Technology and Culture 43.3 (2002) 500-520
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Ecological Challenges, Technological Innovations
The Modernization of Sluice Building in Holland, 1300-1600
Petra J. E. M. Van Dam
For more than two thousand years hydraulic structures in the wetlands of the Netherlands have been built for two purposes: to protect the land against the sea and to drain the inland peat bogs. Storm surges have occasionally damaged dams, dikes, sluices, and windmills or washed them away altogether. More important for the history of water management has been the human response and contribution to long-term changes in hydrology and ecology. The wetlands have a very dynamic history. Ever-changing levels and quantities of both freshwater and seawater have constantly challenged human innovation and imagination.
A severe ecological crisis occurred in these wetland areas during the late Middle Ages, caused mainly by the subsidence of the drained peat bogs. Holland, the medieval core of the modern Netherlands, faced the danger of becoming permanently submerged in the North Sea. The Dutch not only survived this crisis but also managed to lay the foundations of a mighty seaborne empire. A series of innovations in hydraulic technology in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries played a key role in the Dutch success, [End Page 500] enlarging the capacity of the drainage system and reinforcing protection against the sea. These technological changes were a response to challenges posed by changes in the wetland peat bog environment that were partly human-induced, since drainage for agriculture and digging peat for fuel were the main factors causing the bogs to sink.
In the Netherlands, the history of water management developed quite independently of the history of technology, in particular for the period before 1800. Over the last three decades historical geographers have provided the main initiative in the study of water management, and thus recent surveys focus far more on changes in the land than on technological developments. 1 This article contributes to the history of hydraulic engineering and water management from the perspective of environmental history. It focuses on the development of sluices and the relationship of innovations in this area to other hydraulic activities, such as the construction of dams, dikes, and windmills, and the introduction of reservoirs. The article frames the hydraulic history of Holland with the ecological transformation that occurred in the late medieval and early modern period. 2
The study concentrates on the county of Holland between 1300 and 1600, in particular the core area between the North Sea and the cities of Amsterdam, Gouda, and Rotterdam. It starts with a survey of the history of sluice building, based on a number of recent case studies. Most evidence refers to sluices situated in river dams on the northern and southern shores of medieval Holland. Detailed technical specifications and extensive administrative sources for these survive from the end of the fourteenth century onward. 3 Many are held in the archives of the regional water authorities [End Page 501] of Rijnland, Delfland, and Schieland, institutions founded to take care of water management in the tenth and eleventh centuries, when reclamation activities took off. For the general history of these institutions see also the article by Arne Kaijser in this issue.
During the period 1300-1600, water management institutions in the Netherlands underwent a significant process of centralization and reinforcement. Regional and local water authorities existed independently until 1300 or so. The latter operated at the village level, managing all dams, dikes, and sluices within their boundaries, which were defined by the watersheds of local streams. A single local water authority might thus comprise more than one village, though the number would naturally be small. Regional water authorities, in contrast, managed hydraulic structures of regional importance, such as major dams in large rivers or dikes along rivers and sea arms. They were bounded by large rivers, such as the Maas and the IJssel, or the divides separating larger watersheds, such as the relatively high central ridges of peat bogs. The regional works were important to...