The COVID-19 pandemic is climbing towards its peak. Uncertainty of how destructive the pandemic is going to be. How many family members and loved ones will it take? A phenomenon of chaos and destruction that confronts us with the limitations of an engineered world. Some people exclaim it’s a punishment of God. Others say it’s Nature making us pay for the demolition of the planet. Or is it the world population density and global interconnectedness? Whatever the origins or underlying (spiritual) reasons, if it’s devastating enough it will have an impact on the collective memory and behaviour of societies. For the people living along the southern coast of the North Sea it brings back ancient memories. The millennia-old memory of the fear of water.
It has been a while since the people of the West have been confronted with large-scale, life-threatening events. For a long time big natural disasters didn’t take place and the threat of another great war is far away since the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. In historic perspective, this western comfort is quite recent. Putting the socially traumatizing events of the great wars of the twentieth century AD aside, natural destructive forces always had a specific impact on the mentality of the people of the southern North Sea coast. From province Zeeland to the region Schleswig. From Bruges to Esbjerg.
In this post we first outline the history of fighting the sea, being the mental roots. After that, we shall explain what this specific history meant for the psyche and mentality of the coastal dwellers of the southern coast of the North Sea. We make a journey from archaeology and history to antropology and psychology. From two and a half millennia ago, to this day.
This post, or maybe more a long-read, builds on the study Nordsee ist Mordsee ‘North Sea is murder sea’ (Rieken, 2005) which is a first serious attempt to identify the mentality and psyche of the Frisians by combining insights from (depth) psychology with (social) history. For that already it deserves a compliment. It takes courage to study this topic. After the uncomfortable experiences of fascism and national socialism almost a century ago, these type of studies had become a touchy subject (see Annex at the end of this post). And, although some of these elements might be typical Frisian, many must also apply -in our opinion- to the other coastal dwellers of the southern coast of the North Sea.
These coastal dwellers were at first, in Roman times, the Anglii (the Angles), the Cananefates, the Chauci, the Frisiavones (the Romanized Frisians), the Frisii (the Frisians proper) and the Saxones. During the Early Middle Ages, these were the Frisians and the Saxons (region Dithmarschen and region River Elbe). At present, these are the Dutchmen (region Holland), the Ditmarsians, the Frisians, the Groningers, the Nordfriesen, the Ostfriesen, the Saxons and the Zeelanders. Maybe the Westfriezen want to be listed separately from the Dutchmen, but we haven't checked that. All (sub)cultures that have in common to live on a dangerous strip of twilight land.
A history of water fighting
With the start of the interglacial period of the Holocene almost 12,000 year ago, temperatures rose. With it the sea level did too. Whilst the North Sea expanded, people retreated towards higher grounds. But ca. 2,600 years ago, people living in what’s now the northwest of Germany and the north of the Netherlands made a stand against the sea: they erected dwelling mounds or house platforms, the so-called terps, and stayed. When Roman soldiers arrived in this territory at the beginning of the era, they found the tribes of the Chauci and the Frisii living on these little manmade mounds of clay and cow dung. The wider territory existed of low-laying land, of treeless tidal marshlands, of dense wooded peat lands, bog and swamps, of lakes, rivers and streams, of long barrier beaches, islands, inlets and bays. A dynamic and delicate balance of land and water. A gigantic delta in fact, stretching from the estuary of the River Scheldt to the German Bight.
The rise of the sea level during the Holocene wasn’t a steady process. It still isn’t. The marine transgression Dunkirk II, a period the sea level rose relatively fast, had a profound impact on the living conditions in the deltas of the southern coast of the North Sea. It led to the population hiatus along much of the southern North Sea coast. Only small pockets of people were left in the fourth century AD. Think of a few thousand. From the fifth century AD, after the transgression, population recovered. Mostly through local migration movements of tribes living along the southern coast more inland already, but now including tribes from Denmark too and later supplemented with migrants from southern Scandinavia. And, the by then 1,100-year-old terp culture survived. People continued living on terps and exported this culture into the Saxon regions of the German Bight and of Dithmarschen. The dwelling mounds on the barren salt marshes grew bigger and bigger, and became real settlement mounds with diameters of three hundred meters and about four meters high. Frisians also colonized the near empty area of Nordfriesland south of the border of Denmark during the Early Middle Ages.
