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Lier rescinds conviction of women accused of witchcraft in 1590

20:08 21/01/2021

The city of Lier has taken the unusual step of ‘restoring the honour’ of three girls and women who were accused of witchcraft in the 16th century. One of them was burned at the stake.

Lier in fact has a stone in its main square recognising the place where Cathelyne Van den Bulcke was burned to death in 1590. But the story started before Cathelyne.

“It was a very dark period, with a lot of fluctuation in the weather, which caused harvests to fail, and there were new diseases that appeared,” Lier city councillor Rik Verwaest (N-VA) told Radio 2. “So you could very well draw parallels with today.”

In the 1500s, however, people looked to each other to blame for natural phenomenon. “For things that were inexplicable, they looked for scapegoats, and they turned on Anneken Faes.”

According to historical records, Anneken shows signs of what we would now call autism. “She lived on the margins of society and was considered strange,” said Verwaest. “So she was accused of witchcraft.”

Anneken was just 14 and – in a practice that was common at the time – was tortured until she gave up the names of more witches. She gave two names of local women to make the torture stop: Anna Cops and the 47-year-old Cathelyne Van den Bulcke.

They, too, were tortured, and Anna named more girls. Cathelyne, however, did not. So she was sentenced to death by burning.

‘Domino effect’

“Unlike the other two, Cathelyne refused to name names. In other places where accusations of witchcraft occurred, you ended up with a domino effect. To stop the torture, they named other girls. But Cathelyne did not, and that was remarkable. Because she knew she’s be burned alive.”

Her actions apparently put an end to this witch hunt in Lier. While Anneken and Anna were mildly punished, Cathelyne was put to death by burning on 20 January 1590 on the main square – the same one that is found in Lier today.

A committee of citizens formed to try to get the city to better recognise Cathelyne’s bravery and the injustice that befell her for it. “They find the text on the memorial stone too brief because it somewhat suggests that the punishment was justified,” explains Verwaest. “And so they asked us to provide a more extensive explanation and recant the historical verdict. Because that verdict of the alderman’s college still stands in the public record.”

And so the city did. Yesterday evening a small ceremony that included a representative from the committee, the mayor, city councillors and four descendants of Cathelyne was held to rescind her conviction and restore her name. “We have declared Cathelyne and the two others innocent.”

Photo courtesy Wikipedia

Written by Lisa Bradshaw