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Floods and money: funding drainage and flood control in coastal Flanders from the thirteenth to the sixteenth centuries

  • TIM SOENS (a1)


From the High Middle Ages on, the coastal wetlands of the North Sea area have been intensively reclaimed and settled. In order to enable intensive agricultural production in these areas, a complex drainage and flood control system was gradually installed, one that demanded a permanent investment of huge amounts of capital and labour. As the maintenance of the water control system was vital for the coastal agro-system, the long-term evolution of investments is an important, yet rarely used, indicator of the economic, social and environmental fortunes of the coastlands. Based on new and very early serial data on water control funding in late medieval Flanders, this article argues that long-term fluctuations in the funding of drainage and flood control were first and foremost related to structural changes within the coastal economy, where an overall decline of investment levels ran parallel to the fourteenth-century crisis of the peasant smallholding economy in this region. Exogenous pressures on the other hand, such as storm surges, only provoked a short-term disruption of investments.



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16 T. Soens, ‘Threatened by the sea, condemned by man? Flood risk and environmental inequalities along the North Sea coast (1200–1800 AD)’, in G. Massard-Guilbaud and R. Rodger eds., Environmental and social inequalities in the city. Historical perspectives (Cambridge, 2011), 91–111.

17 T. Soens, De spade in de dijk? Waterbeheer en rurale samenleving in de Vlaamse kustvlakte (1280–1580), Historische Economie en Ecologie (Ghent, 2009), 17–57.

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20 H. C. Darby, The changing fenland (Cambridge, 1983), 36–56. For a recent reappreciation: Knittl, M. A., ‘The design for the initial drainage of the Great Level of the Fens: an historical whodunit in three parts’, Agricultural History Review 55, 1 (2007), 2350.

21 Soens, Spade in de dijk, Appendix. Today, the Flemish coastal plain stretching from Calais in northern France to the Western Scheldt estuary in the north covers about 250,000 hectares of land: my sample thus represents about 65% of the coastal wetlands within the castellany of Bruges and about 25% of coastal Flanders. The latter data are based on the actual size of the coastal water districts in the Belgian provinces of West-Vlaanderen (99,783 hectares of coastal lands); Oost-Vlaanderen (54,238 hectares); in Zeeland-Flanders (73,150 hectares) and in Northern France (Départements du Nord et du Pas de Calais), estimated at about 30,000 hectares. Source (Flemish association of Polders and Wateringues) and (Water District Zeeuws-Vlaanderen).

22 M. Boone, Geld en macht. De Gentse stadsfinanciën en de Bourgondische staatsvorming (1384–1453) (Ghent, 1990), table 6.

23 P. Stabel, Dwarfs among giants. The Flemish urban network in the late Middle Ages (Leuven-Apeldoorn, 1997), 37–8; budgets estimated by T. Soens based on the respective city accounts.

24 Soens, T., ‘Evolution et gestion du domaine comtal en Flandre sous Louis de Male et Philippe le Hardi (1346–1404)’, Revue-du Nord-Histoire 83, 1 (2001), 2563.

25 The average wheat price of 54.7 denarii groten per hoet of 172 litres in 1400–1409 is based on A. Verhulst, ‘Prijzen van granen, boter en kaas te Brugge volgens de “slag” van het Sint-Donatiaanskapittel (1348–1801)’, in C. Verlinden and E. Scholliers eds., Dokumenten voor de geschiedenis van prijzen en lonen in Vlaanderen en Brabant. Deel II (Bruges, 1965), 34.

26 See Appendix: from 1400 to 1409, an unskilled labourer engaged in maintenance works on the water control system was paid 4 to 5 d. groten a day.

27 J. Mertens, De laat-middeleeuwse landbouweconomie in enkele gemeenten van het Brugse Vrije (Bruges, 1970), 77–9.

28 H. Werveke, Van, ‘Currency manipulation in the Middle Ages. The case of Louis de Male, count of Flanders’, Transactions of the Royal Historical Society (Fourth Series) 31 (1949), 115–27; Munro, J., ‘Mint policies, ratios, and outputs in England and the Low Countries, 1335–420: some reflections on new data’, The Numismatic Chronicle 141 (1981), 110–11.

