• Hans Faber

The United Frisian Emirates and Black Peat

In this blog post we shall explain that the United Arab Emirates might as well be named the United Frisian Emirates. Of course, there are some differences. The Emirate Arabs have camels and goats. The Frisians have cows and sheep. It is hot and dry, instead of wet and cold. And the sea they live at is named Persian Gulf and not North Sea. But here the differences end. Full stop.

The Arab tribes at the Persian Gulf for long lived on trade, copper, pearls and, as every sea-side people, on piracy. It was in 1971 these desert principalities formed the federal state the United Arab Emirates. It were in total seven emirates that joined the federation, namely: Abu Dhabi, Ajman, Dubai, Fujairah, Sharjah, Ras-al-Khaimah and Umm-al-Quwain. All seven Emirates are located at the southern shores of the Persian Gulf.

This is not much different from medieval Frisia. During the High Middle Ages, Frisia was a federation of also seven independent republics: the Seven Sealands as they called themselves. These were: Westfriesland, Westergo, Oostergo, the Stellingenwerven together with Drenthe, the Ommelanden together with the city Groningen, East Frisia, Butjadingen and Dithmarschen. These Seven Sealands were united in the so-called Upstalsboom treaty, 'the treaty of the High Tree'. All Seven Sealands were located at the southern shores of the North Sea. Read our blog post Upstalsboom: why solidarity is not the core of a collective to learn more about this early federation. Concerning piracy? Yes, the Frisians did that too. We only mention Klaus Störtebeker from Termunten (or Wismar?) and Pier Donia aka Grutte Pier from Kimswerd.

The United Arab Emirates have a liberal, economic policy. The federation created economic and tax-free zones to attract international investment and trade. A worldwide trade network has been established, also through air with big commercial airlines like Emirates, Etihad and FlyDubai. Early-medieval Frisia more or less invented free trade. Frisian merchants belong to the founding fathers of economic liberalism. Yes, free trade, free(dom) and Frisian even were synonyms during the Early Middle Ages. And the international trade networks were maybe not global, but certainly the biggest of northwestern Europe, or even of Europe. Frisian seafarers transported their trade over seas and over rivers from Paris to Stockholm and from Trier to London. Read also our blog post Porcupines bore U.S. bucks to know more about these egocentric traders.

And last but not least. Almost sixty years ago oil was found in the area what is now known as the United Arab Emirates. Since then the wealth of the Gulf became unparalleled. At present the United Arab Emirates are the eighth biggest oil producer in the world with a production more than 3,000,000 barrels per day. One barrel is almost 160 litres of oil.

For medieval Frisia it was almost the same. It was not oil but another fossil fuel, namely peat. Some say the slowly sustainable energy (peat grows 10-15 cm over a century). Just like the Gulf Arabs, the Frisians happened to sit on organic gold. "Zwischen Watt und Moor" as the Ostfriesen and Nordfriesen of Germany say. From the mouth of the mighty river Meuse in the Netherlands all the way up along the North Sea coast to the region of Nordfriesland just south of the Danish border, extensive peatlands existed. We estimate at least 25,000 square meters of peatlands. Square meters. We are not talking cubic meters, yet. But easily two meters deep. It were the Frisians that started to exploit these peatlands commercially and, thus, systematically. It supplied the Frisians, and later the Dutch and Germans, with much wealth. From the Early Middle Ages well into modern history. Maybe it was this economic wealth that was the real foundation of the birth of the Netherlands. We will come back to it further bellow.

By the way, the fact the peatlands of (former) Frisia have been fully exploited means that in the process huge amounts of carbon have been unlocked and released into the atmosphere. Peatland ecosystems are in fact one of the most efficient carbon sinks. As far as we know, no scientific estimations have been made yet about the amount of carbon that has been unlocked throughout the centuries of peat exploitation in (former) Frisia. We estimate that it could have been around three billion tonnes of carbon. The Frisian contribution to global warming, melting glaciers and rising sea levels...

