Weighing the Witch
One of the more obscure tests for witchcraft was the concept of Witch weighing. This was based on the premise that in order to fly on a broom, a witch had to be light. So, from the sixteenth century onwards, the suspected witches of Germany and Holland were taken to the local weight house that was usually used for weighing goods and produce. An expected standard weight was set and anyone who did not meet it was declared a witch. The method was even endorsed by Emperor Charles V who made the weight house at Oudewater in the Netherlands the official witches’ weight house because of its reputation for honesty.
However, witches were not tested by iron weights alone. For it was also common to test potential witches by weighing them against either a lone Bible or a whole stack of the Holy books. In this case, it was not the weight of the witch’s body as such that was being tested but the weight of their soul. For the Bible was the word of God and so was seen as acting as a proxy for god in the matter of judging the suspects. However, exactly how weighing by Bible determined that innocence or guilt is somewhat confused, as the criteria seemed to vary from place to place.
Some sources claimed that for the suspect to be proven innocent, they had to balance against the bibles exactly, weighing neither more nor less than the book or books stacked against them. However, elsewhere, the suspect had to be heavier than the Good Book to be acquitted, which was surely easy to achieve unless they were emaciated, or a child. However, in other areas, the witch’s guilt was proven by outweighing the Bible, making acquittal unlikely.
One such cause of ‘Witch Weighing’ occurred near Aylesbury, Buckinghamshire in 1759. Gentleman’s Magazine reported how Susannah Hannokes, an elderly woman from the village of Wingrove was accused of being a witch by a neighbor. Susannah was accused of bewitching the woman’s spinning wheel to that it would no longer turn. Susannah vehemently protested her innocence and demanded to take an oath in front of a magistrate to prove her innocence. However, her husband upped the stakes and instead demanded his wife was “tried by the church bible” instead.
So Susannah, her accuser and the rest of the village assembled in the parish church and there Susannah was “stripped of all her clothes to her shift and undercoat and weighed against the Bible when to the no small mortification of her accuser, she outweighed it and was honorably acquitted of the charge.”
Other proofs of witchcraft came from the world of dreams and spirits.