2 Historical use of eelgrass
Nowadays eelgrass is rather rare in the Netherlands. Human activity and a wasting disease resulted in mass extinction around the 1930’s. Before that time, however, large areas of the Dutch coastal waters were covered by extensive underwater ’meadows’. This was especially true for the many extensive shallow areas like the northern coast of the former Zuiderzee, the Wadden Sea and the many shallow coastal waters in Holland and Friesland that were later reclaimed on the sea (Weeda et al. 1991, 265-268). Of course, the dynamics of the Dutch coast mean that circumstances may have been favourable for eelgrass in one period, and less so in the next. Nonetheless, the northern Dutch coast was probably increasingly favourable to eelgrass from the Bronze Age onwards, owing to the increasing area of tidal flats (Zagwijn 1986).
In autumn the eelgrass leaves die off and fall from their stems. As a result the many long and intertwining leaves of the plants in the meadows will form large floating islands. These islands can be netted and dragged ashore. Also, when washed ashore by itself, dying eelgrass can easily be gathered from the beach or from the slope of a dike. From 19th-century records it is known that eelgrass was also mown with scythes (Alan 1855, 14).
In recent times, eelgrass was an important source of supplementary income for the inhabitants of the former islands of Wieringen, Schokland, Urk, Texel, and Terschelling, as well as the town of Elburg. Its prime use was as stuffing in pillows, mattresses and furniture. Older sources also note other purposes for this abundance of long, springy leaves, not least of them the construction of medieval dikes.