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22 March 2018

Why Oudewater was so attractive to ‘witches’

In an earlier post I discussed the popularisation of the image of witches flying on broomsticks by Pieter Bruegel the Elder.

This chimes with what Balthasar Bekker writes in his famous De Betoverde wereld (‘The Enchanted World’), namely that the idea of witches flying to gatherings at night on a broomstick ‘is today a widely held belief amongst the common people’.

Title-page of Balthasar Bekker, De Betoverde wereld (Leeuwarden, 1691) 8630.bbb.25

How did prosecutors go about proving that someone accused of being a witch was indeed a witch?

There was one practice that was uniquely reserved for witch trials, namely ‘trial by ordeal’, or divine judgements. In his Malleus Maleficarum (first published Speyer, ca 1487; IB.8581.), Heinrich (Institoris) Kraemer stated that witches could fly because they were weightless. So, all one had to do was establish the weight of the accused and when she (it was mostly women who were prosecuted) was found indeed to be weightless this pointed strongly to her being a witch.

Title-page of an early 16th-century edition of the Malleus Maleficarum (Paris, [1510?]) 1606/312.

There were two ways to establish weightlessness:

The first was by water, a very popular method in the Netherlands, for obvious reasons: water aplenty! Throw the accused in the water and see if they float. If they sink they are innocent, if they float they are too light, and must be a witch. At the end of the 16th century this method was officially abolished in Holland, following a thorough academic study on the validity of the method by scholars from the University of Leyden.

This left the second method of trial by weighing. This was usually done on the scales of the local weighing house, where goods brought to market were weighed to quality-check them and therefore big enough for a person to stand on. Although seemingly pretty straightforward, there are accounts of places where the scales were fiddled with to show ‘0’ on the dial, leading to gross miscarriages of justice. No such tricks were played at what became known as the ‘Witches Weighing House’ at Oudewater, a small town between Rotterdam and Utrecht.

WaagOudextCUP502I30p10The Weighing House at Oudewater, from Casimir K. Visser, Van de heksenwaag te Oudewater. (Lochem, 1941) Cup.502.l.30

The authorities in Oudewater made sure that weighings were carried out correctly, with several witnesses apart from the weighing master, thus making sure all persons had a weight matching their stature. Moreover, the weighing house issued a certificate stating that the person was not a witch, which they would show magistrates back home. It is no surprise that none of the weighings carried out at Oudewater resulted in a prosecution.

WaagOudScalesCup502I30 The scales of the weighing house at Oudewater, from Van de heksenwaag te Oudewater.

Oudewater was not well known in the Netherlands in the 16th century, when most witch trials took place. It was not until the witch trials had virtually ended there that it came into its own, during the 17th and first half of the 18th century. Oudewater attracted almost exclusively people from outside the Netherlands, who were sent there by magistrates in their home towns.

It is not known why it was that towns sent defendants all the way to Oudewater; why did they not carry out weighings themselves?

Over time belief in witchcraft diminished and the scales at Oudewater became an anachronism. This is poignantly expressed by the owner of a travel guide to the Netherlands, published in French in Amsterdam in 1779. It is entitled La Hollande aux dix-huitième siècle. In the chapter about Schiedam on page 36, the travel guide says that after 1593 not one person in Schiedam, nor in Holland for that matter, was punished for witchcraft.

WaagOudLaHollTtlpTitle page of La Hollande au Dix-Huitième Siecle. (The Hague, 1779). RB.23.a.37831

I recently bought a copy this travel guide for our collections. Inside it were several loose pieces of paper inserted with handwritten comments by what must have been the owner of the book. Imagine my surprise when I found that one note described the practice of weighing witches at Oudewater! Here is what it says:

A Oudewater on a une balance fameuse par l’usage qu’on en faisait pour peser les femmes accus[é]es de sorcellerie. Malheur à celles qui étoient trouvées trop légères. La derniere épreuve en à été faitte [sic] sur une vielle rabatteuse, il n’y a qu’une quarantaine d’ années, ce qui est assez singulier dans le XVIII siècle.
(At Oudewater they have a famous scales for the use of weighing women accused of sorcery. Woe betide those found to be too light. The last trial was made on an old vagrant woman not even forty years ago, which is exceptional for the 18th century. )

WaagOudNote Inserted manuscript note on Oudewater found in La Hollande au Dix Huitième Siecle

Marja Kingma, Curator Germanic Collections

References and further reading:

A.W. den Boer, Oud-Oudewater. ([Oudewater], 1965). X.808/3056

Marijke Gijswijt-Hofstra / Willem Frijhoff (eds), Nederland betoverd: toverij en hekserij Van de veertiende tot in de twintigste eeuw. (Amsterdam, 1987). YA.1990.b.7167.

