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Eau et développement dans l'Europe moderne

Salvatore Ciriacono

II : Environnement, société et politique

7. Culture and society in the Frisian and German North Sea Coastal Marshes (1500-1800)

Otto Knottnerus

Texte intégral

1It may be confusing to discuss the history of the coastal marshes, at a time when their future has become so uncertain. The wetlands in Western Europe may not be directly threatened by mere physical extinction, as in many other parts of the world. But their cultural diversity and natural resources are decreasing rapidly (Knottnerus 2003). Once on the edges of important trade routes, they now have become peripheral to most economic and cultural development.

2The North Sea coastal marshes were one of the birth places of modern society in Europe. At the same time they were the breeding ground for many local traditions. One could even say that tradition and modernity were mutually supportive. Drainage and dike-building played an important part in both of them, although they were not the only important factors.

3We will begin with a short introduction to the social and cultural history of the marshes, culminating in a theoretical model about coastal societies and their tendency towards political and cultural autonomy. This model may be applied to other regions in Europe as well. Then we will return to early modern changes in dike-building and drainage techniques, which not only strengthened the influence of state-officials and foreign entrepreneurs but also reinforced certain conservative reactions among the coastal population.

Marsh and fenland

  • 1 The reclaimed lakes and mud-flats in the province of Holland are not included here.

4The shores of the Wadden Sea are dominated by a narrow belt of fertile marshland, stretching down from the Jutland heaths to the urban zones at the mouth of the Rhine and Meuse Rivers (general literature: Vollmer 2001; Fischer 1997; Rohde 1978; Abrahamse 1976; De Vries 1974; Wagret 1959; Tacke and Lehmann 1924). The marshland area extends upstream to the cities of Hamburg, Bremen and Groningen, and is enclosed by the poverty-stricken moors and bogs of the Westfalian and Lower Saxon hinterlands. At the end of the 18th century its central districts consisted of 10 000 square kilometres of marsh and fenland. They had about 400 000 inhabitants, who lived behind 2 to 4 000 kilometres of dikes, beginning at the boards of the Zuyder Zee and ending near Tønder in Jutland1. Parts of the territory were ruled by local princes, cities and estates, such as in the Dutch Republic, other parts by the Danish, Swedish, Prussian, British and even the Russian monarchy. Calvinist churches and Mennonite sects flowered in the west, the east was dominated by Lutheran state churches, which discriminated against religious minorities. The inhabitants spoke several Lower German and Frisian dialects, but from the middle of the 17th century they were educated and addressed to in the official Dutch, German or Danish language.

5The area has been the focus of much commercial activity for centuries. Extensive agricultural exports started as early as the 12th century, and reached a climax during the Thirty Years War. Danish oxen were fattened for urban markets, grains were shipped to Amsterdam and Southern Europe, dairyproducts sent upstream to the German towns. The large Frisian, Hanoverian and Holstein horses had a military reputation all over Europe (Israel 1989; Nitz 1989 and 1993; Kellenbenz 1962).

6Though family-farms were the pattern, the local economy could not dispense with wage-labour. Unstable weather and critical soil conditions frequently restricted work to brief periods of the year, thereby causing seasonal labour shortages, which were more serious than elsewhere. Each summer thousands of small peasants from inland areas marched to the coast where they served in the com- and hay-harvest, earning the money that they took home in order to pay their rents and feudal dues. More important yet were the numerous indigenous crofters and villagers. Their help was indispensable, for they mastered the special techniques of ditching, reaping and dike-building, which the heavy clay-soils required (Lucassen 1987; Knottnerus 1992). But their numbers tended to shrink, as population growth came to a standstill during the general crisis of the 17th century. By then the population had reached the relatively high level of 30 to 50 heads per square kilometre.

7The endemic malaria fevers that probably killed every fourth or fifth resident, the delayed marriages on account of the 17th century economic depression and the increasingly restrictive sexual practices all contributed to this fall in population. Demands for wage labour, moreover, tended to swell, as most of the small family-farms gave way to larger ones because of falling agricultural prices and growing indebtedness as a result of wars, floods and cattle plagues.

