top of page
  • Writer's pictureHans Faber

Lodging etiquette in Ostfriesland

Before the owner of the house agrees to give you lodging for the night, it might be you have to show him your silver. Like a computer 'safe button' avant la lettre probably a child gets sore ears as well. These were the ways of the first legally blondes.

Be prepared that you might encounter some ancient habits in region Ostfriesland (East Frisia) in north-west Germany. More specific, the community (Gemeinde) Brookmerland in the west of region Ostfriesland. This isn't former tidal marshland but former moor land. An area colonized after the great flood of Saint Julian of AD 1164, when the Frisians from the region Norderland near the sea were forced to move inland (find here an overview of great floods).

When hiking in region Brookmerland during the Frisia Coast Trail you'll probably need lodging at least once. If you're the type who prefers to stay practical, of course you can check-in at a pension or hotel, or pitch your tent at a camping. No surprises here. Paying simply with plastic, your smart phone or with one of the many bitcoins varieties, and all permits and taxes automatically are paid for.

But it may happen you cannot find lodging. For example in high season during the summer months. Germans from all over the country are crazy for the sea and move north in big numbers during holidays. Then asking an Ostfreeske local to stay the night in his private home or to pitch your tent on his property or farm yard might be the only option left if you hadn't made reservations in advance.

In this case be prepared for some ancient, strange habits. Let us help you to be basically prepared:

1. Show me the money

The odds are reasonable an Ostfries 'East-Frisian' agrees you can stay the night in his house. Especially after having said moin 'hello' to the owner. Extending shelter to travelers is an old practice. But the owner might politely ask you to show him all the silver you carry. Of course, you don't actually have any silver in your backpack. Too heavy for a hiker. And, don't panic. He isn't planning to rob you. Instead, show him all the cash you are carrying together with all other valuable items you have on you.

The reason behind it is that according to Old-Frisian medieval law the person who gives shelter to a stranger is fully responsible for this person's actions. And that means for all the damage the stranger might cause to his co-villagers, the community, the mienskip. So, if the house owner is prepared to shelter you, he only wants to make sure upfront you'll be able to reimburse him in the unlikely event he will be held liable by the community for such costs.

This was the law and practice of the 'Seven Sealands' in the High Middle Ages. The Seven Sealands were a loose federation of free farmer republics along the Wadden Sea coast, a strip of land stretching from current province Noord Holland (region Westfriesland in the Netherlands) to region Ostfriesland (in Germany). From the (former) River Vlie to the River Weser.

The Seven Sealands (tota Frisia)

The law on foreigners was as follows:

Hwasa thene vthemeda husath ieftha howath ieftha oppa sinne werf set, sa skel hi thes wachtia, hwetsa hi deth.

'Who receives a foreigner in his house or in his court or seats on his yard, shall be responsible for all that he does.' (Brookmerbrief, c.AD 1250)

The Old-Frisian word for foreigner was vthemeda and is very similar to the present Dutch word uitheems. This means 'out of heem' where hemeda stands for home or homestead (compare also: hiem in Frisian or, indeed, home in English). The part vt or ut means 'out'. So, an vthemeda is someone from outside-the-homestead, someone from out-home.

2. Sore little ears

But this might not be your only surprise. There's another, even weirder, medieval Frisian custom to be prepared for when travelling through region Brookmerland, East Frisia.

After the aforementioned silver and cash ritual, the owner might call for his son or daughter before you can stow your valuables back into your backpack. The child probably will have the age of between ten and fifteen years old. Again you will be asked to present your valuables. But this time in the presence of the child. After this the child receives quite a slap on his or her ears. The owner rounds up with following medieval eternity formula.

Alsoe langhe, soe di wynd fan dae vlkenum wayth ende ghers groyt ende baem bloyt ende dio sonne optijocht ende dyo wrald steed

'As long as the wind blows from the clouds, and grass grows and tree blossoms and the sun rises and the world stands'

Now you can finally stow your valuables back again. Besides a crying kid with a red ear, everything honky dory.

The underlying reason behind this procedure, is that the owner needs to make sure he has a witness in the future for what was agreed upon. In this particular case, in the event the owner will be held liable for damage you then have caused to one of his co-villagers. Then it will be important the owner still has a witness who lives and can confirm that you should be able to reimburse him. The child will be that future witness if needed. Your insurance policy.