Black Peat

We are not going to debate about Black Pete climbing through chimneys to deliver gifts to kids and that way becoming black of soot. No, we will go more in depth about commercial peat exploitation in medieval Frisia, and what it meant for the landscape and even for the Frisian identity.

In the year 961 or 962, the Hispano-Arabic traveler Ibrahim ibn Yaqub from Tortosa in Spain visited Frisia. One of the things he noticed, was that the land was soaked in salt and therefore unfit to bring forth any crops. He further described shepherds who dug out blocks of soil, dried and then burned them. Of course, this was the elegant process of peat cutting. What the purpose was of burning the blocks of soil, early hiker Yaqub did not tell us, or he simply did not understand it.

According to archaeological research, peat cutting started in the coastal zones of what is now Belgium up to the river Oer-IJ in the Netherlands (near Amsterdam) during the Early Iron Age, between 700 BC and 500 BC. The oldest traces of peat cutting in the Netherlands have been found in Polder Westmade (a 'polder' being reclaimed land), between the modern cities of Rotterdam and The Hague. Calculations are that ca. 40,000 cubic meters of peat has been dug out here between 800 BC and 400 BC.

Peat as fuel was (also) needed for commercial production of sea salt. The North Sea with a NaCl (sodium-chloride) percentage of ca. 3.5 provided an endless supply of salt. Of course, if you have saline peat you can extract salt out of that too. Most probably this type of commercial salt production was only introduced in the Early Middle Ages. Before that, peat was solely or primarily used as fuel. Fuel to produce, as said, sea salt at first and later during the Roman Period also for the production of allec (fish sauce) and related garum, and for the production of lime needed for stone constructions. Perhaps salt was needed for tanneries too. Sea salt was being produced in the Early Iron Age at for example De Panne in present-day Belgium and at Monster in present-day the Netherlands.

Large-scale peat-cutting activity during the Roman Period already had its effect on the environment. Big floods of the Flemish coastal zone and of province Zeeland in the Netherlands during the Late Roman Period, were a consequence of lowered land after peat had been dug out. This next to marine transgression and the slow defrosting process, thus shrinking process, of the deeper soils since the last Ice Age. A defrosting process that was on its height in the fourth century.

To date no archaeological indications exist salt was being produced commercially above the river Oer-IJ, nor in the terp regions (a 'terp' being an artificial dwelling mound) of Germany and of the Netherlands before the Early Middle Ages. Also, peat cutting started only at the end of, or after, the Roman Period. Besides, dried dung provided the terp dwellers of the north with fuel for heating and craft already. So, maybe there was lesser need to cut peat large-scale. At the salt marshes of northern Germany and of the Netherlands cows and cow-dung was available in abundance. Above that, dung wasn’t needed to fertilize the land since tidal marshlands were fertilized through very regular flooding by the sea. Dried dung as fuel is, by the way, exactly how it is still being used to heat houses and trekking lodges at higher altitudes in Nepal, an area where trees are scarce too. And, in treeless Nordfriesland, cow dung was still being dried for fuel by terp (or Warft) dwellers of e.g. Hanswarft, Germany well into the '50s of the last century.

Reclamation of peatlands in West Frisia (i.e. Frisia between 't Zwin in Belgium and the former river Vlie in the Netherlands) started in the area of the current town Medemblik in the region Westfriesland, province Noord Holland. It is assumed these activities mainly focused at creating arable land. That meant draining the wet peat soil with ditches and canals. This in turn led to a process of oxidization of peat and of simply drying out and crumbling. Therefore, the soil started to settle, to shrink, and became vulnerable for sea floods, but also many lakes emerged in the lowered lands. The starting pistol for this process was fired around the turn of the eighth and ninth centuries.

