Relief inversion: the peat (right) becomes lower than the river on its clay bed (left).

Relief inversion: the peat (right) becomes lower than the river on its clay bed (left).

Land subsidence continued in the fourteenth century and even the land under cultivation fell below the level of the rivers. Compared to the situation in the year 1000, the relief map was literally reversed: originally there had been layers of peat cushions higher than the rivers and now the river beds lay above the cultivated land. The ground was too soggy for the cultivation of rye or barley and the fields of crops had to make way for extensive pastures.

That was a transformation of apocalyptic dimensions. To start with, stock-raising is not labor intensive; thus there was no need for farm laborers any more. Moreover, meat and dairy products are not efficient foodstuffs: when a cultivated field was transformed into a pasture, it sustained only a quarter of the people that had been fed by the original grain crops. The logical consequences of the changeover from growing grain to stock-raising were massive unemployment and famine. The undernourished population became vulnerable to disease: not just old enemies like smallpox, cholera, typhoid, and tuberculosis, but new ones such as dysentery, which raged in epidemic proportions from 1315 to 1317, and the indescribable disease euphemistically referred to as the ‘hasty disease’ or Black Death of 1349. Never before had Europe been struck by a worse misfortune: the bubonic plague killed a third of the European population.

Despite the drastic reduction in the number of mouths to be fed, problems in the countryside of Holland remained unsolved. For thousands there was neither work nor food. The only thing left for them to do was to pack up and leave. Many began a new life in the reclaimed villages of Brandenburg or Prussia and other sought refuge in the cities, where they hoped to earn enough as craftsmen to be able to buy imported grain. Wonder of wonders they managed to do that reasonably well, as we shall see.

>> to the next section >>