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  • Writer's pictureHans Faber

How a town drowned overnight. The case of Rungholt


Rungholt. A thriving and wealthy town that disappeared overnight in the year 1362. For six centuries only legends told us about what happened to Rungholt: a town submerged in the sea as a punishment of God. According to medieval legends, you could still hear the sound of its bell tower rising from the dark depth of the sea.


But now the remains of Rungholt in Landkreis 'district' Nordfriesland (also called North Frisia) in northern Germany have been found, and its existence has been confirmed. No longer is it a legend or saga. It's historic. Its legacy is a story about climate change, of greedy use of natural resources, and above all, that the combination of these two can be quite deadly. Despite the misfortune of Lot's wife, we do look back in this post to learn about the history of salt production in this region and its consequences.


In this post you'll find down below an internet link to a fine German documentary about the story of the North-Frisian town Rungholt. A documentary called Atlantis der Nordsee 'Atlantis of the North See' made by Gabriele Wengler. But before watching it, please find below the saga, and a some explanation of what happened since the documentary is in German language without subtitles, together with some historic context. With this information the documentary becomes even more impressive, we imagine.

Nordfriesland

1. The Saga of Rungholt


All along the Wadden Sea coast, from the region of Nordfriesland in Germany to the province of Friesland in the Netherlands, the saga of Rungholt has been told for six (6!) centuries.


The saga goes as follows:


The town of Rungholt situated on the Hallig island of Nordstrand in the region of Nordfriesland, was lost to the sea, together with much of the hirde ('hundred', i.e. sub-district) named Edomsharde. According to the legend, 7,000 people died during the storm flood. Thus far, archaeological researched identified 64 house platforms or terps (i.e. dwelling mounds), indicating that about 1,300 people lived at Rungholt. (Wilken et al 2024).


It was a rich town with a busy port, and with many overseas trade connections. Because of the great wealth, its people had become proud and frivolous. On the seaside of the island the inhabitants built dykes. After these works were completed, they challenged the sea by arrogantly shouting:

Defy us, Blanke Hans, if you have the courage!

(note: 'Blanke Hans' is the North-Frisian nickname for a wild sea)


The life of abundance led to an immoral life. People feared the unlimited devotion to lust and pleasure, and to ungodliness, could only lead to an ordeal.


It was around Christmas when a group of young, drunken men hatched a wicked plan. They made a hog drunk and dressed the impure animal up like a human. Then they brought it to an inn where they put the beast to bed. After having done this, they asked a local preacher to come over to give the last rites to someone who was dying. They agreed that if the preacher would find out the dying person was, in fact, a hog and refused to give the last sacraments, they would drown the preacher in the well. So he couldn't tell it to anyone.


The preacher came and immediately discovered which horrendous deed they wanted him to perform, and refused to give the last sacraments to the beast. Now the young men started to argue whether they should kill the preacher as they had agreed earlier. While they were arguing, the preacher sneaked out of the inn. But, the men caught the preacher and beat him up. Now they forced the preacher to come with them to drink in the inn. This time they took the box with the sacraments from the preacher and filled it with ale. Finally, they gave the preacher back the sacraments and let him go.


The preacher went to the church and prayed. He asked God for to punish the young men. That night the preacher dreamed that God told him to quickly leave the island before His judgement. Early next morning, the preacher left the island. Barely he had left, when the wind was picking up. Shortly after, it was already storming. When the night had started, the storm had developed into a hurricane. The waves of the sea hit the dykes with great force. Yet still, the people of Rungholt had no fear. Again they shouted at the sea:

Defy us, Blanke Hans!

Then the sea released a huge storm flood onto the island and it destroyed the dykes. Waves as high as houses drowned the town. The sea closed itself above the heads of the blasphemers, like a grave. That night Rungholt, together with seven other neighbouring congregations, was lost. Nobody survived, except those who God had offered a way out.


Ever since that night, Rungholt lies at the bottom of the sea. However, before Judgement Day the drowned town will rise from the depths of the sea and retake its place. Everything will still look the same.


Today, when it is calm and quiet at sea, you can still sea the spire of the church just above the water. Seafarers know, if you listen very carefully, you can hear the sound of the bells of the church tower, and you can hear the crying and moaning of the people of Rungholt. The judgement of Rungholt and the sorrow of its people, still travels through the seas.


