One of history’s enlightening hikes, that of Bernlef
Updated: Jun 23
No, this blog post is not about the Westfrisian writer Hendrik Jan Marsman (1937-2012, the Netherlands) whose pen-name was Bernlef. Nor is this blog post about the student corporation Bernlef in the city of Groningen in the Netherlands. This is all about the original: the bard and harp player Bernlef who lived somewhere between AD 760 and 840.
"Thô gifragn ic," as medieval bards used to start when telling or singing a tale in front of an audience. Similar to the Old High German song of Hildebrand which starts with 'ik gihôrta ðat seggen'. Both part of an ancient oral tradition. Thô gifragn ic is Old Saxon meaning 'so I heard'. And, that is how we shall start this blog post too.
thô gifragn ic
Efforts to convert the heathen Frisians started with the Franks. It was in AD 630 that the Frankish King Dagobert I took the initiative to build a small church in Trajectum, modern city of Utrecht in the centre of the Netherlands. Possibly for the sake of the Frankish soldiers stationed there. Soon after, King Dagobert instructed bishop Cunibert of Cologne to use this little church as the outpost to convert the Frisians. It all was without achieving any lasting results.
From then on, the Anglo-Saxon clergy stepped in, notably monk Ecgberht of Ripon from the monastery Rath Melsigi, also Rathmelsigi, in Ireland. This was the end of the seventh century (read our blog post The Abbey of Egmond and the rise of the Gerulfings to read more about the conversion of the Frisians by the Anglo-Saxon monks). Monk Ecgberht, has been described as "that rather shadowy Northumbrian nobleman who spent most of his life as a voluntary exile in Ireland" (Meyr-Harting, 1991).
Saint Willibrord came from Northumbria and was educated at the monastry of Rath Melsigi in Ireland. He became the Archbishop of the Frisians and he put the monastic life central in his efforts, in line with the Irish ecclastical tradition. Willibrord started his mission among the Frisians at the end of the seventh century until he died in AD 739.
One of the many Anglo-Saxon clergy who also gave it try to convert the pagan Frisians, was monk Winfrid, better known as Saint Boniface. Boniface had made some efforts to work in Frisia, among others in the region river Vecht, but with no avail. Above, during the life of Willibrord, cooperation between Archbishop Willibrord and the by then still missionary priest Boniface, did not work out at all. Boniface was drilled in Roman canon law and focussed to organise Frisia into a proper church organisation. Willibrord, in contrast, was as said formed by the Irish tradition of monastic life, wandering and preaching the gospel; the missionary peregrinatio. The characters of pushing-paper versus woolly-shepherd, did not go well together (Wagenaar, 2006). So, Boniface really stepped in after Willibrord was dead and gone, but also after the Franks had expanded their control over Frisia.
Boniface was murdered by the Frisians with a blow of an axe in AD 754. Saint Boniface tried to fend the axe with the Holy Bible, but in vain. The supposedly original, axe-damaged bible is kept in the town of Dokkum in the north of the Netherlands. Perhaps the Frisians saw the irony, since Boniface had felled with also an axe the holy Donar Oak of their heathen cousins the Saxons in Hessen, Germany in the year AD 723. What goes around comes around.
The real reason why the Frisians killed Boniface together with fifty-one members of his fellowship, might be the fact that the Frisians felt threatened. Frisian rulers before, in fact, never really had any problems with Anglo-Saxon monks preaching the gospel in their lands. Not without reason Saint Willibrord was able to do so for decennia. Probably respecting the existence of pagan rituals and tempels, as was also the official policy of the Vatican in Rome. Saint Boniface, however, had a different nature and confronting approach. He destroyed heathen temples and trees, and he came with a party of over fifty men to preach the pacifist gospel. Not really building trust. And, according to Frisian custom, destroying a sacred place was punished by death. So, it was even the legal right and obligation to kill this itinerant temple-sacking band of Boniface (Wagenaar, 2006). Besides the way Boniface apporached the Frisians, it were also vertigo years, where much blood-shed was going on among the Saxons and Frisians in their bitter conflict with the Franks (see further below).
