• Hans Faber

How a town drowned overnight

Rungholt, a thriving and wealthy town, disappeared overnight in the year AD 1362. For seven 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 depth of the sea.

But now the remains of Rungholt in landkreis Nordfriesland (also North Frisia) in northern Germany have been found and its existence has been confirmed. No longer is it a legend. 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 deadly. Despite the misfortune of Lot's wife we do look back in this blog post to learn about the history of salt in this region.
landkreis Nordfriesland / North Frisia

In this blog post you will find below a internet link to a fine 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 below a short explanation of what happened, since the documentary is in German language without subtitles, together with some historic context. It makes the story in the documentary even more impressive.

Also, when watching please pay attention to the eccentric countess Diana von Reventlow-Criminil, nicknamed by the North-Frisians as the Halliggräfin.

The Gräfin lived completely on her own on Hallig Südfall. This very small Hallig consists merely of one terp (an artificial dwelling mound and locally called a Warf) with one house. During the Second World War she rescued a parachuted British pilot at low tide at the mudflats of the Wadden Sea in the dead of night. She found him whilst he was playing a clay flute he found in the mud. A flute of Rungholt as it turned out to be. A town existed only in legends at that time. A variant of the legendary bell tower. The Gräfin 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. The flute has been conserved too.

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

By the way. In the Mid-Frisian village of Hallum in the province Friesland in the Netherlands, near the Wadden Sea shores, a legend of a bell from 'the underworld' exists too. Here the legend tell that at the spot where once cloister Mariëngaard stood, a small golden bell is buried in the ground. And sometimes, when the night is silent, you can still hear the clinging sound of this small bell.

Bit context about Rungholt and the area

This is a story about Nordfriesland or North Frisia. The North-Frisians are the Frisians living in the landkreis Nordfriesland part of the German State Schleswig-Holstein and the few Frisians living in the outer southwestern corner of the county South Jutland in Denmark. So, the area stretches from the peninsula Eiderstedt in Germany to the Bay of Ho near the town of Esbjerg and the island Fanø in Denmark. In fact the region Schleswig-Holstein 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.
lost land, Nordfriesland
Rungholt was a trading town of North Frisia on the island Strand. Strand is also a Hallig. A Hallig is a salt-marsh island within the Wadden Sea merely protected by low tidal dykes. No dunes and no beaches. Only salt marshes. Houses and villages are built on a terp on the Hallig. Still you can visit the ten Halligs that have remained after many centuries of swallowing people, land and islands by the waterwolf.

The ten Halligs are now protected by the National Park Schleswig-Holsteinisches Wattenmeer. The low tidal dykes do not give real protection against high floods mostly taking place during the storms of autumn, winter and spring. You can still witness terps and house platforms surrounded by the sea. 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 and already described by the Roman Plinius in the year AD 77, though not in a very appealing way.

Be aware when in North Frisia. An island-North-Frisian will disagree with you that a Hallig is an island. It's land. It was land originally and it's land made and protected by its inhabitants. Read also our Manual Making a Terp in 12 Steps.

The islands of North Frisia were colonized by the Frisians from the south first in the eighth century AD. The mainland of North Frisia was colonized circa three 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 blog post Beacons of Nordfriesland.

Extraction of salt out of peat was a major economic activity of the Frisians. Already in the tenth century AD the trading ports Medemblik (region Westfriesland in the province Noord Holland in the Netherlands) and Stavoren (in the province Friesland in 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 present-day province Friesland are the scars of this. But salt also was extracted in the area between 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.

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 dried cod. And 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 North-Frisians flourished exceptional well by the sea and the salt trade.

For a while.

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 AD 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 North Frisia 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' and it took besides enormous chunks of fertile land and cattle, 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 blog post Half a million deaths. A forgotten North Sea disaster...

Thus far, all this belonged to normal climate changes the Frisians just had to deal with and did for centuries, and centuries to come. They stood their wet ground as fleeing wasn't an option, as the Romans already observed. Since the end of the fifth century AD the Frisians had distinguished themselves for their maritime networks as a result of their adaptability to a treacherous, sea-soaked environment; as Paine described this sea-people. And even in the year AD 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 types] 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 human factor. But the tragedy in AD 1362 was total because of the commercial salt exploitation that had taken place for more than a century. They had dug away the peat and that way exposed the remaining peat to the grasp of the sea. This big flood could therefore wash away a huge part of the Hallig Strand in one single night. It's a well-known phenomenon in peat areas along the Frisia coast where lakes can be created during one night after a dyke broke in the Middle Ages (also read our blog post Atlantis found! Wait, there is another one. No, 12 in total...).
Therefore, be wise and don’t dig too deep if you want use natural resources in a sustainable way. For you might indeed be punished, as medieval legends already told us! In another part of the Frisia Coast Trail, the province Groningen, the local population suffers today from earthquakes because of the mining of gas.
Don't drink and drive.

Documentary 'Atlantis der Nordsee'

Watch this fine documentary also to have a better understanding of the area of North Frisia when hiking the Frisia Coast Trail.

Suggestions for further reading

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

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

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)

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

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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