8By the middle of the 18th century agricultural capitalism was beginning to make a decisive breakthrough. By then large-scale arable farms, ranging from 20 to 60 hectares, had started to dominate the coastal scene. Each was employing approximately 3 to 6 working-class families. More hands were required to manage increasing outputs. Shortage of labour permitted the workers to negotiate higher wages, better meals and more costly perquisites. Several generations passed before the resumed population growth had been able to catch up with growing employment opportunities.

9The Napoleonic era brought another major shift in class relations. Rising grain prices forced workers to change their diets from porridge and purchased bread to home-grown potatoes. This, in turn, eroded many bonds of patronage that linked the workers to the farmers’ home-economy: increasing dependence on their own crops made high wages and abundant perquisites less urgent. Moreover, as grain-exports enriched the farmers, most workers were not able to keep up with their master’s rising economic, cultural and educational standards. The farmers embraced an urbanized lifestyle and renounced the traditional rural culture. Hence, tradition-bound village life made way for modem class society.


10The coastal fringe had a long history of political privileges. Regional identity and ideals of liberty were closely bound up. They referred to an ancient freedom that distinguished the coastal home-counties from the supposedly feudalized hinterlands. During the Middle Ages about fifty more or less independent peasant republics under the rule of numerous local abbots, chiefs and podestas formed a rural counterpart of the free Hanseatic cities. Most of these districts were inhabited by Frisians, the eastern districts by people of Saxon descent. During the 12th and 13th centuries colonists from Holland settled down in the backswamps of the Elbe and Weser Rivers, whereas Frisian immigrants reclaimed the Schleswig marshes. These immigrants played an important role in building the first embankments and implementing drainage schemes.

11The rich fields were veined with waterways that gave free access to maritime commerce. The autonomous draining organizations provided the impetus for the development of strong military defence systems. Moreover, the waterlogged terrain prevented surprise attacks during the rainy season, and made foreign military operations difficult at any time. Not until the 15th and 16th centuries, and then only at great costs, were the territorial princes able to incorporate these affluent lands within their own meagre domains. Often they offered the ruling landowning and yeomen families extensive privileges in return for lump sum tax-payments. Up to the 19th century many forms of estate-like representation could be maintained. Their autonomy in matters of common law and civil jurisdiction made the coastal provinces look like an oasis of civil liberties in a world of authoritarian rule. Even the local nobility, which dominated large parts of the Dutch countryside, had more in common with the landowning bourgeois in cities such as Amsterdam and London than with their feudalized antipodes of central Europe.

Fig. 14. Ethnic and religious groupings in the Wadden Sea Area

12Coastal privileges, of course, only applied to the property-owning members of the community. But many notions of coastal liberty undoubtedly trickled down to other strata. At the bottom of the social hierarchy these freedoms were probably defended even more rigorously than at the top. In an East-Frisian joke the boy whose father is about to deliver a well-deserved blow cries out: “No, father, no, our country is a land of justice, not force!”

13The coastal population felt greatly superior to the upland dwellers. This often resulted in xenophobic reactions against outsiders. In another joke the boy who wants to see the world is scolded by his father: “Shame on you! Here you are in the marshes, the rest of the world is but heath!”

14By means of referring to tradition, the lower classes often succeeded in securing their parts of the coastal riches. Local authorities gave in to popular demands, because they were afraid of open conflict that could lead to state interference. For them this would mean a loss of autonomy and power. Individual farmers gave in because they were afraid that a labour boycott or other popular reactions would damage their interests. For centuries, traditions and modernity went hand in hand. Not until the second half of the 19th century, when the wealthy farmers gained access to national politics, traditionalism was abolished all over. Only by then the farmers were able to dispense with local working class support.

Coastal Societies

15This picture certainly evokes questions. How was it possible that the North Sea coastal marshes escaped the general fate of medieval Europe? And how could they maintain their relatively autonomous status during the Early Modem Age? There are at least four possible answers to these questions. Together they provide essential elements for a theoretical model about the characteristics of coastal societies in general (Knottnerus 1996):

161. The abundant natural resources contributed to the wealth of its inhabitants. The contrast with the Pleistocene heaths was striking. The agricultural yields in the marshes were until the introduction of artificial fertilizers two to three times higher than those in sandy inland areas. This on the condition that redundant rainwater was removed in time, while the sea had to be kept out for most of the time. Medieval dikes were quite modest: not until the second half of the 16th century did they reach the required level of 3 to 4 metres, sufficient to endure the ordinary storms in winter. Nevertheless, contemporary sources suggest that elementary dike-building and drainage activities almost doubled the productivity of the existing pastures and meadows, while the arable land could be enlarged considerably as well. Apparently, people regarded regular inundations as harmless, or even beneficial, to soil fertility. Moreover, the risks of inundation were limited as long as most houses were built on artificial dwelling mounds or dikes. Only when farmers started to grow more winter-corn, whereas they relocated their farms towards the newly reclaimed polderlands, the need for effective protection against storm-surges grew (Knottnerus 2004).