Jacobus Scheltema, Geschiedenis der heksenprocessen. (Haarlem, 1828). 8631.i.15


20 March 2018

Hygge, noir or both? The Films of Carl Theodor Dreyer

With the current enthusiasm for all things Danish, from the cult of hygge to crime dramas, it is fitting, on the 50th anniversary of his death, to examine the legacy of Denmark’s greatest contributor to the history of cinema, Carl Theodor Dreyer (1889-1968).

Dreyer Portrait
Portrait of Dreyer directing in 1931, from Ebbe Neergaard, En filminstruktørs arbejde. Carl Th. Dreyer og hans ti filmer (Copenhagen, 1940)

Certainly, judging by the subjects of his films and the events of his own life, it would be difficult to regard Dreyer as a typical representative of ‘Europe’s happiest nation’. He was, in fact, only half Danish; his mother, Josefine Bernhardine Nilsson, was a servant on a farm in Sweden where she was seduced by her Danish employer Jens Christian Torp – a situation familiar to readers of Martin Andersen Nexø’s novel Pelle Erobreren (Copenhagen, 1906-10; 12581.r.18.). Torp was already married, and when Josefine died he placed their illegitimate son in an orphanage. At the age of two the little boy was adopted by a typographer named Carl Theodor Dreyer, and his wife, Inger Marie, who gave him a home and a name but little in the way of emotional warmth or security. When he was 16 he broke away from his adoptive parents, but their lasting influence is evident in the ideology which underpins many of his films, set in a Denmark where religious conservatism prevails and failure to conform can have fatal consequences.

At the time when Dreyer made the transition from journalism to film, the Danish silent cinema was in its early stages, and even during his mature career as a director he lacked the support of a well-established national film industry. This apparent disadvantage, in fact, accorded well with Dreyer’s preference for solitude and independence at all costs. In his biography En filminstruktørs arbejde, Ebbe Neergaard describes the moment when the young Dreyer, visiting the vaults of the Great Northern Telegraph Company in the company of an elderly accountant who proudly pointed to his life’s work – a collection of musty files – recoiled in horror from the prospect of a similar fate and promptly resigned his post to strike out alone.

Throughout his life Dreyer was outspoken in his criticism of mass-production film-making, and his insistence on the integrity of the individual, no matter what the outcome, runs through his work. He began in a small way, writing film scripts for Nordisk Film (1913-19). Although he later called this period ‘a marvellous school’, it coincided with the decline of Danish film during the First World War, where, although neutral, Denmark lost many of its foreign markets and Nordisk’s German theatre chain was bought up by Ufa in 1917. Dreyer then left Denmark to work in the French film industry; while living in France he met Jean Cocteau and other members of the French artistic scene and in 1928 he made his first classic film, The Passion of Joan of Arc. This, like his next effort, Vampyr (1932), privately funded by Baron Nicolas de Gunzburg who also played the hero, was a commercial failure. Both were subsequently recognized as masterpieces of emotional realism and surreal expressionism, but Dreyer was deterred from making any more films until 1943, when he directed one of his greatest works, Day of Wrath. Denmark was by now under German occupation, and this story of the persecution of alleged witches in a remote Danish village stands as a metaphor for the climate suspicion and oppression which flourished in those days.