After the cultural and economic prosperous period of the Early Middle Ages, the marine transgression Dunkirk III, messed everything up again. By then it was the Frisians who inhabited the coastal zone of the North Sea in Germany and in the Netherlands, from Belgium to Denmark, and the Saxons who inhabited the coastal zone of Dithmarschen; the Ditmarsians. Dunkirk III forced the Ditmarsians and the Frisians to adjust their strategy if they were to stay. So, they started to build high dikes around AD 1000. Around AD 1300, after three hundred years of hard work, they had completed the biggest earthwork in European history: the Golden Ring. A massive patchwork of encircling dikes, terps, canals, ditches and sluices. All connected to each other, stretching from the current province Friesland in the Netherlands to Nordfriesland in Germany just south of the border with the Danes. With bare hands, the coastal people moved more clay and earth than the sea did, every day, every week, every month, every year. A rat race they were able to keep up. Just a few famous 'rings' we mention: the Westfriese Omringdijk ('Westfrisian Encircling Dike'), the Slachte Dyk ('Sliced' Dike) and the Pingjumer Gouden Halsband ('Pingjum's Golden Collar'). The Golden Collar is one the oldest dike-systems we know. Most of it is errected in the tenth century AD already, and has been of service until the end of the ninth century AD. Almost a millenium.
Die erschreckliche Wasser-Fluth
But the threat of a wild sea, nicknamed Blanke Hans 'white Hans' (i.e. white seafoam of a wild sea) by the Nordfriesen, wasn’t gone. Due to further temperature rising, the sea level kept rising in front of their high dikes. And dikes itself also had a negative effect because during storm floods water couldn’t flow out anymore over the formerly vast area of tidal marshlands. This in turn caused the mean sea level to rise during great storms with an additional one and a half meter. The water was blocked and put even more pressure on the dikes. And, just after the Golden Ring was completed, the so-called Little Ice Age started in the fourteenth century AD. This drop in temperature caused bigger differences between the temperatures of the Arctic Ocean and the European mainland, which in turn led to more heavy storms. Mostly blowing from the west or northwest, hitting the Frisians and the Ditmarsians notably hard.
The climate deterioration during the Little Ice Age also meant massive crop failures and thus led to an economic recession. Dike-building takes a lot of efforts and is very expensive. Less means available consequently led to deferred maintenance of the Golden Ring. But that was not all. In the period roughly between AD 1000-1500, massive commercial peat exploitation of the immediate hinterland of the coastal zone had lowered the mainland in the meantime. And, lastly, efficient drainage of the land had a lowering effect on the land as well. All things taken together, the land was there for the taking by the sea. Waiting for disaster. This was just what happened. The inland Southern Sea (Zuyderzee), the Jade Bay and the Dollart Bay were created during great storm floods. Above all, most of the land of Nordfriesland was washed away during this time. It went with massive loss of humans, cattle and houses. And not only people were killed during the flood itself, but also secondary casualties due to famine and diseases afterwards.
For a third time in history the people of the southern coast of the North Sea had to make up their minds: should I stay, or should I go? They decided to clash and choose the first option. They stayed. The Phoenix confronted the Waterwolf. Firstly, they invested in better and higher dikes. A proven good defensive strategy. We are still familiar with the phrase Wer nicht will deichen, muß weichen 'who doesn't want to dike, has to give way'. Secondly, they started to use a more brutal strategy, namely retaking land from the sea. Firstly, at the end of the Middle Ages, bit by bit inlets, bays and inland seas were reclaimed. It was around AD 1500 when also large scale projects were launched to reclaim land from the sea. Big chunks at a time. The former seabed ‘t Bildt in province Friesland was the first modern, organized and very rationally planned polder in European history. The UNESCO-listed Beemster Polder in province Noord Holland soon followed. The offensive strategy culminated with the sealing off the Southern Sea (Zuyderzee) from the North Sea in combination with the massive polders/reclaimed lands: Wieringermeer Polder, Noordoost Polder and Flevo Polder. The latter is even the largest polder in the world. And by shutting off the Southern Sea the biggest sweet water lake of Europe was created as well: Lake IJssel (IJsselmeer). Furthermore, everywhere along the Wadden Sea coast poor mud workers were building slender dams of brushwood to break the sea and speed up sedimentation. These black ants started their daily labour when the tide was ebbing and paused when the tide came in again. With these dams tidal marshland was created after which it was incorporated to the mainland with a new dike, a new ring. The photo-genetic remains of their works can be seen everywhere still in the Wadden Sea.
