Virtually everyone has heard the story of how Greenland got its name. Erik the Red was banished from Iceland, sailed west across the North-Atlantic and happened upon a frigid icy land. To attract settlers he named the land ‘Greenland’ in an early example of deceptive marketing. New research indicates that the climatic conditions during Erik’s sojourn in the far north may have been such that the southern coast of Greenland was in fact quite lush, giving poor Erik the undeserved reputation of being a trickster. But the story is too good to drop, so we’ll stick by it. Besides, it is not such an unusual story and many new colonies and settlements that required a population boost have employed the same tactic. Kockengen is one of them.
Kockengen is a small town of just over 2,000 people in the province of Utrecht. It is an easy twenty or thirty minutes from both Amsterdam and Utrecht, yet is surrounded by wide open spaces and an abundance of recreational opportunities. Overall it is quite a desirable place to live. But that was not always the case.
In the late Middle Ages the area around Kockengen was a swampy peatbog, infested with mosquitos and other pesky insects. Relatively isolated because of the marshy ground, prone to flooding and other discomforts, Kockengen was not nearly as desirable as it is now. Around the same time that Erik was sailing the northern ocean, a large-scale cultivation of the peatbogs of central Holland was taking place. There was a scarcity of arable land and as peat was being extracted for use as fuel, the marshy bogs were being reclaimed for agriculture. Settlers were required to dig the peat and till the fields, and somewhere around 1150 someone must have employed the same trick as Erik the Red near what is now Kockengen. To attract colonists the place was named Cocagne, the Middle-Dutch name for the mythical land of plenty, Cockayne. The village of Koekange in the province of Drenthe got its name in the same way, around the same time.
The trick worked and laborers flocked to the area, mostly escaping serfdom in feudal Northern France and Southwestern Flanders. Several place names in the area are a reminder of the colonization by Flemish peasants fleeing the feudal system in their native lands. Kamerik, (Kamerijk is the Flemish name for Cambrai) and Kortrijk (after the Flemish city of the same name) both lie within a few miles of Kockengen. Even closer lie the hamlets of Portengen and Spengen, which neatly rhyme with the neighboring village. Both again derive their names from fanciful grandeur applied to attract unsuspecting settlers. Portengen ultimately derives from the name Britain (through Britannien, Bertanien, Bartangen, Bartengen, Pertengen) and Spengen, slightly more transparently, comes from Spain.
One can only imagine the disappointment of the first settlers when after their long trek from the area around the Pas de Calais they arrived in the peaty marsh that had been pitched to them as the land of plenty, with a dash of the grandeur of the courts of Britain and Spain thrown in. But then they could also have ended up on the boat to Greenland, one supposes, so every hardship is relative. Kockengen has been in the news recently. It seems that the bog is intent on reclaiming the town, which is sinking back into the marsh from whence it came. The streets and houses are being sucked into the spongy ground at the rate of two to three inches each year. Concerned residents have appealed to the authorities to do something about it, as sewage pipes are breaking and foundations are cracking. With the great ingenuity of the Dutch in managing the land and the water, a project is underway to raise the village. But until the project is completed attracting people to Kockengen may require a renewed dose of marketing ingenuity.
This article first appeared in Issue 6 of Dutch the magazine.
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