Remains of the medieval dikes are visible everywhere; this is the Nieuwendijk in Amsterdam.

Remains of the medieval dykes are visible everywhere; this is the Nieuwendijk in Amsterdam.

The most obvious solution to the drop in ground level was the building of dykes. Initially, these were simple structures, but very quickly enormous hydraulic works were being built; constructions which impressed people far beyond the borders of the Low Countries. Even the Italian poet Dante refers to them (Inferno 15.4). At the same time as the dykes, different administrative bodies came into being, in which the count and his subjects discussed the harnessing of the water. In these waterschappen (water control boards), we can find the origins of the Dutch consultation culture.

The first dykes were built by the inhabitants of the villages on newly developed land. The organization of these structures was simple. The top of each plot of land lay at the water’s edge and it seemed obvious that each villager could be held responsible for that part of the dyke that bordered on his lot. Thus, each family was responsible for the construction of about a hundred meters of river dyke. For this they dredged the clay they needed out of the river, deepening the river to the required level. Together, they drew up the rules that had to be observed. These rules could, for example, relate to the height of the dyke, the construction material to be used, the depth of the drainage canal and the maintenance of the sluices and bridges. At regular intervals the village administration checked that the rules were being observed and if they discovered that they had been disregarded, they asked the sheriff to impose a fine. The village was autonomous: it not only drew up its own rules but it also applied them and monitored their observance.

Very soon it became clear that the rule that those living at the water’s edge were responsible for the maintenance of the dykes was most unfair. By this principle, the villagers living along the rivers had to watch the water works, while the inhabitants of the hamlets in between had no duties, even though they would suffer just as much damage if the dykes were to break. Therefore, it was reasonable that the peasants who lived in the hinterland should also be responsible for the maintenance of the dyke area. And old saying says that all who are imperiled by the water should help to harness it.

You can get an idea of the extent of the defenses against the water when you consider the construction of the 125-kilometer-long and four-meter-high dyke embracing West Friesland ‘like a mother’s arm around her child’. The construction of the Omringdijk linking the towns of Alkmaar, Schagen, Medemblik, Enkhuizen and Hoorn is a witness to the fact that the peasant republics were capable of organizing an efficient hydraulic engineering system. The inhabitants of the villages situated inland performed their share of maintenance, even though they lived at quite a distance from the actual dyke area.

In order to structure the consultations between the villages involved, water-management authorities were set up. Not only was the distribution of tasks between river villages and inland villages discussed in these bodies, but also drainage rights. For example what should be done if, in building a new drainage system, a village should flood another village which lay downstream?

The principle that anyone who ran the risk of suffering damage from the water should help to harness it, implied that the same people could also have their say about any measures which should be taken. The meeting of landholders was so well attended that it was decided that villages should only send representatives to the meetings. In this way the dyke boards were formed. The executives of these institutions were qualified to draw up rules and regulations and to see to it that they were kept. Their task was the day-to-day running of the water control boards.

If these executives were to work effectively, then they had to be able to enforce the rules and regulations and impose fines when they were disobeyed. As jurisdiction was the task of the count, he appointed a representative, the dyke warden or reeve, as chairman of the water control board and delegated a number of his official powers to him. The dyke warden was allowed to impose fines and in emergencies he could order people to do service defending the dykes – a liberal, though undisputed, interpretation of military service. In appointing this representative, the Count officially recognized the dyke board and the board then had the power to bring trouble-makers to justice in the name of the Count.

The consultations in the water boards between the ruler and the peasants of the reclaimed villages were a huge breakthrough. Each party regarded the other as partner and made considerable concessions in what was for the Middle Ages a unique arrangement.

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