great flood of 1962
The Second World War threw a spanner in the works. Besides dikes being blast at the Walcheren and in Wieringermeer Polder during the war, maintenance of dikes had been poor during and after the war in Germany and in the Netherlands. In February 1953 during a great storm flood the dikes of province Zeeland broke. The most recent great disaster is the flood of February 1962 that flooded most of northwest Germany including the city of Hamburg. Both in Germany and the Netherlands dikes were strengthened, and massive storm surge barriers were built. Especially, in the ‘60s and ‘70s the believe in a make-able and engineer-able world was at its peak. At the same time the downside became clear, a nature that was heavily polluted with the Rhine River being the symbol of it. A river where once salmon came to spawn. An almost dead river with fish covered with ulcers, used by the European industries as their private sewer. The believe in the make-able world slowly started to crack. The upcoming environmental concerns meant also the end of the massive land reclamation in the mid ‘70s. The tidal marshlands and the Wadden Sea were more and more appreciated for their environmental value than for their economic value. And, as a side remark, at the beginning of the twenty-first century the tidal marshlands are considered being part of the defensive system too, since they break the energy of the waves before these hit the dikes.
A tight community of freeborn Republicans
Although the floods of 1953 and 1962 haven’t been forgotten yet, it normally takes three generations to forget traumatizing events. Let’s see what our children will remember of these disasters when they have grown up. You’ll probably know the answer already. If not, put your tablet aside for a moment and ask them. Yeah, you knew.
The history of fear of water outlined above is one full of battle, misery and loss. We estimated before the total number of lost lives at the Wadden Sea coast around half a million. Generation after generation after generation. Their whole world has revolved around water and the deep fear of it. This has shaped the identity of the people and their collective memory. And although the threat of the sea faded into the background the last few decades thanks to the (short-lived) believe in an engineer-able world, the debate about global warming due to human activity has re-activated this fear. Not only among the Ditmarsians and the Frisians, but worldwide this time. Sea levels could be driven to colossal heights. Think of the Hollywood movie The Perfect Storm twenty years ago and the drama series Als de dijken breken (The Swell) of 2016.
So, we are almost out of make-able world rehab. Good! Unfortunately, we haven’t come into terms with this new situation yet. We still seem to look for a new opium or beacon to cling to. Because, if we can’t control nature, what will be then the consequence? Letting the Grim Reaper freely haunt our cities, our streets and our bedrooms? Or should we smear blood of a Passover lamb on our doorposts so we won’t be struck down? Parallels with today’s 'sudden', endemic fears are there. It's confusing.
But the coastal dwellers of northern Germany and the Netherlands already explained in the ‘70s, before the Anthropocene climate change debate had started, that the force of the sea isn’t fully tameable. They just knéw this. Their collective memory and roots. As said, traumatizing events, in general, take three generation to forget. The Frisians, however, remember traumatizing events for six centuries. That’s very unique when you speak of collective memories of a society. It was the town of Rungholt that disappeared overnight into the sea during the great storm flood of AD 1362. The Nordfriesen still told this story in the twentieth century AD of which everyone had thought it was a mere legend. Until after the Second World War archaeological and historic research revealed Rungholt indeed had existed, it was washed away ánd even on the spot people said the town was located. Not exactly the forgiving type those Frisians, but quite an achievement. Must be baffling for Anthropologists.
a (regular) Landunter 'flood' at region Nordfriesland, Germany
Till this very day, if you tell a Nordfries that he lives on a beautiful island, you might get as response it isn’t an island at all. It’s land. Don't be confused. Don't be alarmed either. She or he isn't suffering from hallucinations. Only, confirming it is an island, she/he would admit her/his defeat against the sea and that all the great loss of lives and land for many generations have been for nothing. It also shows, the Frisians are experts in repressing tragic events without ever forgetting them.
