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Embankment as a social practice. The historical study of embankments and rising sea level in medieval coastal Flanders and our understanding of environmental sustainability

Book Contribution - Chapter

The historical study of embankments and rising sea level
in medieval coastal Flanders and our understanding of
environmental sustainability
Dries Tys
Rising sea level and human environmental strategies are the driving forces in the formation
of coastal landscapes. We need to understand the interaction between environmental
actions and human reactions in order to assess how coastal landscapes and their hydrological
organization have originated, how they were designed to work in the past and
how they work today. By looking at the historical interaction between the dynamics of
salt marshes, sea level and human development of land and landscape, it becomes clear
how contemporary coastal landscapes work, and why the measures to transform salt
marshes into coastal polder landscapes were taken. In short: in order to understand the
'threats' of tomorrow we have to look at the solutions of yesterday.
In North-West Europe, most coastal plains were embanked and reclaimed between the 11th
and 13th century (Allen 1997, Rippon 2001). However, this was not necessary to develop a
means of existence for settlements in coastal tidal environments. There are many examples
where people chose to live and work in un-embanked salt marshes, amongst others in the
medieval British Fenlands, early medieval Frisia and Flanders and large parts of Lower Saxony
(up until today) (see a.o. Darby 1983, De Langen 1992, Allen 2000: 1211 and Tys 2004).
On the contrary, embankments imply the protection of cattle and cultivated plants against
floods. The first step was the creation of a drainage channel that would collect abundant
water and draw it away from the embanked area. Banks were constructed in relation to the
drainage channels with mud and clay sods from the salt marshes. There was a wide range of
systems and patterns of embankment, varying in scale and impact on the land (Allen 2000
& Rippon 2001). The embankment of a tidal area contained so much more than extensive
land reclamation and enlargement of the occupied and worked rural area and living space.
It was a deliberate step, involving views on land produce, perceptions of the environment,
scales of impact, means of investment, knowledge and distribution of technology, and
the deliberate desire to apply systems and patterns of embankment. Embankment implies
that a coastal society wants to control the impact of water floods, both tidal floods and rain
floods from inland, and that it has to organize the drainage of water in the tidal areas via
sluices and other costly technological solutions via tidal water institutions (water boards).
In other words: the choice for embankment is a social practice, based on social and political
perspectives and strategies. In that sense, landscapes can be seen as material structures
that are "re-worked, interpreted and understood in relation to differing social and political
agendas" (Tilley 2006: 8).
The coastal landscape of Belgium offers an interesting case in order to understand the
complexity of the process of successive embankments and stages of dike construction.
A wide range of archaeological and historical data on settlement, dike building, storms
and environmental management help us to understand landscape formation and environmental
policy from an interdisciplinary perspective.
In the early medieval period, people and coastal society lived and existed in a situation
of equilibrium with natural resources. Archaeological research shows that certain zones
of the salt marsh environment of Flanders were already inhabited from the 7th century
onwards (Tys 2005). Silted up tidal channels were especially favorable for these earlier
settlements. Also, artificial dwelling mounds were raised in order to construct collective
settlements in the coastal plain. People raised sheep in the salt marshes, collected natural
resources, and produced and traded textiles in a North Sea network.
From the 10th century, this relationship changed and the choice was made to move
from equilibrium to modification and transformation of the coastal environment. The
motivation to do so was in the first place economic: by embanking marshlands, young
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crops would be protected against salt floods during their growing stage in spring. This
intensification could increase the production of, for instance, hay for sheep. The use of
the natural resources of salt marshes was replaced by the organization of embanked
wetlands, increasing the potential for a diverse range of economic activities. The embankments
were first implemented in the estates of the Counts of Flanders, who invested in
dikes, sluices and drainage channels and so forth on their territories to raise revenues
for political purposes (raising armies, building collegiate churches, buying luxuries for
gift exchange, networking and building up a competitive administration). The Counts
used hydraulic technology to create and expand the framework of conceptual possibilities
of environment and space. The salt marshes were transformed into meadows and
arable lands for more intense production from a rural economic point of view. Thus,
the landscape was completely transformed; polders replaced the salt marshes after a
progressive process to extract more land from the tidal zone. Longitudinal dikes were
constructed alongside the tidal channels, which in turn were blocked in the 12th century
by large dams. In these transformed landscapes, feudal agents of the Counts of Flanders
controlled resources and the organization of hydraulic technology aimed at managing
and manipulating the environment of the comital landed possessions. This combined
advanced technical skills, knowledge of natural history and ambitious, almost-royal
policy of the Counts in the period between the 10th and 12th century.
The hydraulic technology itself (dams, sluices, dikes, ports, canals...) formed a distinct
material culture of power in the coastal landscape. The Counts created a landscape in which
the ordering principles of the ruler were organized in relation to environmental conditions
and in such a way that these principles had to be accepted "without any conscious
thought or consideration as to the way things might otherwise be" (Miller 1996, 404).
