Frisians of the Early Middle Ages


Hello and welcome back to the Herald! We’re delighted to have you back to discuss your new book, the companion to 2017’s Frisians and their North Sea Neighbours. How have you been since then?

We are both at rather different stages of our careers, so a review of Nelleke’s professional progress over the past four years is considerably more dramatic and colourful than John’s, which has been quite unchanging in terms of his position as professor at Cardiff University. But since the last volume John has become Vice-president of the Society of Antiquaries of London and continues to work on many projects. Shortly after the last volume appeared, Nelleke started working for the National Trust in Cornwall, but since March of this year she is back in Friesland as Director of the Fryske Akademy (Frisian Academy), the institute to which several contributors are connected as well.

Before we begin, would you please remind us what the term Frisians refers to?

That of course is precisely the core question both of these collected volumes address, and we have carefully used the term ‘Frisians’ in the title of the new publication, not ‘The Frisians’. Historical sources from the past two thousand years refer to one or more population groups in north-western Europe whose name has come down to us (in its modern English form) as ‘Frisian’. The geographical range associated with this population expands and contracts, but essentially is centred in the very low-lying coastal zone of the European Continent, north of the Rhine and as far as southern Jutland. It appears that a ‘Frisian’ identity may have first been held by a Celtic-speaking population at the beginning of the modern era, who abandoned these lands, and that the identity was subsequently adopted by a largely new population which came to occupy that area, and who spoke a variety of Germanic language. Whereas ‘Frisians’ refers to a heterogeneous group of people over time, down to the present inhabitants of the province of Friesland, the Netherlands, and other regions around the North Sea coasts, ‘Frisian’ refers to a branch of the Germanic language and ‘Frisia’ to a fluctuating geographical area. 

Frisians and their North Sea Neighbours met with a very positive response. Did that influence you to publish the current volume or was it always your plan?

Further collective study and discussion of Frisian questions, in the fields of history, archaeology, language history and politics, was always intended, and Frisians and their North Sea Neighbours was therefore intended to catalyse this. It was meant to form a starting point for further and wider work, particularly on an international and cross-disciplinary stage, involving continuing and wider study of Frisians together with other cultural groups in comparative perspective. In addition, the concept of relaunching the Symposia in Historical Archaeoethnology was a long-held ambition, and it was definitely recognized that the many aspects of Frisian identity and culture were very well suited to such a style of approach and a natural addition to the existing list of peoples discussed in the series. Of course the success of the 2017 publication was a welcome stimulus and helped raise international awareness of the topic, but in fact all of the planning for the 2018 symposium was effectively done by the time that book came out. Although it was also always understood that the two conferences and publications would be complementary rather than overlapping very much, it was, however, a little unanticipated how naturally the 2018 symposium refocused on a successor period, from the 7th century onwards, and on internal Frisian diversity more than the external relations as such. 

How did you find your contributors and did many return from the earlier work?

Six of the thirteen contributors to the new volume also had papers in the earlier publication. The criteria by which contributors were invited to the 2018 symposium and so to contribute the new publication were of course first and foremost specialization in the quite clearly defined range of complementary topics that the study was intended to include. In addition to that, however, we took particular care to try to combine contributions and perspectives from long established and newer scholars. In addition, we aimed to specifically combine perspectives on the various Frisian regions, including North Frisia. The aim of bringing these together, of course, was to create the most stimulating discussions and exchange of ideas. 

How does the story of the Frisians develop through the early Middle Ages? What are the main factors influencing the different communities?

After the fall of the Roman Empire and the shifts in population during the Migration Period, the new Germanic Frisian communities were in close contact and practical relationships with their neighbours and often relatives in other coastal regions of the North Sea. To follow the story of the Frisians through the Early Middle Ages, we are reliant on archaeological, linguistic and historical sources. The historical sources include texts recorded in the Early Medieval Period but by others than Frisians themselves: Frisian vernacular sources are not known in recorded form until the High Middle Ages, from around AD 1200. As legal collections, these vernacular sources are, however, highly informative on earlier Frisian society, the regional variation within Frisia, and the apparent oral traditions that must have existed. Together with an earlier Latin legal collection called Lex Frisionum, they paint a picture of a society of honour, freedom and regulation, a feudal society and a mobile society. The texts from other geographical and cultural areas tell the story of Frisians as traders, mercenaries, visitors and partners, who were well-known in early Medieval Europe. 