* * *



That too much wealth, vanity and disrespect to the Gospel will evoke God's fury in the shape of a great flood is an centuries-old them and believe. An illustration is how abbot Emo (ca. 1175-1237) of the monastery of Bloemhof ‘flower garden’ at the village of Wittewierum in Frisia (the modern province of Groningen) placed the destructive Marcellus flood of 1219 in this frame of divine punishment when he writes in his Cronica Floridi Horti ‘chronicle flower garden’:

Contingit autem dilivium propter scelera nostra, quia scriptum est, quod sub Noe filii Chain abutebantur uxoribus fratrum suorum nimiis fornicationibus, iratusque Dominus peccatis bominum dixit: Penitet me fecisse hominem. Delebo hominem, quem feci; disperdam cum cum terra, videlicet cum fertilitate terrae, terra enim vigorem suum et fertilitatem perdidit per diluvium.

A great flood, however, takes place because of our crimes, because it is written that the sons of Cain in the time of Noah often indulged in shameful fornication with the wives of their brothers. Being angry at the sins of mankind, the Lord said: “I repent that I have created mankind. I will destroy mankind I created. I will destroy it together with the earth,” that is, with the fruitfulness of the earth; for the earth lost its fertility and strength during the great flood.


In the same Cronica Floridi Horti, abbot Emo explains that, notwithstanding the many churches and monasteries in Frisia, in the eyes of God all richness displayed by the freedom of its people and the beneficent livestock and crops, Frisians might appear ungrateful for all this. Therefore they are punished by a great sea flood, hunger and the plague. This is why God made the soil salty again.


more sagas of drowned towns and church bells

It will not come as a surprise, but Frisians have countless sagas concerning drowned villages, church spires still peaking above the water, and about church bells you can still hear clinging below the ground or below the sea.


For example, in the village of Hallum in the province of Friesland, a legend of a bell from 'the underworld' exists too. Here, the legend tells that on the spot where the monastery of Mariëngaard once stood, a little golden bell is buried in the ground. Sometimes, when the nights are silent, you can still hear the clinging sound of this little bell. Saint Odulf Abbey near the town of Stavoren in the province of Friesland also washed away by the sea and skippers can still hear the church bells from down below. The saga of the submerged city of Torum, a very rich town located where the Dollart Bight is today, on the border between Germany and the Netherlands, drowned during a storm. Its church bells too can still be heard according to folklore.


If it's another saga about a drowned, prosperous town with a spire above the water you're looking for, read our post Legend of Esonstad. The loss of this fictional city took place at the Lauwerszee, 'Lauwers inland sea' on the border of the provinces of Friesland and Groningen.



In the region of Ostfriesland many sagas about church bells exist as well, especially sagas about robbing bells for their beautiful sound. But also sagas exist of drowned church bells. We name a few: Die Glocken von Riepe im Uphuser Meer, Der Klockenkolk, Die Funnixer Glocke in der Harle, Die Glocke im Rhaudermeer, Der Raub der Glocken von Rhede, Die versenkten Glocken, but undoubtedly there're many more.


The saga of the sinking of the great city of Weene in the region of Ostfriesland, is yet another one with the theme of rich people who flouted God and His commandments, and was being punished for it accordingly. In this case, Weene sank into a swamp. To this day, everyone who enters the swamp, doesn't make it out alive. Of course, according to local folklore again. The rich village of Bense near modern Bensersiel in the region of Ostfriesland too, was swallowed by the sea for the negligence of God. Likewise the settlement of Westeel in Ostfriesland, for its presumptuous inhabitants.


At Westerklief landmark on the former Wadden Sea island of Wieringen in the north of the province of Noord Holland, stands a big erected stone. The stone turns around each time it hears church bells. Little children are told not to make ugly faces near the stone, because the stone will make their face stay that way.


A bit more inland, but along the River Rhine, villagers of Rhineland-Palatinate tell the saga of how fisherman Hansadam saw from his boat in the depth of the River Rhine a church tower and houses. Today still, when the water of the river rises, people hear the bells of church towers (Hendriksma 2017).


Frisia and the Wadden Sea area isn't unique in this Sin-City type of legends. Everybody knows about the city of Atlantis, of course. Another coastal region, Brittany, has similar stories to tell as well. About splendid cities that disappeared into the waves of the sea for mocking God and the Gospel. Like Rungholt, the Breton city Ker-Is was left intact and merely covered by the sea. Other drowned rich Breton cities are Tolente, Nasado, Herbauges, and the city at the dunes of Saint Efflam. Sagas concerning the latter speak of a preserved city under water, including bells. Sounds familiar? By the way, in Brittany a legend exists of a Frisian warlord during the Early Middle Ages who ruled over parts of the region. See our blog post A Frisian lord who ruled in Brittany, until his wife cheated on him.