At the same time, these embankments had important consequences for the relationship
between people and their environment. Many sources describe the unforeseen inundation
problems that originated from the embankment of coastal Flanders. The rising
tidal waves could no longer enter the former coastal salt marshes in calm (low-energy)
conditions, spreading tidal waters without restraint into the lower parts of the landscape
and tidal channels. Dikes and dams, but also dunes and the beach now stopped tidal
dries tys 91
This drainage channel is what remains of a large tidal
channel that separated the former island of Testerep
from the inland salt marshes. In the background, we see
the impact of modern tourism on the coastal landscape.
Foto's: Dries Tys
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dries tys 93
waters. From the 12th century, the dune belt was confronted with high-energy conditions,
causing sand drifts and coastal erosion, an unforeseen consequence of investment in
the environment. Written sources from the 13th century testify how the original beach
sand barrier had disappeared entirely by coastal erosion and how dunes had rolled
the land inward. Storms had a devastating effect on the weakened dune belt and sand
drifts threatened valuable agricultural estates. The first sea dikes fronting the beach
were erected, not to prevent inundations from the sea but to reinforce the dunes and
keep them in position. The inundation of the town of Ostend in 1394 and submerging
of the island of Wulpen, with no fewer than four villages in the early 15th century, show
the far-reaching consequences of rising sea level and embankment of the coastal plain.
New and larger sea dikes had to be constructed. Breakwaters were invented from the
16th century to keep the beach barrier in position and fix the dune belt.
The heavy cost of dike constructions following the environmental catastrophes of around
1400, in the context of generally worsened socio-economic conditions at the end of the
14th century, impoverished most coastal landowners. Insolvency would have resulted
in expropriations, desertions and land sales, and may have triggered the start of a concentration
process of ownership of coastal properties in the hands of a small group of
capitalist urban landowners during the 15th century (Verhulst 1990). As such, the water
boards acted as surplus extraction systems, with increased social and economic control
of the rural community. This had important consequences for the development of a rural
capitalist landscape from the late 15th century onwards, a development that still largely
determines the actual landscape of coastal Flanders. Likewise, medieval environmental
solutions are still of major importance in the way the landscape of coastal Flanders 'works'.
Meanwhile, the rise in sea level has accelerated and it is not certain whether the medieval
drainage systems or 20th century versions of sea dikes are sufficient to keep landscape
and environment in balance. Nonetheless, we are compelled to maintain the actual
coastline and beach because of tourism, while the 1000-year-old medieval polder landscape
lies several meters below high tide level. The technological relationship between
human society and tidal forces is complex and fragile. It takes social and political choices
to decide which strategy towards the environment we consider fit for organizing the
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landscape and its hydrology. In the near future, we will have to invest in new sustainable
solutions for an integrated and balanced relationship with the rising tides, as is shown
by the historical development of the environmental agency in coastal Flanders.
Allen J.R.L., 1997. The geoarchaeology of land-claim in coastal wetlands: a sketch from
Britain and the North-West European Atlantic-North Sea coasts, in: Archaeological
Journal, 154, 1-54.
Allen J.R.L., 2000. Morphodynamics of Holocene salt marshes: a review sketch from the Atlantic
and Southern North Sea Coasts of Europe. In: Quaternary Science Reviews, 19, 1155-1231.
Darby H.C., 1983. The changing Fenland. Cambridge.
De Langen G., 1992. Middeleeuws Friesland. De economische ontwikkeling van het
gewest Oostergo in de Vroege en de Volle Middeleeuwen. Groningen.
Miller D., 1996. Artefacts and the Meaning of Things. In: Ingold T. (ed.). Companion
Encyclopedia of Anthropology. London, 396-419.
Rippon S., 2001. The Transformation of Coastal Wetlands. Exploitation and Management
of Marshland Landscapes in North-West Europe during the Roman and the Medieval
Periods. Oxford.
Tilley C., 2006. Introduction. Identity, Place, Landscape & Heritage. In: Journal of Material
Culture, 11 ½, 7-32.
Tys D. 2004. De inrichting van een getijdenlandschap. De problematiek van de vroegmiddeleeuwse
nederzettingsstructuur en de aanwezigheid van terpen in de kustvlakte:
dries tys 95
het voorbeeld van Leffinge (gemeente Middelkerke, provincie West-Vlaanderen). In:
Archeologie in Vlaanderen, 8, 257-279.
Tys D. 2005. Domeinvorming in de 'wildernis' en de ontwikkeling van vorstelijke macht:
het voorbeeld van het bezit van de graven van Vlaanderen in het IJzerestuarium tussen
900 en 1200. In: Jaarboek voor Middeleeuwse Geschiedenis, 7, 34-87.
Verhulst A., 1990. Precis d'Histoire Rurale en Belgique. Bruxelles.
Dries Tys is lecturer in medieval archaeology and landscape history at the Department
Art Sciences and Archaeology at Vrije Universiteit Brussel. He obtained his Phd in 2003
on the development of the coastal landscape, environment and settlement pattern. He
directs projects on early medieval terp settlements in coastal Flanders, forest history
and the origin of early medieval Antwerp. He is amongst others a Member of the Royal
Commission for Monuments and Landscapes, and co-editor in chief of Medieval and
Modern Matters.
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Book: Bridges of Troubled Waters
Series: Crosstalks
Pages: 89-96
Number of pages: 8
Publication year:2012
Keywords:embankments, landscape archaeology, coastal development, water, northsea