How a town drowned overnight

Rungholt. A thriving and wealthy town that disappeared overnight in the year 1362. For six centuries only legends told us about what happened to Rungholt: a town submerged in the sea as a punishment of God. According to medieval legends, you could still hear the sound of its bell tower rising from the dark depth of the sea.

But now the remains of Rungholt in Landkreis ‘district’ Nordfriesland (also called North Frisia) in northern Germany have been found, and its existence has been confirmed. No longer is it a legend or saga. It is historic. Its legacy is a story about climate change, of greedy use of natural resources and above all, that the combination of these two can be deadly. Despite the misfortune of Lot’s wife, we do look back in this blog post to learn about the history of salt production in this region and its consequences.

In this post you will find down below an internet link to a fine German documentary about the story of the North-Frisian town Rungholt. A documentary called Atlantis der Nordsee ‘Atlantis of the North See’ made by Gabriele Wengler. But before watching it, please find below the saga and a some explanation of what happened, since the documentary is in German language without subtitles, together with some historic context. With this information the documentary becomes even more impressive we imagine.

The Saga of Rungholt

All along the Wadden Sea coast, from Nordfriesland in Germany to Friesland in the Netherlands, the saga of Rungholt has been told for six centuries. The saga goes as follows.

The town of Rungholt situated on the Hallig-island Nordstrand in Nordfriesland was lost to the sea. Seven thousand people died during the storm. It was a rich town with a busy port, and with many overseas trade connections. Because of the great wealth, its people had become proud and frivolous. On the seaside of the island the inhabitants built dikes. After these works were completed, they challenged the sea by arrogantly shouting:

Defy us, Blanke Hans, if you have the courage!

Blanke Hans is the North-Frisian nickname for a wild and rough sea

The life of abundance led to an immoral life. People feared the unlimited devotion to lust and pleasure, and to ungodliness, could only lead to an ordeal.

It was around Christmas when a group of young, drunken men hatched a wicked plan. They made a hog drunk and dressed the impure animal up like a human. Then they brought it to an inn where they put the beast to bed. After having done this, they asked a local preacher to come over to give the last rites to someone who was dying. They agreed that if the preacher would find out the dying person was, in fact, a hog and refused to give the last sacraments, they would drown the preacher in the well. So he could not tell it to anyone.

The preacher came and immediately discovered which horrendous deed they wanted him to perform, and refused to give the last sacraments. Now the young men started to argue whether they should kill the preacher as they had agreed earlier. While they were arguing, the preacher sneaked out of the inn. But, the men caught the preacher and beat him up. Now they forced the preacher to come with them to drink in the inn. This time they took the box with the sacraments from the preacher and filled it with ale. Finally they gave the preacher back the sacraments, and let him go.

The preacher went to the church and prayed. He asked God for to punish the young men. That night the preacher dreamed that God told him to quickly leave the island before His judgement. Early next morning, the preacher left the island. Barely he had left, when the wind was picking up. Shortly after, it was already storming. When the night had started, the storm had developed into a hurricane. The waves of the sea hit the dikes with great force. Yet still, the people of Rungholt had no fear. Again they shouted at the sea:

Defy us, Blanke Hans!

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is dike-building-sachsenspiegel-13de-eeuw.jpg
dike building 13th century

Then the sea released a huge storm flood onto the island and it destroyed the dikes. Waves as high as houses drowned the town. The sea closed itself above the heads of the blasphemers, like a grave. That night Rungholt, together with seven other neighboring congregations, was lost. Nobody survived, except those who God had offered a way out.

Ever since that night, Rungholt lies at the bottom of the sea. However, before Judgement Day the drowned town will rise from the depths of the sea and retake its place. Everything will still look the same.

Today, when it is calm and quiet at sea, you can still sea the spire of the church just above the water. Seafarers know, if you listen very carefully, you can hear the sound of the bells of the church tower, and you can hear the crying and moaning of the people of Rungholt. The judgement of Rungholt and the sorrow of its people, still travels through the seas.

It will not come as a surprise, but the Frisians have countless sagas concerning drowned villages, church spires still peaking above the water, and about church bells you can still hear clinging below the ground or below the sea.