17It is a current opinion that rising sea levels and more frequent storm surges induced people to raise the dikes. Indeed, the dikes have been heightened substantially during the 16th and the first half of the 17th century, their width had been doubled, their volume tripled. But the reasons for doing this were largely economic: People started to fear the sea because agricultural improvements and growing material wealth made them more vulnerable to floods than they were before.

182. Wealth and autonomy of the coastal area were dependent on the accessibility to overseas trade, which was guaranteed by the existence of numerous creeks and landing-stages. Commerce made it possible to convert the abundant natural resources into money. The profits could be used to buy weapons and luxury goods as well as legal protection and political privileges. But as ships grew larger and the traditional landing-stages silted up during the 16th and 17th centuries, new harbours had to be constructed. Artificial canals connected these harbours with their natural hinterlands. Modern gravel-roads or highroads, on the other hand, were not constructed before the 19th century.

193. Isolation relative to inland traffic made military subjection of the marshland districts rather difficult. Large areas could be inundated by opening the sluices, while the bogs surrounding the marshland districts were flooded during wintertime. Cavalry always had a bad time in the marshes, modem foot-soldiers did somewhat better, but only if their equipment was not too heavy. The bad roads made travel a nuisance for anyone. Foreign beggars and criminals who might be attracted by the coastal wealth, could be controlled easily because of there were only a few access roads to the area.

204. The ancient tradition of self-government originated in the necessity to maintain the dikes and waterways. Although regular repairs were usually carried out by the individual landowners, a strong communal organization was indispensable for matters of supervision, large repairs and the collection of taxes. It had to be an organization that was strong enough to force all of its members to comply, without killing off individual initiative.

21Dike-building and drainage, therefore, were essential to almost every aspect of culture and society: from agriculture and trade to protection against human enemies and natural disasters. Coastal society has always been dominated by the struggle against the sea. During the Early Modern Age the preoccupation with the sea may even have increased. The inhabitants of the coastal marshes were afraid of the sea: They feared its floods and poisonous vapours, on which they blamed the agues and the scurvy typical of malaria (Knottnerus in Fischer 1997: 145-174 and 2002). But they alsorealized that their ceaseless fight against the sea gave them wealth and self-respect. According to Simon Schama (1987), the coastal way of life was as self-contradictory as every other aspect of Dutch civilization: stuck between fear and hope, between embarrassment and pride, between sober Protestantism and an opulent Renaissance culture.

22Life in the polderlands comprised it all. It taught the people discipline. At the same time it urged excessive rituals of solidarity. People learned how to rely on kinship, as well as on their own savings and investments; on neighbours as well as on urban financiers and landowners. They had to know how to hold on and when to let go, how to close the dikes and when to open the sluices. Seemingly unchanging traditions were made to fit to an increasingly modern society.

Novel arrangements

23It goes without saying that the early modem efforts of state building and the extension of international trade did not stop at the borders of the coastal districts. The growing power of the Hapsburg monarchy during the 16th century, partly financed by the Dutch cities, prompted local princes to react. Large armies of foot-soldiers, carrying guns and pikes and building entrenchments replaced the small groups of cavalry and foot-soldiers, which used to roam between city-walls and castles. The military revolution of the 16th century fundamentally changed the course of warfare as it shifted the balance from coastal independence to integration into larger states. In 1559 Dithmarschen, the last of the peasant republics, was defeated and forced to come on terms with its Danish conquerors. Seven years later the Dutch started their successful rebellion against the Spanish crown. Their prolonged war with Spain welded dozens of city states, noble estates, autonomous districts and strategic hinterlands together in a new and dynamic state formation, transcending its constituent parts by far.

