Herdenkingsring Cathelyne Van den Bulcke.

Herdenkingsring voor Cathelyne Van den Bulcke op de Grote Markt van Lier | Chris Van Rompaey.

Meaning & Religion
? - 1590
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Cathelyne Van den Bulcke

Witch Trials in Europe

On 20 January 1590 Cathelyne Van den Bulcke was burnt at the stake in the market-place of Lier. She was one of the many ‘witches’ who between the 15th and 18th century were victims of popular superstition. In 2021 she was formally rehabilitated by the town of Lier. In so doing Lier was following in the footsteps of Nieuwpoort, Diksmuide and many other European towns.

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Cathelyne Van den Bulcke had been accused of witchcraft by a thirteen-year-old girl, Anneken Faes. She had also been accused of sorcery. During her torture the girl maintained that Cathelyne Van den Bulcke had seduced her into contact with the devil. The gossip that circulated in Nijlen, where she lived, did her case no good. Moreover, her mother had also been executed as a witch. During the trial, which took place in Lier, her fellow-villagers testified for and against her. She herself denied everything. Then the panel of aldermen ordered her to be tortured, after which Van den Bulcke ‘confessed’, but accused no other women.

Champion des dames.

Paris, Bibliothèque nationale de France, fr. 12476, fol. 105v

One of the oldest representations of a witch, from 1451. From Le Champion des dames by the French poet Martin le Franc.

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Witch Trials in Europe

Many witch trials took place in the southern part of the Low Countries between the 15th and 18th century. How many people were tortured and executed, we do not know exactly, since many archives have been lost. It does, however, emerge from the trial documents that witches often received a ‘mild’ sentence, such as banishment. Others were released – often cases did not come to trial. Still, in the county of Flanders between 1450 and 1680 at least two hundred ‘witches’ died at the stake. As far as is known, Martha van Wetteren was the last of these. She was burnt at the stake in Belsele in 1684. In Leuven, in the duchy of Brabant, it went on still longer. There, two further executions took place in 1692 and 1695.

Witch trials were found all over Europe, but not everywhere in equal numbers. Present-day Germany had the most executions. In Poland and Russia too there was much persecution, in the Dutch Republic, Spain, Portugal and the Italian city states much less. Within the southern part of the Low Countries the differences were great. Most sorcery trials took place outside the large towns, in areas where there was little control of the courts, as in the south of what is today West-Flanders. In Nieuwpoort, for example, in the first half of the 17th century, 31 witch trials took place.

Focal points

De heks van Mallegem.

Bruges, Musea Brugge, Prentenkabinet Van Hoorebeke

There are few 16th-century representations of witches. This print by Pieter Bruegel the Elder, The Witch of Mallegem, is an exception.


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Imaginary Crimes in Uncertain Times

Witch fanaticism often peaked in periods of uncertainty, as a result, for example, of war, plundering or epidemics. People looked for a scapegoat to exorcise their fear. The persecution was not a centralised ‘witch hunt’ orchestrated by the government or church. It was a way in which people who lived in a magical-religious world and believed in evil, dealt with setbacks.

In the 13th and 14th centuries Europeans saw witches as people who could use magic to harm other people. For example, they caused the harvest to fail. In the 15th century that view changed. Witches, it was claimed, carried out tasks on the instructions of the devil. They were accused of a compact and sex with the devil, flying through the air, devil’s assemblies (witches’ sabbaths) and killing children. That image was spread mainly through popular stories, and also demonologicaldemonology, theory of demons or malignant beings. writings, such as The Hammer of Witches. This book, written by the German inquisitorinvestigator whose task was to combat heresy. Heinrich Kramer, was a manual for the identification, interrogation and torture of witches. Such writings also appeared in the Low Countries. The Catholic church and the Inquisition however seldom played a direct role in the persecutions. Some clergy, moreover, spoke out against the witch trials.

De lamiis et phitonicis mulieribus, Reutlingen, 1489, Washington, Library of Congress.

Witches could influence the weather, according to popular belief. In this woodcut from a treatise by the jurist Ulrich Molitor (1442-1507), two witches are brewing up a storm. For that they need a black cock and a snake.

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From Gossip to the Stake

Witches were persecuted when a group of people wanted to expel them from the community and the local authorities pursued the matter. We know little about those who were accused. Some 80% were women. Usually, they were married and somewhat older. Suspected men or children were almost always family members of accused or condemned sorceresses. The legal sources teach us that persecuted witches were not popular with their neighbours. They displayed deviant behaviour, sometimes looked different or were involved in an inexplicable event, sickness or death. That provided a stigmatisation that made persecution possible. For centuries popular stories and illustrations spread a stereotypical and fantastic image of the witch. In 17th-century Southern Netherlandish painting the depiction of witches and witches’ sabbaths actually became a separate genre.