These reclamations accelerated, or possibly even caused, the widening of the river Vlie, east of Medemblik. This in turn had all sorts of ecological, house-of-cards consequences, including contributing to the process of Lake Almere turning into a full-fledged inland sea: the Southern Sea (Zuiderzee). Of course, this lake-turning-into-sea-thing meant giant losses of land. During the ninth century, peatlands were reclaimed south and west of the town Medemblik, including the peatlands of the area De Beemster. De Beemster became a big lake, was reclaimed from the water in the early-seventeenth century again, and is now a Unesco-listed heritage site. In the eleventh century, the region of Spaarnwoude followed. The result was that around 1200 all the peatlands of West Frisia north of the river Oer-IJ, i.e. most of present-day province Noord Holland, had been cultivated or had been lost to the many emerging lakes and even to a new inland sea due this cultivation. Read our blog post In debt to the beastly Westfrisians to learn more about the grand dame Medemblik.

But also at the terp region opposite to the town of Medemblik, on the other side of the river Vlie (today's Lake IJssel or IJsselmeer), peatlands were being exploited. Here peat cutting and salt extraction out of saline peat took place, which started in the eighth century. A bit later, the terp region of northern Germany followed too. Archaeological research in the northeast of province Friesland revealed heaps of burned ashes with a diameter of up to twenty-five meters and of two meters thick. The production of salt out of peat was at its height in present-day provinces Friesland and Groningen and in region Ostfriesland, during the eleventh to fourteenth centuries. Cutting peat meant the land was lowered here too and thus became vulnerable for the grasp of the sea as well. Again, much loss of land happened during these centuries. Think of the bays of Lauwers, Dollart, Jade, etcetera. All bays emerged or were enlarged then.

Medieval testimonia of Frisian salt production activity have been documented in writing too. In 775 or 776 the Abbey in Lorsch (Germany) received as a gift seventeen culinas ad sal faciendum. These were salt kitchens, situated on the island of Schouwen between the river Scheldt and a water called the Sonnemare. The Sonnemare seems to be the border between the dominium of Voorne and modern province Zeeland. Culinas were the buildings or sheds for salt boiling. In 877 the Abbey of Saint Gertrud in Nivelles (Belgium) possessed in Frisia terram et mancipia ad salem. This possession was confirmed in 897 as in Fresia terra ad sal acquirendum, and must have been somewhere in current province Zeeland as well.

Salt March of Ghandi

And the history of human kind is a history of salt. When India was still a colony of Britain, the British controlled the salt production and export. No-one had the right to trade in salt and no one had the right to produce salt, not even for personal use. Instead, salt was taxed. And it was the great Ghandi who decided to walk to the coast in 1930. A hike of 390 kilometers. To slowly walk from Sabarmati Ashram to the salt marshes of Dandi. A protest against the salt taxation and against British occupation. The famous Salt March.

But not only in West Frisia and Mid Frisia (the Netherlands) and in East Frisia (Ostfriesland, Germany) peat cutting and salt production took place. Also in North Frisia (Nordfriesland, Germany). In the eleventh century, southern Frisians, probably from Ostfriesland, migrated to Nordfriesland and introduced their skills to extract salt from saline peat. It was the medieval historian Saxo Grammaticus who wrote in his Gestae Danorum 'Deeds of the Danes' of 1160 that the North-Frisians cooked salt out of clods. Read also our blog post Beacons of Nordfriesland about the colonization of Nordfriesland south of the Danish border. Famous is the story of the prosperous town of Rungholt. A very rich town thanks to commercial salt production. But it had to pay a heavy price for digging out and burning so much peat soil. In the year 1362, Rungholt disappeared overnight in the waves of the dark-green sea during the Saint Marcellus’ flood. It took the lives of many people. Read our blog post How a town disappeared overnight.

The Frisians started to reclaim peatlands a bit more to the south too. In the twelfth century, Frisians colonized a sandy ridge within an extensive peat area which is known today as Saterland in the northwest of Germany. Today, this isolated community consists of four villages with ca. 15,000 inhabitants. These are the villages: Strücklingen (Strukelje), Ramsloh (Roomelse), Sedelsberg (Seedelsbierich) and Scharrel (Schäddel). Later the town of Friesoythe was added to the municipality as well. Saterland is the only area where the East-Frisian sub-dialect (called Seeltersk) has survived, although the odds for its future survival are very grim. Only about a thousand speakers are left to date.