24By then hundreds of Anabaptist farmers and merchants from the Netherlands had fled to Northern Germany, where they introduced new techniques of farming, cheesemaking, house-building, draining and dike building (Knottnerus 1994). Emigration did continue even after the Dutch Republic had been founded. Religious minorities were attracted by the new opportunities abroad as much as they were irritated by the uncompromising Calvinists at home. The expansion of the Dutch economy could be felt everywhere: investors sought new investment opportunities, farmers wanted land, merchants and craftsmen set out to exploit new markets.

25The military revolution, moreover, parallelled a second one in the dike building trade (Knottnerus in Steensen 1992: 60-72; Kramer 1989, 1992: 63-138; Van der Ven 1993: 111-115, 142-152; Stol 1993. Regional surveys: Danner, Lambooij and Streefkerk 1994; Siebert 1969; Prange 1986; Müller and Fischer 1917-1958; Kühn 1992; Kunz and Panten 1997). Techniques and organization needed for the construction of embankments were practically the same as those for building entrenchments. New types of entrepreneurs came into being: dike-masters and contractors, specialized in combining capital, labour and the technical skills required for carrying on large earth works. New arrangements, designed in the Southern Netherlands, made it easier for urban capitalists to finance large projects. Special patents secured their rights in the newly embanked area and gave them far-reaching privileges. As the supply of wandering trenchers, navvies and foremen grew, labour contracting became more common. Here the introduction of wheelbarrows, being pushed on boards, made it possible to exploit the earth masses on hand far better. In contrast to regular repairs, large works were put out to contract, while the expenses were covered by a common account. This, in rum, made it possible to farm out some regular repairs too. Finally, the Dutch dike-masters also introduced several new techniques of dike building proper (on labour contracting: Van Dam 2001; Uphoff 1995; Schaer 1973. On Dutch technical achievements: Doorman 1942; Olsen in Fabricius 1945, 1: 232-272; Davids 1990; Davids and Lucassen 1996).

26The first of these techniques was the construction of palisades alongside the dikes. As a result, embankments could draw nearer to open streams, while the dikes could be heightened considerably without a large increase of volume. Dike builders started to construct dams and groynes from piling and osier, filled with faggots and clods. Breaches began to be closed with fascines, cofferdams, willow matting and sunken ships. Most of these techniques spread eastward from Holland and Zealand during the first half of the 16th century and were improved later on (On the origin of techniques and arrangements: Beekman 1905-1907; Barentsen 1960-1962; Beckmann 1969; Arends 1994; Stamhuis 1995).

27Steep slopes, however, meant a certain risk. The costs of palisades were rising too, because timber grew scarce. For this reason earthen dikes continued to be valued. Especially since the destructive All Saints Flooding of 1570, the newly built dikes, as well as reconstructed old ones, were again provided with gradually inclining slopes, carefully sodded with grass (De Vries and Winsemius 1970). Bare stretches had to be stitched with a covering of straw or reeds, or matted with willow. These techniques originated in Zealand and Flanders. Furthermore, simple locks were replaced by navigable floodgates, and in several low-lying areas local farmers began to build small drainage mills. In the Elbe River marshes alone more than a thousand windmills have been erected. Nevertheless, large-scale lake reclamations were restricted to Holland, where hundreds of huge windmills were employed for draining about 27,000 hectares of former peat-bogs that had been submerged during the Middle Ages (Beenakker 1992: 45-74).

28Dutch craftsmanship became essential for success. Already in the 16th century numerous Dutch engineers, contractors, foremen and navvies got used to working abroad. The first large project in the North was the embankment of 5 000 hectares of saltings at Het Bildt near Leeuwarden in 1508. The investors, the engineers as well as many navvies and settlers came from the central districts of the Netherlands. Commercial dike building, however, took a new turn with the embankment of the Zijpe Bay near Alkmaar in 1597, measuring no less than 6 600 hectares. The management employed about 3 000 navvies, coming from all over the Netherlands as well as from Ostfriesland and Schleswig-Holstein (Schroor 2000; Bremer 1985: 36-38). These successful operations served as an example for many projects abroad.

