirs).
The children really weren’t sure what to make of this though. Visiting Oudewater on our Spring trip to the Netherlands to step foot in one of the world’s few remaining witches weighing houses, the Heksenwaag.
A history of witch-mania
From the fifteenth to the seventeenth centuries witch mania swept across Europe with hundreds of thousands of men, children but primarily women being burnt at the stake after being tortured.
Their “crimes” could be anything from suspicion about their midwifery skills to a jealous neighbor making an accusation. And it only took one unfounded finger-pointing for someone to be arrested and ultimately killed.
It was a dangerous time to stand out as being different or to make enemies.
Most towns during this period would have had a weighing house. These were used to weigh produce and grain for buying and selling.
But these weigh houses took on a more sinister guise when those accused of witchcraft would be brought in to be weighed. Witches were considered to be as light as a feather to fly on their broomsticks and so they would be hauled onto the scales to determine if they were indeed light enough.
Heksenwaag’s Scales – A visit to the 16th century witches weighhouse, Oudewater
Oudewater became famous for its scales in the Heksenwaag which never saw a single person who was weighed by them killed.
Today you can stand on these original oak 14th-century scales, that creek calmly backwards and forwards, and hold on to the tightly bound rope. And only begin to imagine how it must have felt to have stood there with such an accusation hanging over your head.
It’s an important place to remember the terrible acts that took place against these innocent people.
The certificates that the Oudewater Heksenwaag would issue would be clutched gratefully. The only thing standing between the recipient and certain death.
Of course today it isn’t all just a solemn visit. And in fact, the museum’s curator really adds to the experience. A curious woman who takes delight in weighing visitors and awarding them with their own modern-day certificate to prove they are indeed not witches.
The museum – Heksenwaag – A visit to the 16th century witches weighhouse, Oudewater
Brave visitors can then ascend the creaky staircase to the small museum upstairs.
On the floor above there’s a really informative film about witchcraft during this period (in English and Dutch). And you can sit and watch while the children have fun with a little trail to find all of the cats hidden around the room.
I took a moment to sit in the window, looking out at the slow movement of the world outside and the streets that are largely unchanged. And it was just unimaginable the horror of this time of persecution and power and ultimate misogyny.
We headed back downstairs to the overriding burden of those large, wooden scales. And all the stories they could tell.
What we thought of Heksenwaag – A visit to the 16th century witches weighhouse, Oudewater
This is an eerie place. Although ultimately it provided comfort to so many.
And I accept it might not be on everyone’s travel itinerary but it’s important to remember the history and not forget the lessons learned.
I would definitely urge you, if you are planning a trip to the Netherlands, to add this to your list to visit.
Find out more about the witches weighing house at Oudewater here. And read our guide to the Netherlands with kids for lots more suggestions of things to do and places to visit.
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