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

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  01 December 2011

University of Antwerp, Belgium.


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.

Inondations et gros sous: financement du drainage et prévention des inondations en flandre côtière du xiiie au xvie siècle

Depuis le Haut Moyen Âge, les zones côtières de la mer du Nord ont été constamment regagnées et occupées. Afin de permettre une production agricole intensive dans ces secteurs, un système de drainage complexe a été progressivement installé, accompagné d'un contrôle des inondations. Ce système exigeait un investissement permanent en capitaux colossaux et en travail. Comme l'entretien du système de contrôle de l'eau était vital pour le fonctionnement du mode de production agricole côtier, l'évolution à long terme des investissements est un indicateur important, bien que rarement utilisé, de la situation économique, sociale et environnementale des zones du littoral. Le présent article repose sur des séries statistiques encore inédites et commençant fort tôt, concernant le financement de la maîtrise de l'eau en Flandre au Bas Moyen Age. Il montre que les fluctuations à long terme dans le financement du drainage et de la lutte contre les inondations ont été d'abord, et avant tout, liées à des changements structurels dans l'économie du littoral: une diminution globale des niveaux d'investissement se produisit en parallèle à la crise du XIVe siècle qui frappa, dans cette région, l'économie des petits paysans. Par contre, les contraintes exogènes, comme les grandes tempêtes, ne provoquaient qu'une perturbation à court terme des investissements.

Flut und geld: die finanzierung der entwässerung und flutkontrolle in den küstenregionen flanderns vom 13. bis zum 16. jahrhundert

Die Feuchtgebiete an der Nordseeküste sind vom Hochmittelalter an in großem Umfang trockengelegt und besiedelt worden. Um in diesen Regionen eine intensive landwirtschaftliche Produktion zu ermöglichen, wurde nach und nach ein komplexes Entwässerungs- und Flutkontrollsystem aufgebaut, das ständige und umfangreiche Investitionen an Kapital und Arbeitskraft erforderte. Da die Instandhaltung des Wasserkontrollsystems für das Agrarsystem der Küstenregion geradezu lebensnotwendig war, stellt die langfristige Entwicklung der Investitionen einen wichtigen – wenn auch selten genutzten – Indikator für die ökonomischen, sozialen und umweltbedingten Geschicke der Küstenregionen dar. Auf der Basis neuer und sehr früher serieller Daten zur Finanzierung der Wasserkontrolle im spätmittelalterlichen Flandern vertritt dieser Beitrag die Auffassung, dass die langfristigen Fluktuationen der Aufwendungen für Entwässerung und Flutkontrolle in allererster Linie von den strukturellen Veränderungen innerhalb der Küstenwirtschaft beeinflusst wurden. Dabei verlief der Rückgang der Investitionshöhe parallel zur Krise der kleinbäuerlichen Wirtschaft dieser Region im 14. Jahrhundert, während exogene Belastungen wie z.B. Sturmfluten nur kurzfristige Unterbrechungen der Investitionen hervorriefen.

Research Article
Copyright © Cambridge University Press 2011

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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.

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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), 131Google Scholar.

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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