Frisians and their North Sea Neighbours

Frisians and their North Sea Neighbours

From the Fifth Century to the Viking Age

Edited by John Hines & Nelleke IJssennagger

JOHN HINES is Professor of Archaeology at Cardiff University; NELLEKE IJSSENNAGGER has just finished her post as Curator of Archaeological and Medieval Collections at the Museum of Friesland, and will take up a new post with the National Trust in Cornwall in the New Year.

Dr IJssennagger, as a curator at the Museum of Friesland, can we take it that your interest in the Frisians is a long held one? And Professor Hines, please tell us what drew you to the history of Friesland.
(NIJ): As curator of the archaeological and medieval collections in the Museum of Friesland, I certainly have a broad interest in the history and archaeology of the Frisians. As our collection is particularly strong for the Early Medieval Period, and because that was a period of such dramatic change, this is one of the most fascinating eras to look at. The dynamic and international range of the events mirrored in Friesland make the study of this transformative period necessarily a multidisciplinary topic. Very diverse and innovative research has recently been conducted related to this topic, and continues, which made it really appealing to bring as many scholars and students together as possible, and collect these contributions into a volume. My own background is quite multidisciplinary, in Medieval Studies and early Germanic languages and sources, and my personal research is focussed on the North Sea world in the earlier post-Roman and Viking Periods.

(JH): Anybody who has responsibility for teaching and writing about any aspect of early England cannot fail to be aware of the importance that has consistently been attributed to Friesland, its historical populations and the Frisian language, and the history and archaeology of the region in the Early Middle Ages, as the nearest neighbours and closest relatives — in all sorts of ways — of the Anglo-Saxons. But it had proved in the past temptingly easy to attribute particular sequences of events to this region as part of a North Sea Germanic world on the basis of logical fit with what was observed and understood elsewhere rather more than on the basis of direct primary evidence.

There were various practical reasons for this; but fortunately that meant there was also a practical solution to shedding much more light on the questions, albeit one that had to be collaborative, involving specialists both within Friesland and from the surrounding areas, and experts in a range of different aspects of the cultural record. What has been particularly satisfying has been to be able to contribute to a project that has made a major step forward in actually substantiating the importance that had long been ascribed to the area within a large, interconnected zone of Europe but which remained vague in key respects.

Can you give us a brief description Friesland and its people?
Today, Friesland is one of the twelve provinces of the Netherlands, whilst there also is a region of Ostfriesland in Germany. In Friesland, Frisian is still a living language with a speaking population of around 450,000, and people born here consider themselves as Frisian. The regional identity is still quite strong, and is often linked to traditions of historical events and not least the idea of a historical independence of Frisia. The historical Frisia, however, was not the same as Friesland, but covered a much larger area of the present-day Netherlands and in Germany. In different eras, the area either considered to be Frisia or to be populated by Frisians varied; in Roman times we first hear of Frisii living in the northern Dutch coastal area, while in the exceptionally valuable source Lex Frisionum the Frisian area of around AD 800 was defined as between the Zwin on the modern border between Belgium and the Netherlands and the Weser in modern Germany. In between historical reference points such as these the Frisian area variously expanded and contracted, or was not clearly defined, but the idea of a Frisia and of Frisian people continues with remarkable tenacity.

Frisians in the Early Middle Ages were not necessarily the same people as the apparently Celtic-speaking Frisii of the Roman Period, because of a habitation hiatus (or massive demographic decline) and re-colonization by people from around the North Sea. In general, it can be said that the medieval Frisians are considered as a maritime-focussed Germanic people, who made a name and fame for themselves before and during the Viking Period through seafaring and trade. They were in close connection with their North Sea neighbours, as both written sources and material culture testify, and as is explored in detail in this book.

When and where did the initial idea for the book arise? What particular aspects of Frisian history were you hoping to add to or correct?
The project started with the planning of a conference, called Across the North Sea, and held at the Museum of Friesland in 2014. This conference was initially conceived as a successor to a more specialized conference on the runic inscriptions of Early Medieval Frisia held twenty years earlier, which John had attended, but it was clear that by now the scope had to be broadened to make the presentations and discussions thoroughly multidisciplinary and diachronic as well as international.

The objective, therefore, was to combine and integrate discussions of archaeology, history, historical linguistics, legal history and palaeogeography as well as runology. We tried to cover all of these disciplines, and within the disciplines various periods and regions, with a particular focus on how identities and cultures were expressed, and might be differentiated and interact. Not only new insights that had been gained through research over the years, but in particular a new generation of scholars who could contribute, made it a very interesting moment to look at the status quo in research on the Frisians. By opening up research within what can be highly specialized disciplines, such as linguistic history, for scholars in other disciplines, we sought to address the developments in research into the Early Medieval Frisians, and to identify the continuing lacunae, while fully addressing the important question of this group’s maritime character and connections, and its relationships with its neighbours.

This has also involved opening up some of the discussions, sources and research for the first time in English, thus providing a world-wide readership with good and up-to-date insights into the relevant evidence and the status quo of research on the topic, and thus a starting point for further research or application in their own studies.

And how did you recruit your contributors?
After the 2014 conference a number of contributors were asked to submit papers in accordance with a carefully designed plan for the volume; one important paper was offered by a participant who had not in fact been on the conference programme.

