Witch trials in the Netherlands
During the late Middle Ages and early modern period, Europe was under the spell of witch-hunts and witch trials. Between roughly 1400 and 1700, around 40.000 to 60.000 people were accused of practising witchcraft and executed, often in horrific ways. 80 percent of these people were women, often poor, older, single and without power. Many of them were healers and midwives.
The number of people put on trial for witchcraft was the greatest in the former Holy Roman Empire (50.000), followed by Poland (15.000), Switzerland (9.000), French-speaking Europe (10.000), Spanish and Italian peninsulas (10.000) and Scandinavia (4.000).
How it all began
During the Early Middle Ages, Christian doctrine believed the existence of witches and witchcraft to be a pagan superstition. In 785, the Germanic Council of Paderborn even outlawed the belief in witches and the Holy Roman Emperor Charlemagne confirmed the law later on.
However, Christian perspectives began to change towards the end of the Middle Ages, influenced by the writings of the poet Dante Alighieri and philosopher Thomas Aquinas, among others. The belief spread that witches were in fact real and conspiring with the devil, which marked the beginning of witch-hunts in Europe.
The Netherlands and witch trials
While the Netherlands also conducted witch trials during the late Middle Ages, the number of trials and subsequent executions is among the smallest in Europe. The Netherlands also halted their executions earlier than any other European country. Still, it is estimated that between 164 and 200 people (300 people when including deaths in regions that were under Spanish jurisdiction at the time) lost their lives in witch trials in the Netherlands. This number includes people who were executed, as well as those who died of torture before execution and those who died in prison. Out of the 164 documented victims, 155 were women.
Witch trials in the Northern Netherlands
There is a notable difference when it comes to the number of recorded deaths and the peak of the witch trials per province. Most of the trials in the Northern Netherlands (commonly referred to as the Dutch Republic) seemed to have taken place between 1550 and 1575, which is when the witch trials were only beginning in the Southern Netherlands (comprising of most of Belgium, Luxembourg and small parts of the modern Netherlands).
Here are the recorded deaths per province in the Northern Netherlands:
- Groningen: 50 deaths (peaks in 1540s & 1590)
- Guelders: 46 deaths (peaks in 1540s and 1550s)
- Holland: 39 deaths (peaks in mid 1560s, 1585 and 1591)
- Utrecht: 23 deaths (peaks in 1520s and 1530s)
- Zeeland: 4 deaths
- Drenthe: 1 death
- Oversticht: 1 death
The Southern Netherlands: The Roermond witch trials of 1613
The Roermond witch trials of 1613 are considered the most infamous witch trials that took place in present-day the Netherlands (back then it was under Spanish rule). With 64 victims tortured and burned to death in and around Roermond, it was certainly the largest.
However, various sources argue the validity of this claim, as this information was taken from a four-page pamphlet that was published in Nijmegen around 1613 / 1614. While the events mentioned in the pamphlet broadly correspond with the documented facts, the names, dates, places and numbers differ drastically. Whether we can consider the pamphlet as an additional informational source or a complete fabrication is something that we will probably never know for sure.
What most historians can agree on is that during 1613 / 1614, the church and government officials in and around Roermond accused dozens of people of bewitching others, heresy, and forming a pact with the devil (which of course included dancing and fornication with said devil). Torture was used to make the accused confess and give up the names of other witches, who then were arrested and tortured as well. Around 30 to 64 people (depending on what source you believe) were burned at the stake.
The Oudewater weigh house
You can find a relic of the Dutch witch trials in Oudewater; here stands the Heksenwaag or the Oudewater weigh house. Considered the only place in Europe you could get a fair trial as a witch back in the day (before the law and church sanctioned witch hunts).
More often than not, as stated above, a confession was tortured out of the accused and the accused was burned at the stake or executed in another terrible manner. But in Oudewater, a potential witch would be weighed on a scale. A scale that was not tampered with. You see, the reasoning was that a witch had no soul, so they would weigh a lot less than the average person. This basically meant that in Oudewater, no witches were ever put to death.
Nowadays, the Heksenwaag is a tourist attraction where you can learn about the history of witch trials in the Netherlands and Europe. You can even view and step on the weighing scale, (potentially) earning an official certificate stating that you are indeed not a witch.
The last witch trial in the Netherlands
The last person to be prosecuted and killed as a witch in what is now the Netherlands is widely considered to be Entgen Luijten. Entgen Luijten was born in 1600 in Lutterade and lived in Limbricht for 44 years, which is where she was accused of witchcraft in 1674 by the government. She was held in the dungeon of Kasteel Limbricht for questioning.
After six days of questioning, she was found dead in her cell. The court concluded that it was suicide, while the examiner claimed the cause of death was strangulation (so, murder). However, the court considered her “suicide” to be an admission of guilt and ordered her body to be dragged to the gallows by horses, where she was buried.
Nationaal Heksenmonument & Nationaal Heksenpardon
The foundation Nationaal Heksenmonument is petitioning for a national witch monument to honour the memory of the women and men in the Netherlands who were denounced as witches and subsequently tortured to death. Others are petitioning for a Nationaal Heksenpardon ("National Witch Pardon"), a posthumous acquittal for the tried and executed “witches” in the Netherlands. Visit their websites for more information on the witch trials in the Netherlands and their victims.