Let's turn to West Frisia, the area comprising of present-day provinces Noord Holland, Zuid Holland and Zeeland and part of province Utrecht as well. Commercial peat cutting activity in West Frisia had far-reaching consequences. Not only on the environment but also on the cultural identity. From the tenth and eleventh centuries onward, the counts of West Frisia started with the reclamation and cultivation of the extensive peat lands of what is today more or less the province Zuid Holland and parts of the province Utrecht up to the Utrecht Hill Ridge, a push moraine from the Middle Pleistocene glacial period. The way the counts approached the reclamation was innovative for that time and became an important base of power of the counts for gaining their independence and thus eventually the rise of Holdland or Holtland (later corrupted into Hollant or Holland) and thus of the Netherlands. It became known as the Great Reclamation. It was so successful the concept was exported to peat areas of both the river Weser around Bremen and the river Elbe around Hamburg, from the beginning of the twelfth century.

How was the Great Reclamation organized?

The Great Reclamation started in the tenth century, and was completed around 1300. It started at the peat-land villages Rijnsaterwoude and Esselijkerwoude. The counts of West Frisia issued lots to farmers of which they were allowed to dispose of freely. These lots measured thirty roe or roeden (between 110-115 meters) wide and six or twelve voorlingen long (resp. around 1,275 and 2,550 meters). These lots were called a cope. The measurements were a practice of the feudal system already. The standard thirty roeden by six voorlingen, also called a morgen, generally was considered to be enough for one family to live off. The word voorling is related to the Dutch word voor meaning furrow, also compare the Mid-Frisian word fuorge. A voorling was the distance during plowing after which the beast of burden had to rest before turning around and plow the next furrow in the opposite direction. In return for receiving a cope the farmer and his family had to pay an annual tax called a tijns which amounted one penny (or penning or denier or denarius, etcetera) at first. Furthermore, these farmers were obliged to perform defensive military tasks too when called upon by the count. This type of social organisation was different from the centuries before and from the Carolingian feudal society, where most farmers were unfree and the ‘property’ of a homestead.

With the reclamation of the peatlands the amount of arable land increased as well. This led to a surplus of crops and therefor the introduction of trade and the money-economy in the rural areas in the twelfth century. The counts were confronted with increasingly richer farmers whilst there incomes were pretty stable. From the twelfth century the tax for a cope were raised, from one denarius to four denarii. It made Count Floris II, also known as Floris the Fat for no reason, filthy rich and he was known as someone who surpassed his forefathers in power, in prestige and in wealth. And probably in body-weight.


The peat area of the Meuse-Merwede, a branch of the low river Rhine, were reclaimed by the counts of West Frisia. Something that did not do relations with the Bishopric of Utrecht much good, who considered it his turf. The Meuse-Merwede area was the border area between the region Hollant under jurisdiction of the West-Frisian counts and the Bishop of Utrecht. Not only made the counts good money out of the reclamation but also he built a stronghold at the town of Vlaardingen (a settlement of which maybe the Roman seltlement Flenium was the forerunner) at the confluence of the river Meuse and the river Merwede. From here the Fladertingi 'people of Vlaardingen' demanded toll from the passing ships. The conflict that arose between the two eventually led to the Battle of Vlaardingen in 1018, won by the West-Frisian count Dirk III. Refenge, at last, of the lost battle at the Boorne in 734.

Merwede originates from 'meriwidu' meaning something like 'dark wood'. Compare 'meri' with murky and 'widu' with wood.

