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  • Writer's pictureHans Faber

Bil. A wasteland of non-integrated migrants?

This is the story of the reclamation of the former Middelzee in the Netherlands. The Middle Sea was a shallow inland sea that used to cut present-day province Friesland into two. Separating from each other the ancient pagi 'districts' Westrachia, present-day Westergo, and Austrachia, present-day Oostergo. Hence its name Middelzee 'middle-sea'. It was a process of centuries to heal this scar. And, after the salt water of the sea had been driven out, immigrants poured in. The relevant and current mind-boggling, hot-debated question is: have these settlers integrated into society?

An Inland Sea Neutralized

Although Roman soldier Plinius (or Pliny) the Elder already felt pity for the barbaric tribes in the north in the first century AD, because of the extremely wet and cold living conditions (check out our post Shipwrecked people of the salt marshes to know what Plinius exactly said), it were actually the third and fourth centuries, that were tumultuous climate-wise. During this period, much of the tidal marshlands of the terp region (a terp being an artificial dwelling mound) became uninhabitable, and the peoples living there massively resettled themselves elsewhere. Leading to the much debated habitation-gap of the terp region. Although, this is mainly a dialogue among Frisians and Frisian scholars. People perhaps with a kind of phantom pain who worry about a lesser old-age of the Frisians. Some historians speak of this empty period as:

The time you only could hear the seagulls cry.

The period of the Romans was also the time the Middelzee was born and this shallow sea became the new estuary of the River Boorne or, in Mid-Frisian language, Boarn. This is why the inland sea was known as Bordine, Bordne or Bordena as well in the eighth century. River Boorne has two more names, namely Ouddiep and Koningsdiep. The first meaning 'old deep' and the latter meaning 'king's river'. This river has its origin more than 10,000 year back. Read also our post The Boarn supremacy to learn more about this slow flowing river and inland sea, and also about the catastrophic battle of the last Frisian king Poppo against the Franks which took place at the Boorne in the first half of the eighth century.

middelzee 't Bildt Frisia
former Middelzee 'middle sea', also Bordine

The inland-sea Bordine is furthermore a historical place because it was at its shores, between the shires Westergo and Oostergo, where the already in his own time prominent Anglo-Saxon archbishop Saint Boniface was murdered in the summer of 735. It was here, and not in Dokkum nor in Dunkirk as sometimes even is suggested, where Saint Boniface set up his encampment and where he was attacked and murdered. The shores of the Bordine were long and there is no historical data available to further pinpoint the scene of the crime. Everything said here is according to his near contemporary Wilibald of Mainz who wrote about Saint Boniface's life in the second half of the eighth century.

In the world of nature nothing is sustainable and nothing is durable. At the end of the first millennium the sea pushed itself into the treeless salt marshes once more and threatened to deteriorate the environmental living conditions again. The Christmas flood of 838 inundated much of Frisia and killed several thousands of people in the process. A flood that might be considered the prelude of an aggressive sea era. But this time the (new) Frisians stubbornly decided to stand their soft clay-ground and not to emigrate as their predecessors had done. Read our post Out of averting the inevitable a community was born about the history of fighting the sea and how it shaped the identity of the coastal people.

Geef ons heden ons dagelijks brood, en af en toe een watersnood

Give us this day our daily bread, and now and then a great flood

The essence of this saying of Dutch water engineers is, that a great flood is the kind of event engineers need from time to time, to keep things moving ahead. Indeed, the Frisians started to build circular and higher dikes to protect their land at the end of the first millennium. Step by step they took back land from the sea, and made a showcase for the rest of the world how serious reclamation of land is actually being done. And, it was not only subduing the inland sea Bordine. All over in Frisia, especially in district Westergo, delta works avant la lettre were being carried out simultaneously. Read also our post The mother of all dikes with more information about this water management endeavor in district Westergo. Soon, Ostfriesen (East Frisians) would migrate to the islands and coast of what is now Nordfriesland, to export their skills to this region just south of the Danish border. Read our post Beacons of Nordfriesland about this medieval migration wave.