Another aspect of the Frisians is that their sense of identity, of being a community, is strong. It was (and is) a people scattered over islands, islets, peninsulas, separated by seas, lakes and rivers. Today even over countries. The number of dialects was enormous. Even on one ‘island’ completely different dialects of Frisian were and are spoken, often hardly understandable for each other. There are 10,000 speakers of North-Frisian language left and within North-Frisian there are fifteen, strongly different dialects spoken. Some argue that an own language is the core of a culture, of a people (De Vries, 2019). Without an own language, no own identity. However, with this opinion the fact is ignored that many nations speak English but do not feel English. The same goes for Arab, Chinese, French, Spanish etc. If the Flemings hear about his theory, De Vries might fear for his life. For the Frisians a common language isn’t a decisive characteristic either. The Ostfriesen and most of the Nordfriesen don't speak Frisian anymore, but generally still carry (also) Frisian as identity. In fact, most Frisians don't speak Frisian. Interestingly, the few thousand Ostfriesen that still do speak Frisian, i.e. the geographically isolated Saterland-Frisians in Ostfriesland, weren't regarded as Frisians by the Ostfriesen for a long time. Reason: they were Catholic whilst the Ostfriesen were Protestant. Say cheese.
That the concept of community is still alive was illustrated in province Friesland in 2018. That year the city of Leeuwarden was the cultural capital of Europe and had chosen Iepen Mienskip ‘open community’ as their central theme. Also, the fact that the inhabitants of province Friesland belong to one of the most happiest people of the world, despite being relatively economically backward, might have to do with this strong(er) sense of identity and community.
Despite the seemingly geographical fragmentation, working together in the fight against the water was the vital connection. To maintain the Golden Ring that connected them. Language, for example, was less important for being a community. Working together was.
The territory was also impenetrable for foreign powers to conquer. This made it possible for the Ditmarsians and the Frisians to do without central authorities, without feudal lords during most of the Middle Ages. Basically, every individual, every farmer was free. Every extended family had its own terp and its own private church built on it. The density of medieval churches at the Wadden Sea coast is even the greatest on earth. A truly Republican spirit and self-reliant society. Countless very small free-farmer republics that were loosely united under collaboration of the Seven Sea Lands. The Ditmarsians and the Frisians even founded a treaty to work together, the treaty of the Upstalsboom. This republican organization was unique for Europe too, except for Switzerland where a similar development had taken place. In Frisia the myth of being free, as a person and as a community, was dominant for many centuries. Only in the Late Middle Ages, the lord-free society of Frisia came creaking and shrieking to a halt. Dithmarschen and Frisia had been subdued by foreign powers, finally. The republican mishmash also meant that cooperation to ward off the threat of the sea and of external powers had to be organized bottum up. Cooperation wasn't imposed from higher up. And for centuries they had been succesful in doing that.
This myth of the freedom extended to the Frisians by Charlemagne himself, was very much alive still in the nineteenth century AD.
Unseren Vorfahren hat der Kaiser Karl der Grosse zum Lohne für ihre Redlichkeit und Tapferkeit ihre Privilegien gegeben, und von ihm stammen unsere Freiheiten her (quote of an islands Nordfries,1849)
Even today, being ‘Frisian and free’ is still a phrase that resonates in all regions. The symbol of the ongoing national farmers protests in the Netherlands is the Frisian flag, including for farmers from other provinces. Farmers of province Noord Holland even drove their tractors over the thirty kilometers long Closing Dike (Afsluitdijk) to province Friesland to hand over the Dutch flag and to receive the Frisian flag. A change of allegiance. In the southern province Brabant farmers hoisted the Frisian flag in front of the town hall. The flip-side, by the way, of this independent republican society was that the outer world stigmatized the Ditmarsians and the Frisians as unsophisticated, stupid farmers. Not anymore, of course...
