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  • Hans Faber

Haute couture from the salt marshes

Updated: Jun 27


It was not Parisius 'Paris' and it was not Lundenwic 'London' either. Believe or not, the early-medieval center for expensive cloth and chic clothing in northwest Europe was the Wadden-Sea coasts of northern Germany and of the Netherlands. Here the highly sought after pallia Fresonica 'Frisian cloth' was fabricated and distributed over the known world. It possessed a quality good enough for red capes of handsome superheroes like Superman and Thor, or the heklu blá 'blue capes' which Odin wore. Or, to be used as palm grease for international diplomatic endeavors of early-medieval rulers.

We tend to think of early-medieval Frisians as a Viking-like people with rough faces, long beards, wearing bearskins, furs and black leather. No such thing. Not by far. Okay, Vikings were a kind of cousins. And yes, probably the Frisians were tall given the fact till this day people from the coasts of former Frisia are still the tallest people on earth. If you have any doubt whether the latter is true or not, just take a quick look at the current Minister of Finance in the Netherlands who is a descendant from this region, and we say no more. Or else read our blog post The Giants of Twilight Land. Contrary to the black-fur image, the tall men of the north were not insensitive to fashion. And, that is an understatement. Rather, they were dressed in fancy, colorful and fine fabrics. In fact, they are the dandy predecessors of Karl Lagerfield and of Viktor and Rolf, although probably a bit less refined.

So, let's dig into the art of cloth-making, especially into this famous pallia Fresonica where everyone was bragging about 1,200 years ago, and see who these Frisian sissy-boys with swag were.

1. linen

The feel for fashion of the Germanic people of the north and the quality of cloth they produced, was already noticed by the Romans. It is the over-frequently cited Plinius the Elder who wrote in the first century, that the most distant tribes the Cadurci, Caleti, Ruteni, Bituriges and the Morini produced linen. He also wrote specifically that the enemies of the Romans across the river Rhine wove cloth and their women were dressed in the most beautiful (linen) clothes.

'Hilde' fourth century, near Castricum, the Netherlands

Archaeological research has been carried out concerning the production of linen in the coastal zone of the Wadden Sea. Linen is made from the fibers of the flax plant (Linum usitatissimum) consisting mainly of cellulose. Cellulose degrades easy in wet conditions and therefore nearly no Roman Period or early-medieval remains of linen cloth have been found at the southern coastal area of the North Sea. Nevertheless, products of flax, especially linseed and threshing remains, have been found in the terp region (a terp being an artificial raised dwelling mound; read our blog post How to build a terp in 12 steps) quite abundantly. Thanks to experimental research, it has been established flax does grow on higher parts of salt marshes, although a bit less enthusiastic and abundantly than on its preferred more calcareous, porous and better drained soil.

Furthermore, the early-medieval stuff you certainly will find at your spade when randomly turning over a clay sod in the north of Germany and of the Netherlands are, besides boring jewelry and sceattas, countless spindle whorls and loom weights. These whorls and weights all have a unique shape and were produced at the dwelling itself. With these finds, together with finds of -among other- tools used for scutching, it is safe to assume the flax plant was also grown for the weave production from ca. 500 BC onward.

Linen can be produced in different colors depending on the technique of retting you apply. Retting is the process of rotting away cellular tissues and pectin with moisture, mostly with a kind of water bath. Whether you use running water of the river, shallow basins filled with sweet water, deeper basins filled with sweet water or basins filled with sea water, each technique will result in a different color.

female dress of bog body, Djursland, Denmark, ca. 350-40 BC

According to the local legend of the hamlet of Firdgum in the northwest of province Friesland in the Netherlands, and an area where before the potato was introduced in the seventeenth century mainly flax was grown, even the Pope in Rome walked around in cloths made in Firdgum. Just so you know. Read also our blog post Know where to find your sweet potato.

2. wool

Things really took off in Frisia with wool in the seventh century. It is from this century onward that pallia Fresonica was produced with great craftsmanship and in large quantities. And, it is the internationally renowned Frisia-coast based wool-textile artist Claudy Jongstra who fully stands within this local tradition circa 1,400 years later. As thru-hikers we appreciate woolen products because it prevents us hikers from starting to smell badly for a while longer when on the trail. Although some hikers say when you start to smell bad, it actually means you are having a good time.

salt marshes of the Wadden Sea

Poet Ermoldus Niggelus when he was in exile in Strasbourg (present-day France) during the reign of Louis de Pious in the beginning of the ninth century, wrote that the people of the Vosges were receiving from the Frisians cloaks of diverse colors such as they had not known hitherto. These cloaks were exchanged for goods like wine, wood and corn which the Frisian traders transported down the river Rhine. If you want to have an impression of the magnitude of the trading networks of these selfish merchants of free trade, read our blog post How the Porcupine gave birth to the U.S. buck.