29In Schleswig-Holstein the first Dutch dike-masters appeared as early as 1511. They came after a special request to the Amsterdam patrician Jan Banninck, whose success in damming up the Spaarne River during the previous year had become known to the Duke of Holstein. A Frisian dike-master was successful in repairing a breach in the Elbe River dikes near Hamburg in 1526 by using gabions (Andresen 1939-1940: 91; Van Dam 1998: 259; Simson 1913-1918, 2: 162, note 5). By the 17th century hundreds of Dutch and East-Frisian dike builders had found their way to the east, settling in newly built emigrant towns such as Glückstadt and Friedrichstadt and merging with the local navvies in rural villages along the dikes. But also the other way round: thousands of Germans found temporary work at the dikes, forts and peateries of the Dutch Republic, taking all kinds of expertise back home when they returned.

Dutch hegemony

30How can we explain the successful diffusion of Dutch techniques, organizational forms and cultural models in the German coastal marshes? (On Dutch immigrant culture: Kopitzsch 1997; Menke 1992: 261-298; Drögereit 1971; Scheper 1971) Of course, Dutch techniques were indispensable for the agricultural revolution of the 16th century, by improving drainage conditions and inducing the change from a more or less brackish environment to a fresh water one. But there is more to it. The rulers of Northern Germany needed lots of money to resist the pressure of their increasingly powerful neighbour states. The opportunities to increase the income from inland domains and subjected peasants were limited. Instead, investments in the wealthy marshes could yield a quicker return. For this reason they urged the coastal population to increase productivity by raising the dikes, they led the embanking of new areas and tried to enlarge their coastal domains (Andresen 1939-1940; Ey 1987).

31However, most principalities were vulnerable, as their treasuries were often emptied beforehand. Dutch craftsmanship and Dutch organizational devices provided German rulers with fresh opportunities. The appointment of dike-reeves and the establishment of common accounts gave them more control over dike building and drainage activities. They expropriated large tracts of saltings and wetlands, which were rented to local and foreign investors. These carried out the reclamation at their own expense and with the help of foreign dike-masters and craftsmen. In return, the increasing rent and tax-income flowed back into the treasuries, while state domains were enlarged.

32Most of these commercial projects took place during the first half of the 17th century. Some of them were rather huge and unsuccessful, such as the embankment of 4 to 5 000 hectares of tidal marsh near Husum in Schleswig-Holstein, which may have cost 1.2 million guilders before the project was finally completed. Holland’s most successful reclamation, the draining of the Beemster lake (1612), did hardly cost more. But the initial plan was never realized: the investors from Holland were put up with 1 000 hectares of waterlogged terrains. An adjoining project under the supervision of Johan Sems from Groningen was abandoned completely, as the newly built harbour was returned to the sea. At the Jade-bay the Count of Oldenburg had to spend a comparable sum of money, just to obtain 1 600 hectares of low-lying meadows. Most drained lakes were a failure anyhow: the exploitation of 1 400 hectares near Friedrichstadt could not even defray the maintenance costs of windmills and watercourses. An even larger project near Tønder was abandoned after a few years (Panten 1983; Petersen 1925; Janßen 1997; Müller and Fischer 1917-1958, part 3, vol. 2: 269-272; vol. 4: 86-91; Andresen 1939-1940: 130-132).

33Other projects, however, were much smaller and therefore more profitable. Particularly the engineer Jan Claesz. Rolwaghen from Alkmaar was quite successful in reclaiming a series of polders in Ostfriesland, Schleswig-Holstein and at the Elbe River banks. Together with his crew, who had gained experience at the Zijpe embankment, he became responsible for introducing commercial dike building methods in Germany (Lohmeier 1980. A survey of Dutch engineers abroad: Baars 1982-1985). In order to satisfy the investors, they even constructed the farm-buildings after examples in Holland.

34The famous engineer Jan Adriaensz. Leeghwater spent some time in Schleswig-Holstein, where he barely survived the 1634 storm-surge. He probably urged the Mennonite ropery-owner Cornelius Jansz. Allerts to supervise the dike-repairs on the mined island of Pellworm. Another foreign engineer working in Schleswig-Holstein was Jan Barentsz. Westerdijck from the province of Fryslân, who settled down as a shipowner in Friedrichstadt. He was also involved in several projects in the Cambridgeshire Fenlands. Several major contractors with their crew found their home base in Emden, from where they undertook large projects all along the North Sea coast. One of them, Johann Berends Bulder, made a small fortune by repairing the dikes of a recently inundated polder near present-day Bremerhaven in 1636 (De Roever 1944: 203-209; Aten 1980; Müller and Fischer 1917-1958, part 2, vol.4: 3-12; Baars 1986; Harris 1953: 66,95-96,114-115; Siebert 1969: 152-155. On the 1634 storm-surge: Hinrichs, Panten and Riecken 1985).

