Frisian women: free and unbound?
Updated: Jun 7
Above Saskia Holleman. The reincarnation of Mata Hari, her fellow-citizen. A pamphlet of the former Dutch Pacifist Socialist Party (PSP) for the general-elections campaign in 1971. Saskia, born in 1945 in the city Leeuwarden in province Friesland, the Netherlands. Standing naked in milky grasslands with Holstein-Friesian cows. In every detail the scenery you will be immersed into when hiking the Frisian Coast Trail.
Translated the pamphlet says something like: 'PSP - disarmingly/endearing'. The pamphlet caused quite a rouse at the time. Not for the pacifist’s statement to disarm during the height of the Cold War. No real risks there. But combining nudity with politics? That was a whole different ball game and certainly a bridge or two too far in the so-called and self-proclaimed progressive lowlands. Yes, in the Netherlands they really got their priorities straight. It took a Dutch-Somali woman and politician, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, to appreciate the pamphlet fully. That was in 2005. But the lowlands were too small for Ayaan and she left for the States.
We do not show you this pamphlet in order to (re)start a popular discussion about politics and populism. Too easy. Nor do we show this pamphlet to be punished by Mark Zuckerberg; author of this blog post was already banned for a week from Facebook twice after showing this pamphlet of the '70s. No, we show it merely to illustrate the topic of our blog post, namely: are Frisian women free? More precise; did women have a more equal position in early Frisian society? Regularly the Frisians claim women always held a strong position in their society. Suggesting the Frisians have a more feminine, non-macho culture. Is this true or false?
In this blog post the term 'Frisian' is used for persons born in areas referred to as Frisian at the time they were born since what's considered and named 'Frisian' shifted over time. Yes, Frisian (and therefore Dutch and German partly too) identity is difficult to pin down and would justify a separate blog essay or long read. Although, that would be near politics.
Back to the topic of this blog post.
We can, of course, put an end to the whole discussion whether or not Frisian women held a strong(er) position by highlighting the statue Ús Mem in the city of Leeuwarden. Ús Mem, ‘our mother’ in Mid-Frisian language, is a statue of a huge Frisian cow. A much praised breed and sadly nearly extinct nowadays. How weird and therefor convincing such a statue might be, it would be too easy for this post to settle the matter this way. Additionaly, every scholar would follow the example of Moses in the desert and throw his (e-)tablets against this Frisian-cow statue because such a theory would be unsubstantiated. Let's dig a bit deeper.
Gods and names
To stick with religion. There is a reoccurring story among the Frisians that their name derived from the goddess Freyja or Freya. A goddess of Norse mythology associated with love, beauty, fertility ànd with war. It nicely would fit for this blog post, except that we have not found much scientific support for this story. Despite convincing Frisian beauty like Luisa Hartema, Doutsen Kroes, Maike van Grieken, Marloes Horst, Fredau Hoekstra, Anne-Marie Lampe and, of course, Audrey Hepburn. And, also, despite the words Freya and Frisian appear to be similar.
The only small lead we could find are the Roman stone inscriptions at Hadrian's Wall in Britain. The numerus (an army unit) of a Frisian chieftain named Hnaudifridi (or Notfried in his native language) serving the Roman army in the third century, set up an altar that was dedicated to among other the goddess Friagabis, one of the two Alaisiagae deities. Etymologically Freyja might be related to Friagabis, which would make a full circle. But, we are not impressed by this theory. Read also our blog post Groove in the Hearth to read more about pre-medieval godesses worhsipped by the Frisians.
If you are interested to read more about the etymology of the word Frisian read this blog post of Taaldacht, in Dutch language, about its possible origins. The words Freyja and Frisian turn out not be related. An etymological explanation of the word Frisian that fits the '70s pamphlet depicting Saskia Holleman, is the Old-Germanic 'Frisioz' which could mean 'free and unbound'.
If interested in this Frisian chieftain Notfried in the Roman army mentioned above, read our blog post Frisian mercenaries in the Roman army.