Later that ninth century, Notker Balbulus monk of Saint Gall in present-day Switzerland (also known as 'Notker the Stammerer') wrote that at the Carolingian court pallia Fresonica of -again- various colors were given to the lower orders serving the palace. Notker also described how the Franks imitated the Gaul warriors. The latter were dressed in new Frisian fashionable short, striped cloaks. When Charlemagne found out that the Frisians sold these fashionable albeit little cloaks for the same price as the traditional bigger ones, he forbade buying the smaller pallia Fresonica for the same price. The great strategic Charlemagne motivated his decree in a very intellectual manner:

What is the good of those little napkins? In bed I cannot have sex under it. And, when I am on horseback, I cannot protect myself from wind and rain. And, when I have to relief myself, I suffer because my willy freezes off.

Charlemagne apparently was not ready yet for new trends in fashion. Or, he treasured his moments of sex and relief too much. Or, as historian Van der Tuuk has suggested, were it clever Frisian merchants maximizing their profits? Besides this, Charlemagne apparently had an obsession with cloaks and cloak sizes since he also complained to the King Offa of Mercia about the size of cloaks Offa had send him. Charlemagne was a big man in many aspects.

The Frisians did not merely produce fashion for the big markets and for mass-consumption. They produced different qualities also suitable for high-end markets. As mentioned at the start of this blog post, pallia Fresonica was one of the gifts that could be presented during diplomatic missions abroad. Part of easing relations between the worlds of the Christians and of the Saracens. One of the rulers who received from Charlemagne the highly prized cloaks from Frisia was none other than the fifth Abbasid Caliph of Baghdad, Harun al-Rashid. He received pallia Fresonica in the colors white, grey, red and blue. The gift Charlemagne received from the Caliph was a single elephant. Sounds impressive still maybe, but better give the wool than the sheep, as the saying goes in the cold and capitalist world in the North-West.

The thing you need in order to produce pallia Fresonica are sheep. Heaps of sheep. Research has shown that during the Roman Period the percentage of sheep as part of the total livestock in Frisia increased. Maybe because of increase of demand for woolen products by the Romans. Very roughly one can say that the share of sheep doubled from around a fifth to around a third of the total livestock at the salt marshes. During the Merovingian (ca. AD 450-750) and Carolingian (ca. AD 750-900) periods, the percentage of sheep increased even further to three-quarters of the total stock. Although from AD 900 the percentage sheep dropped to more or less fifty percent, till this day sheep are everywhere along the Wadden Sea coast. But not only in the former terp region of northern Netherlands (Mid Frisia) and of Ostfriesland (East Frisia) in Germany there was sheep and wool. Of course, also in the northeast of England and in Scotland. Here woolen cloaks were produced too and they are famous for their woolen cloaks till this day. Indeed: tweed. However, there is no direct proof of wool export from England until the early twelfth century. Only the place name Woolwich might indicate wool was traded from there (Ekwall, 1964). Or, we add, traded from Frisia to there?

About four centuries after the heyday of pallia Fresonica, more to the south the region Flanders became famous for its version of pallia Fresonica. This was from the eleventh century onwards. But the product was re-branded as Flemish laken or Flemish broadcloth. The name pallia Fresonica got into oblivion. No need to get a copyright anymore.

Besides wool, you need paint. The plant common madder (Rubia tinctorum) was used to dye the cloaks red. To dye cloaks blue, the plant woad (Isatis tinctoria) was being used. All very environmental friendly production techniques regaining popularity today.

It is ill shaving against the wool, and several scholars in the Netherlands had to overcome their general uneasiness exquisite things can originate from salt-marsh cultures too. Quite recently they reached consensus that pallia Fresonica was not only distributed and sold by Frisian merchants in the wider North Sea region, but also that it, in fact, was being produced in Frisia. 'Made in Frisia' therefore might have been on the label. Frisia, an area covering by then more or less the Wadden Sea coastal zone of Germany and of the Netherlands and most of the Netherlands’ North Sea coast as well. Excavations and archaeological finds of textiles in both Germany and the Netherlands have been convincing to accept the local production of broadcloth. In early-medieval northeast England, as said already, and at Iceland broadcloth was produced too. Archaeological research based on wool-isotopic composition has shown that in each region of the North Sea both local and non-local wool was being used for the production of textiles. Therefore, also reconfirming the interactions within the wider North-Sea culture. Early-medieval production of broadcloth in what is now Belgium receives till this day no support from archaeology.