Choosing a minor to be witness is the best guarantee your witness will be available for probably the rest of your life. Slapping the child makes sure the brains of the minor store the important moment and will remember it the rest of its life.

Just like hitting the 'save button' today!

Therefore too, the child shouldn't be too young, otherwise it will not remember it anyway. Regardless of how hard the slap will be. The only lasting result will be it will need a shrink when the child reaches the age of mid thirty. But who doesn't by that age, I hear you ask?

After this ceremony the owner will grin and show you your Ruum (Oostfreesk for Zimmer or room). Really, it's still perfectly safe to stay! Sweet dreams and enter sandman.

The safe button was especially used with the sale of a piece of land or any other agreement was made.

Note that the custom to hit a child’s ear as a ‘save button’, must be distinguished from hitting children otherwise. The Ostfriesen pride themselves for a long-standing freedom tradition with great liberties for people. Ostfriesen like to joke that when a father is about to hit his child for some wrongdoing, the child says: “No, father, no, our country is a land of justice, not force!” (Knottnerus 2004).

3. Epiloog

Sorry Reese Witherspoon but the blonde East-Frisians are the first legally blondes. In the High Middle Ages they put everything on paper. The Brookmerbrief was only one of many codices or law books of medieval Frisia. Besides these texts, the volume of legal documents (e.g. contracts on land, arrangements, debt statement etc) dating from this period is really enormous. Nearly absurd. All written in Old-Frisian. And, because slapping your children isn't a durable solution, the Frisians tried to write every transaction, deal or agreement on paper. This was motivated in an original way with the following beautiful -high medieval- lines:

Quoniam secundum Boetium de Consolatione Philosophiae cor humanum inter mobilia, mobilius fere discognitur et ideo naturaliter obliviosum, idcirco solemniter acta necessa est literarum caractere roborari et confirmari.

'Because, according to The comfort of the philosophy of Boethius, the human heart, more agile than the agile things, hardly remembers anything and is therefore naturally forgetful, it is for that reason necessary to affirm and confirm matters in the form of a written document.'

Not much poetry has survived in Old-Frisian. Although the eternity formula quoted above comes close. But at least we know how the (formal) Old-Frisian language was written. Maybe the habit to record everything on paper had to do with the fact there was no government at all and the federation of the Seven Sealands was a feud society.

Moreover, according to an old-Frisian sage of the thirteenth century AD the law was given to them by God himself. It's the story how twelve asegas (law experts who guided the course of a trial) were sent by King and Emperor Charlemagne onto the sea without rudder and oars. God sent a thirteenth asega -being Christ of course- to rescue them. From then on Frisian law was divine and thus to be uphold under any circumstance (read also our blog post: In debt to the beastly Westfrisians). You might say a variation of the Roman law pacta sunt servanda. And yes, the Frisians can be quite stubborn still and attached to laws and rules. Not without reason the incident of Kneppelfreed 'Baton Friday' in 1951 was caused by a judge's interdiction to speak the Frisian language in his court (read our blog post: Leeuwarden 2018: European Capital of Exiled Governments).

Explicit expliceat, ludere scriptor eat. Est liber hic scriptus, qui scripsit sit benedictus. Qui me scribebat, Frisia Trahentium Maritimas [Frisia Coast Trail] nomen habebat. Non vindeat Christum, qui librum subtrahat istum.

'It is finished and let it be finished, the writer may play. The book is written here [it's finished], may the one who wrote it be blessed. He wrote me, called Frisia Coast Trail. May the one who stole this book, not see Christ [the Hell].'

A rhyme inspired by the costumery rhymes of medieval copyists, mostly monks, at the end of books they copied.


Note 1 - Albeit Reese Witherspoon is not the first legally blonde, as hikers of the Frisia Coast Trail we must give her credit for her role as Cheryl Strayed in the movie 'Wild. From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail'.

Note 2 - For more about medieval Frisian law on foreigners etc., see our post Medieval Migration Law.

Further reading

Knottnerus, O., Culture and society in the Frisian and German North Sea Coastal Marshes (1500-1800) (2004)

Vries, O., Asega, is het dingtijd? De hoogtepunten van de Oudfriese tekstoverlevering (2007)

Vries, O., De taal van recht en vrijheid. Studies over middeleeuws Friesland (2012).

bottom of page