Concerning the Roman Period, it was the Roman Tacitus who wrote in ca. AD 100 that in Germanic cultures contrary to what was customary in the Mediterranean, it were the men who gave the dowry. And, no jewelry and other vanity goods. No, cattle, horses and weapons. This dowry remained her personal property after they had married. Tacitus also wrote that women had the gift of prophecy and were the fortune-tellers, illustrating women had a central position within the pre-Germanic pagan believes.
A modest argument about the strong(er) position of Frisian women that can be derived from Freyja is that this goddess wore fibulae 'brooches' similar to those magnificent pieces found at for example the terp (artificial dwelling mound) of the village of Wiewerd and, of course, at the terp of Wijnaldum. Both locations situated in province Friesland (Mid Frisia), the Netherlands. We know this thanks to a silver pendant depicting Freyja with this specific type of fibula found in the south of Sweden (Östergötland). Read also our blog post Ornament of the Gods found in a mound of clay. Thus, it were Frisian women, and not macho kings or warriors, who were the proud owners of these very exquisite fibulae, matching the quality of the Anglo-Saxon jewelry found in Sutton Hoo in England.
A real prominent Frisian god at the time of these fibulae who was worshiped, was the god Forseti, or Foseti, at the red rock-island of Heligoland in the German Bight at the North Sea. However, mostly Foseti was portrayed as a man and associated with law and justice. Boring, boring. Not giving us any leads to answer the question of this blog post.
By the way, it was Saint Willibrord, the Apostel of the Frisians, who visited the island Fositesland in the beginning of the seventh century. The island is generally identified as the present-day island Heligoland or Helgoland. An island that was named after the Frisian god Foseti, also Forseti, meaning 'chairman' and still similar to the Mid-Frisian verb 'foarsitte'. Surprisingly, in Norway the toponym Forsetlund near Oslo exists, despite Foseti was not a Norwegian god at all. The Old-Norwegian name Forseti is therefore probably derived from the Frisian name Fo(r)seti. Were it Frisian immigrants who introduced Foseti to Oslo, to the Vikings?
There is another, albeit modest, indication women of Germanic cultures were relatively independent. The names of both men ánd women referred to bold and brave animals and to weapons. Obviously, women like men were expected to be strong and powerful. The fact several Viking warrior graves turned out to be not of men but of women supports this idea. Also, Tacitus wrote in ca. AD 100 that women in the Germanic cultures were expected to be brave and stand side by side with her man during battle. Probably battle was more a matter of families than that of men, during the Roman Period anyway. Women fighting, or at least at the edge of the battlefield to support them with food, new lead sling-bullets, encourage them etc.
Early medieval times do give us another hint, although a heavily disputed one. Old-Frisian law gave women the right to kill an infant. At the end of the eighth century, part of Frisian customary law was codified known as the Lex Frisionum. The code had jurisdiction over the area between the estuary 't Zwin in present-day Belgium and the river Weser in the north of present-day Germany. Title V of the Lex Frisionum declares:
de Hominibus qui sine compositione occidi possunt […] et infans ab utera sublatus et enecatus a matre
This law reads as follows: of the people who may be killed without a fine, are infants. The infant may be strangled by the mother and only if the infant was forced out the uterus.
Some historians plea for a bit different understanding of this, indeed, difficult to understand law. They argue that in general it was at the discretion of the mother to let her infant die as long as it had not been fed yet. This would align with the Vita Liudgeri where this practice in Frisia is mentioned. In this ninth-century document the mother of Saint Ludger, named Liafburch, was saved as a newborn from being killed by her grandmother because neighbors put honey on the lips of little Liafburch. Thus, having received nutrition and no longer Liafburch could be killed without punishment. Therefore, Ludger could be born later. He in his turn would convert the Frisians to Christianity etc. The rest is history. Read also our blog post Liudger, the first Frisian apostle.
We leave the precise historical and linguistic discussions aside and conclude at this place there were evidently circumstances that could justify killing an infant and, moreover, that this was a right or authority of women. Not of men. They had not this right. To address the reader's dismay, this practice is not as barbaric and inconceivable as you might think at first. By no means it was comparable with Saturn devouring his son painted by Goya. No, harsh and tough decisions had to be made in the past with no social healthcare. For example, whether or not a handicapped child could be fed and raised. Lastly, Frisian law was different compared with that of its Scandinavian neighbors. There the men had the right to kill a newborn infant and not the women.
