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Word of the Day: molen (mill)

The tulip and the windmill are world famous icons of Dutch culture… But how Dutch are they really? Both the tulip and the windmill have migrated from the Middle East in the Middle Ages. The first mills were water driven and constructed to grind cereals. Both ‘mill’ and MOLEN come from the Latin word ‘molina’ which was derived from the verb ‘molere’ (to grind). In Old English mills were called ‘mylen’. In other Germanic languages the mill is known as (German) ‘Mühle’, (Norse) ‘mylna’, (Danish) ‘mølle’ and (Dutch) MOLEN. The WINDMOLEN (windmill) is also called POLDERMOLEN (polder mill).


The Dutch thank their existence to the windmill. Not the grain grinding mill but the mechanism used for draining water. In 1750 there were around 8,000 active polder mills in the Netherlands and in 1850 around 10,000. Why did the Dutch need so many polder mills? The answer is: because the ancestors of the Dutch had been careless with their land for over a thousand years, from early Germanic and Roman times up. Careless! Extremely careless! The study of environmentalism had not been invented yet and there were no people like Al Gore to plead for a balanced earth. In fact the earth was still as flat as a pancake for most people.

In the days of Corbulo, Pliny and Tacitus, the coastal area of the Netherlands still used to consist of rich layers of peat. The famers who lived here, needed more dry land for agriculture and dug ditches which led to watercourses with SLUIZEN (sluices) eventually ending up in sea. Drainage triggered the peat to dry out and settle. This process of settlement, which is still going on today, caused the level of land to drop several metres in many places.

At the same time the towns (like Amsterdam) were growing in wealth and in population. City dwellers needed more fuel for warmth and food. Peat was abundantly available and therefore many areas were stripped. In other areas peat was also burnt to get at the salt that the invading sea had once deposited. This made several people very wealthy but it struck large holes in the land.

In the Middle Ages the rising level of the sea and its frequent floodings not only created the archipelago of Zeeland, North Holland and the Zuyder Zee (now IJsselmeer) but also hundreds of pools and lakes, including the Haarlemmermeer (where Schiphol is now situated) and the Loosdrechtse Plassen. Large parts of agricultural land came under threat as the banks of these newly formed lakes eroded growing larger and larger.

Something had to be done! And quick. The construction of dikes and dams did not suffice in the end. Enter the wind-powered polder mill in 1407 at the Achtermeer south of Alkmaar. This invention made it possible to pump up larger quantities of water. By 1533 the first lake was drained and the first polder was a fact. Ever since huge stretches of land have been reclaimed.

Today pumps keep a quarter of the land of the Netherlands dry. In the nineteenth century the windmills were replaced by steam driven pumps which were succeeded by electric and diesel-powered pumping stations.

In 1589 Delftenaar Simon Stevin was granted a patent for his new invention called the MOLENGANG. This is a system of mills in sequence, each pumping water up to a higher level. The lower mill pumps the water into the BOEZEM (a drainage canal or pool) and a higher mill pumps it into the RINGVAART (ring canal). The most famous MOLENGANG is near the village of Kinderdijk fifteen kilometres east of Rotterdam. To drain the Alblasserwaard polder, a system of nineteen windmills was built around 1740. This very popular tourist site has been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1997.

If you live in or near The Hague, you can see a smaller but equally picturesque MOLENGANG between Leidschendam and Stompwijk. This system of three mills was built in 1672, the disastrous year in which the Republic was at war with France and England and the Grand Pensionary (Johan de Witt) and his brother (Cornelis) were lynched by a mob on the Plaats in The Hague. In these blackest of black times people miraculously succeeded in the construction of this feat of engineering.

It is a lovely place to visit in winter time, after several days of frost, when it is possible to skate. In this film (made by an amateur) you get an impression of its beauty.

The song from 1936 was made extremely popular by the Hague born and bred music hall artist Willy Derby (1886-1944). The title is ‘Het plekje bij de molen’ (the spot near the windmill) but it is better known (even now) as ‘Daar bij die molen’ (There at that windmill). In England it was also a hit made famous in 1947 by Leo Fuld as ‘The Windmill Song’. Here it is:

Ik weet een heerlijk plekje grond
Daar waar die molen staat
Waar ik mijn allerliefste vond
Waarvoor mijn harte slaat
Ik sprak haar voor de eerste keer
Aan de oever van een vliet
En sinds die tijd kom ik daar meer
Die plek vergeet ik niet

Daar bij die molen
Die mooie molen
Daar woont het meisje
Waar ik zoveel van hou
Daar bij die molen
Die mooie molen
Daar wil ik wonen
Als zij eens wordt m’n vrouw

(I know a splendid spot of ground / there where that windmill is / where I found my dearest one / for whom my heart so beats / I spoke with her the first time / at the bank of a canal / and since then I’ve come there often / that spot I’ll not forget// (refrain:) There at that windmill / that lovely windmill / there lives the girlie / I love so much / there at that windmill / that lovely windmill / that’s where I want to live / once she has become my wife)