For example, in the village of Hallum in province Friesland, a legend of a bell from ‘the underworld’ exists too. Here the legend tells that at the spot where once Monastery Mariëngaard stood, a little golden bell is buried in the ground. Sometimes, when the nights are silent, you can still hear the clinging sound of this little bell. The saga of the submerged city of Torum, a very rich town located where the Dollart inland sea is today, drowned during a storm. Also its church bells too can still be heared.

In region Ostfriesland many sagas about church bells exists, especially sagas about robbing bells for their beautiful sound. But also sagas exist of drowned bells. We name a few: Die Glocken von Riepe im Uphuser Meer, Der Klockenkolk, Die Funnixer Glocke in der Harle, Die Glocke im Rhaudermeer, Der Raub der Glocken von Rhede, Die versenkten Glocken but undoubtedly there are many more. At Westerklief on the former island of Wieringen in province Noord Holland, stands a big errected stone. The stone turns around each time it hears church bells. Furthermore, children are told not to make ugly faces near the stone, because the stone will make their face stay that way.

If it is another saga about a drowned, prosperous town with a spire above the water you are looking for, read our blog post Legend of Esonstad. The loss of this city took place at the Lauwerszee, ‘Lauwers inland sea’ on the border of the provinces Friesland and Groningen. The saga of the sinking of the great city of Weene in region Ostfriesland, is yet another one with the theme of rich people who flouted God and His commandments, and was being punished for it accordingly. In this case, Weene sank into a swamp. Till this day, everyone who enters the swamp, does not make it out alive. The rich village of Bense, near modern Bensersiel, in region Ostfriesland too, was also swallowed by the sea for the negligence of God. Likewise the settlement of Westeel in Ostfriesland, for its presumptuous inhabitants. And we can go on and on.

Frisia is not unique in this Sin-City type of legends. Everybody knows about the city of Atlantis, of course. Another coastal region, Brittany, has similar stories to tell. About splendid cities that disappeared into the sea for mocking God and the Gospel. Like Rungholt, the Breton city Ker-Is was left in tact and merely covered by the sea. Other drowned Breton rich cities are Tolente, Nasado, Herbauges, and the city at the dunes of Saint Efflam. Sagas concerning the latter speak of a preserved city under water, including bells. Sounds familiar? Besides sagas of drowned cities, the coast of Frisia additionally has many sagas about drowned lands and islands. Many of them historically correct. Read our blog post Atlantis found! Wait, there is another one, or 7, wait 12 in total… No, 19!

Lastly, of course, the story of Rungholt evokes the modern images of the bell towers of the deliberately submerged towns of Kalyazin in Russia and of Potosi in Venezuela.

Context of Rungholt and the area

Rungholt was a trading town of Nordfriesland on the island Strand. Strand is also a Hallig-island. A Hallig is a salt-marsh island within the Wadden Sea merely protected by low tidal dikes. No dunes and no beaches. Only green, tidal marshland. Houses and villages are built on a terp on the Hallig. A terp, in Nordfriesland called a Warft, is an artificial settlement mound. Check our Manual Making a Terp in 12 Steps to understand this phenomenon of the cultural landscape of the tidal marshlands. You can still visit ten Halligs today, that have remained after many centuries of swallowing people, land and islands by Blanke Hans ‘white Hans’.

Nordfriesland

The ten Halligs are now protected by the National Park Schleswig-Holsteinisches Wattenmeer. The low tidal dikes do not give real protection against high floods, mostly taking place during the storms of autumn, winter and spring. You can still witness terps and house platforms surrounded by the sea. A unique and a more than 2,500 years old sight. A sight once existed in the northwest of Germany and in the north of the Netherlands as well. A culture already described by the Roman Plinius in the year AD 77, though not in a very appealing way.

Be aware when in the region of Nordfriesland. An island-Nordfries might disagree with you that a Hallig is an island. It is land. It was part of land originally, and it is land made and protected by its inhabitants. To acknowledge it is an island, is to acknowledge the sea won.

This is a story of Nordfriesland. The Nordfriesen are the Frisians living in Landkreis Nordfriesland part of the State Schleswig-Holstein, as well as the few Frisians living in the outer southwestern corner of the county South Jutland of Denmark. So, the area stretches from the peninsula Eiderstedt in Germany, to the Bay of Ho near the town of Esbjerg and the island Fanø in Denmark. In fact, region Schleswig-Holstein has been a patchwork of peoples (i.e. Germans, Danes and Frisians) and of languages (i.e. High-German, Low-German, South-Jutlandic, Danish and -several dialects- of North-Frisian) for centuries, with a nervous, jumpy border between Denmark and Germany, dancing both north and south.

