FROM 1000 AD TO 15TH CENTURY
Until a 1000 years ago, most of the Holland part of the Netherlands consisted of an immense peat wilderness. Wet, wild, almost uninhabited. Except for those few small patches of dry ground along rivers and seaside dunes.
It's from those bases that people started to develop the virgin peat land. Small scale at first. Simply making their farmland a bit larger by digging ditches, draining the higher wetland.
Because, though being too wet for farming, that original peat land was not low at all. For one thing, it was higher than the river, at some places 6 - 8 meters. Otherwise draining would have been impossible.
The farmland thus created proved fertile and excellent for growing rye, barley, oat. Staple food in those days.
After the first experiments, massive and organized colonization of the peat wilderness started.
Generally, groups of colonists made an agreement with the official owner of the land. The count of Holland, or the bishop of Utrecht.
The new land they made would be their own property. They only had to pay a very low tax, a symbolical acknowledgement to the landlord. Basically, an opportunity to become a free farmer !
The policy proved extremely successful. Within 200 years, most of the peat wilderness was changed into farmland, mainly for crop growing.
This colonization was a gigantic enterprise, all digging and slogging done by hand, of course. And a huge investment too. The drained land could not be used right away.
People knew very well that it would only be really profitable after two or three generations.
As they remarked at the time : "the first suffer, the second survive, the third thrive".
Unfortunately, serious problems lay ahead.
People noticed that the new land started to sink. And quickly.
Draining the water, resulted obviously in less volume. But what made it far worse : the organic matter, layers of peat plants of a couple of millennia that had been preserved under water, now came into contact with air. It all colonization, and simply disappeared rapidly.
Over time, a couple of centuries, a subsidence of 2 to 4 meters. At some spots even more.
The land again became too wet for crop growing farming. So, people had to switch to cattle and dairy farming.
Far less hands were needed now, resulting in sudden overpopulation.
That's when people clustered to the emerging cities, and started sailing out and trading on a new scale. First of all to get the grain for the daily bread, that could no longer be produced at home.
Another consequence of the sinking land was that dikes had to be built, and dams to close off the rivers, now dangerous holes in the dike. As dozens of rapidly growing towns and villages with "dam" in it witness. All massive infrastructure works, making good organization and structural cooperation a necessity for survival.
Truly, this low corner of Europe had become not really the easiest place to make a living.
It's during this 13th century, that there's first mention of a tiny hamlet on the shores of the Amstel river : Amsterdam.
The sinking of the land, combined with an ever rising sea level since the last ice age, made the first half of the second millennium an era of catastrophic floods. Sure, there had been regular flooding before. But for an empty wilderness, that doesn't matter really.
For land becoming urbanized, and having to be protected by dikes, it's different. And when a dike breaks, the water really rushes in with devastating force !
Early Amsterdam, however, benefited. A couple of monstrous storms had created a huge inland sea, the Zuyderzee. The little town had now, all of a sudden, an open access to the North sea.
That offered new prospects this city was certainly going to grasp.
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