Now, after all the Frankish and Anglo-Saxon missionaries, it was time for the Frisians to convert the Frisians. It was three decades after Saint Boniface found his peace in Frisia, as described above, that the Frisian missionary Ludger (AD 742-809) went again to northern Frisia too, to convert his still predominantly heathen countrymen. Ludger was a Frisian from the gouw 'shire' Niftarlake. The Niftarlake is the area where the river Vecht flows, i.e. present-day, more or less, region 't Gooi in the Netherlands. Ludger belonged to the influential family of Wurssing (read our blog post Attingahem Bridge to find out more about the river Vecht area). Ludger wisely avoided the inland sea Bordine where his colleague Boniface, acoording to legend, refused to defend himself but with a bible and was murdered. No, Ludger did not accept prompt martyrdom. Therefore, he tried his luck somewhere else, namely at the muddy shores of the Wadden Sea coast of present-day region Ommelanden in province Groningen, instead. Give or take fifty kilometres as the crow flies to the east from where Boniface was murdered. Here he met the beloved blind and pagan bard named Bernlef at the terp village Helewyret (present-day Helwerd). The Frisian singer-of-tales Bernlef had become completely blind three years before. Ludger gave him back the light in his eyes. Together they walked from Helewyret via the terp village Werfhem (present-day Warffum) to the terp village Wyscwyrd (present-day Usquert).
The enlightenment of Bernlef was thus both physical and spiritual. Both literally and metaphorical. For a change it was not achieved by sitting below a bodhi tree in the hot, mountainous and landlocked country Nepal for a long time. Quite the opposite. It was achieved by walking through the mud in a cold, flat and near treeless landscape near the sea, for only half a day or so. Very efficient. This it should not come as a surprise. Walking is in fact a philosophic deed. Whether it are the rougher and wilder hikes of Friedrich Nietzsche or the structured and measured strolls of Immanuel Kant, it is a source of inspiration according to both thinkers. But who are we talking to? dear readers and hikers of the Frisia Coast Trail.
The saints Willibrord, Boniface and Ludger were the most notable missionaries. But, there were more. With monk Ecgberht at of Rath Melsigi in Ireland as the driving force, hordes of Anglo-Saxon missionaris and apostles set off to Frisia from the seventh century onwards. Among them Saint Adalbert and Saint Willibrord, but many many more. Read also our blog post The Abbey of Egmond and the rise of the Gerulfings to learn a bit more about the conversion process of the Frisians. See also some more names the end of this blog post.
We can only guess as to how the pagan believes and heathen shrine looked like. We have the description of the Roman Tacitus of the first century about the Germanic believe. He comments on the search of omens, the casting of lots and the role of women as holy and gifted with the talent of prophecy. Holy places were woods and groves and they did not portray god in human likeness. Then we also have the Indiculus superstitionum et paganiarum, which translates as 'small index of superstitions and paganism'. A text dated mid eighth century. The Indiculus is carfully kept in the Vatican. It is only the summary of a work that has been lost. The summery describes thirty, we think, fascinating heathen practices of the northern Germanic tribes (the Saxons and the Frisians). But because the work itself has been lost, the rituals and practices are difficult to interpret and understand. Again, the casting of lots is one of these, but many more. Check out our blog post Groove is in the Hearth to learn more about the pagan rituals of the old Frisians.
Also part of the same codex in which the Indiculus has been preserved, is a baptismal vow, the so-called Utrecht Vow. There is much discussion about the origin of the text since it contains elements of Old Saxon, Old Frisian, Old English and Old Low Franconian (Old Dutch) languages. Be that as it may, the baptismal vow Saint Boniface and Saint Ludger, and who knows Bernlef too (see below), used was more-or-less as follows:
Do you forsake the Devil? And he should reply: I forsake the Devil
And all Devil's money [offerings]? He should reply: And I forsake all Devil's money
And all Devil's works? He should reply: And I forsake all Devil's works and words, Donar
and Woden and Seaxnot and all those demons who are their followers
Do you believe in God the Almighty Father? I believe in God the Almighty Father
Do you believe in Christ, God's Son? I believe in Christ, God's Son
Do you believe in the Holy Spirit? I believe in the Holy Spirit
Let's return to the historic walk of Saint Ludger and Bernlef. It must have been a twelve kilometers, probably, circular hike. Circular since from the village of Helewyret they first reached the village Werfhem which is located to the west of Helewyret and then the village of Wyscwyrd, which is situated east of Werfhem and north of Helewyret. Also, take into account they must have been chatting a lot and Bernlef’s eyes and brain were still recovering from his former blindness. It must have given him a headache, at least. Lastly, Saint Ludger was in his fifties and Bernlef probably even older. Their pace was slow. Taking all this into account it must have been a walk of give and take five hours. Besides regaining his eyesight, Bernlef also was converted during this stroll and thogether they prayed at a chapel in Wyscwyrd. An efficient walk, indeed.
