The river Maas; friend or foe?

Jurgen Pigmans, Stadsarchief Oss
Intangible, Natural, Tangible
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The river Maas (or Meuse) is a European lifeline. A source of fertility. A uniting factor. The river is a beautiful natural element in our landscape. The water is a great place for recreational activities, the dikes for cycling and the floodplains for walking. But the Maas can also be our enemy, and the water can be a border. Through the centuries the Maas does not just have one function for the municipality of Oss. For us the Maas plays a multitude of parts.
The river Maas: friend or foe? The river Maas (or Meuse) is a European lifeline of more than 900 kilometers. In the past it was a restless river. The many turns in the stream impelled the river and the water flooded the surrounding lands. Sometimes this had devastating consequences for its inhabitants. Of course, living next to the Maas also had its up sights. The river clay made the floodplains and the soil nearby into a very fertile area. Farmers took this advantage. The river was also a great connection between places of residence, within and without the Maasland. Until this day we profit from this transport of goods and passengers over the water of the Maas, our boisterous friend. Early inhabitants The fertile Maas soil gave us vast meadows, excellent to keep cattle. But of course, it is not very handy to be living within this very wet area. Therefore you chose higher grounds, so you keep your feet dry when the water of the Maas rises again. This can be a high spot, right next to the river. It is not a coincidence that all the towns within our municipality, from Kessel until Keent, found their home on higher grounds. Other safe places, like Oss and Berghem, were more inland on high grounds of sand. The forests nearby were great places for hunting and gathering fruits, white the wood was used to build homes. Regions like the Maasland, where sand and clay come together, have been attractive places to live for centuries. On the high grounds the first farmers erected settlements about 5000 years ago. They lived in simple farms and worked on the fields and pastures which were largely still a part of the wilderness. The Maas as archeological site Around the first century AD Oss and its surroundings became part of the Roman empire. The first meeting with the Romans was disastrous; likely the Roman general Julius Caesar exterminated two local tribes near the village of Kessel. Later contact was more peaceful. With the Roman city of Nijmegen and its surrounding encampments nearby, the demand for food in the region increased. The farmers in the Maasland could provide the Romans of food. At Kessel, where the river Maas and the river Waal almost touch, stood once a prominent temple. Many archeological finds from that time have been found in the Maas. And so the Maas got to play another part; of archeological site. The Maas brings agriculture From about 1300 onwards the Maas gradually becomes embanked. This is how even more usable farmland came about. Agriculture was the main way of livelihood in this region at the time. Cross dikes are being constructed to regulate the drainage, such as the Groenendijk (near Haren and Berghem) and the Erfdijk (near Herpen). This causes many problems between the villages. Sometimes it even comes to armed conflicts. The Maasland, the region of Oss, had a ribbon of villages and fortified towns along the river during the Late Middle Ages. But a central place for trade in the Maasland was also very handy. That was Oss. This was the location on higher ground, where people came to live, commenced in trade with each other and where strangers and newcomers were received. This was where the activity came together that the river brought to this area. The Maas as border In the medieval battle between the dukes of Brabant and Gelre, the Maas played a major role. Both rulers tried to expand their territories and Oss and its surrounding area became the victim of looting and arson several times. But not all the places that now lie within the municipality of Oss belonged to the duchy of Brabant at the time. Megen and Ravenstein were independent lordships who also received city rights before Oss: Megen in 1357 and Ravenstein in 1399. Both towns were a kind of independent mini-states. Oss only received city rights in 1399. Because of their special position, Megen and Ravenstein also offered freedom of faith in later centuries. This explains the large number of churches and monasteries in these towns. The Maas as trade route The Maas and the floods brought extensive fertile grasslands around Oss. The cows from these grasslands gave a lot of milk. A lot of butter was made from this milk. And that butter drew trade to Oss. When Oss was allowed to set up an official weighing-house for butter in the eighteenth century, the role of trade center was further established. Fair trade was considered to be of vital importance, and measures were put in place to ensure the accurate weighing and sizing of goods. The butter from Oss was even sold internationally by smart traders. With the outbreak of the industrial revolution in the nineteenth century, the population in the big cities grew fast. The butter from Oss was eaten everywhere. To the point that the demand for natural butter could no longer be met. Just at that time the invention from the so-called ‘artificial butter’ came, which we know now as ‘margarine’. The butter traders in Oss seized the opportunity. Competitors Jurgen and Van den Bergh became world-class companies. Now known as Unilever. Other manufacturers also saw many opportunities in Oss, with its growing population and its new train station at the end of the nineteenth century. The meat processing plants of Hartog and Zwanenberg came up. Organon emerged from the latter in 1923, which would later be known for its invention of the anticonception pill. There was also an internationally renowned carpet factory in Oss: Bergoss. All the factory goods demanded yet other products and services – tin, paper, wood, transport – that were needed for the packing and distribution of the goods. Oss changed from a sleepy butter village to a real industrial city in the middle of the Maasland. Nevertheless, the development of a port in Oss, dug from the Maas tot the city, just didn’t happen. All manufacturers wanted it to be as close as possible to their factory. Many arguments have been made and plans have been written. But the port only came in 1969. The Maas tamed? As part of the provision of work, intended to put the many unemployed from the crisis of the 1930s to work, the "Maas improvement" was started. This was an ambitious plan from engineer Wim Lely, son of the well-known hydraulic engineer Cornelis Lely. It meant that the many turns were cut out of the Maas, that the Maas was canalized, that the characteristic beacon trees were planted which marked the shipping route at high tide and that the so-called "overflow" was closed at Beers. This reduction in the river dike was a remnant from previous centuries, intended to remove the water pressure from the river and to protect the areas downstream when the water in the Maas was very high. However, the major disadvantage of this Beerse Overflow was that the surplus of river water always flowed into the Maasland and flooded it. Although the residents of the Maasland had constructed cross dikes to contain the "Beerse Maas", in the event of really major water problems, only the people in naturally higher places kept their feet dry. With the closure of the Beerse Maas in 1942, this flooding came to an end. The Maas seems to be tamed. But this appears to be a sham security. Since the changed insights in climate and the threat of high water in the 1980s and 1990s we know better. The dikes will be reinforced and the Maas will have extra space: the small township of Keent will become an island. The Maas remains alive and flowing, and still plays many parts today. In Europe, in the Netherlands, in Oss. City Archive Oss (Stadsarchief Oss), Jurgen Pigmans,,

