Peat bog

Officially, the Count of Holland was only responsible for the dune area and the mouths of the Maas and the Rhine, but Dirk III had cast his greedy eye on the wilderness behind the dunes. Where now you will find a landscape full of cities and fields, there was then a wild area of peat-bog. In the course of centuries the peat had grown further and had taken on the form of meters-deep cushions. Only desperados who preferred the company of undergrowth and trees to that of people had a reason to live here. Alpertus – quoted above – rightly called this area a forest: in the Middle Ages, this word denoted inhospitable country.

This countryside was broken up by small bog rivers with names such as Angstel and Amstel, Gein and Gaasp, Aa, IJ and Ee. As long as can be remembered, peasants had lived on the banks of these rivers. Anyone who sailed from Utrecht down the Vecht could moor every five or six kilometers at river villages such as Maarssen and Loenen, then known as Marsna and Lona, names which date from before Roman times.

The inhabitants of these villages had tilled the bog directly behind their houses, which was easy to reclaim. In reality, peat is no more than wet compost, and by draining it the peasants had the most fertile land imaginable. Moreover, it was easier to till than a field of river clay. They first dug ditches land inwards at regular intervals, beginning at the bank of the river. Often these ditches stretched as far as a kilometer into the bog and sometimes the difference in depth between the beginning and end of the ditch was as much as four meters. After clearing hedges and trees, there remained an excellent piece of arable land ready for growing crops.

We can no longer identify the initiator of this development. However, we can imagine it to be a tenth-century peasant who was both lazy and clever, and who no longer felt like having to walk half-way to the next village to reach his land. Be that as it may, the Count of Holland understood very quickly that cultivating this land opened up huge prospects, and from the eleventh century onwards he ordered new villages to be set up in the wilderness. Rijnsaterwoude, Leiemuiden, Friezekoop, Kalslagen and Kudelstaart are among the oldest of these.

Map of a typical settlement in the peat bogs

Map of a typical settlement in the peat bogs

Setting up such a village began with the Count selling a reclamation concession to a property developer (a ‘locator’). This developer then made certain that he had the cooperation of a few peasant families and went to live in the wilderness. Every hundred meters the colonists dug a ditch, about 1250 meters long, into the bog, at right angles to the bog river. In this way, plots of 12½ hectares came into being, and each of these was granted to one family. Since each peasant farmer built his house on his fields, a village grew up which stretched in one line along the banks of the bog river.

The contract between the Count and the property developer contained additional provisions. Usually the latter could take on the role of sheriff of the new village and to this end he was given an extra piece of ground on which he could keep hisa horse. The sheriff saw to it that there were no breaches of the peace in the village, and was allowed to impose fines. The Count had the right to order the peasants to perform military service, in which case the sheriff went to war fully equipped while the peasants only carried clubs and spears. Finally, the peasants paid a small annual levy of just one stiver (five cents). Even at that time this was a negligible amount, and paying it simply demonstrated the peasant’s recognition of the count.

The medieval ditches are still visible on many places in the Netherlands. This is west of Woerden.

The medieval ditches are still visible on many places in the Netherlands. This is west of Woerden.

It is worth noting that this levy had to be paid in coin. It is true that the eleventh-century economy was based on barter, but coins were also in circulation. A life of a saint written at this time contains a story about a peasant who went to market in order to obtain the coins he needed ‘to pay his lord his due’. That suggests that although paying with coins was unusual for most peasants, it was certainly not unknown.

In order to get hold of a stiver, the farmer sometimes sold agricultural produce and pottery, but frequently it was cloth. There was still a long way to go before the cloth industry emerged which was to give employment to half of the people living in the Dutch countryside, but it was a first step. And so it was that the necessity to pay the levy in coins led people to produce goods for market.

Traces of the medieval ditches are still visible on many places in the Netherlands. This is a part of Amsterdam.

Traces of the medieval ditches are still visible on many places in the Netherlands. This is a part of Amsterdam.

The system of reclamation which has been described above was known as cope, a word that can be found in many place names: Boskoop, Friezekoop, Nieuwkoop en Benschop. Topographical names, such as Zoeterwoude and Hazerswoude (woud translates as ‘forest’ in English), remind us of more or less wooded areas, while Waddinxveen and Roggeveen (veen is the Dutch word for bog or marsh) keep the memory of treeless regions alive. (Roggeveen also refers to what was cultivated in that place: rogge or rye). If the newly cultivated land turned out to be wet, the place names ended in broek (brook): Maarssenbroek and Lutjebroek. When all the colonists came from the same village, they called their cope by the name of their old village, preceded by new, as a reminder of their origins: New Loosdrecht, for example. Sometimes the property developer tried to draw peasants to the area with commendatory place names such as Bloemendaal (Valley of Flowers), or by calling it after a country that appealed to the imagination, like Portengen, Spengen or Demmerik (Portugal, Spain, Denmark).

The quotation from Alpertus of Metz at the beginning of this chapter contains almost all the elements discussed above. Under the auspices of the Count of Holland (the chief of the ‘bandits’), peasants reclaimed the wild countryside along the river, the ‘Merwede forest’, by which everyone got a plot of land to cultivate and for which he paid a levy. The plots were marked off by ditches. All the peasants of the villages on such land did military service: with their spears they fought side by side with the garrison of the Vlaardingen fortress.

Alpertus explains the success of the peasant farmers of Holland in their struggle against the emperor’s army by pointing out that the enemy panicked. That is not very credible: surely the soldiers of the bishop understood what an outflanking movement was! Perhaps the real reason for the triumph of Holland was that the peasants fought with surprising tenacity. And for a good reason: the reclaimed plots on which they did battle were their property.

The peasants who took part in a cope were not serfs who had to hand over a part of their crop to their lord and perform humiliating services: they were free. Of course they acknowledged the authority of the Count of Holland by paying that one stiver a year and, as befits free men, they performed military service as a matter of course. However, apart from this, the small landowners fell outside the feudal pyramid of the lay authorities.

This arrangement was also to the advantage of the Count of Holland. By medieval standards, power was proportionate to the number of subjects, and that number increased in leaps and bounds now that the Count respected the personal freedom of the peasants. Migrants came from far and wide to the wild countryside of Holland to start a new life. In the course of centuries, the Count of Holland would become more and more of a force to be reckoned with.

And yet it must have been a huge step for the Count to recognize the personal freedom of his peasants. It was even revolutionary because, in this way, he broke through the familiar feudal structures. Count Dirk III of Holland was a courageous man, and not only on the battlefield.

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