In a nutshell: Frisians started to move more earth than the sea did. Every day of the year. Deus mare, Friso litora fecit 'God created the sea, the Frisian the coast', therefore is a saying often copied by others. Yes, success has many fathers, and failure is an orphan.

After another even greater flood, the Saint Lucia’s flood of 1287, killing a staggering estimated 50,000 to 80,000 people along the southern coast of the North Sea and hitting province Friesland notably hard, a dike was built between the village Beetgum in district Westergo and the village Britsum in district Oostergo. With this enclosure dam, the reclamation of the Bordine inland sea was more or less halfway around the year 1300. North of this dike, however, there was still a big chunk of inter-tidal marshland which had to be reclaimed. An area called Bil. Reclaiming Bil, or killing Bil, would be the apotheosis. An apotheosis that took even longer than that of the eponymous Hollywood movie sequel.

Wild Bil

August 11, 1398. Lord Arent of Egmond in province Holland, also became lord of both Wadden-Sea island Ameland, and of an “uytlant gheheten Bil dat aengheworpen is buten dycs ende gelegen is tusschen Mynaertsga end Sint Mariengaerde”. The latter is freely translated as: a tidal marshland called Bil that has been silted-up before the dikes and is located between Minnertsga and Saint Mariengaarde. Sint Mariengaarde being the former abbey near village Hallum.

So, the silted-up clay, or tidal marshland, in the remaining mouth of the Bordine inland sea was named Bil. Today it is called ‘t Bildt, which is a combination of the Dutch words bil and land. Sounds a bit like the Danish Legoland capital Billund. The Dutch word bil is related to the Dutch word bol and to the English and German word ball and Ball. Expressing something that is round and elevated compared to the surrounding area. So, the round-elevated, tidal marshland. Bil in modern Dutch language means buttock. But this aside and please forget we mentioned it in the first place.

the Middle Sea with the phases of reclamation

A century after Bil was given to nobleman Arent of Egmond money was brought together to pull Bil out of the sea’s firm embrace. Besides being a showcase it was going to be a business case as well. In 1505, an enclosure dike of more than 14 kilometers long was erected between the locations Dijkshoek in the west and Hallumerhoek in the east. It secured more than 5,000 hectares of fertile salt-marsh land. The dike is still there and is called Oudebildtdijk, meaning 'old Bildt dike'. The work was (probably) completed within a few years, and it really was an unprecedented achievement in world water management.

In the year 1600 north of Oudebildtdijk a new 13-kilometers-long dike was erected between De Westhoek in the west and the village Nieuwe Bildtzijl in the east. This time securing nearly 2,000 hectares of fresh, green land from the sea. This dike is also still there to be admired, and is called Nieuwebildtdijk, meaning 'new Bildt-dike'. Yes, the names do not compete for the creativity price but it was all very organized.

In fact, in many respects the whole enterprise from the year 1505 onward, was extremely organized and rational. The allotment of land and of farms, the straight canals, the trenches, the water locks, the location of villages etc. It was all symmetrical and well planned. In fact, the polder, i.e. embanked land, Oude Bildt became a role model for the polders to come, in the Netherlands and world wide. That includes the UNESCO-listed polder De Beemster in province Noord Holland. This polder was established a bit later in 1612, with the same rational planning. Why polder De Beemster is UNESCO listed and not the real McCoy polder 't Bildt, we have not got the foggiest idea. Maybe, because it is closer to the capitol Amsterdam. Or is it another illustration that Frisians are incapable of getting credits for their achievements? Read more about the lack of these assertive skills with Frisians in our post History is written by the victors - a history of the credits.

Tamers of Wild Bil

Who were the people of this last frontier? Who tamed Wild Bil? It were not all Uma Thurmans. But it were not solely Frisian workers either. No, it were cowboys from all over the Netherlands who emigrated to the new, fertile land in the north. Especially from the islands of provinces Zuid Holland and Zeeland. These early labor migrants settled and stayed.