29 B. van Bavel, , ‘Rural wage labour in the sixteenth century Low Countries: an assessment of the importance and nature of wage labour in the countryside of Holland, Guelders and Flanders’, Continuity and Change 21, 1 (2006), 42–3 and 62; P. Van Dam, ‘Digging for a dike. Holland's labour market ca. 1510’, in Hoppenbrouwers and van Zanden, Peasants into farmers?, 222–4.

30 Account of the Blankenbergse Watering 1293–1294, edited by M. Gysseling, Corpus van Middelnederlandse teksten. Reeks I ambtelijke bescheiden (Den Haag, 1977), nr. 1329: ‘Operarii de feria sexta post medium aprilem usque translationem Beati Thome DC XXVI man dachwerc pro die VII s. d.: summa 19 l. 11 s. 3 d. Item operarii de translatione Beati Thome usque festum Beati Mathei CCCCLIX man dachwerc pro die IX d. summa 17 l. 4 s. 3 d. … Johanni Fachelare de bedrivene dikers & operarios CXVII dies pro die XII d., summa 5 l. 17 s’.

31 E. Thoen, Landbouwekonomie en bevolking in Vlaanderen gedurende de late Middeleeuwen en het begin van de Moderne Tijden. Test-regio: de kasselrijen van Oudenaarde en Aalst (Gent, 1988), 1318–24.

32 J. Murray, Bruges, cradle of capitalism. 1280–1390 (Cambridge, 2005), 177.

33 Gysseling, Account of the Blankenbergse Watering 1293–1294.

34 The silver content of the Flemish d. groten stabilised during the long reign of Phillip the Good of Burgundy (1419–1467). Afterwards the d. groten depreciated from about 0.7 to about 0.5 grams of silver in the first decades of the sixteenth century; see also Munro, J., ‘Wage stickiness, monetary changes, and real incomes in late-medieval England and the Low Countries, 1300–1500: did money matter?’, Research in Economic History 21 (2003), 185297.

35 B. Augustyn, ‘De landschapsgeschiedenis van de Lage Moer van Meetkerke (13de–20ste eeuw)’, in E. Huys and M. Vandermaesen eds., Polders en wateringen. Studiedag georganiseerd te Damme op 19 mei 2000 (Brussels, 2001), 55–64.

36 N. Vanslembrouck, Thoen, E. and Lehouck, A., ‘Past landscapes and present-day techniques. Reconstructing submerged medieval landscapes in the western part of Sealand Flanders’, Landscape History 27 (2005), 518.

37 B. Augustyn, ‘Evolution of the dune ecosystem in Flanders during the Middle Ages: anthropogenic factors versus sea level change theory’, available on [last accessed on 6 June 2011].

38 Thoen, Landbouwekonomie, 1318–1324. A further article on this subject is being prepared by E. Thoen and T. Soens.

39 Gross and Butcher, ‘Adaptation and investment’, 116.

40 S. Wade Martins and Williamson, T., ‘Labour and improvement: agricultural change in East Anglia, circa 1750–1870’, Labour History Review 62, 3 (1997), 277–9.

41 P. van Dam, , ‘Ecological challenges, technological innovations. The modernization of sluice building in Holland, 1300–1600’, Technology and Culture 43, 3 (2002), 499520; K. Davids, ‘Technological change and the economic expansion of the Dutch Republic, 1580–1680’, in K. Davids and L. Noordegraaf eds., The Dutch economy in the Golden Age (Amsterdam, 1993), 79–104.

42 The yearly coefficient of variation of water taxes in the Blankenbergse Watering, converted into silver evolves from 83.8% between 1280 and 1350 to 58.0% between 1351 and 1425; 50.3% from 1426 to 1530 and 40.4% from 1531 to 1580.

43 Bruges, State Archives [hereafter BSA], Blankenbergse Watering, 334: account of the contractor Jan Barbesaen for the year 1476–1477. The contractor – belonging to a wealthy family from Bruges – received 60 l. groten a year to be spent on maintenance work, mainly of ditches and roads. Already in 1433 the same water board had negotiated a similar agreement with a contractor for the duration of three years: Bruges, Archives of the Public Welfare Centre [hereafter BAPW], Blankenbergse Watering, box 8 (old number 1A).

