In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

Technology and Culture 43.3 (2002) 475-499

[Access article in PDF]

Taming the Waterwolf
Hydraulic Engineering and Water Management in the Netherlands during the Middle Ages

William H. TeBrake


Around the middle of the thirteenth century, the inhabitants of northern Holland were putting the finishing touches on the West Frisian Omringdijk (encircling dike), an oblong embankment 126 kilometers in circumference separating the West Frisian district of Holland from the lands and sea outside the dike. At the same time, their counterparts in central Holland were constructing a series of dikes, dams, sluices, and canals designed to control the flow of water into, through, and out of Rijnland and the southern Kennemerland districts. Elsewhere, many others were engaged in similar kinds of activities. By the end of the thirteenth century, the entire lowland zone of the Netherlands, along with adjacent portions of Belgium and northwestern Germany (fig. 1), had been provisioned with a complex system of dikes, dams, sluices, and drainage canals that controlled water levels by excluding or rerouting external water and providing exit routes for internal water. 1 In short, hydraulic engineering, systematically applied, had transformed the regime of waters.

The introduction of hydraulic engineering marked an important turning point in the history of water management in the lowland zone of the [End Page 475] Netherlands. While dikes, dams, sluices, and drainage canals had become necessary for human occupation by 1300, this had not always been the case. Until the middle of the twelfth century, settlement and agricultural use of the lowland zone were made possible by straightforward drainage, using simple techniques—digging small, shallow ditches to enhance the normal flow of water. Unfortunately, this initial round of drainage had a number of unintended consequences, the most important of which was the subsidence of the drained lands. These eventually became so susceptible to flooding as to cause what can only be described as an environmental crisis. A waterwolf stalked the land. 2

Faced with the prospect of losing everything they had created, inhabitants of the lowland zone responded by fashioning complex systems of [End Page 476] dikes, dams, sluices, and drainage canals, designed to perpetuate drainage while protecting against inundation. Thus, hydraulic engineering was a consequence of, not a prerequisite to, settlement. 3 However, the deeper drainage made possible by the introduction of hydraulic engineering, while allowing the occupation and use of the lowland zone to continue, led to further subsidence. Further subsidence required more and more effective hydraulic measures for yet deeper drainage, which, in turn, led to even further subsidence. In the end, the people of the lowland zone became trapped in a cycle that has continued to the present.

As the system of dikes, dams, sluices, and drainage canals became ever more complex and expensive, increasing attention had to be paid to coordinating and monitoring the planning, construction, and maintenance of hydraulic works. In the absence of a central authority capable of doing so, those communities most heavily invested in hydraulic engineering founded institutions designed to manage the drainage and flood control systems they had created. Such institutions grew out of the patterns of cooperation that developed both within and between communities facing common problems and challenges. By the late thirteenth century some of these had achieved full legal standing and the ability to compel individuals and communities to pay the taxes and perform the public works that kept the drainage and flood control system functioning. They quickly became the most important institutions directly affecting inhabitants of the lowland zone of the Netherlands—creating, in effect, specialized hydraulic societies.

In what follows, we will begin by examining the physical conditions and human actions that led to the introduction of hydraulic engineering in the lowland zone of the Netherlands. Next we will explore certain aspects of the new hydraulic engineering itself. Finally, while focusing on the Rijnland district of Holland, we will examine the institutions that were developed by the end of the Middle Ages to manage the drainage and flood control system. As we shall see, the combination of...