Let's return to the question of this post. Did these immigrants integrate into local society or not? Well, it depends on the definition of integration you use. Do not get mad at us or desperate because of this sloppy and bureaucratic answer, but give us a moment to explain.

If it is economic mobility and participation you put first when it comes to integration, then yes, they did integrate. Albeit, it did not come easy. The working class, so to speak, was exploited by the new Frisian and Saxon landowners of 't Bildt. Farmers, and especially the landowners, earned lots of money from the rich crops of this very fertile land and, of course, by not paying the workers too much for their efforts either. Resulting in not only extreme poverty of workers in the course of the nineteenth century, but also in the highest level of secularization in the Netherlands. Following in the footsteps of the heathen mob that killed Saint Boniface on this same spot centuries before. Regarding their integration, people took and take part in the local economy.

Oh, and even one of the most famous painters of the Dutch Republic, Rembrandt van Rijn, married Saskia van Uylenburgh in the church of Sint Annaparochie in the year 1634. Saskia was a rich girl from region ‘t Bildt. Well, if that is not integration, we do not know what is?

saskia van Uijlenburgh
Saski van Uylenburgh

If, however, it is adopting the ruling language and embracing of local values you are looking for first when it comes to integration of newcomers in society, then the answer is decidedly no. To this day, the Bildtker (viz. someone from the area ‘t Bildt) speaks a different, creole language which is neither Frisian nor Dutch. And, of course, the almost heathen and early secular nature still shows. Yes, the Bildtkers even advocate that their language will be recognized as an official minority language. That is, you could argue, the opposite of integration. Namely, creating as a group of immigrants your own language and subsequently strive to get it recognized as an official language. And, we are not sure either if the Bildtkers would not flunk Dutch integration exams that are compulsory for immigrants today. On the other hand, the Bildtkers seem to manage quite well with the rest of the Netherlands’ population.

Therefore, we leave the fuzzy verdict whether the Bildtkers are ‘integrated’ or ‘not integrated’ with you! And to be clear, of course, this is not a generalization concerning the current integration and migration debates.


Note 1 - The father of Saskia, Rombertus van Uylenburgh, and major of Leeuwarden, was present at scene of the crime when William of Orange was murdered in the city of Leiden, in the year 1584. Rembrandt's father-in-law. Read our post The Abbey of Egmond and the rise of the Gerulfings to learn more about it.

Note 2 - If you want to learn more about the history of ‘t Bildt, now incorporated with other municipalities into the new municipality Waadhoeke, go to the cultural historic house annex church Aerden Plaats in the beautiful village of Oude Bildtzijl, meaning 'old Blidt sluice'.

Note 3 - The Frisia Coast Trail passes through region ‘t Bildt. When you enter the tidal marshlands before the dikes at the Wadden Sea side, you will have a chance to get an impression of how Bil looked like before it was reclaimed in the sixteenth century. Even have a feel how it walked like!

Further reading

Ferwerda, L., Een uytland gheheten Bil, 1398-2005. De geskidenis fan de gemeente 't Bildt (2005)

Keizer, S., Geschiedenis van 't Bildt: Romeinen in Billând? (2020)

Looijenga, A. & Popkema, A. & Slofstra, B., Een meelijwekkend volk. Vreemden over Friezen van de oudheid tot de kerstening (2017)

Louman, J.P.A., Fries Waterstaatbestuur. Een geschiedenis van de waterbeheersing in Friesland vanaf het midden van de achttiende eeuw tot omstreeks 1970 (2007)

Schroor, M., Van Middelzee tot Bildt. Landaanwinning in Fryslân in de Middeleeuwen en de vroegmoderne tijd (2000)

Tuuk, van der L. (red), Bonifatius in Dorestad. De evangeliebrenger van de Lage Landen - 716 (2016)

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