• Hans Faber

How a town drowned overnight

Updated: Jul 18

Rungholt, a thriving and wealthy town, disappeared overnight in the year AD 1362. For seven centuries only sagas told us about what happened to Rungholt: a town submerged under the sea as a punishment of God. According to medieval legends you could still hear the sound of its bell tower rising from the depth of the salty sea.
But now the remains have been found of Rungholt in Kreis (administrative distric) Nordfriesland 'North Frisia' in northern Germany, and its existence has been confirmed. No longer is it just a saga. It is historic! Its legacy is a story about climate change and a story of greedy use of natural resources. Above all, that the combination of these two can be deadly. Despite the misfortune of Lot's wife, we do take the risk to look back in this blog post in order to learn about the history of salt production in this region.

In this blog post you will find below an internet link to an excellent German documentary about the story of the North-Frisian town Rungholt. A documentary called Atlantis der Nordsee made by Gabriele Wengler. But, before you watch it please find first a short explanation of what happened, together with some historic context. Especially, for non-German speakers, since the documentary is in that language without subtitles. It makes the story in the documentary even more impressive.

When watching the documentary, please also pay attention to the eccentric countess Diana von Reventlow-Criminil, nicknamed by the Nordfriesen as the Halliggräfin. The Gräfin 'countess' lived completely on her own on Hallig-island Südfall. A Hallig is a type of island in the Wadden Sea (see further below). Südfall is a very small Hallig-island and consists merely of one terp or Warf (i.e. an artifical dwelling mound, read our blog post Manual making a terp in 12 steps) with one house and a barn. During the Second World War the countess rescued a parachuted British pilot at low tide at the mudflats of the Wadden Sea in the dead of night. She found the soldier whilst he was playing a clay flute he found in the mud. As it turned out later, a flute of the drowned town of Rungholt. A town that existed only in sagas and legends at that time. The flute, a variant of the legendary bell tower of Rungholt (see below). The countess took the pilot in her house for a few weeks and he eventually made it back home to England. Imagine how unbelievable fortunate this pilot must have been. First, his aircraft was shot which he survived. Then he landed with his parachute on the mudflats of the Wadden Sea, luckily at low tide. There he incidently finds a medieval flute. A flut that even still worked. He starts to whistle. This alerted a German lady, who did not notify the Nazi regime but took the risk to rescue him. What are the odds?

We are very much interested in more North-Frisian stories about the Halliggräfin. Let us know!

1. Saga of Rungholt

In the Early Middle Ages Rungholt was a rich trading town in Nordfriesland (North Frisia) with trade connections in the wider world. Its citizens were filthy rich. This had turned them into people without moral and had led to self-overestimation too. A life full of extravagance. On the sea side they had built dikes to protect the town of Rungholt against great floods. After they had finished the construction of these dikes, they had challenged the sea by shouting: "Defy us, Blanke Hans ('White Hans' meaning wild sea)! Attack us if you can."

dike building, Sachsenspiegel, 13th century

One day in the evening, sometime around Christmas, a group of drunk young men worked out an evil scheme. They took a pig, got it drunk and dressed it in cloths. With the pig they went to an inn and there they shared a bed with the animal. After that, they summoned a preacher to receive the last sacraments. Part of their scheme was, in case the preacher would see through the whole thing, they would throw the holy man into a well so he would drown and would not live to tell. The preacher came and, of course, he discovered everything. The young men did not kill him at the end, but forced the preacher to drink with them instead. During this bacchanel the young men insulted the Almighty badly. Eventually, the men let the preacher go.

That same night it was revealed to the preacher in a dream, he should leave Rungholt immediately because God would punish the people soon. Barely the preacher had left, when a vast storm gathered. However, the people of Rungholt still were not impressed and felt no fear. Again they shouted at the sea:

"Defy us, Blanke Hans!"

Then, the sea rose, demolished the dikes and with towering waves it flooded all the houses. The sea closed itself above the heads of the people, like a grave. That night, Rungholt, together with seven other communities, was erased from the surface of the earth. No one survived, except those who God had shown a way out.

Ever since, Rungholt lies at the bottom of the sea. Preserved as it was. And, before the end of time Rungholt will rise from the depths and retake the place where it once stood, in exactly the same state.

When there is no wind and skies are clear, you can see its church spires just above the sea surface. And, if you listen very carefully you can hear the ringing of the church bells of Rungholt below, as well as the cries of pain of its people. This is how, through the waves of the sea, the judgement of the citizens of Rungholt still travels on.

2. Some historical context

This is a history of Nordfriesland 'North Frisia'. The Nordfriesen are the Frisians living in the Kreis Nordfriesland part and the friserne 'Frisians' living in the southwestern corner of the Jutland in Denmark. So, the area stretches from the peninsula Eiderstedt in Germany in the south to the Bay of Ho, near the town of Esbjerg and the island Fanø in Denmark in the north. The region Schleswig-Holstein, in fact, has been a patchwork of peoples (the German, the Danes and the Frisians) and of languages (High German, Low German, South Jutlandic, Danish and -several dialects of- North Frisian) for centuries, with a nervous, jumpy border between Denmark and Germany dancing both north and south. Nordfriesland was never politically part of (southern) Frisia, but either part of Denmark or part of Germany, varying through time.
Rungholt was a trading town on Strand. Strand was a Hallig. Hallig-islands are salt-marsh islands within the Wadden Sea merely protected by low tidal dykes. No dunes and no barrier beaches. Houses and small villages are built on terps on the Hallig-islands. You can visit the ten Hallig-islands that have remained after many centuries of swallowing people, land and islands by the waterwolf.