Frisian communities have primarily been subject to changes in the geographical and political environments. In a landscape subject to tides and regular flooding, a lot of daily life was dictated by water. During the Early Medieval Period we see an increase in navigable waters in Frisia, meaning an increase in trade and exchange. The geographical circumstances also created the opportunities for farming, production and land-ownership. At the end of the period, the available habitable area starts to increase through reclamation of the previously inaccessible peat-areas in the hinterland. 

The involvement of large political and military forces, such as the Danes and the Carolingians, had a huge impact across the Frisian lands. The incorporation of Frisia into the Carolingian realm not only meant a new overlord and tax duties, it also came with Christianization. The role of the church subsequently became particularly important in relation to land-ownership and town-development, despite a set-back to the processes during Viking incursions. There is so much more to tell of the story, but we don’t want to repeat the whole book here!

By the end of the period you have covered, how would you describe the status of Frisians?

It would be fair to say that by the end of the Early Middle Ages, Frisians had become Continental, Christian people. Despite considerable cultural and linguistic homogeneity amongst the people then known as ‘Frisians’, it remains the case that the area is a wide one, where different stories apply in different areas. 

What’s next for you both? Will you continue with Frisian studies or do you have other plans?

As the new Director of the Frisian Academy, we can safely assume that Nelleke will be very closely involved with Frisian studies in the future! But that will go for both of us in fact. In John’s case, although retirement as a university teacher is not far off now, the context will surely be the great relevance of the study of Frisian phenomena in relation to wider patterns of development, and particularly large-scale relationships between areas and populations, in Europe over the course of the two millennia of the modern era. 

The Fryske Akademy is a unique multidisciplinary institute for Frisian studies. It was founded by people from Frisian society in 1938, to undertake and develop academic research into Frisians, and Frisia, in the widest sense possible. This means that it is very much on an international stage and in comparative perspective, as well as multidisciplinary. At present, the focus is on both historical and linguistic perspectives, and we aim to keep developing new projects and lines of research. It is Nelleke’s privilege to direct the lines of research on Frisian studies for the future. Her own research also continues, with a monograph in the pipeline.

We like to finish with the same question to all our contributors. Naturally, we hope you have stayed well throughout the last year but how has your work been affected by lockdowns and restricted access to libraries and archives?

It has perhaps been surprising how readily it has proved possible to access most of the published/textual material wanted, although it needs to be stressed how crucial it has been that publishers, libraries/archives, and colleagues widely have taken a positively ‘can do’ attitude where obstacles may have arisen. Access to archaeological collections in museums or other stores, however, has been a major problem, and the sooner things can open up the better. As positive side-effect, we have found it easier to connect with colleagues to exchange materials and ideas since we were all in the same boat. Moreover, the situation has also raised awareness of the challenges of access for those in for example rural areas or countries where there is less freedom of accessing information. As a scholarly community we now perhaps understand better this challenge of ‘information inequality’ and can act upon it. This is why we were so keen to ensure an e-book of Frisians of the Early Middles Ages would become available as well.  

Frisians of the Early Middle Ages


£75/$120, 9781783275618
June 2021
Hardback and ebook
Boydell Press



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JOHN HINES is Professor of Archaeology at Cardiff University

NELLEKE IJSSENNAGGER-VAN DER PLUIJM is Director of the Fryske Akademy, Leeuwarden.

Contributors: Robert Flierman, John Hines, Nelleke IJssennagger-van der Pluijm, Egge Knol, G.J. (Gilles) de Langen, Tineke Looijenga, Bente Sven Majchczack, J.A. (Hans) Mol, Johan A.W. Nicolay, Annet Nieuwhof, Han Nijdam, Arjen Versloot, Ian Wood

Images: Frisian creek (reconstruction). Illustration by Ulco Glimmerveen