This podcast will take you on the incredible journey of the world’s most influential swamp and those who call it home. Beginning at the end of the last ice age and trekking all the way through to the modern era, together we step through the centuries and meet some of the cast of characters who fashioned and forged a boggy marshland into a vibrant mercantile society and then further into a sea-trotting global super-power before becoming the centre for modern day liberalism.
In the 14th century the fractured mini-states of the lowlands were being pulled apart by competing political and economic interests, warfare, dynastic struggles and the Black Death. The resulting instability meant that relations between the rulers and the ruled were constantly tested as the various layers of society tried to protect their interests in such perilous times. Whereas in Flanders this had led to bloody conflict between the Count and the cities, in other parts of the lowlands different methods were used to determine what this relationship should be. At a magnificent ceremony in Brabant in 1356, a new Duchess and Duke signed a document that did exactly this, confirming certain rights of their subjects, including the right to disobey the ruler if they failed to uphold their end of the bargain. Although this so-called ‘Joyous Entry’ would be ignored almost from the moment of its signing, it would continue to have symbolic significance throughout the History of the Netherlands.
The Flemish victory over the French at the Battle of the Golden Spurs led to a vast change in social structures, but that battle did not finish or solve the issues between Flanders, France and England. By the 1320s Flanders had still been in near constant warfare for decades and was, frankly, in a state of chaos. The Count of Flanders had lost much control, guilds had gained power in towns so as to compete with the urban elite and each other, and people in the countryside were often having to feed everybody while not enjoying the benefits of being a filthy-rich cloth merchant. Chaos, as we know, is a ladder, and a man named Jacob van Artevelde was going to climb it to the top.
At this stage in our journey through the History of the Netherlands we have emerged into the 1300s: a century which for a long time, has been seen as the most awful century to have been alive in western Europe. Warfare and plague led to an almost complete breakdown of order in the social fabric. Estimates vary and depend on the region, but in less than a decade up to half of the European population died of the black death after it first struck in 1348, before returning again later in the century and wiping out another huge chunk. And as bad as all that may be, it would have been even worse if you were a Jew. Because even though you had to live through the same hardships as everyone else, and were exposed to the same pestilence that could destroy your family, there was a very high chance that you were going to be blamed for the black plague and subsequently burned to death as punishment.
We recently had an extremely pleasant visit from a guy called Gordo, the main host of Those Conspiracy Guys, a podcast which explores and questions all sorts of topics, including the different ways that history is looked at and consumed . Gordo is making his way around Europe filming a series of travel videos, starting from his home in Ireland and heading east and south in his endeavour to uncover all sorts of stories, people and topics. In Amsterdam, we took him out on a boat ride and after chatting decided we would sit down with a microphone and have a chat about Dutch history and culture and how these coincide with the reputation of such a famously liberal city as Amsterdam.
Today we are going to break the pattern of the last few episodes and make the outrageous move of not talking about Belgium. I know, crazy right. We’ve gone on a lot about the social changes which were taking place throughout the southern lowlands over the last few episodes, so now we move back north and focus our attention on how the area which, after various disastrous floods cut it off from Friesland proper during the 13th century, became known as West-Friesland, and which would by the end of that century be conquered and subdued by the warlords of the House of Holland. We’re going to cover anti-kings, people falling through ice, a son’s revenge of his father’s murder, peasant uprisings, backstabbing nobles, kidnappings and mob violence. Never a dull moment in our little swamp!
In the late 1200s many of the trends and forces that we've been exploring, such as feudalism, urbanisation and industrialisation erupted in a spectacular clash between Flanders and France. Flanders was totally annexed by their larger and more powerful neighbour, but a rebellion stirred that would result in a brutal massacre and an unlikely battlefield victory in a pile of mud, flesh and golden spurs just outside of the town of Kortrijk.
