Katheline Deckers, Lieven Lammens and Elisabeth de Gruutere. These are just a few names that appear on the brand new wooden memorial plaque in the Prinsenhof in Ghent. With the album, the city wants to restore honor to citizens who were persecuted during the witch delusion. In total, this concerns sixty alleged witches, who were persecuted between 1364 and 1713. Via a QR code at the bottom of the monument, visitors can learn more about who the victims were and what punishment they received. Deckers got away with a fine, Lammens was tortured and exiled and De Gruutere ended up at the stake.
The idea of giving the victims a face centuries after the date comes from municipal councilor Anne Schiettekatte (Vooruit). A year ago she went to Sami Souguir (Open VLD), the Ghent Alderman for Culture, who in turn called on Historical Houses Ghent. Ultimately, it was historians Jonas Roelens and Maartje van der Laak who delved into the city and state archives in search of information about the victims. They started with a list of about twenty names, but in the end there were sixty.
The duo not only focused on executions, but also on people who were exiled or had to pay fines. “They are also victims,” Roelens says. ‘During interrogations, alleged witches were often tortured, and even after acquittal they carried a stigma for years. That is also a traumatic experience.’ Names that did not make the album, but will appear later, will be added to the list online.
Not just women
It is striking that the memorial plaque also contains 16 men. “It’s not just about old, marginalized women,” says Roelens. ‘That is the folkloric image that many people have of witches, but men who did not conform to patriarchal norms also had a hard time. Think of those who could not support their families, or went against the norm in some other way. The youngest victim is a seven-year-old boy, who was examined by the city surgeon for devil marks and subsequently shaved. That was in the 18th century: so it is a misunderstanding that witch persecutions only took place in the Middle Ages.’
Moreover, it involved people from different social classes. ‘Even the wife of a Ghent alderman was persecuted.’ What many victims have in common is that they ‘didn’t say anything’. ‘A good example is that of Catherine Tancré.’ Witness reports that Roelens was able to view show that the woman allegedly cursed an ungrateful child on the street. ‘The child had fallen in the street, and to comfort him she gave him a piece of bread. Because it spit that out, she would have said, “May the devil pursue you.” When the child became ill and died a little later, Tancré was blamed. She ended up at the stake.’
What brought the victims together, according to Roelens, is that they ‘did not meet the standard’. “That is precisely why it is important that we continue to commemorate the victims in this way,” he says. ‘They may no longer have direct descendants, like the victims of the Second World War, but the witch persecutions do expose the mechanisms behind processes such as inclusion and exclusion. Just because people looked or thought differently, they were persecuted. That is something we still see among minority groups today.’
“As a city we must dare to reflect on the dark pages of our history,” says Alderman Souguir. ‘Even in a warm and open city like Ghent, discrimination lurks around the corner. That is why it is so important not to forget our history and, in this way, to call for tolerance.’ It is no coincidence that the memorial plaque was hung near the Donkere Poort in the Prinsenhof. There is also a memorial plaque there for the victims of Emperor Charles V – another dark page from Ghent’s history.
The city also wants to continue to remember its witches in other ways, including with a so-called ‘witches guild’. Together with Tineke De Rijck, the chief dean of Ghent, municipal councilor Schiettekatte is supporting the project. The guild should see the light of day in December. “The intention is to organize a witches’ weekend around Candlemas, complete with a witches’ market and witches’ breakfast,” says Schiettekatte. ‘Not a folkloric event, but a way to keep rehabilitation alive,’ she concludes.