Another distinctive difference with other early-medieval Germanic cultures can be found in the Lex Frisionum when compared to the wider region, namely that a weregeld or fine (also called blood money) for killing a woman was the same as that for killing a man of the same social status. The weregeld was for both 50 Byzantine golden solidi or ca. 1,7 gram of fine silver. One cow was worth one solidus (according to the Lex Ribuaria). You can do the math if you wanted to pay a weregeld with cattle. In other Germanic cultures you had to pay a bigger fine for killing a woman than for killing a man. Even three times as much. The logic behind it might be that women were more 'precious' with regard to offspring and they had in general a shorter life expectancy mainly because of death during child bed. However, in East Anglia like in Frisia freeborn women and freemen had the same 'value' in fine silver.
We would suggest not to interpret all this in the way women were of less value in the Frisian and Anglo-Saxon cultures when compared to other Germanic tribes but, instead, that it expresses women were regarded (more) equal to man and not primarily seen as economic value. Or, another way of looking at it, in Frisia and in England, women had a lower mortality during childbirth. For a society with a high mortality in general it is important for its survival to have many women and children since they in general have a high(er) mortality rate. If interested to learn everything about weregelds, read our blog post You killed a man? That'll be 1 weregeld, please.
Leaving the horror, legal texts and codices behind us, the era of the Lex Frisionum was in fact definable for the position of women in society. Let's explain this through 'The life of Beitske'.
Beitske of Hogebeintum
The remains of Beitske were found during excavations of the terp of the village Hogebeintum in the north of province Friesland. Beitske is not named after the Dutch racing driver Beitske Visser. Instead her name is a reference to the wooden tree-coffin she was found in. Sorry twice, Beitske Visser! The Fries Museum in the city of Leeuwarden did a poll and the name Beitske was simply the most popular one. Also, in 2015 Maja d’Hollosy reconstructed her face in a very beautiful way (see image below). All nice to know, and what has all this to do with this topic, you might ask? The following two things of Beitske are of need to know for the burning question of this blog post.
Firstly, Beitske's inhumation was exceptional because she was buried. And above that, buried in a tree trunk. The wood used was -highly expensive- oak. Burying the dead was for long, in any case till the Migration Period, exceptional within the salt-marsh cultures. Archaeologists consider the most common inhumation practice, leaving the body on the salt marshes for scavengers. And burying a deceased in a wooden coffin is exceptional. Wood was very scarce at the treeless salt marshes. Let alone oak wood. Furthermore, she wore a necklace of shells and amber. Taken everything together, this indicates we are dealing with a woman of certain prestige. If you want to know more about early burial practices, read our blog post How to bury you mother-in-law?
Secondly, the age of Beitske. She was around fifty years old when she died. A considerable age in those days. But the age she lived in is truly relevant. This is the seventh century. Considering her personal age, Beitske lived ca. AD 650.
a lot of expenses and effort for an old woman after she died
We mention that there are similarities with other North Sea (Scandinavian) cultures too. Grave finds of older women of prestige have been found of Vikings in southern Sweden, for example.
The time Beitske lived, Frisia was at its height of power. Maybe Beitske even knew or had seen King Aldgisl or King Radbod, although Radbod might be a Frisian king of a southwestern kingdom and Beitske was ruled by a different Frisian king of the northwest. Nevertheless, certainly she must have heard of one of them. It was the period the Frisians controlled the trade at the North Sea and had trading networks and settlements stretching from the British isles (including ports of York and London) to Denmark, southern Norway, eastern Sweden, into the Baltic Sea and deep into Frankish lands (Cologne, Worms and Paris, to name a few cities). Also, the Frisians still held control over their trade emporium Dorestat at the river Rhine basin, the biggest settlement of northwestern Europe that time. Read our blog post about this commercial hub: The Batwing Doors of Northwest Europe. Some historians refer to this period as the First Golden Age of the Low Countries; a period the Frisians were a dominant seafaring nation. Not fishing but trading, to be clear. If you want to have a more detailed picture of the magnitude of the Frisian free trade, read our blog post How the porcupine gave birth to the U.S. buck.