The commercial importance of the production of pallia Fresonica in Frisia is also clear from the severe penalties for destroying a barn for weaving, being mostly a small pit house called in Old Frisian a screona (a Grubenhaus in German language or a hutkom in Dutch language, or also called a sunken-featured building SFB in sophisticated historian's language). Another specific penalty existed for hitting the hand of a woman weaving broadcloth called fresum. These penalties are codified in the Lex Frisionum written at ca. AD 790. Destroying a screona meant you even had to face the death penalty. We can safely conclude that fresum or pallia Fresonica was therefore a key commodity for the population of Frisia. Here is the relevant article of the Lex Frisionum, protecting craftsmanship vigorously:

Qui harpatorem, qui cum circulo harpare potest, in manum percusserit, componat illud quarta parte maiore compositione, quam alteri eiusdem conditionis homini. Aurfici similiter. Feminae fresum facienti similiter.

Who hits the hand of a harp-player, who can play harp in a circle (audience), pays with a fourth bigger fine, as with another man of the same status. Goldsmiths likewise. Women making fresum likewise.

By the way, the fact pit houses or SFBs were sunk partly into the wet ground, meant humidity stayed at a high and constant level which is needed for the production of woolen broadcloth. An SFB had a ground surface of around sixteen square meters. The number of SFBs increased at the tidal marshlands, or terp region, during the fifth century with the new Anglo-Saxon settlers, the new Frisians. The terp dwellers from before the Migration Periode also had pit houses, but they are mainly known at the higher sandy soils of present-day province Drenthe during the Roman Period. Below a recently reconstructed pit house at the terp of the hamlet of Firdgum in province Friesland. By the way, convenient slam bam along the Frisia Coast Trail (here are the trail directions). Check out the website of the nice little museum in Firdgum to read more about this project. Further below a reconstruction drawing of a loom by Van Gorp.

SFB or pit house reconstructed at Firdgum, Netherlands
SFB or pit house reconstruction by Van Gorp

The pallia Fresonica had specific weaving patterns, namely the standard diamond twill. Already from the first century this was the standard twill for woolen cloth in the North Sea region. The pallia Fresonica had a completely different texture than that of the Flemish laken which followed four centuries later. The pallia Fresonica was thinner and had a more complex weave, among others. In the Early Middle Ages too, a completely different use of textiles has been found above and south of the big rivers of the Netherlands, at least if you look at textiles found in graves. In the north, the traditional diamond twill was popular. Possibly marking different cultural backgrounds of the North Sea culture and of the continent. That fits other cultural divisions between north and south of the big rivers. For example the different house-building traditions. But, also in the legal systems. North of the big rivers all the way into Scandinavia the asega jurisdiction was the prevailing legal system, whilst south of the rivers this was the schepen jurisdiction. The latter (Schepen) being -let's say- a magistrate/government official and the first (Asega) being a commoner who was specialized in the law and proceedings of judgement, but he had no higher authority, and was not the judge.

diamond twill

For the record, some UK-based scholars plea in favor of a theory Frisian cloth was not produced in Frisia but solely distributed by Frisians merchants (Campbell, 2003). He, however, does not deal with the abovementioned aspect from livestock, archaeological findings, isotopic research, Frisian early-medieval law etc. Basically, the stretched arguments are: "Why not? and if King Offa gave cloth to Charlemagne, all other cloth including the pallia Fresonica, must have been coming from Britain too". Why cloth, or any other trade product for that matter, adopts the name of the merchants, is not explained either. Not quite logic, since a buyer prefers to know the origin of the maker and not who is selling it. That gives not much information in the trade. That is now the case and it was probably then too. Indeed, history and archaeology is often politics

3. leather

The fancy Frisians also had a taste for elegant shoes. Especially in the terp region in the north of the Netherlands a very elegant type of leather shoe has been found, dating from the fifth century. The shoes were made out of one piece of leather and had no separate sole. Read more about (these) shoes in our blog post Boots made for walkin’.

So, now it is time to present you the idle Frisians

Well that must be a shock! That is quite a different appearance from TV series The Last Kingdom or from the TV series Vikings or from the movie Redbad that will hit the silver screen summer this year soon. They might even have more in common with the more contemporary detectives Sunny Crockett and Ricardo Tubbs of the TV series Miami Vice in the '80s. Imagine Ray-Ban sunglasses with their outfits and the comparison is complete. It were sharp-dressed men in colorful outfits of the most expensive cloth to be found in the wider region at that time. Probably always terrified their slick clothes would become dirty from smelly mud of the salt marsh or became wet and out of model from the sea or constant rains. Of course, having a different hat for each occasion etc etc. Oh, vanity of vanities. All is vanity!