The psyche of the coast people
Different from other peoples the Frisians didn’t indicate time by referring to past great battles as was common practice. No, they referred to another great storm flood that had happened before. When in AD 1717 Frisia was hit by the Christmas Flood, killing an estimated 14,000 people, people still knew about a former great flood, the All Saints’ Flood of AD 1570 that killed an estimated 20,000 people. Many sages and myths even go back to earlier times an speak of a coastline that lay much more to the west. Which we know now, is correct. And, we have already mentioned above the case of the town of Rungholt preserved in the collective memory of the Frisians for a staggering six centuries. But also memories of sea inlets like the Dollart Bay, created after a great storm, that couldn’t be closed again are being recalled for long. This repetitive destruction, repetitive loss of life, livestock, houses and -indeed- of fertile land, has been traumatizing and shaped the psyche and mentality of the coastal dwellers.
great flood of 1962
One might ask why in heaven’s name people continued to live at the low-laying, volatile waterfront of the North Sea. At the unshielded, barren tidal marshlands, even without quite crucial resources like stone, wood and sweet water available? Two reasons. The first reason is that its salt marshes offered exceptional fertile pastures for livestock, especially cattle and sheep. The peat lands a bit more inland furthermore offered turf and salt. Besides these highly valuable resources, a big delta like this one is a great hub for trade. Connected with the wider world via sea and via the big rivers Scheldt, Meuse, Rhine, Ems, Elbe, Weser and Jade, to name only the biggest. The delta is a crossroad. The skills you need to have is knowing how to survive in this dynamic territory and how to sail. And you need ships, of course. This is how the Frisians became the central brokers of western Europe during the Early Middle Ages. In other words, there were many benefits. The second reason is unrealistic optimism. From the empirical psychology we known most people tend to perceive risks concerning personal health less than for others. The illusion of control.
A deeper meaning of the landscape and psyche of the coastal dwellers is that they were physically and mentally literally living on the border of chaos and structure. “Wo Es war, soll Ich werden” (Freud, 1933). The border is even defined very clearly: the dike. Behind the dike is the inner world of order, culture and structure. It is protected. Before the dike is chaos, is nature. The sea and it’s destructive capacity. The inner world is their conscious (Ich) and the outer world their unconscious (Es). With building dikes, the coastal dwellers tried to control the chaos by incorporating it into the mainland. To culture nature. Each time pushing the boundary with a new encircling dike. Bringing Ich towards Es, as much as possible. Very appropriate Sigmund Freud added in this respect:
“Es ist Kulturarbeit wie die Trockenlegung der Zuydersee” ‘It’s cultivation-labour like the reclamation of the Zuyderzee (Southern Sea)’.
In this mental model a great storm flood during which the Golden Ring breaks, is like a psychosis of someone suffering from a borderline personality disorder. Contours and structures disappear. Land turns into sea, chaos and destruction is everywhere. In other words, the Finistère. It’s traumatizing. According to the psychoanalysis Ich and Es should be brought together as much as possible, knowing it will never be fully possible. As said, the coastal people already warned in an early stage, before the global warming debate, that the sea will never be fully controllable. Indeed, in the meantime new water management approaches are being developed and implemented that accept and embrace the dynamics of the water. Both sweet and salt. Instead of the classic reflex of resisting it. Concepts that give water more space again. The mighty River Rhine once straightened and channeled between high dikes is now being released from its straitjacket where possible. At the same time research is being carried out to adjust coastal agriculture to the inevitable more saline environment in the future.
great flood of 1962
When, as described above, in the mid ‘70s the environment movement brought a justifiable halt to the activity of reclaiming land from the sea, most inhabitants of the provinces Friesland and Groningen just didn’t get it and were angry. How can you give up good land to the water? Your eternal enemy? Why should you stop trying to take back land from the sea, what the sea had taken from you before? Even recently in province Zeeland these emotions re-surfaced. In 2012 an unprecedented conflict rose between Belgium and the Netherlands because the latter refused to fulfill its part of a bilateral treaty namely, to give the Hedwige Polder back to the sea, i.e. the River East-Scheldt estuary. It hit the ancient nerves of the fear of water.
What we can make out of this all, is that the coastal dweller is very sensitive to order, chaos and to water.