Besides sagas of drowned cities and their church bells, the coast of Frisia additionally has many sagas about drowned lands and islands. Many of them historically correct. Read our post Atlantis found! Wait, there is another one, or 7, wait 12 in total… No, 19!


Lastly, the story of Rungholt evokes the modern images of the bell towers of the deliberately submerged towns of Kalyazin in Russia and of Potosí in Venezuela. Google them.


2. Bit context about Rungholt and the area

Rungholt was a trading town in the region of Nordfriesland on the island of Strand. Strand is also a Hallig island. A Hallig island is a salt-marsh island within the Wadden Sea merely protected by low tidal dykes. No dunes and no beaches. Only green, swampy tidal marshland. Houses and villages are built on a terp on the Hallig island. A terp, in the region of Nordfriesland called a Warft, is an artificial settlement mound. Check our manual Making a Terp in 12 Steps to understand this phenomenon of the cultural landscape of the tidal marshlands.


Today, you can still visit ten Hallig islands that have remained after many centuries of swallowing people, land and islands by Blanke Hans 'white Hans'. Amazing actually. For those who live in the Netherlands, the island of Marken and of (former) Kampereiland both in Lake IJsselmeer are comparable to the Hallig islands of Nordfriesland.


Nordfriesland

The ten remaining Hallig islands of Nordfriesland are now protected by the National Park Schleswig-Holsteinisches Wattenmeer. The low tidal dykes don't offer real protection against high floods, mostly taking place during the storms of autumn, winter and spring. You can still witness farms and houses on terps surrounded by the sea. A unique and more than 2,500 years old sight. A sight once existed in the northwest of Germany and in the north of the Netherlands as well. A culture already described by the Roman Plinius in the year AD 77, though not in a very appealing way.


 

Island or land? - Be aware when in the region of Nordfriesland. An island-North-Frisian might disagree with you that a Hallig is an island. It is land. It was part of land originally, and it is land made and protected by its inhabitants. To acknowledge it is an island, is to acknowledge the sea won.

 

The saga of Rungholt is also a story of Nordfriesland and its people. The Nordfriesen 'North-Frisians' are the Frisians living in Landkreis Nordfriesland part of the State Schleswig-Holstein, as well as the few Frisians living in the outer southwestern corner of the region of South Jutland of Denmark. So, the area stretches from the peninsula Eiderstedt in Germany, to the Bay of Ho near the town of Esbjerg and the island of Fanø in Denmark. In fact, the region of Schleswig-Holstein has been a patchwork of peoples (Germans, Danes, Jutes and Frisians) and of languages (High-German, Low-German, South-Jutlandic, Danish and -several dialects- of North-Frisian) for centuries, together with a nervous, jumpy border between Denmark and Germany, dancing both north and south.


The islands of Nordfriesland were colonized by Frisians from the region of Ostfriesland first, in the seventh century. Mainland Nordfriesland was colonized circa three to four centuries later when great floods forced the Frisians to firmer and higher grounds. Difference of dialects within the North-Frisian language is thus being made between island-North-Frisian and mainland-North-Frisian. Read also our post Burn Beacon Burn. A Coastal Inferno - Nordfriesland to learn a bit more of its history.


The wealth of Rungholt was based on salt production, the so-called weiße Gold 'white gold. Besides it generated a lot of wealth, it also completely destroyed the natural landscape. Extraction of salt out of peat was a major economic activity of the Frisians. Already in the tenth century, the trading port Medemblik in the region of Westfriesland in the province of Noord Holland, and the town of Stavoren in the province of Friesland with their hinterlands of vast silted peat deposits, were important salt-extraction areas. Here too, the mining of salt had devastating effects on the landscape. The big lakes in the southwest of the present-day province of Friesland are, in fact, the scars of this commercial activity too. Salt also was extracted in the area between the Wadden Sea island of Juist and the town of Norden in the region of Ostfriesland, and in the area what's the coast of Flanders and the province of Zeeland today.


