Oudewater is a small place, so best discovered by foot. You should start your tour on Leeuweringer Straat which also houses the town's best-known sight, the Heksenwaag (witches scale). Here, women who were thought to be witches were weighed in order to see whether their weight was that of a normal woman or of a witch. A witch was supposed to be much lighter as she could easily fly on a broomstick. So when a woman was too slim, she was branded a witch. Today, the building houses a museum which issues witch certificates and is considered to be quite interesting. Unfortunately, it wasn't open yet when we were there. The surrounding area is also where the weekly market takes place. Continue your walk towards the end of Leeuweringer Straat to see some of Oudewater's finest old buildings, all lovingly looking down on one of the town's two rivers. Follow the river until it enters the river Ijssel. To your right you can now see a beautiful panorama of Oudewater's church and a few houses. Walk back into the maze of narrow alleys, and go back eventually to where you have started. You should not need more than an hour for this walk.
As I had parked the car, just outside the town center, I passed something that looked like a Centaurus, you know, half man half horse.
Except this was half old church and half modern building.
It is the Ursula chapel that was built in 1412. During the centuries it was used as school, convent, police station. I saw people working inside but couldn't discover what it was used for now.
In the photo the modern part is invisible. I should've thought to take a different angle!
So here's the story of the weighing house. It's hard to believe that this is not a legend, but this is how people actually dealt with these matters during the Middle Ages:
Back in those days, being successful in business, casting a single dark look at your neighbour, keeping a dozen cats or even something as natural as going for a stroll on the heath at night under a full moon in search of the mandrake root could easily give rise to the suspicion that you were a witch. In that case, you would soon find yourself in real trouble - and real trouble meant being burned at the stake!
Since the belief was widespread that witches were weightless (how else would they be able to fly on a broomstick?), the thing for you to do was to get a certificate that you could in fact put some weight into the scales. And Oudewater was the right place to do just that. That's why witches from all around the country, and from all over Europe came in great flocks to this place to take a nosedive into the scales!
A must to see is the Town Hall, or as they
say in Dutch, the Stadhuis ....
In 1588 a begin was made with the rebuilding of the
Town Hall that had been partially destroyed by the
Spaniards in 1575.
It is typical of the Dutch Renaissance style. In the
facade of the building the coat of arms of Delft and
Alkmaar flank those of Oudewater itself. They were
presented in 1588 as a sign of the alliance that
existed between the three towns.
Oudewater has always been well known
throughout the centuries because of its
Witches' Weigh House, the Heksenwaag.
In the old days thousands of people were
put to death on suspicion of witchcraft.
There was however one place in Europe
where you could get a certificate proving
that you were not a witch and that was
Oudewater's centre is completely put on the monumental list of the Netherlands. It contains 164 state monuments added by 140 manucipality monument statusses. Some of them I will tell about in more details, but one should not forget about the complete scenic environment that this town offers. This is best experienced by just taking a walk along the town's canals and enjoy the magnificent views from the bridges.
This weigh house was used for trading. Specifically hemp for the rope industry. Until the 18th century ther were also persons weighed here. Persons that were accused of being witches. It was believed that witches did not weigh anything (see Local Customs tips for further info).
The year of the building is unknown but in 1575 it was demolished by the Spaniards in a feat called the Oudewater Murder. It was rebuilt in 1588 in renaissance style but no luck rests on this building in 1968 it burned down! So it was again rebuilt and reopened in 1972. You can see the coats of arms of Delft, Alkmaar and Oudewater. Three important cities in the middle ages who had a pact between them.
The Oudewater Murder is still commemorated each year.
Who would ever suspect that Oudewater holds a unique place in the history of witchcraft! The story goes that in the 16th and 17th centuries people suspected of witchcraft were brought to trial and had to undergo the ordeal of either trial by water, trial by fire or trial by weighing. In Oudewater the trial by weighing was the only one used. If a suspect was unduly light it was presumed she was a witch, otherwise she would never be able to fly on a broomstick. Weight, height and build was also considered and all had to correspond, only theJn was a certificate issued and the suspect acquitted of witchcraft for the rest of her life. Those found guilty were burned.
The 16th century Waag (weigh house) still stands in Oudewater and has been converted into the Witches' Weigh House Museum. Visitors come here to be weighed on the original rope and wood balance, safe of course in the knowledge that they will be issued with a witch free certificate.
The Witches' Weigh House Museum, Oudewater
No, the nice building on the picture isn't de Heksenwaag (its the city hall in fact). When i was there de heksenwaag was being restaured so I will take the picture another time.
The Heksenwaag is the most wel known place in Oudewater. de Heksenwaag is the place where they used to weigh people in order to determine of they are a witch or not. In order to fly on a broom witches must weigh next to nothing. Makes sense, doesn't it? If it was proven you are not a witch you got a certificate that was valid for life. In the middle ages people from all over Europe got here to get weighed in order to get a certificate that they were not a witch!
These days you can still get yourself weighed and get a non-witch-certificate. I do wonder what happens if they find out you ARE a witch though. I didn't see any burning stakes.
This is the coat of arms of Oudewater. It can be seen beside the Ursula Chapel but apart from the castle and Dutch Lion, I cannot make out the rest.