Then water itself. Its meaning is ambivalent. In the biblical vision water has two faces. On the one hand water is to wash one’s feet, to be baptized with and the Bible speaks of a river that went out of Eden. On the other hand, earth deliberately was brought back to a watery chaos after mankind had turned corrupt and violent. Only Noah and some animals could survive in his Ark. Incidentally, Noah’s grandson Friso, son of Sem, happened to be the ancestor of the tribe of the Frisians. According to legend, that is. The fact a great storm flood was a punishment of God, shaped the minds of the coastal people too. In a way it also gave meaning for people after a catastrophe had happened again. Until the great flood of 1953 in province Zeeland, called the Watersnoodramp ‘flood disaster', great storm floods always received the name of the Catholic Saint of Day. For there must be a reason, an explanation for such evil to befall men.
Whether or not it’s an imaginary vengeful God or an imaginary disgruntled Nature that punishes mankind for their wrongdoing by sending the pandemic COVID-19 into the world, accepting retribution is a way for people to comprehend and deal with deadly and uncontrollable catastrophes. The white whale Moby-Dick that kills captain Ahab at high sea, but not after giving the one-legged captain three clear warnings to give it up. Note that the author of Moby-Dick, Herman Melville, is of Dutch and thus of 'watery' descent and infected with the antique psyche of the southern North Sea coast as well. But more importantly and above everything else, repetitive natural catastrophes forged a tight, self-reliant community, together with a strong collective memory.
Bernd Rieken took in his book Nordsee ist Mordsee the mentality theory a deep step further. He explains that in the psychology the primary object of love is the mother, and that mother and water are similar, exchangeable. Out of water one is born. It nourishes, gives protection, connection and harmony. With that also comes the wish to merge with the mother or return to the water. Especially if someone is in a state of crisis. According to Rieken this is what the fascism movement offered the people: to merge into the greater whole. A concept very much in line with the mentality of the coastal people. That’s the reason why the Nationalsozialistische Deutsche Arbeiterpartei (NSDAP) received more than average support from the Frisians, again according to Rieken. A poem of Philip Booth illustrates this feeling.
Lie back daughter, let your head
be tipped back in the cup of my hand.
Gently, and I will hold you. Spread
your arms wide, lie out on the stream
and look high at the gulls. A dead-
man's float is face down. You will dive
and swim soon enough where this tidewater
ebbs to the sea. Daughter, believe
me, when you tire on the long thrash
to your island, lie up, and survive.
As you float now, where I held you
and let go, remember when fear
cramps your heart what I told you:
lie gently and wide to the light-year
stars, lie back, and the sea will hold you.
To our opinion, however, if you look at the Frisians living in the Netherlands before and during the war, there was little support for the fascism movement. The Dutch equivalent of the NSDAP, the Nationaal-Socialistische Beweging (NSB) secured only one seat in the regional parliament Provinciale Staten of Friesland in 1935. In 1939 the number of seats dropped to zero again. Despite specific interest of Seys Inquart and Heinrich Himmler, aka Reichsheini, for the Frisians supposedly being a pure Arian race, the Friese beweging ‘Frisian movement’ didn’t took much interest either. Reichsführer Himmler even visited province Friesland. However, the two organizations forming the Friese beweging díd start a cooperation with the fascist Fryske Folkspartij in the so-called driemanschap 'triumvirate'. But this cooperation went awry soon. The FFP only had about thirty members.
For us reason to think the difference in support for fascism between the Frisians in Germany and in the Netherlands had different causes and can’t be explained with the psycho-analytical explanation of ‘Frisians wanting to return to their water, to their mama’.
averting the inevitable
Alexander's Ragtime Band
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Melville, H., Moby-Dick or The Whale (1851)
Nijmeijer, B., En God voor ons allen. In het buitenland bezoeken we al die kerken terwijl ze thuis aan je voeten liggen (2020)
Penning, Y., Stormvloed. De spectaculaire ondergang van het Waddeneiland Bosch in het begin van de 80-jarige Oorlog (2007)
Rieken, B., Nordsee ist Mordsee. Sturmfluten und ihre Bedeutung für die Mentalitätsgeschichte der Friesen (2005)
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