Visit Holland - The Netherlands

Reclamation of the land

The land that is now Holland had never been stable. Over the millennia the geography of the region had been dynamic. The western coastline shifted up to thirty kilometres to the east and storm surges regularly broke through the row of coastal dunes. The Frisian Isles, originally joined to the mainland, became detached islands in the north. The main rivers, the Rhine and the Meuse (Maas), flooded regularly and changed course repeatedly and dramatically.

The people of Holland found themselves living in an unstable, watery environment. Behind the dunes on the coast of the Netherlands a high peat plateau had grown, forming a natural protection against the sea. Much of the area was marsh and bog. By the tenth century the inhabitants set about cultivating this land by draining it. However, the drainage resulted in extreme soil shrinkage, lowering the surface of the land by up to fifteen metres.

To the south of Holland, in Zeeland, and to the north, in Frisia, this development led to catastrophic storm floods literally washing away entire regions, as the peat layer disintegrated or became detached and was carried away by the flood water. From the Frisian side the sea even flooded the area to the east, gradually hollowing Holland out from behind and forming the Zuiderzee (the present IJsselmeer). This inland sea threatened to link up with the "drowned lands" of Zealand in the south, reducing Holland to a series of narrow dune barrier islands in front of a lagoon. Only drastic administrative intervention saved the county from utter destruction. The counts and large monasteries took the lead in these efforts, building the first heavy emergency dikes to bolster critical points. Later special autonomous administrative bodies were formed, the waterschappen ("water control boards"), which had the legal power to enforce their regulations and decisions on water management. As the centuries went by, they eventually constructed an extensive dike system that covered the coastline and the polders, thus protecting the land from further incursions by the sea.

However, the Hollanders did not stop there. Starting around the 16th century, they took the offensive and began land reclamation projects, converting lakes, marshy areas and adjoining mudflats into polders. This continued right into the 20th century. As a result, historical maps of mediaeval and early modern Holland bear little resemblance to the maps of today.

This ongoing struggle to master the water played an important role in the development of Holland as a maritime and economic power and in the development of the character of the people of Holland.

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