The ten Hallig-islands are protected by the National Park Schleswig-Holsteinisches Wattenmeer. The low tidal dikes do not give real protection against high or great floods mostly taking place during the storms of autumn, winter and spring. You can still witness terps and house platforms surrounded by the sea. Landunter, as they call it locally. A unique and a more than 2,500 years old image. An image once existed in northwestern Germany and in the north of the Netherlands as well. Already described by the Roman Plinius in the year AD 77, although, not in a very appealing way. Read our blog post The shipwrecked people of the salt marshes to know what Plinius thought about it.

Landunter, Nordfriesland

Is land, not Island

Be aware when in Nordfriesland. An island-North-Frisian will disagree with you that a Hallig is an island. It is land. It was land originally and it is land made and protected by its inhabitants. Therefore, we use Hallig-island. Read also our blog post Manual Making a Terp in 12 Steps.

At first, the islands of Nordfriesland were colonized by Frisians from the south, in the eighth century. The mainland of Nordfriesland was colonized circa three centuries later when great flood forced the Frisians to firmer and higher grounds. Difference of dialects within the North-Frisian language is thus being made between Island North-Frisian speech and Mainland North-Frisian speech. Read also our blog post The beacons of North Frisia about this colonization process.

Extraction of salt out of peat was a major economic activity of the Frisians. Indeed, salt of the earth. Already in the tenth century, the trading ports Medemblik (region Westfriesland, the Netherlands) and Stavoren (province Friesland, the Netherlands) 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 present-day province Friesland are, in fact, the scars of this activity. Salt was also extracted in the area between the islands Juist and Norden in Ostfriesland 'East Frisia' in northwest Germany. Hence the North-Frisian commercial activities in salt were based on a long, long tradition.

Read also our blog post The United Frisians Emirates and Black Peat as an introduction of the medieval, large-scale commercial peat extraction in western Frisia.

Salt of the earth

Salt was a scarce and valuable commodity those days. Every human needs salt, of course. But it is 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 were the Basks who introduced pickling in northern Europe around the turn of the first millennium. The sea-people the Basks had made the fish (cod) trade into an international market, where-as the more northern peoples only dried cod. Salted cod is longer preservable than merely dried cod. The possibility to conserve food 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. The world became bigger.

So, the Nordfriesen flourished exceptional well by the sea and the salt trade. For a while. The salt would lose its saltiness, and could not made salty again.

3. Climate change and exploitation

Climate change is a natural thing as well. We mean to say, global warming and cooling, happens without interference of humans too. In the fourteenth century, the climate cooled down. 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 Nordfriesland at the coast of northern Germany near Denmark, on 16 January. Coinciding with high tide. It caused enormous flood waves all along the Wadden Sea coast. An area stretching from what is today the island of Texel in the Netherlands all the way along the northwestern coast of Germany to the island of Fanø in Denmark. The flood is called the 'Second Saint Marcellus’ Flood' or the First Grote Mandrenke ('first great drowning of men'), 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 dikes and terps. Read also our blog post Half a million deaths. A forgotten North Sea disaster... to understand the horror caused by the sea over the centuries.

Thus far, all this actually belonged to normal climate changes the Frisians just had to deal with and had done so for centuries, and centuries to come. They stood their wet ground, as fleeing was not an option, as the Romans already observed. From 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). Even in the year AD 1905 the English wanderer in the Netherlands, Edward 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 one think what the natural cause of climate change already can do if we leave out the unnatural causes or the human factor. The tragedy in AD 1362 was total, however, because of the commercial salt exploitation that was taking place for more than a century. The people had dug away the peat, lowered the land and that way exposed the remaining peat to the grasp of the salty sea. This big flood could therefore wash away a huge part of the Hallig-island Strand in one single night. It is a well-known phenomenon in peat areas everywhere along the coast of former Frisia, where lakes were created during one night after a dike broke. Read our blog post Atlantis found! Wait, there is another one. No, 19 in total... to get a glimpse of all the land wolfed down by the sea.
Therefore, be wise and do not dig too deep if you want use natural resources in a sustainable way. For you might indeed be punished, as medieval sagas already told us!

Therefore, do not drink and drive!

4. Documentary 'Atlantis der Nordsee'

Now it is time to watch this fine documentary:

The bell of cloister Mariëngaard

In the village of Hallum in the province Friesland in the Netherlands, close to the Wadden Sea shores, a legend of a bell ringing from 'the underworld' exists too. Here the legend tell that at the spot where once the monastry Mariëngaard stood, a small golden bell is buried in the ground. Sometimes, when the night is silent early in the morning, you can still hear the clinging sound of this small bell. The field is called 'the old cementry' and its grass is never being touched by dew. Once, two men tried to dug up the bell, but then three ghosts in long, white garments appeared in the fields. It were the spirits of the former monks, and they chased the gold-diggers away.

Further reading:

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

Kurlansky, M., Cod. A biography of the fish that changed the world (1997)

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

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

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

Puehl, D., "I sailed over Rungholt town today." The First Grote Mandrenke (2014)

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

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

Not suggested for further reading:

Stam, H., Haring. De vis die Nederland veranderde. De geschiedenis, de economie en de cultuur van de Nederlandse haring (2015). Title and concept too obvious a copy of Kurlansky's Cod; chapter '-1000' is historical incomprehensible about a.o. the Migration Age, Vikings etc, and; -by the way- forgetting the coastal history before AD 1000 north of Holland.


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