The social structure of Mid-Frisian and East-Frisian society in the Early Middle Ages was built around the family. Living in small (terp) villages along present-day Netherlands' coast (from province Zeeland to province Groningen) and the German Wadden Sea coast (more or less current region Ostfriesland). It was a fairly equal society in the sense there were no real centrally led power structures, despite nobiles and (elected?) kings and overkings did exist. Furthermore, the northern Frisians at the Wadden Sea coast held mainly sheep and cows on the salt marshes. Some salt-resistant crops like flax, protected by low summer dykes, were cultivated as well.
So, the distinctive element out of the above is that the Frisians were agrarians and sea traders at the same time. The season to sail and for trade was from spring to summer. Management of the farm activities was thus partly left to women.
It all was relevant for the social position of women. It goes much too far to say women were equal to men. Not at all. They might not even have worn shoes where men did. But they had big responsibilities and steered the house and farm for months during the absence of their trading men overseas. No child daycare. Preparing the house for winter even. Several historians argue this laid the foundation for a strong(er) position of women compared with other surrounding cultures, or better, with southern Europe.
Later, around the ninth century, when Christianity was introduced in Frisia the religion's more liberal status for women including marriage as a matter of consent, connected very well with the already existing cultural and legal position of the 'sea-women' of the north. Here women were legally entitled to inherit and to invest in a business or personally run one. Here a man preferred to be buried with his wife and his children. With his sagrada familia of flesh and blood and not of stones. This in contrast to the southern more manly-orientated Europe where being buried in an ancestral grave was more desired. The Frisian custom of 'knot cloths' which existed in the seventeenth century, fitted within this tradition. In a small piece of cloth some coins were placed with a loosely knotted knot. If the girl accepted the money or gift, she drew the knot tighter after which they were engaged. In the sixteenth century, the custom of a 'knottekistje' existed. A small case that contained silver pennies and money that was given to the girl with the offer of marriage. If she accepted, they were engaged. Show me the money, was what see demanded.
Also, in the related early-medieval Anglo-Saxon culture, it were women of aristocratic birth who would be expected to rule so-called 'double monasteries', meaning monasteries with both men and women as inmates. When talking about medieval monastery life, in high-medieval Frisia the Knights Hospitaller of Saint John had a strong presence, comparable with other regions in Europe during the period of the Crusades. Around AD 1300, there were more than twenty houses with a convent in Frisia. Interestingly, and totally different from the houses of the Knight Hospitaller of Saint John elsewhere in Europe, was that nearly all of the Saint John houses in Frisia were inhabited by women, mainly lay-sisters. These houses needed to be profitable and thus the women must have been economic active within the community. The Saint John Order represented about a fourth of total of monastic houses in Frisia. The other three quarters of the houses and monasteries belonged to the orders of the Augustinians, of Saint Benedict, of the Cistercians, of the Premonstratensians and a few to the Teutonic Order. Most of these monasteries were inhabited by women too, both choir nuns (or cloistered nuns) and lay-sisters.
Let's step back to the Early Middle Ages again. A beautiful ninth-century story has been preserved. It is about a women living in a Frisian colony in Birka in present-day southern Sweden. An old, Frisian woman whose name was Frideburg requested her daughter Catla to make the journey to the emporium Dorestat in the river Rhine area of Frisia after her death, in order to distribute her fortune among the church and the poor. Her daughter did what was requested. She travelled all the way to Dorestat, present-day Wijk bij Duurstede in the Netherlands, and distributed the wealth (Lebecq, 1992). Chew on that guys!
Another interesting story around AD 800 was that of Saint Ludger when he was in Frisia to convert the people to Christendom. In the village Helewyret (present-day Helwerd in province Groningen, the Netherlands) Saint Ludger met the beloved blind bard named Bernlef. Bernlef was introduced to Saint Ludger by a woman named Meinsuit. A mysterious woman. Who was she and why was it a woman who introduced Bernlef and not a noble or a man of stature, since a visit of an authority like Ludger was not your regular thing those days? Want to know more about Meinsuit or the blind bard Bernlef, read our blog post One of history's enlightening hikes, that of Bernlef.
