The Peelland Witch Trials

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In 1595 in the Dutch province of Peelland, there was a series of witch trials that resulted in 19 recorded executions – all women burned at the stake. The witch panic swept through the three adjacent towns of Mierlo, Asten, and Lierop. The only executions occurred in Mierlo and Lierop: the first wave of executions began in September of 1595. In just five days, from September 10th to September 12th, five women were arrested and executed, all in Mierlo. Towards the end of September, 7 women from Lierop were also tried and executed. This panic continued through October, and travelled from Mierlo and Lierop and into Asten. Asten, though close in proximity and experiencing similar accusations, never saw a witch executed during these trials. The accusations in the three villages created a sense of panic in Peelland, and the trials between the villages gained steam as the tortured women continued to confess to demonic crimes. The women in Peelland admitted to a direct pact with the devil, in which they had sexual intercourse and subsequently received the ability to harm others through witchcraft. Under torture, these confessions were to be expected, yet in the Netherlands, where mass-trials were rare, the confessions caused a sense of panic and a great zeal for exterminating all witches in the area. Eventually, the Council of Brabant in Brussels effectively halted the trials through an order against the use of torture.

One of the most fascinating cases during this time was the trial and execution of Catharina Boons. Catharina was the maid to the parish priest in Mierlo, accused of killing several of the Mierlo townspeople. In October of 1595, Catharina was executed for witchcraft along with many other women in Mierlo and Lierop. The parish priest of Mierlo took a somewhat unexpected stance on his maid’s death. One may expect a priest to condemn any confessed witch, yet this priest was deeply upset about the death of Catharina and the ruin of her reputation. After Catharina’s death, the priest wrote a letter to Anneke Boons (Catharina’s sister), to attest to Catharina’s good character and piety. The priest did not stop there, however, as he later sent a letter to attorney general Jacob tSestich. In his account of the events in Peelland, the priest claimed, “if the prosecutions had not been halted no woman in this region would have been left alive. If people haunted the enemies of the Church this way, heresy would no longer exist.” This preist was clearly upset by the witch hunting zeal in the Netherlands, and presents a unique stance from a member of the church.

Caspers, Charles M.A. “Witchcraft Trials Peelland, 1595.” Edited by Willem Frijhoff. In Witchcraft in the Netherlands: From the Fourteenth to the Twentieth Century, edited by Marijke Gijswijt-Hofstra. Rotterdam: Universitaire Pers, 1991. 91-102.

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