I recently went to the rural little town of Oudewater in the Netherlands to have myself weighed. The antique, creaking metal and oak scale dates back from the early 17th century. For 200 years it was the last resort for many accused of witchcraft. Bubble bubble…
It would seem like being a witch definitely had its benefits in those days. You could turn irritating kids into toads, command the weather and brew potent potions from the local schrooms. You could spew evil incantations and inspire petrified awe wherever you went.
But being accused of being a witch also had a few distinct drawbacks. Of which being drowned, burned alive and hanged weren’t the worst.
The Witches Scale in Oudewater started its years of service as the central scale on which local folk could weigh their livestock, cheese, rope and stuff. Then, as the spate of witch accusations (and burnings) increased in the Netherlands and the rest of Europe, it suddenly had a new use. It became the ultimate proof of whether a person accused of witchcraft was guilty or not.
Those days were ruled by superstition and strange beliefs. Everyone knew that witches fly on broomsticks, so cutting-edge scientific deduction of the times meant witches would have to be weightless. Which is where the scale came in.
From the Netherlands and beyond those accused of witchcraft would journey to Oudewater to have themselves weighed on the only scale declared as just by Charles V. For the next 200 years, the scale saved the lives of hundreds of people (while 50 000 other people did not make the grade and were killed in various inventive ways).
My journey to Oudewater wasn’t a life or death matter. It was a quirky photo op and a story to tell. But it did get me thinking: If a scale could condemn a woman in the 17th century, has that much really changed?
Doesn’t our own bathroom scales do the same today? Don’t we mount them with the same trepidation, hands clasped in prayer, hoping for divine absolution from last night’s carbo raid on the pantry?
Unlike those women 400 years ago, we are condemned for being too heavy. Too real. Too meaty. Too scary. And unlike those women, we condemn ourselves. So we slump away from the scale as the crones we feel we are.
I climbed the Witches Scale and was told I am heavy enough. I am safe, I am not a witch. For once in my life I had a wry sense of relief after facing the scale. Although I nearly had a bloody heart-attack when I saw my weight in pounds penned on the certificate.
At least our modern digital scales are a little more accurate in their condemnation.