Foto van de Noordzee

The North Sea | iStock

Landscape, Environment & Mobility
12,000 years ago
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A Place on the Planet

Some 12,000 years ago the last Ice Age ended. The ice-caps melted away and a green blanket of dense forests covered North-West Europe. Extensive deciduous woods determined the landscape, the culture and the economy, also in the region that we today call Flanders.

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Both hunter-gatherers and farmers made ample use of the forest, where they found food, building materials and fuel. People gathered there to perform rituals. When in the Roman period, at the beginning of our era, there was a marked growth in the population and hence also in the demands for wood and agricultural land, the area of forest shrank. Still, woods continued to dominate the look of the region.

In the Middle Ages, the long period from 500 to 1500, the landscape underwent more definitive, drastic changes. The rise of the towns and the strong development of agriculture led to intensive tree-felling. By the 13th century the area of forest had reached a historic low point.

Bruges, Musea Brugge, Groeningemuseum

At the end of the Middle Ages the area around Bruges was a tangle of dikes, roads, habitation and tidal channels. Remaining section of the Heraldic Map of the Brugse Vrije by Pieter Pourbus (1561-1571).

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A Hub for People and Goods

Through the area on the North Sea ran a wide-branching network of rivers. For the transport of people and goods those watercourses were for a long time much more important than overland routes. The rivers and the sea linked the region economically and culturally with other parts of Europe and the world.

Besides the rivers the soil and the relief determined human beings’ freedom of action. The diversity of soils favoured district-bound specialisation. Wheat thrived on rich loamy soils, pigs were fed in oak woods, sheep were kept on salty or sandy ground and forestry and peat-digging were also of great importance. Although the many watercourses ensured cultural and economic exchange, many areas retained their unique characteristics because the soil and the relief were so decisive.

From the Middle Ages on human beings set their stamp more and more emphatically on the landscape. The interaction between man and nature created cultural landscapes like the Campine, the Hageland, the Maasland, Haspengouw and the coastal polders. All those areas owe their unique quality both to the landscape elements present and to the traces of human intervention, such as the building of roads, the erection of buildings or the joint management of common lands.

Focal points

Grondplan Gent.

Ghent, Dienst voor stadsarcheologie

Ground plan of Ghent, showing the development of the ramparts. In the 13th century, after Paris, Ghent was the largest city north of the Alps.


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A Region of Towns

In the Roman period North-West Europe experienced a first population peak and towns like Tongeren and Tournai were founded. Still, most residential locations were small and were lost after the population peak subsided.

Between 950 and 1300 Europe experienced a new period of constant population growth. The population tripled, and in the Low Countries there was actually a four-fold increase. That increase left the countryside with a population surplus. For that reason many children of farmers made for the burgeoning towns, where they could often find employment in the thriving cloth industry. The flight from the countryside made the towns grow from 1000 onwards and their number also increased. That evolution took place all over North-West Europe, but nowhere was the concentration of towns and town-dwellers as great as in the southern parts of the Low Countries.

The medieval urbanisation had a great impact on the landscape. Towns themselves became determining landscape elements. In addition, they needed increasing amounts of building materials, food, fuel and other raw materials. In this way in the Middle Ages wooded Flanders became an intensely urbanised region. The concentration of towns with a medieval ground plan, despite the radical changes of the last two centuries is still to a large extent visible in the present-day landscape.

Belga Image, 315556

In Raversijde near Ostend archaeologists discovered the oldest known dike on the Flemish North Sea coast. The embankment dates from the Roman period and is recognisable from the slanting blocks of clay and turf which served as the front of the dike.

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Working with Water

While in the interior humans made headway against the forest, the inhabitants of the coast made ample use of the opportunities afforded by the sea. As early as the Roman period they experimented with dikes and dwellings on mounds. At the end of the Roman period the influence of the action of the tides on the landscape increased. At high tide the seawater penetrated far inland. In the early Middle Ages the tidal channels silted up again through natural deposits and the coastal strip became more attractive to man. Originally it was mainly shepherds who used the area and also independent farmers living on mounds or on the dry zones on the edge of the coastal plain.

In around 1000 after the communities of independent farmers, the counts of Flanders also discovered the economic potential of the coast. Together with a number of abbeys they had dikes built on a large scale. The former mud flats and salt marshes were transformed into a polder area with fertile fields, peat bogs and meadows.

The reclaimed land was not necessarily regained for ever. Sometimes wars and flood tides caused serious damage to dikes, so that enclosed areas found themselves under water again. The inhabitants of the Low Countries by the sea had, however, grown into good dike-builders.

Mikko Kriek

Medieval coastal dwellers built mounds or terpenlarge artificial mounds. in the coastal plain, on which they built their homes. The village of Leffinge, today a sub-district of Middelkerke, was originally built on such a terp. This reconstruction shows how the surroundings of Leffinge probably looked in the 10th century.

Tussen 1323 en 1328 kwamen vrije en welstellende boeren uit de Vlaamse kustvlakte in opstand tegen de graaf. Een van hun leiders was Clais Zannekin (+1328). Hij kreeg eeuwen later in de Vlaamse beweging het statuut van volksheld. Aan de kerk van Lampernisse, vandaag een deelgemeente van Diksmuide, werd in 1928 een gedenksteen voor hem ingehuldigd.

Between 1323 and 1328 independent and prosperous farmers from the Flemish coastal plain rebelled against the count. One of their leaders was Clais Zannekin (+1328). Centuries later in the Flemish movement he was accorded the status of a people’s hero. In 1928, at the church of Lampernisse, today a sub-district of Diksmuide, a memorial was inaugurated.

Bosoppervlakte per gemeente 2021.
Brussels, Federal Public Service Finance

After the year 1000 the amount of forest reduced dramatically, especially in the county of Flanders. Later there was a careful reforestation, often with types of trees that provided wood for shipbuilding and coal mines.

Afbeelding van de monding van de Schelde
Antwerp, FelixArchief

The North Sea coast and the estuary of the Scheldt was once even more capricious in shape than today. Illustration of the mouth of the Scheldt, in about 1500.

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Vlaamse polders
Dwars door de Lage Landen – De Vlaamse polders
Bron: VRT archief, De chinezen – 21 maa 2022


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Tack Guido, Van Den Brempt Paul & Hermy Martin
Bossen van Vlaanderen. Een historische ecologie

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