The Lost City Of Rungholt, And The Storm That Killed 25,000 Men

There are few things in life that inspire us as much as a good mystery. That’s why phrases like “lost city”, “buried treasure” and “vanished” are so enticing. They keep us wondering, knee deep in childlike inquiries. Legends and myths, such as Atlantis, Pompeii and El Dorado, cities that slipped into the sea or were devoured by volcanoes, fill us with questions. What were the cities like before? What would they look like if we found them now? Are the legends true? Germany has one such myth: the city called Rungholt.

Rungholt on a 1636 map
Rungholt on a 1636 map

According to legends, Rungholt was a bustling port city, trading in agriculture, cattle, and amber. Ships were coming out and in daily, ferrying goods from the city to other parts the world. Merchants sold fresh fish, nets, and oysters on the bustling boardwalk, while taverns, brothels, street musicians, temples and inns were abundant downtown, hosting all types of weary travelers, soldiers, and traders. Located in the North Frisian coastal range, Rungholt was a hub for commerce and trade. It is said to have had between 1,000 and 3,000 permanent citizens. The people in Rungholt did well for themselves. The port made the city wealthy, and there was enough income, guests, and amusement to keep the town lively. Everything was right in the world.

It was January 16, 1362, when the storm came. Known as the “Grote Mandrenke” in German, or “the great drowning of men”, the storm decimated the Netherlands, England, Denmark and the German coast. The Chronicle of Anonymous of Canterburyrecorded it like this:

“around the hour of vespers on that day, dreadful storms and whirlwinds such as never been seen or heard before occurred in England, causing houses and buildings for the most part to come crashing to the ground, while some others, having had their roofs blown off by the force of the winds, were left in the ruined state; and fruit trees in gardens and other places, along with other trees standing in the woods and elsewhere, were wrenched from the earth by their roots with a great crash, as if the Day of Judgement were at hand, and fear and trembling gripped the people of England to such an extent that no one knew where he could safely hide, for church towers, windmills, and many dwelling-houses collapsed to the ground.”

An immense storm on the North Sea swept far inland, greatly changing the shape of coastlines, and rearranging islands. The water came so far in, it completely redesigned the shoreline, flinging mainland out to sea, creating new land masses, and erasing islands, towns and districts off the map. Rungholt, the port city, and all of its inhabitants, were swallowed by the sea, never to be heard from again. This storm, “the great drowning of men” is estimated to have killed at least 25,000 people in one night.

The North Frisian coast, before the storm of 1362, directly after and today

This Rungholt legend has entranced people for decades, sometimes even being called “The Atlantis of the North Sea.” It was written about in the ballad “Trutz, Blankenhans“, in 1882, by the poet Detlev von Liliencron:

Over the centuries the legends around Rungholt have grown. It is said now that the downfall of the city was a punishment of God for their sinful choices and disrespectful life towards the Church. The wealth of the city has also gotten more and more extravagant as the story has grown, as has the size of the city. Some say it is a ghost city, and during the times when the tempests are appeased in the North Sea, it is possible to hear the bells of the church rise up from beneath the waves. While research has yielded actual insights into the existence of this mystical place since the last century, the legend continues to exist today in movies, novels, and songs.

Scientist and Archaeologist have tried to reconstruct the existence of Rungholt based on some less-than-concrete evidence. In 1636, a cartographer named Johannes Meyer made a map featuring Rungholt, however, he had not seen this fabled city, he had only only referenced another map, from 1240. An agreement between two traders from Rungholt and Hamburg was also found, dated 1361. There were also several artifacts pulled from the Wadden Sea between Between 1880 and 1940, including bricks, swords, pottery, bones, and even a skull. It is believed these are connected to the lost city from so many years ago.

Items found in the Wadden Sea, maybe from the lost City?
Items found in the Wadden Sea, maybe from the lost City?

These and other indications, such as wells and a lock discovered in the Wadden sea, suggest to the investigators that Rungholt was a real city, and a thriving port up until the storm of 1392, however, the legend of Germanic Atlantis survives. There is not enough concrete evidence to verify scientifically the existence of this mysterious city; At the same time, the existing indications are signs that it is not just a local legend. For now, Rungholt remains a true mystery.