A local court, such as the aldermen’s bench, conducted the trial. Such a court consisted not of professional jurists, but of local people. Those local judges had great freedom in their way of working and in sentencing. Yet things were not, by the standards of the time, totally arbitrary. To be able to pronounce the death penalty, for example, a confession was crucial. That was often obtained after torture. Local courts also regularly asked the advice of a higher court.

Er zijn weinig 16e-eeuwse voorstellingen van heksen. Deze prent van Pieter Bruegel de Oude, ‘De heks van Mallegem’, is een uitzondering.
Brugge, Musea Brugge, Prentenkabinet Van Hoorebeke

There are few 16th-century representations of witches. This print by Pieter Bruegel the Elder, The Witch of Mallegem, is an exception.

Jakobus de Meerdere.
Amsterdam, Rijksmuseum, RP-P-1884-A-7995

Pieter Bruegel the Elder was the founding father of the stereotypical depiction of the witch. He popularised such attributes as the fireplace, the cauldron, the cat and the broom.

De Antwerpse schilder Frans Francken II beeldde in deze Heksenkeuken (1610) een mooie, jonge heks af, omringd door oudere heksen.
Wenen, Kunsthistorisch Museum, 1074. © KHM-Museumsverband

In this Witches’ Kitchen the Antwerp painter Frans Francken depicted a beautiful young witch, surrounded by older witches.

William Hogarth, Credulity, Superstition and Fanaticism, 1762, London, The British Museum

The typical witch’s hat – a pointed hat with a wide brim – can be found in children’s books, films such as The Wizard of Oz and the Halloween industry. The hat made its first appearance in 18th-century satirical prints like those of William Hogarth, aimed at all forms of superstition.

Jeanne Panne.
Westhoek Verbeeldt, private collection

Jeanne Panne was burnt at the stake in Nieuwpoort in 1650. The town commemorates her every three years as part of an evocative historical and folkloristic show. Until 2000 there was an annual witches’ procession. A view of the witches’ procession in 1982.

Jommeke heksenjacht
Antwerp, Standaard Uitgeverij @2023, Jef Nys

In Jommeke, one of the most popular Flemish strip cartoons, witches regularly pop up. They are basically caricatures, with hooked noses, dressed in rags, flying on a broomstick. This is the cover of Op Heksenjacht (Jommeke on a Witch Hunt, 1963).

De folkloristische Heksenstoet van Beselare, deelgemeente van Zonnebeke, is opgenomen in de Inventaris Vlaanderen voor Immaterieel Cultureel Erfgoed. Meer dan 1000 figuranten, jong en oud, brengen de sprookjesheksen en tovenaressen uit de plaatselijke legendes, zoals Sefa Bubbels en Calle Bletters, tot leven. In beeld: de heksenstoet van 2019.
Beselare, Heksenstoet VZW

The folkloristic Witches’ Procession of Beselare, a sub-district of Zonnebeke, was included in the Flanders inventory for Intangible Cultural Heritage. Over 1000 performers, young and old, bring to life the fairytale witches and sorceresses from local legends, such as Sefa Bubbels and Calle Bletters. A view of the witches’ procession of 2019.

Discover more on this topic


Bron: VRT archief – 12 nov 1994


Bron: VRT archief – 4 nov 2021


Monballyu Jos
De heksen en de buren. Heksenprocessen in de Lage Landen, 1598-1652

Davidsfonds, 2015. 

Triest Monika & Gils Lou
Met de duivel naar bed. Heksen in de Lage Landen

Van Halewyck, 2002. 

Vanhemelryck Fernand
Het gevecht met de duivel. Heksen in Vlaanderen

Davidsfonds, 1999. 


De Bel Marc
Nelle, de heks van Cruysem

Manteau, 2011. (12+) 

Dieltiens Kristien

Clavis, 2005. (12+) 

Hanegreefs Luc

Clavis, 2017. (12+) 

Janssen Kolet
Het duivelskind

Davidsfonds, 1991. (13+) 

Legendre Marc
De Rode Ridder. De Vloek van Malfrat

Manteau, 2013. (9+) 

Smit Susan
De heks van Limbricht

Lebowski Publishers, 2021. 

Studio Vandersteen
Suske en Wiske: Jeanne Panne (nr. 264)

Standaard Uitgeverij, 2000. 

Van De Velde Hedwig
De heks van Axel

Davidsfonds, 2003. (12+) 

Van Der Vlugt Simone
De amulet

Lemniscaat, 2010. (12+) 

Vanhoeck Roger
Heksen moeten branden: de heks van Nattenhaasdonk

Abimo, 2013. (12+) 

Radio 1
De wereld van Sofie – 13 mei 2023

Jef Verscuren (Comité ‘Eerherstel voor Cathelyne’) over Cathelyne Van den Bulcke.