Again, in common with the Anglo-Saxons, women played a vital role in preventing, stemming and ending conflicts between tribes. This because of the fact they often were married into rival kin-groups. During tensions or violence between groups these women had a personal interest and natural strong position between the rivaling kin-groups to intermediate in conflicts. This position is also illustrated in the Old-English epic poem Beowulf. Queen Hildeburg, who was married to King Finn of Frisia, is the 'chief mourner' after her son was killed during the battle between her own Danish kin and the Frisians. Her son, of course, being half Danish and half Frisian.
Centuries later, during the Dutch Republic, foreigners were still amazed how freely women in Holland were, both physically to travel and economically. Yes, even disapproval by foreigners of the liberty women (still) enjoyed in the seventeenth century. It was the university of Franeker in province Friesland that already admitted female students at the start of the eighteenth century, whilst everywhere else in the Dutch Republic, and later the Netherlands, women had to wait until the year AD 1871 before they were allowed to go to college. To finish our argument, it was the famous painter Picasso who visited the region Westfriesland and who was impressed by the women of Holland, also how tall they were. Surprise surprise, he might even have had an affair with one.
So, there you have it. Everything put together a modest case can be made of a historical, more independent position of women in Frisian culture being for a long time part of the North-Sea culture. A culture therefore partly inherited by the northern Dutch and northern Germans too. But no reason to praise ourselves. There was no equality. Maybe the position of women can best be described with the Old-English Exeter Book poem Maxims I of around AD 1100. The poem tells about Frisian women taking care of everything at the farmstead while their men are at sea for months. But when their (smelly) men return these women assume a caring role.
Scip sceal genægled, scield ge-bundan,
léoht linda bord, léof will-cuma,
Frísan wífe, þonne flota standeþ;
biþ his čéol cumen and hire čeorl to hám,
ágen ǽt-giefa, and héo hine inn laðaþ,
wæsceþ his wárig hrægl and him seleþ wæde níewe,
lihþ him on lande þæs his lufu bǽdeþ.
Ships shall be nailed, shields bound,
of light linden-board, her love a welcome guest,
to a Frisian's wife, when his floating ship stands docked;
His ship will come and her man comes home,
her own provider, and she will call him inside,
wash his worn clothes and wrap him in new robes,
lower to him, landed, what his love bids.
A similar role one can find (again) in the epic Beowulf how queens poured the mead in the cups of the warriors guests and gave gifts to her warrior guests in the hall of her king.
But before we round up; who were the other three women whose images we presented at the start of this blog post?
Sjoukje Maria Diderika Bokma de Boer (1860-1939) born in Nes (island of Ameland, province Friesland, Mid Frisia, the Netherlands) better known as Nienke van Hichtum. She was married to the famous Frisian socialist politician Pieter Jelles Troelstra. Actually that was not her biggest achievement. She herself was a prominent socialist, advocated for the Mid-Frisian language and above all was a famous writer. Her children book ‘Afke’s Tiental’ (translated: Afke’s Ten, 1902) has made her famous till this very day.
Recha Schweitzer (1892-1984) born in Norden (region Ostfriesland, East Frisia, Germany). She was a strong and important advocate of Jewish diaspora rights, already before the Second World War. With her organization Youth Aliyah she saved thousands of young Jewish lives during the war. She fled to Israel in 1941. Later in life she supported the Jewish opera. In 1981 she received the Israel Prize, finally.
Margaretha Geertruida Zelle (1876-1917) from Leeuwarden (province Friesland, Mid Frisia, the Netherlands) and better known as Mata Hari. She was not an idealist or activist and Recha Schweitzer might have had her thoughts about her. But Margaretha was a remarkable independent woman. An exotic dancer, a courtesan, beautiful, free en wild. Sentenced to death for spying for the Germans. In 1910 she was shot by the French. Till this days her life and personality is intriguing, as it was for example for the famous American Hollywood actor David Carradine in the '70s. If you want to know more, read the blog posts of Hanneke Boonstra about Mata Hari.