Today we are taking you on an epic adventure, being passed from hand to hand and from group to group, throughout medieval Flanders, as wool. You read that correctly. Wool. Yes, it might seem strange at first, imagining being an inanimate object. But wool was the most important commodity in Flanders during the 13th century, and the process through which it was transformed from a raw material to a finished piece of fine cloth will take you through every layer of the new urban society that was developing in the low countries. You’re going to be dyed, spun, woven, beaten, pissed on and strung up on tenterhooks. It’s gonna be fun, trust us. After that adventure, we will focus on Bruges, the town that was at the epicentre of the wool trade, and see how that industry affected the people and architecture there. It’s a wooly good episode!
In this episode, we are going to break away from the main chronology of the series a little bit, to zoom out and the re-focus on one particular topic: how exactly, in the space of roughly 500 years, this empty swamp land was transformed into one of the most densely populated places on the planet. But in order to do that, we’re going to have to focus on one of the most underrated, and unappreciated of mother nature’s gifts. And that is something called sphagnum; more commonly known as peat moss.
Freed from the need to be working the land due to the improvements in agriculture discussed in episode 6, people in the low countries began congregating in urban centres. They developed new skills and began manufacturing goods. Artisans like smiths, woodworkers, weavers, embroiderers and textile workers suddenly possessed talents with great economic value. Now, for the first time, members of the common class were able to put their fingers onto the scales of power, and begin to balance it back in their favour by making city charters. But the creation of a new body politic in the 11th century would not be without its adversaries, nor without its consequences.
The Netherlands has just celebrated its most festive day of the year: King’s Day! King Willem Alexander’s birthday is on the 27th of April. As tradition demands, and in honour of him, everybody dutifully got dressed up in orange and proceeded to get drunk and sell all of their old stuff on the street. Being dedicated podcasters, we decided to create a special episode, separate from the series chronology, in which we explore who exactly King Willem Alexander and his ancestors are, look at what they did to induce this bizarre collective frivolity in such a modern and progressive country, as well as recount how this day of monarchy-madness came to be. We recorded it in the morning before the party and then hit the streets to interview people off the street, to discover their favourite facts about Dutch history.
The last few episodes have focused heavily on the “Game of Thrones” layer of history; that’s to say, nobles killing each other. As exciting as it's been, only a tiny minority of people who lived around the end of the first millennium of the Common Era would have been directly concerned with those kind of conflicts. For most people in the lowlands, it didn’t matter who was their count or duke or emperor. For them, life was nasty, brutish and short, and involved an overwhelming amount of backbreaking manual labour. But an agricultural revolution was about to change life for these peasants forever. So let’s keep ploughin’ forward with the History of the Netherlands.
The disintegration of Charlemagne’s empire at the end of the 9th century left the lowlands part of a larger entity, Lotharingia, wedged between two much more powerful kingdoms, East and West Francia. If you were an ambitious noble, controlling one of the many small, swampy territories and you wished to move yourself up into a more prominent position, what would you do? Well, what lots of them chose to do was switch allegiances to and fro between the great powers on either side whenever they deemed it politically necessary and beneficial to do so. Welcome to Family Feudalism!
In the latter half of the 8th century, events and circumstances around Europe become vastly influenced by a man who ruled a vast empire from the lowlands. This man is the reason why the name Charles - which if you think about it really hard is actually a pretty weird name - is anywhere near as populous as it is today. But this Charles was, apparently, greater than the rest, and so he gets to be called Charlemagne - Charles the Great.
A common misperception is that once Roman influence ended by 476 CE, the European continent went into a dark abyss with very little happening until the Italian Renaissance in the the 14th century. Most historians today would most likely disagree with this notion, as do we, because many important and enlightening things were happening in Europe, including our little part, the Lowlands. This episode is all about monks, migrations and Merovingians.
Throughout history, the Low Countries would often be defined by their interactions with great powers nearby. This began when the Original Superpower™, the Romans, decided the border of their empire would be the Rhine river, running right through the heart of our beloved swamp. One lowlander tribe, the Batavians, would learn the hard way that when in Rome, it’s better to just do as the Romans do.
We set off on an epic journey to explore the history of a small piece of land in the northwest part of the European continent known as ‘the lowlands’, which roughly includes today’s Netherlands, Belgium, Luxembourg and bits of northern France. This episode will take us from so called “pre-history” to around the Roman era. So strap in while we deal with 99% of Dutch history... that’s most of it.