Et de ore eius procedit gladius ex utraque parte acutus: ut in ipso percutiat gentes
'Coming out of his mouth is a sharp sword with which to strike down the nations/heathens' Book of Revelation 19: 15
If not convinced by the new faith, Bernlef for sure was indebted to Ludger for the rest of his life anyway because of regaining his eyesight. Quid pro quo. Bernlef became the missionary’s strong ally in converting his own people the Frisians in the years that would follow. This strategy turned out to be a silver buckshot. Bernlef, popular under his people and a non-clergy, would baptize infants and small children during the insecure periods caused by the fierce and extremely brutal wars between the Saxons and the Franks when it was not safe for Ludger to travel through rough Frisia anyway. Ludger's efforts, with the help of Bernlef, made the Frisians finally turn their back to their gods Forseti and Wodan. For this achievement Ludger was declared a saint. We are still waiting for the Vatican’s plans with Bernlef, waiting for the apotheosis of the brave Frisian singer-of-tales.
The whole story has been documented by Altifridus episcopus Mimigardefordensis or simply Altfried von Münster for intimates. Altfried (ca. AD 800-849) was a career monk who made it to bishop of Münster. The manuscript is called Vita sancti Liudgeri and provides an account of, needless to say, the exemplary life and wonders of Ludger.
Here is the full story of the hike at ca. AD 789 in original Latin and below an English translation:
Cum euangelizandi gratia in Fresia ad quandam villam nomine Helewyret pervenisset, matrona quaedam Meinsuit nomine excepit illum in domum suam. Et ecce illo discumbente cum discipulis suis, oblatus est ei caecus vocabulo Bernlef, qui a vicinis suis valde diligebatur, eo quod esset affabilis et antiquorum actus regumque certamina bene noverat psallendo promere. Sed per triennium continua caecitate ita depressus est, ut nullum sibi lumen vel extreme visionis remaneret. Quem dum vultu hilari est intuitus, interrogat, si penitentiam a se vellet accipere, acceptaque ab eo huius rei sponsione iussit, ut die crastina veniret ad se. Crastina vero die equitanti viro Dei obvius factus est idem caecus; accepto ergo Dei famulus per frenum eius caballo, duxit eum a turba seorsum et confitenti peccata sua penitentiam indixit. Deinde signum sanctae crucis oculis eius inposuit et tenens manum suam coram eo interrogavit. si aliquid videret. Ipse vero cum magno gaudio dixit, se manum illius posse videre. At ille: 'Age, inquit, omnipotenti Deo gratias.' Sermocinantibus quoque eis de fide catholica de variisque utilitatibus animae, pervenerunt ad villam nomine Werfhem et interrogavit eum, si ipsam potuisset agnoscere. Ille vero statim proprio vocabulo nominavit eam et arbores et queque eius aedificia se bene posse conspicere professus est; ait autem illi: "Omnipotenti Deo age gratias, qui te inluminavit'. Cumque venissent ad villam Wyscwyrd nomine, ubi oratorium erat constructum, fecit eum secum orare et Deo gratias agere constrinxitque eum sacramento, ut ante diem obitus sui nulli causum huiuscemodi inluminationis indicaret. Complevit ille viri Dei praecepta et per dies aliquos caecitatem simulando ducatu alieno utebatur, sed post obitum eius, qualiter fuerit inluminatus, asseruit.
When preaching grace of Frisia [Ludger] arrived at a village called Helewyret to preach there, a lady named Meinsuit welcomed him into her house. And behold while he was sitting at the table, he was introduced to a blind man named Bernlef, who was very popular with his fellow villagers, because he was kind and he was good with the singing and with the harp about the deeds of the ancestors and the military achievements of kings. He had been suffering from blindness for three years, so he had no light in his eyes and had to miss even the smallest vision. While he [Ludger] looked at him kindly; he [Bernlef] asked him if he could hear his confession. He said so and asked him [Bernlef] to come to him the next day. That next day the blind man met the man of God who sat on a horse. The servant of God took his horse by the bridle, led him [Bernlef] away from his retinue. He confessed his sins and was given penitence. Then the sign of the cross on his eyes was made and held his hand up close. him was asked if he saw anything. He replied with great joy that he could see his hand. Then he [Ludger] said: "Come, thank the almighty God." And while they were talking about the Christian faith, they arrived at a village called Werfhem and [Ludger] asked him if he could see it. Immediately he called it by the right name, and stated that he could see the trees and all buildings well. Then he [Ludger] told him: "Thank the almighty God, who has given you the light." And when they arrived at the village of Wyscwyrd, where a chapel was built, he let him [Bernlef] pray with him and thank God. He made him [Bernlef] promise that he would not tell anyone he was unlighted before Ludger's departure; he fulfilled this mission of the man of God. He faked blindness for a few days and was led by someone. After his departure, he explained how he was enlightened.
