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Environment and History

Danger and Displacement in the Dollard: The 1509 Flooding of the Dollard Sea (Groningen) and its Impact on Long-Term Inequality in the Distribution of Property

Daniel R. Curtis

Environment and History 22 (2016): 103-135. doi: 10.3197/096734016X14497391602288

It has frequently been shown that, after severe floods in the pre-industrial period, property within the afflicted rural society often became redistributed more inequitably. This is often seen to be because small farmers did not have the resources to buffer exceptional losses. This article looks at an episode of crisis that occurred in the region of Northeast Groningen (the Netherlands) close to the Dollard Sea - the breakthrough of a key dike in 1509 and the subsequent desertion of settlements through flooding. Local farmers lost their lands, and moved away onto higher and safer sandy ridges. After this event, the sixteenth century represented a 'fight-back' against the water, where some attempts were made to reclaim and drain the newly sodden and marshy land. The questions addressed in this paper are then twofold. Firstly, for those that lost their farms during this episode, were they able to regain their property? Into whose hands did the newly reclaimed land fall? Secondly, what impact did this have on future property distribution and levels of equality in the region? Is it necessarily true that smallholders were not able to buffer these kinds of terrible events and lost their lands to more powerful elite groups? This paper shows that, while consolidation of land into 'elite' or 'absentee' social groups often did occur as a consequence of strong exogenous environmental shocks such as flooding, this did not inevitably lead to inequality at the user-level - that is, at the local level at which the land was being farmed. In fact, it is even suggested that consolidation of land into the hands of elite groups such as urban burghers and institutions sometimes could put a direct block on the emergence of large farms and the development of 'agrarian capitalism'.

KEYWORDS: Flooding, inequality, property, reclamation, Low Countries

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