European Dimension

The river Maas (or Meuse) rises in France on the top of the Langres plateau. From here it descends further into Belgium. After being the Dutch-Belgium border, it continues to the province of Noord-Brabant, where 40 kilometers of Maas form the border of the municipality of Oss. From Oss the river continues to the North sea. The Maas brings us a long history, a history that is personnel, but also a history that we share with our fellow countries that are host to the river Maas, or any other big river in Europe. The history of a river that is both friend and foe; a story of people living in unison with the river, or struggle against it. The municipality of Oss is a region where the Maas has shaped not only where we live, but also how we live. For ages the river flooded the lower grounds and farmers and their cattle had to flee. On the higher grounds settlements arose. To this day, the view of beautiful plain fields with settlements on higher grounds, is one that is striking for Oss. We think we would make a great example of this, river-made landscape, beyond our own borders. Within the borders of our municipality we have two towns with their very own history. The lordships of Megen and Ravenstein. In the middle ages they got city rights before Oss and were independent from both the duke of Brabant and the duke of Gelre, who were constantly trying to expand their land on opposing sides of the Maas. The independence of Megen and Ravenstein made it possible for Catholics to practice their faith there, while this was not possible in the protestant duchies. Until this day the water of the river Maas forms the border of the province of Noord-Brabant with the north of the Netherlands and what used to be Holland. During the 80 year war, Holland wanted to arm itself against the Spanish threat from the south. Therefore the States General ordered the making of a system of fortified cities, forts and overflow areas: the Zuiderwaterlinie. Just like Europe and the Netherlands, Oss is a place of trade and innovation. The Maas brought us fertile grasslands which were excellent for cows. The cows gave a lot of milk and in Oss the people turned this into butter. This drew trade to Oss. Already In the eighteenth century, butter and margarine from Oss were sold on the European market. It should not be a surprise that a company as Unilever finds its roots in Oss. Besides the dairy industry, the cows brought the meat industry and subsequently the pharmaceutical industry. Nothing less, than the anticonception pill is invented/developed in Oss. This hard working and innovative spirit is yet another example of how Oss is a great example of European history. In 2020 it is 25 years ago since we really felt the threat of the Maas. That year 250.000 people had to be evacuated in the Netherlands and leave their hearth and home within a few days. Everybody helped. Moving furniture, bringing animals into safety, patrolling the dykes or opening up their home for evacuees. The threat of the river brought people closer together. With the climate changing, we are looking into new ways to deal with the Maas and water in general. In the upcoming years we will give the river more space and focus more on educating our residents on water management. One way to do this, is to start by looking back. What does the past tell us, that we can learn from now? The project connected to our story aims at collecting the stories from the past from our residents and to make them accessible for generations to come. Hopefully, making the first step towards a personal overall history of our Maas. All in all, we think our story can increase the understanding of a shared European history because we tell the story of our Maas and what it means to us, while telling the story of a region next to a big river that is bigger than just our own story. Of course ‘The river Maas: friend or foe?’ has specific examples that are from Oss, but the story is exemplary for other European cities that owe their existence to a river. A story of fertile land, search for freedom, trade, innovation and collaboration.

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