Salt was a scarce and valuable commodity those days. Every human needs salt, of course. But it's also an ingredient to conserve food. Pickling food with salt as a method of conservation existed in the Mediterranean for much longer. The Egyptians and the Romans used it. It was the Basks who introduced pickling in northern Europe around the turn of the first millennium (Kurlansky 2002). Sea-people the Basks had made the fish (cod) trade into an international market, where-as the more northern peoples only dried cod. Salted dried cod is much longer preservable than merely dried cod. This innovation to conserve food much longer not only meant better possibilities to secure food during all seasons of the year, but it also brought advancements in exploring the world via the seas. Time at sea could be increased, thus greater distances could be covered. The world became bigger, so to speak. The salt production and being connected to the sea trade routes, were important factors why the Nordfriesen, and the whole of Frisia for that matter, flourished exceptional well.


For a while...



3. Climate change and exploitation

Climate change is a natural thing as well. We mean to say, global warming (and global cooling) happens without interference of humans too. In the fourteenth century, the climate cooled down. Science speaks of the Little Ice Age that lasted until the nineteenth century. Heavy storms formed part of it.


On 14 January 1362, a very destructive hurricane hit northern Europe. It first hit the British Isles, and left a trace of destruction there. Then this Vandal wandered over the North Sea to hit the region of Nordfriesland on 16 January. Coinciding with high tide, it caused enormous flood waves all along the Wadden Sea coast. An area stretching from the island of Texel in the Netherlands all the way along the north-western coast of Germany to the island of Fanø in Denmark. The flood was named the Second Saint Marcellus’ flood, and it took besides enormous chunks of fertile land and livestock, tens of thousands of human lives. The storm hit the town of Rungholt at 17:00 hours, and two hours later the flood reached its height. It had submerged dykes and terps. Read also our post Half a million deaths. A forgotten North Sea disaster... to get an idea of the impact of storm floods on Frisia throughout the centuries.


But frankly, thus far all this belonged to natural climate changes and challenges Frisians just had to deal with, and did, for centuries. They stood their wet ground as fleeing wasn't an option, as the Romans already observed already. Since the end of the fifth century, the Frisians had distinguished themselves for their maritime networks as a result of their adaptability to a treacherous, sea-soaked environment (Paine 2013). A true water people. Even in the year 1905, the English wanderer in the Netherlands, Lucas, wrote when remembering the All Saint's flood of 1825:

What the number of Friesland’s floating population is I do not know, but it must be very large. Many barges and tjalcks [ship type] are both the birthplace and death place of their owner, who know no other home.

As a striking observation, it makes you think what the natural cause of climate change already can do if we leave out the unnatural causes or the human factor. We like not to think about it too much, but we should. Please continue reading.


The tragedy in the year 1362 was total. This because of the commercial salt exploitation that had taken place for more than a century. They had dug away peat soil and lowered the land, and that way exposed the remaining peat to the grasp of the sea. This big storm flood could therefore wash away a huge part of the Hallig island of Strand in a single night. Actually, it's a well-known phenomenon in peat areas everywhere along the coast of former Frisia, where lakes and inland seas emerged during one night after a dyke breach. Check also our post Atlantis found! Wait, there is another one. No, 12 in total...).


Therefore, be wise and don't dig too deep if you want to exploit natural resources in a sustainable way. For you might indeed be punished, as medieval legends already told us! In another part of former Frisia, the province of Groningen, the local population suffers today from earthquakes because of large-scale mining of gas for several decades.

4. Documentary 'Atlantis der Nordsee'

Now it's, almost, time to watch the fine documentary Atlantis der Nordsee about sin-city Rungholt. Furthermore, know that the people of Rungholt indeed had built strong dykes as the sagas tell us. Archaeological research has confirmed this, including impressive tidal gates of a harbour (Wilken et al 2022). Even more recently, archaeologists have located the church of Rungholt. It was relatively big church measuring 15 by 40 meters and is dated around the year 1200 (Blankenfeldt 2023, Wilken et al 2024).


When watching the documentary, do pay attention to the eccentric Countess Diana von Reventlow-Criminil, nicknamed by the Nordfriesen as die Halliggräfin von Südfall. A fascinating woman, we think.


 

Diana von Reventlow-Criminil (1863-1953)Diana, of German nobility (Carl von Reventlow-Criminil) with a Scottish mother (Isabella Wemyss), was a beautiful and extravagant woman. Her full name was Diana Henriette Adelaïde Charlotte Reventlow-Criminil. She never got married, though, and never got any children of her own either.