There are, of course, many more icons of strong Frisian women. For example, we could have listed the current Dutch politician and journalist Pia Dijkstra from Franeker (the Netherlands) as well, but that would have brought us back into politics and that is now something we try to avoid with our blog posts. Another proud example is the former dancer and UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador Audrey Hepburn whose mother was a Frisian noblewoman (Van Heemstra). Because we cannot be complete, click here for more inspiration of Frisian women that stood or stand out to date.
What about Saksia? Well, she was not even aware of the fact the political party PSP stole her picture and used it for their general election campaign. As a socialist, why should they? She saw the pamphlets, she sued, she won. After that -the Hippie she was- she appeared naked again in the musical Hair in the '70s, played a role in a softporn movie Wet Dreams and also performed as a dancer in the Sleewijk Revue of the Dutch theater producer René Sleeswijk. She even appeared in the first movie of Martin Scorsese: 'Who's that knocking on my door/I call first'. In this movie she appeared in an erotic dream of Harvey Keitel. All in all, a life very comparable with her fellow-citizen Mata Hari a century before. Eventually, she stopped following Mata Hari's footsteps and followed those of the old Frisian god Forseti. Indeed, in 1979 she became a lawyer. Boing, boring.
Have fun walking the endless grasslands of the Frisia Coast Trail, or its nickname the MilkyWay, and do pay respect to its strong and tall women. This would be our pamphlet for the Frisian Coast Trail!
Note. All the recent publicity on Mata Hari in the Netherlands triggered this blog post, thanks to writer Shipman. Her book about the life of Mata Hari was published this year in the Dutch language.
Suggestion for accompanying music:
Whitesnake, She's a Woman (Ready an' Willing, 1980)
Beerekamp, H., Saskia Holleman. Blog Het Schimmenrijk (2013)
Bosman, A.V.A.J., Rome aan de Noordzee. Burgers en barbaren te Velsen (2016)
Delantly, G. & Matto, M. (ed), The Word Exchange. Anglo-Saxon poems in translation; Maxims I (2011)
Heeren, S. & Willemsen, A. (ed), Fibula's. Vondsten, vormen & mode (2017)
Heerma van Voss, L., Michael Pye's The Edge of the World. Een succesvolle, maar mislukte geschiedenis van de Noordzee (2016)
Israel, J., The Dutch Republic. Its Rise, Greatness and Fall (1995)
Lebecq, S., The Frisian trade in the Dark Ages; a Frisian or Frankish/Frisian trade? (1992)
Leyser, H., A short history of the Anglo-Saxons (2017)
Mol, J.A., Vechten, bidden en verplegen. Opstellen over de ridderorden in de Noordelijke Nederlanden (2011)
Nieuwenhuijsen, K., Lex Frisionum. Inleiding (2010)
Nieuwhof, A., Identiteit en samenleving: terpen en wierden in de wijd wereld (2018)
Nijdam, H., A Comparison of the Injury Tariffs in the Early Kentish and the Frisian Law Codes (2014)
Pye, M., The edge of the world. How the North Sea made us who we are; chapter 10. (2015)
Roos, de J., Holleman, Saskia Maria (1945-2013), Digitaal Vrouwenlexicon van Nederland (2018)
Shipman, P., Femme Fatale. Love, Lies and the unknown life of Mata Hari (2007)
Siems, H., Studien zur Lex Frisionum (1980)
Tuuk, van der L., De eerste Gouden Eeuw. Handel en scheepvaart in de vroege middeleeuwen (2011)
Tuuk, van der L., De Friezen. De vroegste geschiedenis van het Nederlandse kustgebied (2013)
Tuuk, van der L., Lof en Laster. Vrouwen in de vroege middeleeuwen (2019)
Tuuk, van der L., Radbod. Koning in twee werelden (2018)
Weij, van der A., Deabus et Dis Communibus. Thesis on the religious identity of auxiliary on the northern frontier of Roman Britain (2017)
Willemsen, A., Gouden Middeleeuwen. Nederland in de Merovingische wereld, 400-700 na chr. (2015)