Three, at least, observations from this text can be made.
(1) A first observation is that Ludger is welcomed by a woman in the village of Helewyret and not by a man. Since a visit of a monk of such a stature from afar must not have been your regular thing up north, this is an interesting fact. The woman by the name Meinsuit is not described as a relative of Bernlef either. Want to know more about the social position of women in this area, read also our blog post Frisian women: free and unbound?
(2) A second observation is that although Bernlef was a heathen still and he later would convert many of his folk himself, apparently some progress had been made already by the Franks in converting the Frisians since at Wyscwyrd a chapel existed already. Archaeological research indicates that at the nearby village of Werfhem a stone church can be traced back to the eleventh century. Wooden churches mostly preceded stone ones at the same spot.
(3) A third and last observation is the parallel with the also blind singer Homer of ancient Greece who lived around 800 BC. A difference with Homer is that no single syllabus of Bernlef’s oeuvre or epic has been saved. The poet without a poem, as he sometimes is called.
Conversion and Second Conversion
This area of fat and fertile clay would in the centuries to come, become the basis of relatively rich, religious houses and cloisters of which the monasteries and houses of Oosterwierum, Oosterwijtwerd, Wijtwerd and, indeed, of Warffum (Werfhem) were examples. Today, the density of churches in the north of Germany and the Netherlands, i.e. the coast of the Wadden Sea, is the highest in the world even. Nowhere are so many medieval churches packed together. But, it took a while to get there.
The first churches in Frisia between the river Vlie and the river Ems were build around AD 900 in the terp villages Bolsward, Dokkum, Farmsum, Ferwerd, Garnwerd, Franeker, Holwerd, Leens, Leeuwarden, Loppersum, Winsum, Tzum and Usquert. Some were built on existing terps 'artificial dwelling mound' and for others a new terp was erected.
The reason for the gap in time between the submission of 'gentes' (i.e. non-Christian people) of Frisia by the 'populus' (i.e. Christian people) of Francia, and the moment the first churches were built, had to do with the still ongoing resistance of their heathen neighbors the Saxons (see further below this blog post). But, also due to the fact the Franks had made an alliance with Viking warlords during the second half of the ninth century to govern big chunks of Frisia. Parts of western Frisia (more precisely, regions Holland and Kennemerland and most of the central river lands) were given in fief to the Viking warlords Rorik of Dorestad and Godfrid Haraldsson the Sea-King. East Frisia (present-day Ostfriesland in Germany) was given in fief to Viking warlord Harald Klak. Leaving Mid Frisia (current provinces Friesland and Groningen) stuck in the middle. It meant the conversion of most of Frisia came to a halt in practice. Only after these dukes annex warlords were gone, Christianization of the Frisians could resume or, indeed, repeated.
It is sometimes called the period of the second conversion or the depth-conversion by historians. It was e.g. bishop Adalbold of Utrecht who complained at the beginning of the eleventh century that the Frisians in the coastal areas criticized Christendom, and nearly nobody appeared during Easter to receive communion. Also, in the eleventh-century archbishop Unwan of Hamburg-Bremen was compelled to cut down holy hedges at the marshlands which were still being worshiped, apparently.
Present-day province Zeeland, also part of Frisia, was ruled by Vikings as well, but this was more a free pirate enterprise. Especially the island the Walcheren. Read our blog post Island the Walcheren: once Sodom and Gomorrah of the North Sea and know also there the inhabitants were slow in being Christianized.
Finally, at the start of the second millennium, Christianization made progress and monastries and churches were being established. Very strikingly when compared to other parts of Europe, women had a strong position in the ecclesiastical life (Mol, 2011). The monastery of Werfhem, its origins traceable to around halfway the thirteenth century, belonged to the Military Order of Saint John and even housed cloistered nuns. Generating funds too for the costly Crusades against 'the infidels'. In the sixteenth century, when the Grand Master of the Order of Saint John was seated at the island of Malta, this order became better known as the Knights of Malta or the Order of Malta. Yes indeed, the Knights of Malta had many effects in Frisia! If you want to know more about the Frisian Crusaders read our blog post Foreign Terrorist Fighters from the Wadden Sea.