Dreyer Cover
Montage of images from The Passion of Joan of Arc reproduced on the cover of  En filminstruktørs arbejde

Many of Dreyer’s films are set in small, tightly-knit communities in rural districts. However, they do not portray an idealised world of neighbourly cosiness but demonstrate how an apparently secure web of relationships can become a trap. In Master of the House (1925), he depicts a tyrannical father’s hold over his family and its eventual subversion; on a wider scale, The Word (1955) shows the stranglehold of religious bigotry over the lives of villagers, with a strict father forbidding his daughter to marry out of their sect and a young man transformed into an eccentric ‘holy fool’ by excessive theological study. Yet there remains hope, even though in this case it requires the death of his sister-in-law Inger in childbirth to bring about the miracle which eventually transcends and dissolves the artificial boundaries which constrict their lives.

Dreyer degeneration#
‘The degeneration of family life’: the birdcage scene from Master of the House; pictures from En filminstruktørs arbejde

David Bordwell’s The Films of Carl-Theodor Dreyer (Berkeley, California, 1981; L.42/1194) provides a masterly study of the cinematic techniques which Dreyer employed throughout his career, culminating in his last film, Gertrud (1964). He analyses not only Dreyer’s use of the camera but his choice of plays and stories to adapt in exploration of spiritual conflict, social pressure to conform and the fate of those who defy it, and the concepts of sin and transgression (though Dreyer later disowned Two People (1945), based on a crime story and directed while he was living in exile from the Nazis in Sweden). But in his choice of Kaj Munk’s play Ordet as the source for The Word, he made common cause with a figure whose defiance of a corrupt regime, like Joan of Arc’s, cost him his life. Unsparing in his condemnation of moral compromise and hypocrisy alike, Dreyer invites his audience to explore the borderlands of the natural and the supernatural, earthly and spiritual, and to think for themselves in drawing their own conclusions.

Susan Halstead, Subject Librarian (Social Sciences), Research Services

Further Reading

Carl Theodor Dreyer, Fire film ... Jeanne d'Arc, Vampyr, Vredens Dag, Ordet. Udgivet med indledning af Ole Storm. (Copenhagen, 1964) X.900/560. (English translation: Four Screenplays (London, 1970) X.981/1902.)

Carl Theodor Dreyer, Om filmen. Artikler og interviews. Udgivet af Erik Ulrichsen (Copenhagen, 1964) X.908/793. (English translation: Dreyer in double reflection ed. by Donald Skoller (New York, 1973) 75/22116

Claude Perrin, Carl Th. Dreyer ... points de vue, documents, filmographie, bibliographie, chronologie, 50 illustrations (Paris, [1969])

Tom Milne, The cinema of Carl Dreyer (New York, 1971) X.900/6387.  

Maurice Drouzy, Carl Th. Dreyer, né Nilsson (Paris, 1982) X.950/26307

Edvin Kau, Dreyers filmkunst (Copenhagen, 1989). YA.1991.b.411

16 March 2018

The Russian Love Affair with the Arabian Horse

The title does not refer to the mythical indiscretions of Catherine the Great, although she indeed kept a number of Arabian horses, but to the enthusiasm which many famous Russian equestrians and breeders have had for the type.

Arabian - CCCP AlbumAn Arabian from an album of characteristic horse breeds of the USSR, 1953. S. V. Afanas’ev, Al’bom porod loshadei SSSR (Moscow, 1953). Cup.1253.dd.28.

Among the British Library’s collections, one book in particular illustrates the aristocratic infatuation with the Arabian. Prince A. G. Shcherbatov and Count S. A. Stroganov’s Kniga ob Arabskoi Loshadi (Saint Petersburg, 1900; British Library 7293.l.33.) combines an overview of the breed with an account of the authors’ journey to what is now Syria, purchasing stallions for breeding back in the Russian Empire. It was translated into English as The Arabian Horse: A Survey, which the Library also holds (London, 1989; YK.1990.b.3731).

Book of the Arabian Horse

Above:  The lavish cover to Shcherbatov and Stroganov’s book. Below: A mare called Latifa, bought by Stroganov in Damascus in 1895.


Shcherbatov and Stroganov championed the Arabian against the English Thoroughbred, another popular breed. They considered the Thoroughbred inferior, as it had emerged during a great confusion of equine bloodlines after the English Civil War. Cromwell’s revolution had led to the destruction of stud books and heavy loss of stallions – ‘it turned out to be impossible to reconstitute the pedigrees of the surviving animals’.