  • 2 My own calculations. The North Holland coastal polders as well as the embankments along the Elbe a (...)



35Between 1550 and 1650 almost 100 000 hectares of polderland have been reclaimed along the Wadden Sea, largely with the help of Dutch know-how (table 1). Bit-by-bit the main area of activities moved to the East. After about 1640, however, most Dutch operations abroad came to a standstill. It seems that Dutch capitalists found alternative investment opportunities at home. Of course, there were several exceptions: The members of the Catholic family of Indervelden, most of them engineers from Brabant, successfully reclaimed parts of the submerged island of Nordstrand in Schleswig-Holstein. The merchant Anthonis Studler van Zurck, holder of the Signory of Bergen (near Alkmaar), and his brother-in-law Hendrik Thibaut from Zealand lost tens of thousands of guilders in a project near Oldenburg. The patrician Antony de Huybert, also from Zealand, financed two embankments in Ostfriesland and Groningen (Kuenz 1978; Müllerand Fischer 1917-1958, part 2, vol. 3; Tenge 1912: 81-85; Freese 1980: 404-407; Stratingh and Venema 1979: 139). But as a rule, Dutch entrepreneurs and technicians lost their interest in foreign projects all over.

36Moreover, the Dutch were not needed as badly as before. Local state officials, entrepreneurs and craftsmen took over the role, formerly played by the Dutch. It is certainly not true that all opportunities for a high return had disappeared. From the 1680s onwards the agricultural depression in Northwestern Europe was interrupted by a few decades of favourable grain prices. The introduction of rapeseed for the Dutch oil-mills gave the entrepreneurs the chance to regain their expenses in just a few years, as several successful embankments show (Ankum 1960; Freese 1980: 429; Siebert 1969: 291-292; Tenge 1999: 87). Newly introduced techniques and organizational devices were maintained throughout. But, compared with the first half of the century, capital, labour and expertise had been reorganized on a more local base.

Cultural backlash

37How did the local farming population react to these innovations? By and large negatively, because they regretted having lost their political and economic autonomy. In matters of dike building local farmers were not able to regain the initiative they had lost to foreign immigrants and corrupted state officials before the 18th century. Their inclination to local traditions may have been a reaction to growing dependence on bureaucrats, moneylenders and foreign markets. In Lutheran Northern Germany the immigrants, especially the Anabaptists among them, were often treated with hostility. Cosmopolitan ideals conflicted with local traditionalism, sobriety and rationality were opposed by a baroque parochial culture, strongly influenced by the corporate traditions of the Hanseatic cities (Knottnerus 2000).

38Later on, as minorities played a less disruptive role, interreligious strife was reduced. But other tensions did continue. Traditional grievances were aimed more directly at the liberal-minded bureaucracy. As soon as the lifestyle of the upper classes appeared to be decadent and corrupted, the farmers reverted to more sober ideals. Especially in the Netherlands and Ostfriesland Calvinist puritanism and pietism went a long way in reorganizing traditional village life along religious lines.

39Dutch civic culture continued to dominate the coastal scene. But local communities assimilated only those elements that were compatible with their own internal orientations. The struggle against the sea gave them a model: How to open up and when to close down. Foreign influences were welcomed when they enriched individual lifestyles and communal practices. But they were kept off as soon as local harmony was threatened. Of course, the fear of outside threats decreased as the dikes grew higher and safer. Since the disastrous Christmas flooding of 1717, no further large-scale dike-breaches have occurred for more than a century (Jakubowski-Tiessen 1992). The flooding of February 1825 was far less destructive than any of its predecessors. Yet, a more liberal culture did not gain ground before the 19th century, and only at the expense of the lower classes, whose appeal to tradition became obsolete.


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1 The reclaimed lakes and mud-flats in the province of Holland are not included here.

2 My own calculations. The North Holland coastal polders as well as the embankments along the Elbe and Weser River are included here.

Table des illustrations

Légende Fig. 14. Ethnic and religious groupings in the Wadden Sea Area
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