The islands of Nordfriesland were colonized by Frisians from Ostfriesland first, in the eighth century. The mainland of Nordfriesland was colonized circa three centuries later when great floods forced the Frisians to firmer and higher grounds. Difference of dialects within the North-Frisian language is thus being made between island-North-Frisian and mainland-North-Frisian. Read also our blog post Beacons of Nordfriesland to learn a bit more of its history.

The wealth of Rungholt was based on salt production, the so-called weiße Gold ‘white gold. Besides it generated a lot of wealth, it also destroyed the landscape. Extraction of salt out of peat was a major economic activity of the Frisians. Already in the tenth century, the trading port Medemblik in region Westfriesland (province Noord Holland) and Stavoren (province Friesland) with their hinterlands of vast silted peat deposits, were important salt-extraction areas. Here too, the mining of salt had devastating effects on the landscape. The big lakes in the southwest of present-day province Friesland are, in fact, the scars of this commercial activity too. Salt also was extracted in the area between island Juist and the town of Norden in Ostfriesland. Hence the North-Frisian commercial activities in salt were based on a long, long tradition.

Salt was a scarce and valuable commodity those days. Every human needs salt, of course. But it is also an ingredient to conserve food. Pickling food with salt as a method of conservation existed in the Mediterranean for much longer. The Egyptians and the Romans used it. It were the Basks who introduced pickling in northern Europe around the turn of the first millennium. The sea-people the Basks had made the fish (cod) trade into an international market, where-as the more northern peoples only dried cod. Salted dried cod is much longer preservable than merely dried cod. This innovation to conserve food much longer not only meant better possibilities to secure food during all seasons of the year, but it also brought advancements in exploring the world via the seas. The world became bigger, so to speak. Hence, the Nordfriesen, and the whole of Frisia for that matter, flourished exceptional well by the sea and the salt trade. It was connected to the wide world.

For a while…

Climate change and exploitation

Climate change is a natural thing as well. We mean to say, global warming (and global cooling) happens without interference of humans too. In the fourteenth century, the climate cooled down. Heavy storms formed part of it.

On 14 January 1362 a very destructive hurricane hit northern Europe. It first hit the British Isles, and left a trace of destruction there. Then this Vandal wandered over the North Sea to hit the area of Nordfriesland on 16 January. Coinciding with high tide, it caused enormous flood waves all along the Wadden Sea coast. An area stretching from the island of Texel in the Netherlands all the way along the northwestern coast of Germany to the island of Fanø in Denmark. The flood was named the Second Saint Marcellus’ flood, and it took besides enormous chunks of fertile land and livestock, tens of thousands of human lives. The storm hit the town of Rungholt at 17:00 hours, and two hours later the flood reached its height. It had submerged dikes and terps. Read also our blog post Half a million deaths. A forgotten North Sea disaster…

Thus far, all this belonged to normal, natural climate changes the Frisians just had to deal with and did for centuries, and centuries to come. They stood their wet ground as fleeing was not an option, as the Romans already observed. Since the end of the fifth century, the Frisians had distinguished themselves for their maritime networks as a result of their adaptability to a treacherous, sea-soaked environment (Paine, 2013). Even in the year 1905, the English wanderer in the Netherlands, Lucas, wrote when remembering the All Saint’s flood of 1825:

What the number of Friesland’s floating population is I do not know, but it must be very large. Many barges and tjalcks [ship type] are both the birthplace and death place of their owner, who know no other home.

Lucas, 1825

As a striking observation it makes you think what the natural cause of climate change already can do if we leave out the unnatural causes or human factor.

But, the tragedy in 1362 was total. This because of the commercial salt exploitation that had taken place for more than a century. They had dug away the peat soil, and that way exposed the remaining peat to the grasp of the sea. This big storm flood could therefore wash away a huge part of the Hallig Strand in a single night. It is a well-known phenomenon in peat areas along the Frisia coast where lakes and inland seas can be created during one night after a dike breach in the Middle Ages (also read our blog post Atlantis found! Wait, there is another one. No, 12 in total…).