By contrast, Bedouin traditions ensured no confusion of bloodlines: ‘Our belief in the pure blood of the Arabian horse stems above all from the importance which the Arabs in horse-breeding attach to blood’. The purity of the Arabian appealed to principles close to the hearts of Russia’s ruling classes, who meticulously traced their own genealogies as well as those of their animals.

Shcherbatov and Stroganov argued that the increasing encroachment of the railway and the disruption of traditional Bedouin ways of life, such as the shift in warfare to the use of rifles from the back of camels rather than lances on horseback, brought the future of this unspoiled breed into question in its native homeland.

It fell to Russia to ensure the preservation of the Arabian’s pure bloodline, for Russia alone remained true to the aristocratic conception of an ideal purity of blood within a perceived sea of international vulgarity. In its turn, they thought, only the pure-blooded Arabian could help breed horses to out-compete the constitutional monarchies and democratic republics in equestrian sports and on the battlefield.

By 1900, the Arabian had already clearly proved its worth for improving the Empire’s stock. In the late 18th century, an Arabian stallion named Smetanka had been used as the basis for one of Russia’s best known breeds – the Orlov trotter.

Orlov Trotter - CCCP Album An Orlov trotter from the album of Soviet horses.

The project to develop a Russian trotting horse had been taken up by Count Alexei Grigoryevich Orlov-Chesmensky, in his retirement after an eventful military career. Orlov had been a central player during the 1762 coup which secured the throne for Catherine the Great, and was rumoured to have personally assassinated the deposed Tsar Peter III. Through his rigorous and experimental breeding programme, the Orlov trotter emerged as one of the leading horses for harness racing and other sporting disciplines of the 19th century.

Orlov PortraitAbove: A portrait of Count Aleksei Orlov-Chesmensky from Sergy Dmitrievich Sheremetev, Alekhan (Saint Petersburg, 1898). 09603.dd.13. Below: Tolstoy based his 1886 work Kholstomer on the life of the Orlov trotter Muzhik I, born in 1805. Leo Tolstoy, Kholstomer (Moscow, 1951). YF.2011.b.1596.

Kholstomer Cover

According to the coaching expert Andreas Nemitz, wealthy Russians typically used Orlov trotters as the centre of a troika to pull their droshkys, flanked by two gallopers. Captain M. H. Haynes, a British observer of Russia’s equine culture at the end of the 19th century, wrote that Orlov trotters ‘admirably suit the requirements of fashionable Russians, who love to go as fast as their coachmen can drive them, even over the roughest cobble stone pavement, which of course does not suit the long fetlocks’.

Orlov Pair A pair of Orlov trotters in harness from Capt. M. H. Haynes, Among Horses in Russia (London, 1900). 07293.i.46.

Russia’s Arabian and Orlov trotter populations declined sharply during the 20th century, harmed by the wars and social upheavals of this time. In 1997, enthusiasts founded the International Committee for the Protection of the Orlov Trotter to secure the future of the breed.

Despite the development of more competitive breeds since its heyday, the Orlov trotter is still well loved by enthusiasts and amateurs alike. As Sherbatov and Stroganov wrote in 1900: ‘One has only to glance at the Orlov-type trotters … to recognise immediately in the proudly-arched neck, the bright, prominent eye, the thin skin, the silky mane, the high-soaring tail and the overall nobility of their bearing, the Arabian blood infused only once, more than a century ago’.

Orlov TodayAbove: An Orlov trotter, image from Wikimedia Commons. Below: 
 the Orlov trotter in action, image from Wikimedia Commons

Orlov in action

Mike Carey, Eastern European Curator.


‘A Russian History’, The Arabian Magazine 29.5.2013 [online] available at [Accessed 27.2.2018].

Vsevolod A. Nikolaev & Albert Parry, The Loves of Catherine the Great (New York, 1982). 83/10566.

Andreas Nemitz, ‘Traditions and Styles in the Way of Driving Horses Part One’, The Carriage Journal 36, 4 (Spring, 1999), 152-4. P.P.8003.qn.

‘Orlov Trotter’, International Museum of the Horse (2018) [online] available at [Accessed 27.2.2018].