Nevertheless, their products were a big success for all levels of societies around the globe. And, the money they earned with it correspondingly. Even against the will of the illustrious Charlemagne. Yes, even handsome superheroes like Thor and Superman were inspired by the ruby-red cloaks of high quality. Haute couture from the salt marshes.

S W A G

By the way, the fashion tradition of the Frisians did not end in the Early Middle Ages. In the twelfth century, the Frisians were still known for their vainglory with clothing. Wearing golden and silver fibulae made of Almohad coins or copies thereof to show off they had been participating in the Crusades. Read also our blog post Foreign Terrorist Fighters from the Wadden Sea. But later still. The Hausbuch manuscript of the Frisian chieftain (called Häuptling, haadling or hoofdeling) Unico Manninga from Ostfriesland (East Frisia) near the town of Norden in Germany of ca. AD 1560. The manuscript contains many colored representations of the well-known very, very exuberant Frisian costume. Again, different hats for different occasions.

a Frisian, sixteenth century

Of course, less elegant examples of Frisian dress existed too. In AD 1907 in Hogehahn near Aurich Ostfriesland), a bog body was unearthed during peat cutting, It was dated seventh/eighth century. The tunic of this individual, the so-called Bernuthsfeld Man, was composed of many patches of cloth stitched together. In total 43 patches of 19 different types of fabrics. Theories are that this cloth-Frankenstein was a kind of tramp or wanderer.

Note. If interested in reproductions of pallia Fresonica (or friesischen Tuch in German language) look at the website of Kjarni Willison, Nordmann zwischen den Welten, in Germany.

Suggestions for music:

David Bowie, Fashion, Scary Monster and Super Creeps (1980)

ZZ Top, Sharp Dressed Man, Eliminator (1985)

Further reading:

Brandenburgh, C.R., Early medieval textile remains from settlements in the Netherlands. An evaluation of textile production (2009)

Brandenburgh, C.R., Clothes make the man. Early medieval textiles from the Netherlands (2016)

Dijkstra, M.F.P., Rondom de mondingen van Rijn en Maas. Landschap en bewoning tussen de 3de en 9de eeuw in Zuid-Holland, in het bijzonder de Oude Rijnstreek (2011)

Driel-Murray, D. van & Plicht, van der H., Het gelijk van Boeles: schoenvondsten uit de Friese terpen (2016)

Gorp, van P.J.M., Friese mantels, een wolnijverheid van voor Christus tot in de 11de eeuw (1986)

Goscinny, R. & Uderzo, A., Obelix & Co (1976)

Heeren, S. & Willemsen, A., Fibula's. Vondsten, vormen & mode (2017)

Holstein, von I.C.C. & Rogers, P.W. & Craig, O.E. & Penkman, K.E.H. & Newton, J., Provenancing archaeological wool textiles from medieval northern Europe by light stable isotope analysis δ13C, δ15N, δ2H (2016)

Hullegie A. & Prummel, W., Dieren op en rond de Achlumer terp (2015)

Jørgensen, L., Manor and Market at Lake Tissø in the Sixth to Eleventh Centuries: The Danish 'Productive' Sites (2003)

Leyser, H., A short history of the Anglo-Saxons (2017)

Nicolay, J. Nieuwe bewoners van het terpengebied en hun rol bij de opkomst van Fries koningschap. De betekenis van gouden bracteaten en bracteaatachtige hangers uit Friesland (vijfde-zevende eeuw na Chr.) (2005)

Nieuwhof, A., Vlas in Ezinge: de herkenbaarheid van linnenproductie in het terpengebied (2017)

Pestell, T. & Ulmschneider, K., Markets in Early Medieval Europe. Trading and 'Productive' Sites, 650-850 (2003)

Postan, M.M., The Cambridge Economic History of Europe: agrarian life in the Middle Ages (1966)

Prummel, W., Lezing: Terpenarcheologie op het archeologiecongres de Reuvensdagen in Groningen (2013)

Scheenstra, N., Kleding en accessoires, blog (2018)

Schepers, M., Gebruiksplanten in het terpen- en wierdengebied (2016)

Schokker, J., Insigne van een kruisvaarder? Over een pronkfibula gevonden nabij Uithuizen (2018)

Stracke, J.C., Altfriesische Trachten nach dem Hausbuch des Unico Manninga (1967)

Tuuk, van L., De eerste Gouden Eeuw. Handel en scheepvaart in de vroege middeleeuwen (2011)

Wochnik, P., Einfach königlich; Der kostbare Goldschmuck der Osfriesinnen (2019)

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