In AD 1495 the inhabitants of cloister Werfhem or Warffum were: Commander Rodulphus, two chaplains and around sixty nuns. In AD 1533 the numerous nuns were led by a female prior in the meantime. Men were sent away apparently. The cloister of Warffum was one of the biggest in what is now the Netherlands. It possessed 1,743 hectares of land and an additional 1,000 so-called 'grazen' in peat areas (a gras (sg) was a measure unit. 1 gras is about 1/2 hectare and is enough grass for 1 cow. A 1,000 grazen (pl) is thus enough for about 500 cows). They were prosperous, indeed.
The fact nothing is known about Bernlef's oeuvre leads us to another controversial topic, namely the Bernlefgate. This serious gate started in the '60s of the last century ánd, no kidding, is still going on. Mid-Frisian (modern province Friesland, the Netherlands) scholars suggest that the monumental Old Saxon manuscript Heliand (meaning Savior) of which the author is unknown, was actually written by Bernlef. The Heliand is a rhymed version of the Diatessaron of Tatian; the gospel harmony of the four gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, dating from the second century. When looking at the size of things, the Heliand with exactly 5,983 long-line verses is comparable with the works of the blind bard Homer. Homer’s famous Iliad consists of ca. 7,000 verses and the Odyssey of ca. 5,500 verses. Size does matter. The Heliand was written sixteen centuries later than Homer's works, namely at the beginning of the ninth century. A time slot that could fit -or does not dismiss- the theory of Bernlef being the author of the Heliand. However, the Heliand is dated between AD 825-850 making Bernlef a very old man. The non-Dutch scholars think it is more likely the Heliand is written by monks anyway. Also, since the Diatessaron was translated and available in the monastery of Fulda. In any case, the critics from German historians are merciless and dismiss the Mid-Frisian scholars for being unscientific romantics. And, that is saying it friendly and diplomatic. However, also Anglo-Saxon scholars degrade the Mid-Frisian scholars and say the writer of the Heliand was a not a layman but most certainly a theologically trained cleric (Green, 2003).
We will await, if ever, the outcome of this identity, oeps sorry, scientific debate with interest. For now we cannot help to be reminded to the book title of the aforementioned Westfrisian writer Marsman alias Bernlef, namely 'Hersenschimmen' meaning something like phantasms or hjernespind.
It is because of the Vita sancti Liudgeri we know that Frisia too had a culture of bards singing about the heroic deeds of great ancestors. Just like it is described in the Old-English epic Beowulf when bards recite and sing during gatherings in halls and longhouses, for example singing the tale about how Hengest betrayed the young Frisian King Finn. Also, the Lex Frisionum, codified customary law of Frisia by order of Charlemagne at the end of the eighth century, includes a specific high sanction on assaulting a harp player. This is the text of the Lex Frisionum that apparently still knew the value of craft and art:
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 (broadcloth) likewise.'
But not only these contemporary texts of Altfried and the Lex Frisionum give away the existence of bards and of an oral culture. Archaeological research in the terp region in the northwest of Germany and in the north of the Netherlands has shown music instruments existed, including harps but also flutes. Excavated pieces of harp reveal a model similar to the early seventh century harp or lyre found at Sutton Hoo in East Anglia.
Sometimes lines are being drawn through history that are of a divine nature
The famous modern Frisian (i.e. present-day province Friesland) poet Tsjêbbe Hettinga (1949-2013) was, believe it or not, blind. Just like his colleague Bernlef 1,200 years earlier, he too became blind at a older age. The amazement does not end here. In a film documentary of the Frisian filmmaker Pieter Verhoeff about Tsjêbbe Hettinga, he visits his parents' old farmstead where his brother still lives. By the way, his brother is getting blind as well. Besides all the impressive implicit silent-suffering you can hear in their voices and read on their faces and in their blind eyes, Tsjêbbe Hettinga and his younger brother tell with great passion and admiration about a beautiful horse both had known when they were kids. That was end '60s. Yes, a shining black Friesian. It was such a magnificent horse in character, in walking and in appearances. Still, their father had tried to sell the animal on five different occasions. But each time he felt remorse afterwards and bought back the horse from the new owner. Of course, for more money then he had sold the animal. The end of the story was that the horse carried their deceased father to the graveyard. Like it was inevitable and predestined. Watch the intense silence when they have told this part of their lives in the documentary. And the name of the horse? Indeed, Bernlef... We did not make it up.
If you like, watch the short impressive fragment of this documentary titled 'Yn dat sykjen sûnder finen' (within that searching without finding; a strophe of one of Tsjêbbe Hettinga's poems) by clicking here. With the above in mind, try to keep your own seeing eyes dry. We have not succeeded.
