The northern part of Holland after the great floods

The northern part of Holland after the great floods

Three quarters of peat is moisture and only a quarter is compost. When the peasants began to dry out the bogs, they siphoned off the water at the bottom so that only compost was left. It is true that they got very fertile fields as a result, but what they had not foreseen was that the bottom soil would settle and the ground level would sink in relation to the river banks, which lay on solid clay beds. This soil subsidence was further aggravated by a characteristic of the decomposing organic material in the peat: as long as this is wet it does not decay, but as soon as it dries out it starts to decompose again, causing the peat to lose volume and the ground level to sink even further.

When large-scale draining of the swamps began, the land had lain safely above sea level. However, from the twelfth century onwards we can speak of ‘the Low Countries’, because in the meantime, the ground had subsided to a disquietingly low level. Moreover, in Zeeland and the south of Holland, people often used to climb onto the dried-out plates left at ebb in order to dig out the peat from under the top layer of clay, as from this material they could harvest salt. This activity had caused the shallows along the coast to disappear gradually and there was no buffer left to counter the effect of the tides. Partly because of this, large tracts of land disappeared into the waves in 1134, turning Zeeland into an archipelago. The soil from the land swallowed by the sea was deposited further north along the coast, silting up the mouth of the Rhine at Katwijk and making it virtually impossible to drain the Holland-Utrecht peat bog.

During the 1163 disaster, the North Sea broke through to Lake Almere, transforming it from a sweet-water lake into the salt-water Zuider Zee. Further floods in 1170 widened bog rivers such as the Purmer, the Schermer and the Beemster, turning them into vast expanses of water. The dramatic transformation of the countryside, however, was nothing compared to the economic, political, social and administrative changes that spun off from these disasters. To give an example: anyone who, in the past, had to travel from Friesland to Cologne sailed down Lake Almere and the rivers Vecht and Rhine. After the formation of the treacherous Zuider Zee, people preferred the route along the IJssel, where several new townsflourished. This development took place at the cost of trade in Utrecht and the episcopal income, so that the bishop no longer had the financial means to prevent the rise of local potentates, like the lords of Woerden and Amstel. In addition, in conflicts with Holland, especially over the draining of the Rhine, the Bishop lost out more and more to the Counts of Holland. With the disappearance of the bishopric as a power factor, the counts of the Low Countries gradually disregarded their duties to the Emperor and took on the air of sovereign rulers.

A second consequence of the flood disasters was that many peasants left the threatened areas. Other rulers received them with open arms and allowed them to reclaim as much land as they wished. This happened close to home in Hollanderbroek in the county of Gelre, but also further away at the mouth of the Weser near Bremen, at the mouth of the Elbe near Hamburg, along the Oder in Brandenburg, and along the Vistula in Prussia. Other peasants from the Low Countries developed The Wash in England, or settled in France on the banks of the Loire and the Garonne. The adventures of these migrants will be dealt with later. What is important to emphasize here is that they demanded of their new lords that they be treated in accordance with the same favorable conditions they had lived under in Holland. In other words they did not want to be serfs. And so, in addition to the Count of Holland, other lords also accepted the existence of free peasant communities. And as you can imagine, this had consequences for the feudal relations in these places.

In the Low Countries, this freedom began to go deeper. The area that had been washed away along Lake Almere had been part of a feudal economic system which was based on a lack of personal freedom. Now that the old estates had disappeared under the water, the serfs who had lived on this land got their freedom. After all, it was inherent in serfdom that people were bound to a piece of land. Since that piece of land had disappeared, it followed that their lack of freedom had disappeared with it. These former serfs found employment in newly reclaimed villages. As a result, there was a shift in the balance of free peasants in relation to serfs, by which the scales tipped in favor of the free peasants. In late twelfth-century Holland, there were practically no more serfs.

>> to the next section >>