In Helmond Castle from 5 February to 3 November 2019 the exhibition ‘Witch Hunt in Peelland’ can be seen. The exhibition is based on the book Duivelskwartier (from 2015). Here, old journalist Johan Otten tells about a story that has remained underexposed until then. For the first time in history, an exhibition is also being devoted to the tragic fate that decades of women from Southeast Brabant underwent more than 400 years ago. Their processes are highlighted, with special attention to aspects such as torture and the water test. The then general belief in magic is also discussed. The national archives in Brussels lend authentic documents for this occasion.
The Peelland region formed the backdrop for a horrible, ruthless human hunt almost 425 years ago. In the year 1595, 25 women died there, most of them at the stake, after being convicted as a witch. The persecution wave in this part of the then duchy of Brabant is one of the largest in the Low Countries. The first arrests and trials took place in June 1595 in Cranendonck. At the beginning of July, an old woman and a mother were burned with her twelve-year-old daughter. They had been accused in the village of Soerendonk of malicious sorcery and would have the death of people and animals, decay of crop and other misdeeds on their conscience. A woman from Maarheeze, who was also suspected, committed suicide in captivity in the attic of Cranendonck’s castle.
The local lords and the schouten and aldermen who conducted these trials believed that the suspects were involved in a satanic plot to disrupt Christian society. They would receive orders from the devil and hold nightly parties with him. A suspect who was subjected to interrogation was invariably asked who else had been to those dark meetings. Because the poor victims were heavily tortured, they had to mention names of people they knew in their environment. That is how the persecution got around. From Cranendonck to Heeze, Leende and Geldrop, then on to Mierlo and Lierop to come to an end in Asten.
Castlewoman in Helmond accused
Little information has survived the centuries of many persecutions. In Peelland nothing would be known about it, if it had only arrived at the local archives. In the villages concerned these black pages from history have been deliberately or unconsciously filtered out of the archives. But the witch hunt in Peelland already bore so much attention at the time that the central authority in Brussels decided to investigate it. Certainly when the lord of Mierlo and Lierop had executed fifteen women in his estate in two weeks, and had also come up with accusations to the chief residents of the Peelland center city of Helmond, including the widow of the castle owner Adolf van Cortenbach, Philippine from Ruyschenberg. An attorney general traveled to the ‘s-Hertogenbosch fighter, summoned those involved, demanded copies of proceedings and spoke to survivors. His file, a unique description of the barely imaginable events, has been preserved in the national archives in Brussels. Never before have important documents from the file been seen elsewhere. These are, for example, confessions written by village secretaries of tortured women, letters from pastors who complain about the horrors and a report by the Brussels researcher about the way in which he wiped out the mantle of the castle master of Asten during a nocturnal visit.
The exhibition in Helmond Castle was realized in close collaboration with Johan Otten and Jan van der Heijden of the Anna Ceelen House in Asten, documentation center on witchcraft at the castle ruins.
Accessibility Helmond Castle
Helmond Castle, Kasteel Helmond, is part of Museum Helmond, together with Kunsthal Helmond. The city castle in the middle of Helmond is easily accessible by car and public transport. By train you get off at Helmond station, it is about 10 minutes walk to the castle. Parking (paid) is about 20 meters from the castle under the Castle-Traverse air bridge.
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