We leave the blind poets Homer and Hettinga behind and turn back to the other blind poet where this blog post is about: Bernlef. Where did he and Saint Ludger hike? We mean, what did the world look like back then?
ienst den salta se ende ienst den wilda witzenges floed
'against the salty sea and against the wild Vikings' flood' (old Frisian law; Schoutenrecht)
It were not the most quiet years. The Frisians had battled against the imperialistic Franks for a century or so, but had lost the emporium Dorestat (present-day town of Wijk bij Duurstede, the Netherlands) and their freedom in the first half of the eighth century at the decisive battle of the Bordine in Mid Frisia, present-day province of Friesland. Successively, the Franks tried to convert the gentes of Frisia. That came with violence and struggle of which the famous murder of Saint Boniface in AD 754 was likely a part too. It was not without reason the Frankish poet Ermoldus Nigellus described King Charles Martel as Frisonum Marte magister meaning 'with Mars' help master of the Frisians'.
The neighboring Saxons still put up the toughest fight against the Franks and during their incursions in the early AD 750s the Saxons burned thirty churches. King Pepin the Short in respons ravaged Saxonia in AD 753. However, it was his son, the famous Charlemagne, who was utterly ruthless. In AD 772 he destroyed the sacred tree Irminsul 'giant pillar' of the Saxons and carried off the gold and silver of this sanctuary. Just as Ludger would do a bit later when he ruined the Frisian pagan temples of the god Fosite on the island Heligoland in the German Bight in ca. AD 785 (read our blog post Liudger, the first Frisian apostle). The gold and silver carried off from Heligoland was divided between Charlemagne and Saint Ludger. Two-third for Charlemagne and the rest, still nice to have and worth the efforts, for Saint Ludger. In AD 782 Charlemagne beheaded no less than 4,500 Saxons at Verden.
Notwithstanding, or because of, these genuine war crimes the Westphalian (Saxon) nobleman Widukind revolted against the Franks in the years AD 784 and 785 again. Typically, the Frisians joined this heathen commander in a final attempt to shake off Frankish domination (and the new religion?). But the Franks were victorious against both tribes. In AD 798 the Saxons of the region Nordalbingia (meaning 'north of Elbe') were defeated in the Battle of Bornhöved or Schlacht auf dem Sventanafeld by prince Thrasco of the Obrodites (a West-Slavic people) in an alliance with the Franks. During this battle between 3,000 and 4,000 Saxons lost their lives. The submission of the last Saxon tribe is commonly fixed at AD 804. In this year Charlemagne deported and dispersed the Nordliudi 'north people' from north of the river Elbe. Indeed, ethnic cleansing is of all times.
Not only the armies of the Franks were a threat for the Frisian people. The nearby Danes became a threat too. The Scandinavian tribes had just started their infamous Viking campaign that would last for two centuries. Notably the Viking attack on Frisia in the year AD 810, in this very coastal area of Bernlef, would stir things up. The Norsemen made the inhabitants pay a tribute of a two-hundred pound of silver, which would be equivalent to the weregild 'man-price' of thirty-six freemen. Probably the Danes tried to push back the Franks and made a statement about whose sphere of influence Frisia really was. Comparable to statements still being made in the twenty-first century in the Kaukasus and near the Black Sea. The presence of the Danes in East Frisia continued until AD 884 after the battle of Norditi (also Slacht bei Nordendi) when the Frisians were victorious and pushed the heathen Vikings out of East Frisia for good. According to Adam of Bremen's Gesta hammaburgensis ecclesiae pontificum no less than 10,377 Vikings lost their lives during the battle. Read our blog post A Theelacht. What a great idea! to learn more about this disastrous battle for the Vikings.
The fact that during the eighth century, after the incorporation of Frisia (and Saxonia) into the Frankish kingdom, there is an increase in weapon gifts (swords and shields especially) in graves along the North Sea coasts of Germany and of the Netherlands in comparison with the centuries before, is generally regarded as an expression of a period of social and political unrest. A period the warrior culture and warrior identity became more prominent.
Around the time of all these troubles and without a doubt well aware of all the massive bloodshed, Ludger and Bernlef were having their stroll at the muddy Wadden Sea coast. Maybe they even discussed the political situation.
The natural landscape was just as tumultuous as were the politics then. Herewyret, Wyscwyrd and Werfhem were villages at the very edge of the land in the gouw 'shire' called Hunsingo in present-day province Groningen (i.e. region Ommelanden) in the Netherlands. It is the coastal zone between the estuaries of the river Lauwers and the river Ems. Even more precise, the area between the river Hunze and the river Fivel, two rivers that have disappeared (mostly) from today's landscape. Shire Hunsingo owes its name to the river Hunze flowing out in the Wadden Sea at the present-day village of Pieterburen. Shire Fivelingo, east of Hunzingo, owes its name to the river Fivel that flowed via the present-day village Westeremden to the river Ems.