Are there any particular challenges that the historian faces when researching the Frisians? What are the sources like?
There are three main challenges for the research on the historical Frisians.
  • First of all, there are various references to Frisia and Frisians through time, but they do not all necessarily denote the same area or people. They do not appear to do so across time, as in the Roman Period the term appears to denote a thoroughly different people than it does in the Viking Age; but also they appear not to do as in geographical terms, or as ethnic and cultural labels. The geographical area Frisia and the idea of people considered as Frisian do not necessarily coincide, making it challenging to maintain clarity exactly what one is referring to in specific contexts.
  • A second complicating factor is the nature of the source material. The Frisian tradition of writing starts relatively late, generally in the 12th–13th centuries. This means that there are no Frisian written sources for most of the period we cover. The earlier runic inscriptions are generally short, and exceptionally challenging to read (Ray Page described them as collectively ‘baffling’), but provide very important evidence on early linguistic developments. Moreover the later Law Codes do seem to preserve an older core of possibly orally transmitted material.
  • Finally, much of the previous research has been published in Frisian and or Dutch, or in German where it concerns Ostfriesland, which is why the subject has not been brought as much to international scholarly attention as possible. This is a situation we really wanted to put right with this book, and to open up the fascinating material to an international readership. A consequence of the historical development of the relevant Frisian Studies is also that Dutch and German Frisian research are often still divided, and with networks like the one we have established here we can seek to resolve this in the future.
What do you think would most surprise the general reader about the Frisians and their society?
The historical Frisians/Frisia a probably rather better known than today’s Frisia and Frisians. Readers may well be surprised by the length and variation of the story of what we know as the Frisians and of Frisia, and how this continued through the later Middle Ages and early modern times into contemporary society and its preoccupations and interests. The very close connections with England and other parts of Britain, both linguistically and materially, are very striking and their actual nature, as abundantly explored in this volume, probably new to most readers.

And how would you summarise their overall significance in the development of early medieval Europe?
The main significance would be in the realm of maritime connections and trade. Strikingly, the Frisians appear in a wide range of historical and literary sources from this period, testifying to their enviable reputation. Similarly, there are very close links in terms of material culture between the Frisians and their North Sea neighbours, as is indicated through archaeology. Frisians certainly played a role in the continuing development of a system of material culture around the North Sea that was integrated at some levels and yet regionally contrastive at others.

The need to write the earliest forms of the Frisian language played its own distinct and important part in the development of an ‘Anglo-Frisian’ runic script either side of the North Sea, while the close connection between Kentish and Frisian early law makes it clear how interwoven these communities had been and comparatively enhances our understanding of all the societies involved. Ecologically and palaeogeographically, Frisia developed dramatically across this period of considerable climatic and environmental challenge, and was an important area for long-distance relationships and economic strength within the North Sea world.

How widely was their presence felt?
From sources all around the North Sea, we can tell that from Roman times throughout the Early medieval period, ‘Frisian’ as a term for a region and for people was widely known. What this exactly entails, may differ from time to time.

Where, may we ask, did the Frisians go or who did they become? How strong are their traces now?
The people in Friesland and Ostfriesland are still Frisian, feel Frisian, in many cases speak a distinct Frisian language, and relate themselves to this Frisian past. This is also what we work with in the Museum of Friesland. Friesland today is considerably smaller than the historical area of Frisia, and this historic Frisia and the occurrence of Frisians all around the North Sea world – and even in Rome – therefore really appeals to the imagination. At the same, there were probably some numbers of Frisians who were taken up into other groups of people elsewhere around the North Sea, as place-names in England and Wales suggest, in the same way as other people could be incorporated amongst the Frisians.

Does the book succeed in covering everything that you had originally planned to?
Yes, we think it has covered all the various disciplines that we had planned for, as well as reflect the geographical and diachronical scope well. In the future developments it will be good to deal more directly also with the eastern and northern Frisian material and perspectives.

What will you be working on next?
In 2018, a special symposium on ‘The Frisians’ has been organized based on the model of the highly successful Center for Interdisciplinary Research on Social Stress series published by Boydell & Brewer as Studies in Historical Archaeoethnology. This will retain the format of those symposia that were formerly held in the Republic of San Marino, but is planned to take advantage of the possibilities of new technology to stream the discussions from the Fries Museum in Leeuwarden live via web-cam.

A second ‘Across the North Sea’ conference will be held in Leeuwarden in 2019 along with a special exhibition in the Fries Museum focussing on the Frisians and the Viking World, directly reflecting Nelleke IJssennagger’s newly published doctoral dissertation on precisely this topic.

Finally, we’re asking our contributors how they by their books: online, favourite bookstore, conferences? Don’t buy, borrow? Electronic or print?
(NIJ): All of that! Books that I really work with and/or read, I use in print. But books that I only use for looking up some aspects for research, I prefer to use in electronic form.

(JH): I am very old fashioned, and much prefer to look at and read things on paper. But of course I use electronic copies of sources and studies, particularly for research, where they are available.

Buy the book

Frisians and their North Sea Neighbours
Edited by John Hines & Nelleke IJssennagger
Frisians and their North Sea Neighbours 30 colour & 40 black and white illustrations;
304 pages
978 1 7832 7179 5,
Boydell Press

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