Therefore, be wise and do not dig too deep if you want use natural resources in a sustainable way. For you might indeed be punished, as medieval legends already told us! In another part of former Frisia, the province Groningen, the local population suffers today from earthquakes because of large-scale mining of gas for several decades.

Documentary ‘Atlantis der Nordsee’

Now it is almost time to watch the fine documentary Atlantis der Nordsee, about sin-city Rungholt.

When watching, please also pay attention to the eccentric countess Diana von Reventlow-Criminil, nicknamed by the Nordfriesen as Die Halliggräfin von Südfall. A fascinating woman.

Diana von Reventlow-Criminil (1863-1953)

Diana, of German nobility (Carl von Reventlow-Criminil) with a Scottish mother (Isabella Wemyss), was a beautiful and extravagant woman. Her full name was Diana Henriette Adelaïde Charlotte Reventlow-Criminil. She never got married, though, and never got any children of her own either. In the year 1910 she was tired of high society and settled at the terp (i.e. an artificial dwelling mound, locally called a Warft or Warf ) at island Hallig Südfall in Nordfriesland. There was, and is, only one terp on Hallig Südfall with one house, therefore quite isolated. Here the Gräffin lived with her staff, few dogs and some livestock (horses and chickens). Her staff consisted of a cook, a housemaid, a coachman and a governess. Every morning she took a bath filled with fresh sea water from the Wadden Sea. Once or twice a week Hallig-postbote Lorenz Ebsen (1892-1974), the postman, brought the mail. Depending on the weather. To do so, he walked at low tide the seven kilometers back an forth between Nordstrand and Südfall. For forty years ‘hi pluuget troch a slober’ (he ploughed through the mud). In total he walked 25,000 kilometers over the mud flats of the Wadden Sea. During summer he occasionally took groups with him.

Diana von Reventlow-Criminil

The Gräffin showed absolute contempt for Nazism during the Second World War. The story goes when she walked into a company building in the town of Husum and greeted everyone with: “Guten Morgen” and people responded with: “Heil Hitler”, the Gräffin said: “Was hat der damit zu tun?” (What has he to do with it?). It was also during the War, she rescued a parachuted British pilot at low tide at the mudflats of the Wadden Sea, in the dead of night. The Gräfin took the pilot into her house for a few weeks, and he eventually made it back home to England. Imagine how unbelievable fortunate this pilot must have been. If it was high tide, he would have drowned. And lucky for the fact a half-Scottish Gräffin who not only found him, but also dared to shelter him.

She found the pilot, such is the story, whilst he was playing a clay flute he found in the mud. An medieval flute of the lost town of Rungholt. This flute-part of the story is fictional. It was in the ’20s that the Halliggräffin financially supported the private archaeological research into the lost town of Rungholt, done by the local farmer from Nordstrand Andreas Busch (1883-1972). Busch was the true discoverer of Rungholt in the year 1921. Maybe this is how the story of the British pilot and the flute of Rungholt were brought together.

When the Halliggräffin died on August 5th at the age of ninety, her body was brought to the mainland with horse and wagen, between the tides. She is buried in the church of the village Emkendorf. The house of the Gräffin has been demolished and replaced by a modern structure.

(after Steensen, 2020)

Note – If interested in what a history in living memory of constant sea tragedies and storm floods does to the psyche of the coastal people of the southern North Sea, read our blog post Out of averting the inevitable a community was born.


Suggestions for further reading

  • Bon Repos Gites, Lost Cities of Brittany (2021)
  • Halbertsma, H., Frieslands oudheid. Het rijk van de Friese koningen, opkomst en ondergang (2000)
  • In Pagus Wirense, Legends and Folklore on Wieringen (website)
  • Knottnerus, O.S., De vergeten Friezen. Een mislukt pamflet van Benny Siewertsen over een boeiend thema (2008)
  • Kurlansky, M., Salt. A world History (2002)
  • Lucas, B.V., A wanderer in Holland (1905)
  • Nalewicki, J., This Canadian Lake Hides an Underwater Ghost Town (2017)
  • Paine, L., The sea and civilization. A maritime history of the world (2013)
  • Siefkes, W., Ostfriesische Sagen und sagenhafte Geschichten (1963)
  • Steensen, T., Nordfriesland. Menschen von A-Z (2020)
  • Walker, A.G.H., & Wits, O., Die nordfriesischen Mundarten (2001)
  • Wiersma, J.P., Friesche Sagen (1934)

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