Much of the coastal brim of Frisia consisted of wide salt marshes, clay soils that were flooded by the sea quite regularly. An area that was intersected with numerous meandering sea creeks, estuaries, countless inlets, bays and small rivers carrying sweet water from peaty inlands to the sea. The land was regularly flooded since big dykes did not exist yet around AD 800. The construction of more 'heavy' dykes would take another two centuries. Thus, imagine flat, wet treeless grasslands filled with mainly white sheep and small brown cows.
Save me, O God,
for the waters have come up to my neck.
I sink in the miry depths,
where there is no foothold.
I have come into the deep waters;
the floods engulf me.
Rescue me from the mire,
do not let me sink;
deliver me from those who hate me,
from the deep waters.
Do not let the floodwaters engulf me
or the depths swallow me up
or the pit close its mouth over me.
Psalm 69: 1-2 & 14-15
For protection against the sea and the collection of sweet water, people build terps. Terps -although the names 'wierde' or 'Warft' would be more appropriate for province Groningen- are artificial dwelling mounds. Read our blog post about these mounds already existing for nearly a millennium in the area at that time. Werfhem was one of the bigger terps of the region and, together with Wyscwyrd, situated on a salt-marsh ridge. Only on top of these settlement mounds some trees and bushes could grow, like hazel, elder and willow. Also, some crops and herbs were grown on the slopes of the terp. So, when Bernlef saw the trees of Werfhem, know that trees were actually very scarce in this salty environment and it likely must have been one of these species. In the villages many big dogs, some pigs and chickens walked around to make the picture more complete (want to know more about these Frisian dogs? read our blog post How to bury your mother-in-law).
We assume the walk took place during summer or just before or after. Only this time of year weather would permit travelling through this wet sea area that time. Avoiding the storms and floods in late autumn, winter and early spring. The Frisians were sea traders as well, with a still very strong supra-regional trading network covering most of northwestern Europe. If it was indeed summer when Bernlef and Ludger had their walk, these Frisian free-traders must have been away because that was also the sailing season for doing trade. So, near the terps there must have been landing platforms for boats, although the bigger ships were at sea in Scandinavia or East England making a profit. Perhaps explaining why the woman called Meinsuit introduced Bernelf to Ludger. Her husband was away at sea for trade.
Maybe Ludger and Bernlef also saw men and families preparing their ships to leave for what is now Kreis district North Frisia -or Nordfriesland- just south of the Danish-German border. It was in fact in this period that the first wave of colonists from Frisia (re)populated the islands Amrum, Föhr, Sylt, Utholm, Westerhever and Everschop. The latter three islands would be united to form the peninsula Eiderstedt in the High Middle Ages. Find more information about the phases and origins of the colonization of North Frisia in our blog post The beacons of North Frisia.
More inland behind the salt-marsh area were immense peat areas, like anywhere else in Frisia. Archaeological research shows that already in the ninth century commercial and systematic extraction of sea salt from peat soil had started. Salt was mined from region Westfriesland around the present-day town of Medemblik (province Noord Holland) in the Netherlands to the estuary of the river Jade in Germany. This activity has had a profound influence on the coastal landscape, even as we know it today. The land inland shrunk and declined, becoming very vulnerable for the grasp of the waterwolf or Blanke Hans. Around AD 800 during a phase of transgression, the sea washed away a lot of land at the mouth of the river Lauwers. Significantly accelerating enlargement of the Lauwers Sea. A process that already had started in the seventh century. Probably the continuous mining of salt in this region contributed to this increasing loss of land even more than the period of transgression. The great flood in the winter of AD 838 on Saint Stephan's Day would fundamentally reshape much of the land of Frisia. According to the ninth century Annals of Saint Bertin a very specific 2,437 people drowned during this flood. But this new tragedy was yet to come when Ludger and Bernlef had their peaceful walk.
* * *
We enjoyed telling you this remarkable continuum in history of Bernlefs and blind bards. Enjoyed telling a new tale about tale-makers. We placed the stroll of reflection between a heathen harp player and a monk within a natural and social environment that was truly vertigo. Look at it this walk any way you like because many different angles are possible. Sing your own tale! At the very least we hope this blog post gives you a sense of place when re-hiking the hike of these two historic gents during stage 5 of the Frisia Coast Trail.
