Friday, 8 December 2017

A Book for Readers Interested in the Lost City of Rungholt

'Die Letzten Tage von Rungholt' by Kari Köster-Lösche

In the coastal communities of Northern Frisia, an area now located in the state of Schleswig Holstein (Germany), everyone is familiar with the myths surrounding the lost settlement of Rungholt. According to local lore, the destruction of the once fabulously wealthy community was the divine punishment for its residents' self-indulgence and greed.

Marcellus Day in January 1362 marks the beginning of Rungholt's end. A devastating storm flood sweeps across the area, substantially altering the coastline and killing an estimated 100,000 across 30 distinct settlements. After three days the water finally recedes. Previously inhabited land is to this day buried under water and mud. Rungholt, a significant coastal settlement and regional trading hub before the flood, is believed to have been swallowed up by the Sea wholesale and has since become the subject of many a myth. Most of these legends connect the residents' moral conduct with the community's destruction and are undoubtedly the product of superstition. Yet, all folklore contains at least a grain of truth and the local legends surrounding the demise of Rungholt are no exception.

Kari Köster-Lösche, Die Letzten Tage von Rungholt, Publisher: Heyne, 1999

Researchers by and large agree that  Rungholt once existed: It is recorded on maps dating back to the mid-16th Century; and a number of official deeds from the same period also make mention of the location. Its population is believed to have numbered around 3000 residents. Whether their lifestyle was indeed as extravagant as legends claim, remains questionable. Battered by both the Plague and a decline in trade in the decade preceding the catastrophe, Rungholt had seen better days by the arrival of the 'Groote Manndränke' (engl: Grote Mandrenke).

Archeological evidence suggests that Rungholt's wealth was in large parts attributable to one commodity: Salt. Used widely to preserve food, salt from Rungholt's shores was traded as far afield as Flanders. Archaeologists believe that 'salt farming', i.e. the extraction of salt from the sea, developed into the mainstay of Rungholt's economy - with devastating consequences for its population. The large-scale extraction significantly contributed to the erosion of the area's coastline. By the time the flood eventually arrived, existing sea defences did not sufficiently protect the settlement and its residents.

Drawing on insights from archeological and historical research, Kari Köster-Lösche's fictional account of Rungholt's demise, Die Letzten Tage von Rungholt - (an English translation is not available, title freely translated: The Last Days of Rungholt), chronicles the months leading up to the catastrophic flood.

The character at the centre of Köster-Lösche's novel is Arfast Ketelsen, a free Frisian, who, by virtue of his profession as a salter, finds himself at the centre of a net of intrigue and greed involving a number of the community's key players, who are all banking on the ruthless expansion of the area's trade in salt to further their own agendas. When Arfast attempts to warn local dignitaries of the dangers of further intensifying the extraction at the expense of the community's safety, he attracts the wrath of local traders, the King's 'Staller' (King's Representative) and the clergy alike.

Avoiding to overload her readers with historical detail, Köster-Lösche manages to provide a scientifically backed, albeit hypothetical, glimpse into the dependencies of Rungholt's medieval society and the dynamics contributing to the unprecedented destruction of this coastal community. Arfast  adopts the role of the North Frisian Cassandra in his struggle against a well-connected posse of political and clerical decision-makers, who are all embroiled in an intricate web of corruption, greed and deceit. As can be expected, Arfast and his allies find themselves having to convince a complacent bunch of (mostly) ignorant residents, who are either unable to comprehend their concerns or do not dare to question the powers that be.

In an environment where unlawful executions, excommunication and witch trials are commonplace, readers accompany Arfast on a long and arduous journey to save as many lives as possible, avenge his father's murder and rescue his love interest from an arranged marriage. Köster-Lösche manages to squeeze a dense plot with a large cast of characters into a mere 429 pages. Whilst her story is crafted well in terms of pace, at times the characters' actions appeared a little forced. Nevertheless, for all those interested in the myths surrounding the rise and fall of Rungholt, the Atlantis of the North Sea, this might provide an interesting addition or an accessible starting point. 
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