And also this massive reclamation and cultivation of the interior came with a price which amounted more than the tijns tax, namely the change of the West-Frisian identity. Social organization and identity are closely intertwined, as we know all too well. The massive reclamation and cultivation led to urbanization which atrracted large numbers of people from outside. This must have led to a situation of different dialects of Frisian (also called Coastal Dutch in linguistic classification), Western, Central and Eastern Dutch. In such a situation a koine can arise. A koine is a hyperdialect, a blend of all the different dialects to function as the new common speech of the melting pot of peoples within a short period of time. From ca. 1050 Frisian place names started to disappear in West Frisia and were replaced by Frankish place names (Cordfunke, 2018). Read our blog post Take a virtual hike through Zuid-Holland and Utrecht to check out the old Frisian place names in these two provinces, or check out the real name of Brooklyn Bridge in New York. Not only the whole top soil meters deep was scraped away (like the Canadian tar sands of today) together with all its archaeological history, it also led to the phenomenon of roaming villages. Villages wandering from one place to another after all the peat was dug out and sold. It was a social paradigm shift.

The Frisian character of the people disappeared and it was the already mentioned Count Floris the Fat (see his -somewhat too slender- image below) who in 1101 no longer named himself count of Frisia but comes de Hollant 'count of Hollant'. The same year, by the way, that the Saxon Henry the Fat, newly appointed Margrave of Frisia east of the river Lauwers, was murdered by the East-Frisians, probably near present-day Norden, region Aurich in Germany. Henry the Fat should have been more careful, since in 884 the East-Frisians slaughtered an army of more than 10,000 Vikings at Norden. Re-branding himself as Floris the Count of Holland was the deathblow you might say of Hollant being Frisian. From this time the language Frisian (or also classified in linguistic science as Coast Dutch) disappeared as well in West Frisia, as said, in the area what is today provinces Noord Holland, Zuid Holland and Zeeland, and some parts of the lower central river area. The exception was the region Westfriesland -or shire Westflinge- in current province Noord Holland. This region had opposed fiercely to the counts of West Frisia, and the region remained Frisian in identity longer until they were subdued to the county of Holland by force at the very end of the thirtheenth century. Till this date the Westfrisian tongue contains many elements of the former West-Frisian language. In the north of province Noord Holland, Frisian -also Coastal Dutch- might have been spoken until the seventeenth century.


The oldest reference of Holland is Holtland, used in the registers of the diocese Utrecht in the ninth and tenth centuries. The word 'holt' or 'hold' meaning (ascending) wood. These were the wooded lands on the geests near the mouth of the River Old Rhine, near the present-day towns Valkenburg and Wassenaar. There is a minority report of a scholar suggesting it is actually 'hol' and not holt or hold and therefore meaning low-lying land (Halbertsma, 2000). Be that as it may, at the end of the eleventh century, the name Holdland or Hollant surfaces and is being used more and more to indicate the area along the North Sea coast. In 1063 Count Robert the Frisian, count of Flanders, gained influence in West Frisia though his marriage with widow Gertrude of Saxony. The counties named in this context were Holdlandiae and Fresie. Holdlandiae was what for centuries was named circa horas Reni, i.e. the areas arround the borders of the river Old-Rhine. Fresie was what before was named Westflinge, i.e. west of the river Vlie, more or less the current region Westfriesland, the island Texel, the region Waterland and the region Kennemerland, all part of current province Noord Holland). In the first quarter of the twelfth century, Hollant indicates the area between the current town of Petten in the north to that of Vlaardingen in the south, including the Meuse-Merwede region (Henderikx 2001).

Floris the Fat
Count Floris the Fat

By the way. The names of the farmers who exported the reclamation-concept of the so-called copes to the marsh areas around Bremen and Hamburg have been documented. It were Helekinus, Arnoldus, Hiko, Fordolt, Referic and Heinricus who emigrated in 1113 to this region and agreed with the bishop a cope-contract. And more migrants from West Frisia/Holland came in the decennia that followed.


Not only medieval Frisia was addicted to fossil fuel, namely peat. The Republic of the Seven United Netherlands, the Dutch Republic, probably owed its Golden Age more to their possession of a cheap fuel than to its trade with the far East. Peat was especially cheap in the republic because the transporting costs were very low. This thanks to a flat country intersected with thousands and thousands of canals, rivers and other water ways. Oh yes, and slaves. Besides cheap fule, also the Atlantic slave trade was of great importance for the economy of the Dutch Republic. With slaves the republic could produce very economically products like tobacco, sugar and coffee in the West.