If you are anxious to learn more about bishop and Saint Ludger and the different faces that can be attributed to him, read our blog post Liudger, the first Frisian apostle. Saint Ludger was in a way an anomaly during the conversion of the Frisians since it were mainly Ango-Saxon missionaris who, as said above, were mostly the doing the job of converting the Frisians, with the Anglo-Saxon monk Ecgberht of Ripon (who died in AD 729) from the monastery of Rath Melsigi in Ireland as the primary driving force behind it. This because of the old kinship between the Frisians and the Anglo-Saxons, at least according to the Northumbrian Venerable Bede (AD 672-735). We just mention the missionaris Wilfrith of York, Willibrord from Northumbria, Adalbert, Wynfrith from Crediton (also known as Boniface), Wihtbert, Wigbert, Lebuinus (also known as Liafwin and patron of the town of Deventer) and Swithberht.
Further reading (and watching):
Bottema-Mac Gillavry, N., Hout, houtskool en niet-verhoute planten: van houten paal tot gedraaid touw (2015)
Brooks, S. & Harrington, S., The Kingdom of Kent AD 400-1066. Their history and archaeology (2010)
Diekamp, W., Die Vitae Sancti Liudgeri (1881)
Dijkstra, M.F.P., Rondom de mondingen van Rijn & Maas. Landschap en bewoning tussen de 3de en de 9de eeuw in Zuid-Holland, in het bijzonder de Oude Rijnstreek (2011)
Eijnatten, van J. & Lieburg, van F., Nederlandse religiegeschiedenis (2005)
Green, D.H. & Siegmund, F. (ed), The Continental Saxons from the Migration Period to the tenth century. An Ethnographic Perspective (2003); Green, D.H., Three aspects of the Old Saxon biblical epic, the Heliand (2003)
Gros, F., Marcher, une philosophie (2013)
Henstra, D.J., The evolution of the money standard in medieval Frisia. A treatise on the history of the systems of money of account in the former Frisia (c.600-c.1500) 1999
Hettinga, Tsj., Het vaderpaard. It faderpaard. Alle gedichten (2017)
IJssennagger, N.L., Between the Frankish and the Vikings: Frisia and Frisians in the Viking Age (2017)
Jansen, S. & Lokven, van M., Rivierenland. Nederland van Aa tot Waal (2018)
Knol, E. & Vos, P., Lauwerszee (2018)
Looijenga, A. & Popkema, A. & Slofstra B., Een meelijwekkend volk. Vreemden over Friezen van de oudheid tot de kerstening (2017)
Meeder, S., & Goosmann, E., Redbad. Koning in de marge van de geschiedenis (2018)
Mol. J.A., De Friese volkslegers tussen 1480 en 1560 (2017)
Mol, J.A., Vechten, bidden en verplegen. Opstellen over de ridderorden in de Noordelijke Nederlanden (2011)
Nicolay, J., Pelsmaeker, S., Bakker, A., Aalbersberg, G. & Nieuwhof, A., Godlinze: van krijgersgraf tot adelijke borg (2018)
Nicolay, J., Het kweldergebied als cultuurlandschap: een model (2015)
Nicolay, J., Nieuwhof, A., Veenstra, H. & Bakker, A., Warffum: dorpswierde, boerderijplaats en Oude dijk (2018)
Nieuwenhuijsen, K. Lex Frisonum. Inleiding (2010)
Timmermann, U., Nordfriesische Ortsnamen (2001)
Saupe, H.A., Der Indiculus Superstitionum Et Paganiarum. Ein Verzeichnis Heidnischer Und Aberglaubischer Gebrauchte Und Meinungen Aus Der Zeit Karls Grossen (1891)
Tuuk, van der L., De lier van Trossingen 7, website Het Viking langhuis (2018)
Tuuk, van der L., Radbod. Koning in twee werelden (2018)
Veenbaas, R., Caedmon on the Continent: The Heliand Prefaces and Bernlef (2017)
Verhoeff, P., Yn dat sykjen sûnder finen. Film documentary (2006)
Vredendaal, van J., Heliand; een Christusgedicht uit de vroege middeleeuwen (2006)
Wagenaar, H., Boniface and the Frisian Lands Revisited. Outline of a Precarious Historical Relationship (2006)
Wagenaar, H., Liudger, apostel fan de Friezen? (2011)
Weringh, van J.J., Liudger, Bernlef, Heliand & het Drie-Koningenverhaal in der Lage Landen taal van het jaar 815 (1984)
Wiersma, J., Noord-Nederland na de bedijkingen (2018)