Scene from Vondel's "Gijsbreght"

Scene from Vondel’s “Gijsbrecht”: the hero before sailing to Prussia

Joost van den Vondel ranks as the prince of Dutch poets, not the prince of historians. In his tragedy Gysbrecht, he deals with the capture and destruction of Amsterdam in 1304. Historically speaking, however, he made one mistake after another. He even gets the hero’s name wrong in the title: it was Gijsbrecht’s son, Jan, who went into exile after being driven out of the city. At the end of the play Amsterdam is burning and an angel comes down to announce to the Lord of Amstel that

…it is God’s will that you leave for the rich land of Prussia,
where, out of the Polish mountains, gushes the Vistula,
irrigating the banks until they’re rich in fruit.
You shall build a city, New Holland, in this region.

In fact, the Van Amstels settled in Brabant, where the family still lives. And yet, Vondel’s mistake is not so very strange. Many Hollanders did leave to start a new life in Brandenburg and Prussia. As a rule, these migrants were peasant farmers, but among them, there were also expelled aristocrats.

Initially, the medieval migrants prospered in ‘the rich land of Prussia’, but their position deteriorated after the Black Death. While their native Holland was flourishing economically, they lost all their rights and were reduced to serfs. Indeed, in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries they even had to serve in the army of the Prussian garrison state. The cause of their deterioration can be traced to the lack of proper organization of the Eastern European free peasants. This immediately begs the question: why were the peasants in Holland so well-organized?

Around the year 1000, the area between the Elbe and the Oder was a march or border area of the Holy Roman Empire. Here, Brandenburg, an elite group of Germans, ruled over a Slavic population that felt akin to the independent Polish tribes east of the border. The German hold on the area had to be strong. There was constant threat of war for which the Germans had to be prepared, so that the march scarcely profited from the economic expansion which set in after the year 1000.

The Medieval church of St Mary, Berlin.

The Medieval church of St Mary, Berlin.

In 1134, the Margrave Albert the Bear came to power. Shortly after he had ascended the throne, he learned of a severe flood which had made many Flemings and Zeelanders homeless, and he invited them to come and reclaim and cultivate land in Brandenburg. In this way he would have extra subjects and at the same time enhance his prestige. Moreover, he did not need to suspect them of having sympathies with the Poles. After the floods of 1163 and 1170, Hollanders also migrated to Brandenburg. People from the Rhineland soon followed. One of the oldest parts of Berlin (Slavic for ‘bog’) is still called Cölln, after Cologne.

The immigrants bargained for and got the same rights they had enjoyed in Holland. They were free, paid their recognition fees annually, and the property developer, who had organized the cultivation of the land, became sheriff. Albert’s new subjects were not accustomed to this generosity: while a peasant family in Holland had owned about thirty acres of land, the Margrave gave them plots of forty to fifty acres. Moreover, the Brandenburg clay soil shrank a lot less than the peat soil in Holland, so there was no danger of the land subsiding. All in all, the peasants to the east of the Elbe had done a very good deal.

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