Eroded Cities. The Decline of Medieval Seaports in Zeeland from the Sixteenth to the Nineteenth Century

Bulletin KNOB. 2016;:176-191 DOI 10.7480/knob.115.2016.4.1968


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Journal Title: Bulletin KNOB

ISSN: 0166-0470 (Print); 2589-3343 (Online)

Publisher: TU Delft Open

Society/Institution: Koninklijke Nederlandse Oudheidkundige Bond

LCC Subject Category: Fine Arts: Architecture: Architectural drawing and design | History (General) and history of Europe

Country of publisher: Netherlands

Language of fulltext: Dutch

Full-text formats available: PDF



Jan-Willem de Winter


Peer review

Editorial Board

Instructions for authors

Time From Submission to Publication: 12 weeks


Abstract | Full Text

The south-western delta region of the present-day Netherlands, the area where the rivers Maas, Schelde and Waal flow into the North Sea, experienced a period of great economic prosperity from the thirteenth to the fifteenth century. The trans-shipment of international merchandise to and from the towns and cities of the interior generated considerable wealth, which was concentrated in the strategically located seaports. However, in the sixteenth century, prolonged hostilities and the repeated silting-up of the harbours resulted in a major economic downturn. Trade and prosperity steadily migrated to more northerly seaports, such as Amsterdam, while large numbers of the inhabitants of the Zeeland harbour towns also decamped to other seaports. This population decline had many consequences for the physical form of the Zeeland seaports. Though a lot of research has been carried out into the morphological development (the emergence of the physical form of the town plan) of Dutch cities, research into the morphological consequences of decline is still quite limited. This study focuses on the effects of the decline on the physical form of medieval seaports in Zeeland from the sixteenth to nineteenth century, and questions whether it is possible to discern a structure in this morphological degradation.   As the cities shrank, due to large-scale dilapidation and demolition of houses, gaps opened up in the town plan. This concerns the basic element of the study: by digitally superimposing successive town plans drawn from case studies it was possible to see where, during the three-century period, houses disappeared, leaving gaps in the morphology of the city. Once the gaps had been recorded, a clearly discernible pattern emerged of where and in what period the most gaps appeared. To further explicate this kind of urban decline, a study was made of the characteristics of these urban areas: their age, their position in relation to the trading port, their function and their location vis-à-vis the urban periphery. The resulting characterization is quite revealing about the structure of the decline. Four case studies were compared for this study: Zierikzee, Middelburg, Veere and Brouwershaven. These four towns were prosperous international seaports during the Middle Ages, but in the centuries that followed they all contracted to varying degrees. In addition to the similarities in the pattern of decline, there were also interesting differences due to the disparate nature of new economic pillars. This study is intended to stimulate more form-focused research into the decline of cities.