In the year 1910 she was tired of high society and settled at the terp (i.e. an artificial dwelling mound, locally called a Warft or Warf ) on the island of Hallig Südfall in the region of Nordfriesland. There was, and is, only one terp on Hallig Südfall with one house, therefore quite isolated. Here the Gräffin lived with her staff, few dogs and some livestock (horses and chickens). Her staff consisted of a cook, a housemaid, a coachman, and a governess. Every morning she took a bath filled with fresh sea water from the Wadden Sea.


Once or twice a week Hallig-postbote Lorenz Ebsen (1892-1974), the postman, brought the mail. Depending on the weather. To do so, he walked at low tide the seven kilometers back an forth between Nordstrand and Südfall. For forty years ‘hi pluuget troch a slober’ (he ploughed through the mud). In total he walked 25,000 kilometers over the mud flats of the Wadden Sea. During summer he occasionally took groups with him.


The Gräffin showed absolute contempt for Nazism during the Second World War. The story goes when she walked into a company building in the town of Husum and greeted everyone with: “Guten Morgen” and people responded with: “Heil Hitler”, the Gräffin said: “Was hat der damit zu tun?” (What has he to do with it?).


It was also during the War, she rescued a parachuted British pilot at low tide at the mudflats of the Wadden Sea, in the dead of night. The Gräfin took the pilot into her house for a few weeks, and he eventually made it back home to England. Imagine how unbelievable fortunate this pilot must have been. If it was high tide, he would have drowned. And lucky for the fact a half-Scottish, high-society-tired Gräffin who not only found him, but also dared to shelter him.


She found the British airman, such is the story, whilst he was playing a clay flute he found in the mud of the seafloor. An medieval flute of the lost town of Rungholt. This flute-part of the story is fictional. In fact, it was in the ’20s already that the Halliggräffin financially supported the private archaeological research into the lost town of Rungholt, done by the local farmer from Nordstrand Andreas Busch (1883-1972). Busch was the true discoverer of Rungholt in the year 1921. Maybe this is how the story of the British pilot and the flute of Rungholt were brought together.


When the Halliggräffin died on August 5th at the age of ninety, her body was brought to the mainland with horse and carriage, between the tides. She is buried in the church of the village of Emkendorf. The house of the Gräffin on Hallig Südfall has been demolished and replaced by a modern structure.

 



 



Note – If interested in what a history in living memory of constant sea tragedies and storm floods does to the psyche of the coastal people of the southern North Sea, read our post Out of averting the inevitable a community was born.



Further reading & listening

Adam, T., Die Legende von der versunkenen Stadt (2021)

Blankenfeldt, R., Atlantis van de Noordzee: Verzonken Middeleeuwse kerk ontdekt op bodem Waddenzee (2023)

Bon Repos Gites, Lost Cities of Brittany (2021)

Dengang, Rungholt og manddrukning et og to (2018)

Döring, M. & Ratter, B., “I show you my coast…” A relational study of coastscapes in the North Frisian Wadden Sea (2021)

Halbertsma, H., Frieslands oudheid. Het rijk van de Friese koningen, opkomst en ondergang (2000)

Jansen, H.P.H. & Janse, A. (transl.), Kroniek van het klooster Bloemhof te Wittewierum (1991)

Knottnerus, O.S., De vergeten Friezen. Een mislukt pamflet van Benny Siewertsen over een boeiend thema (2008)

Kurlansky, M., Salt. A world History (2002)

Lucas, B.V., A wanderer in Holland (1905)

Nalewicki, J., This Canadian Lake Hides an Underwater Ghost Town (2017)

Paine, L., The sea and civilization. A maritime history of the world (2013)

Schleswig-Holsteinischer Zeitungsverslag (SHZ), Hier lag Rungholt – Die spannende Suche der Archäologen im Watt (2024)

Siefkes, W., Ostfriesische Sagen und sagenhafte Geschichten (1963)

Steensen, T., Nordfriesland. Menschen von A-Z (2020)

Walker, A.G.H., & Wits, O., Die nordfriesischen Mundarten (2001)

Wiersma, J.P., Friesche Sagen (1934)

Wilken, D. et al, Lost in the North Sea—Geophysical and geoarchaeological prospection of the Rungholt medieval dyke system (North Frisia, Germany) (2022)

Wilken, D. et al, The discovery of the church of Rungholt, a landmark for the drowned medieval landscapes of the Wadden Sea World Heritage (2024)


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