44 BAPW, Wateringen, box 11 (old number 2B).

45 BAPW, St John's Hospital, Accounts of the hospital 1444–1463.

46 BSA, Blankenbergse Watering, 339, account of 1570–1577.

47 Ordinary revenues in the period 1549–1570 amounted to 944 l. groten a year on average, while the total burden of interest on the loans contracted in 1570 did not exceed 71 l.

48 For Flanders, see T. Faes, De zeewering tussen Blankenberge en Oostende in de moderne tijden (unpublished MA thesis, Ghent, 1966); for Holland, see P. Van Dam and M. Van Tielhof, Waterstaat in Stedenland. Het Hoogheemraadschap van Rijnland voor 1857 (Utrecht, 2006), 238.

49 Galloway, J. A. and Potts, J. S., ‘Marine flooding in the Thames estuary and tidal river c.1250–1450: impact and response’, Area 39 (2007), 370–9; Galloway, J. A., ‘Storm flooding, coastal defence and land use around the Thames estuary and tidal river c.1250–1450’, Journal of Medieval History 35, 2 (2009), 171–88.

50 Hilton, ‘Rent and capital formation’, 35.

51 Bavel, B. J. P. Van, ‘Land, lease and agriculture: the transition of the rural economy in the Dutch river area from the fourteenth to the sixteenth century’, Past and Present 172 (2001), 30. On the manors of Canterbury Cathedral Priory in Romney Marsh, an average capital expenditure of 32 per cent on gross cash income was reached in the last quarter of the thirteenth century. However, only part of the Priory's income was in cash, which seriously distorts the calculation: Gross and Butcher, ‘Adaptation and investment’, 112.

52 Holderness, ‘Landlord's capital formation’, 439.

53 Thoen, Landbouwekonomie, 595–604.

54 D. Stone, Decision-making in medieval agriculture (Oxford, 2005), 121–55.

55 Average based on more than 150 individual leases all over coastal Flanders, assembled by Soens, Spade in de dijk, 136–7.

56 Van Cruyningen, Behoudend maar buigzaam, 181–7.

57 M. K. E. Gottschalk, Historische geografie van Westelijk Zeeuws-Vlaanderen (Assen, 1955–1958), 2 vols.

58 Gottschalk, Historische geografie, II, 19–25; Soens, Spade in de dijk, 102–3.

59 T. Soens, ‘Threatened by the sea, condemned by man? Flood risk and environmental inequalities along the North Sea coast (1200–1800 AD)’, in G. Massard-Guilbaud and R. Rodger eds., Environmental and social inequalities in the city. Historical perspectives (Cambridge, 2011), 102–5.

60 Clark, G., ‘The cost of capital and medieval agricultural technique’, Explorations in Economic History 25 (1988), 269. See, however, the critics of Jones, E.L., ‘Enclosure, land improvement and the price of capital. A comment’, Explorations in Economic History 27 (1990), 350–5.

61 Thoen and Soens, The origins of leasehold; D. Nicholas, Town and countryside: social, economic and political tensions in fourteenth-century Flanders (Bruges, 1971), 268–80; E. Thoen, ‘A medieval “commercial survival economy” in evolution. The Flemish countryside and the transition debate’, in Hoppenbrouwers and Van Zanden, Peasants into farmers?, 130–35.

62 Soens, Spade in de dijk, 97–8.

63 Vanslembrouck, Thoen and Lehouck, ‘Past landscapes’; P. J. van Cruyningen, ‘Profits and risks in drainage projects in Staats-Vlaanderen, c. 1590–1665’, Jaarboek voor Ecologische Geschiedenis (2005/2006), 123–42; W. Reh, C. M. Steenbergen and D. Aten, Sea of land. The polder as an experimental atlas of Dutch landscape architecture (Amsterdam, 2006).

64 Ghent, State Archives, St Peter's Abbey, Cartularium 6, f 126, quitclaim dated 6 March 1502.

65 W. De Clercq, Dumolyn, J. and Haemers, J., ‘Vivre noblement: material culture and elite identity in late medieval Flanders’, Journal of Interdisciplinary History 38, 1 (2007), 131.

66 J. de Vries, ‘Measuring the impact of climate on history: the search for appropriate methodologies’, in R. I. Rotberg and Th. K. Rabb eds., Climate and history. Studies in interdisciplinary history (Princeton, 1981), 23.


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