And the addiction to fossil fuel remained in the Netherlands. Quite soon after all the peat had been dug out a huge gas field was discovered in the ‘50s in the previous century. It was enormous and located in province Groningen, a region what used to be part of Mid Frisia. The Dutch kept extracting gas until the soil started to collapse and earthquakes demolished houses in the poor and aging province. Recently, the central government has decided to 'turn off' the gas and to reimburse all the damage caused to the crumbling houses. Till now that promised money is mainly paid to smart but costly damage experts and their reports and to lawyers. Both lawyers and damage experts, but also smart politicians and senior administrators, all have promised the poor and aging people of Groningen to live the rest of their lives in province Groningen so the money meant for reimbursement will benefit the local community, eventually. Yes, development aid that will work and a brilliant way of compensation for the last five decennia of profits.

Also, the Emirate Arabs are preparing for a future without fossil fuel and have invested heavily in diversification of their economy. Maybe they picked up the lessons of medieval Frisia relatively late, but they proved to be quick(er) learners!

Suggestions for further reading:

Boer, de D.E.H. & Cordfunke. E.H.P., Graven van Holland. Middeleeuwse vorsten in woord en beeld (880-1580) (2010)

Brandon, P. & Bosma, U., De betekenis van de Atlantische slavernij voor de Nederlandse economie in de tweede helft van de achttiende eeuw (2019)

Broeke, van den P.W., Turfwinning en zoutwinning langs de Noordzeekust. Een verbond sinds de ijzertijd? (1996)

CIA Factbook (online)

Cordfunke, E.H.P., Een graafschap achter de duinen. Het ontstaan en de vorming van het graafschap Holland [850-1150] (2018)

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

Geel, van B. & Borger, G.J., Sporen van grootschalige zoutwinning in de Kop van Noord-Holland (2002)

Griede, J.W. & Roeleveld, W., De geologische en paleogeografische ontwikkeling van het noordelijk zeekleigebied (1982)

Gros, F., Marcher, une philosophie (2009)

Halbertsma, H., Frieslands oudheid. Het rijk van de Friese koningen, opkomst en ondergang (2000)

Henderikx, P.A., Land, Water en Bewoning. Waterstaats- en nederzettingsgeschiedenis in de Zeeuwse en Hollandse delta in de Middeleeuwen (2001)

Jong, 't H., De dageraad van Holland. De geschiedenis van het graafschap 1100-1300 (2018)

Klerk, de A., Vlaardingen in de wording van het graafschap Holland 800-1250 (2018)

Kramer, E., Valse start in het Vikingonderzoek (2019)

Kurlansky, M., Salt. A world history (2002)

Lambers, J., Het geheim van de Gouden Eeuw der Republiek van de Verenigde Nederlanden. Mythen en werkelijkheid rond de turfwinning (website)

Leenders, K.A.H.W., The start of peat digging for salt production in the Zeeland region (2004)

Leeuwen, van J., Middeleeuws Medemblik: een centrum in de periferie. Archeologisch onderzoek naar de (vroeg)middeleeuwse handelsnederzetting en het oudste regionale centrum van West-Friesland in de periode 675-1298 (2014)

Nicolay, J., Het kweldergebied als cultuurlandschap: een model (2015)

Nieuwenhuijsen, K., Strijd om West-Frisia. De ontstaansgeschiedenis van het graafschap Holland: 900-1100 (2016)

Schrijver, P., Language Contact and the Origins of the Germanic Languages (2014)

Ven, van de G., Turfwinning in Laag Nederland in de Middeleeuwen. Een inleiding op het thema en enige aspecten uit de geologische geschiedenis van het kustgebied (1996)

Renswoude, van O., Het woud tussen werelden (2019)

Zeeuw, de J.W., Peat and the Dutch Golden Age (1978)