Before the Burgundians, 1340-1490

The Netherlands and the Sea

The Netherlands has a peculiar physical geography, as much of it is located in the delta of Rhine and Maas and large stretches are located at sea level or even below.
To make a living in or near the zone which was inundated twice a day by the regular flood, or in a zone a little higher which was threatened by irregular inundation in times of a flood combined with a storm, or swollen rivers, has always been difficult.
Since the early middle ages, the territory was inhabited by the FRISIANS who lived of LIVESTOCK and TRADE, a trade which was essential as the cultivation of wheat (BREAD was staple food) was impossible. Soon, the Frisians erected artificial hills (TERPs, also called Warffs or Wurts) on which they built their farms and stables, to have dry feet in case of times of an extraordinary flood.
Around the year 1000, several such Terps were connected by earthen walls, enclosing stretches of land which stayed dry even when the area around was inundated - the first DYKES. More and more dykes were built, WINDMILLS built which used the wind energy to pump the water out of low-lying areas, canals dug to facilitate the outflow of water and to serve as waterways. This process took centuries. The Dutch say proudly : God created the earth. The Netherlanders created the Netherlands.
The task of building dykes and digging canals requires well-organized employment of human labor. In medieval Frisia, the communities were strong, every farmer had to contribute in the works : Who does not want to (work on the) dyke, has to leave (his farm). The low-lying areas often had to be protected by dykes in all directions, against the rivers and swamps. The dykes at times served other purposes than keeping the water out. They were lines of defense. Feudal armies did not feel comfortable in the marshes, as the canals were obstacles to horse riding even in times of peace, and in case of fight the riders could easily be isolated. Not surprisingly the low-lying parts of the Netherlands were feudalized to a low degree, it at all; the majority of the population had the status of freemen, organized in regional communities.
In the COUNTIES OF HOLLAND and ZEELAND, these originally rural communities were given the status of cities; in the Frisian stretches between Zuiderzee and Weser, the nonfeudal peasants' communities contiued to exist into the 16th century.

Virtual Exhibition : Strijd tegen de Zee, from Rijksarchief Zeeland

This page is part of World History at KMLA
First posted in 2000, last revised on November 11th 2004

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