Modern statue of Gijsbrecht (Amsterdam, Stock Exchange)

Modern statue of Gijsbrecht, who built the Dam in the Amstel that gave its name to Amsterdam (Stock Exchange)

The peasants and Count involved in the creation of the water boards must have initially felt quite odd in this situation. With his official acceptance of the water control boards, the Count could, in the light of the traditional feudal way of thinking, be regarded as a weakling. Anyone who could call himself a ruler in any sense of the word would certainly not consult his subjects but command them to do what was necessary. The very idea that a ruler should exchange ideas with illiterates on an equal footing horrified many a European ruler. This sort of thing was usually left to local nobles. But the Count of Holland disregarded the local nobles. From the point of view of power politics, the consultations in the water boards were a tacit alliance between the ruler and his subjects against the nobles. This alliance would turn out to be of immense importance in the course of centuries.

Up to then, free man had not only been allowed to express their opinion but the Count had been obliged to ask for it. The peasants, who agreed to be represented on the water control boards, waived that right and in doing so made a concession. The rise of the governing bodies of the dyke boards was therefore quite a unique administrative innovation. The water boards are among the oldest representative bodies in Europe. Of no less importance, however, is the fact that the people of the Low Countries said farewell to the hierarchical, feudal economy, based on serfs working on the orders of the lord. A mental transition had taken place and an economy came into being which was based on mutual respect, a condition which was non-existent in other parts of the then still-feudal Europe.

Unusual though the water control boards may have been, they were most effective. Even before 1150 dykes had been built on the rivers Lek and Hollandse IJssel so that it was no longer possible for one village to flood another. In 1250 there were already dozens of water boards.

Where the river dykes linked up with the sea dykes, a dam and a lock were often built to prevent the seawater from flowing inland. Regulating the water level called for frequent and intense consultations, because if a lock were not opened in time, the villages which lay upstream could not drain off the excess water. Here again the water control boards proved how indispensable they were, which is not to say that there would never be any more conflicts.

A good illustration is the rise of Amsterdam. Around 1265, Lord Gijsbrecht van Amstel constructed a dam in the Amstel River. This gave him a strong negotiating position with regard to those who lived upstream and therefore he sent them a bill for drainage, which up to then had been free. It is quite likely that the officials of Edam, Zaandam, Rotterdam, and Schiedam blackmailed the inland towns in the same way.

A conflict which turned out to be evenmore serious was one over the use of the Rhine. The mouth of the river had silted up as a consequence of the floods of 1134, making drainage impossible. In fact the drainage had stagnated so badly that Count Floris III of Holland risked a conflict with the bishop of Utrecht by having a dam built on the eastern border of the province to stem the flow of water from Utrecht. However, although the bishop saw complete villages being flooded, he chose not to go to war but rather to seek arbitration. In 1165, the emperor passed judgment that the obstructing dam should be demolished. Happily for Floris, the emperor at that time was more interested in the rich Italian cities than in the still poor coastal area of the Low Countries and there was no need for Floris to take much heed of this judgment. It was 1202 before a compromise could be reached: the dam was demolished and Utrecht paid for the construction of drainage canals between the Rhine and the Zuider Zee.

In the meantime it was clear to everyone that cooperation at a regional level was essential and so the regional water boards came into being. An example of such a board is that of the Rhineland, which was responsible for the drainage of the Rhine. On such a large scale, it was impossible to give each individual landowner a task in the maintenance of the water works and therefore the regional water control boards decided to levy a tax in money.

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