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  • Writer's pictureHans Faber

The United Frisian Emirates and Black Peat

In this post we'll explain that the Frisian lands might as well be named the United Frisian Emirates. Of course, there are some differences with the modern United Arab Emirates. The Emirate Arabs have camels and goats, whilst the Frisians have cows and sheep. It's hot and dry, instead of wet and cold, albeit things are changing with the global warming. Palm trees can be planted soon on the long dikes of the Wadden Sea. And, the sea they live at is named Persian Gulf and not North Sea. But here differences end. Full stop. So, what then unites the Emirate Arabs and the Frisians?

For long the Arab tribes of the Persian Gulf lived off trade, copper, pearls and, as every seaside people, on piracy. In the year 1971, these desert principalities formed the federal state of 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 on the southern shores of the Persian Gulf.

This is no different from medieval Frisia, either. In the High Middle Ages, Frisia was a federation of also seven independent republics. The Seven Sealands as they called themselves. These lands were Westfriesland, Westergo, Oostergo, Stellingwerven (variable including province Drenthe), Ommelanden (variable with the city Groningen), Ostfriesland, and Butjadingen, together with Riustringen and Wangerland. These Seven Sealands were united under the treaty of the Upstalsboom, meaning 'high tree'. All Seven Sealands were located on the southern shores of the North Sea. Read our post Upstalsboom: why solidarity is not the core of a collective to learn more about this early federation.

One Frisian land not mentioned and also an independent small republic at the Wadden Sea in the High Middle Ages, is Land Wursten. They, however, were no part of the Upstalsboom treaty. See our post for more about their history Joan of Arc an inspiration for Land Wursten.

Concerning piracy? Aij, like the Emirate Arabs, the Frisians did that too. One might even argue that the Frisian identity is the result of a long-standing raiding culture that started in the Late Antiquity and continued into the High Middle Ages. Read, for example, our posts It all began with piracy and Yet another wayward archipelago, and you'll understand why piracy belongs to the psyche of the Frisians and Ostfriesen, but also of the Dutchmen and Zeelanders.

The United Arab Emirates have an economic liberal 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 became even synonyms during the Early Middle Ages. Their international trade networks were maybe not global yet, but certainly the biggest of north-western Europe. Frisian seafarers transported their trade overseas and over rivers. From Paris to Stockholm, and from Trier to London. Read also our post Porcupines bore U.S. bucks to get a fuller picture of these egocentric sea traders.

In the early modern period, Frisians were still known as the freighters of Europe, until the end of the eighteenth century, when the French conquered the Republic of the Seven United Netherlands, commonly known as the Dutch Republic. Thanks to the French the sea trade with the North Sea and the Baltics was annihilated for good. And, indeed, the number seven keeps coming back: the seven Emirates, the seven Sealands, and the seven United Netherlands. Now the reader understands why there're seven kingdoms in series Game of Thrones.

Last but not least, in the comparison, 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 the day of writing (May 2019), 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 liters of oil.

For medieval Frisia it was the same. It wasn't oil, though, but another fossil fuel, namely peat. Some say the slowly sustainable energy because peat grows relatively quick with 10-15 centimeters over a century. But this aside. Just like Gulf Arabs, Frisians happened to sit on organic gold. "Zwischen Watt und Moor," as they say in the regions Nordfriesland and Ostfriesland. From the coast of Flanders all the way up along the North Sea coast to Nordfriesland just south of the Danish border, extensive peatlands existed. We estimate at least 25,000 square meters of peatlands. Square meters. We're not talking cubic meters, yet. Easily a meter deep on average. It were Frisians who started to exploit these peatlands commercially and, thus, systematically. It supplied them, and later the Dutch and Germans, with much wealth. From the Early Middle Ages well into modern history. Maybe it was this wealth that was the real foundation of the Dutch Republic, the birth of the Netherlands. We'll come back to it further below.

By the way, the fact that 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. Wetland 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, from Ostend in Flanders to Misthusum in Denmark. We estimate that it could have been around two to three billion tons of carbon. Voilà, the proud Frisian climate debt and contribution to global warming, melting glaciers and still rising sea levels.

Black Peat

We're not going to debate in this post about Black Pete climbing through chimneys and all, 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.

Land and landscape to a large extent determines the identity and culture of a people. Its specifics and the ever-changing nature of the landscape, whether naturally or anthropogenic, influences how people, who are dependent on land, interact with each other and how they organize and adapt themselves. Even more so when land becomes scarcer and scarcer. Think, indeed, of the impact the current debate nitrogen emission has, and will have. Think also of wind and solar energy that will claim more and more space, either on land or at sea. Think of the still trembling effects of the (former) mining of coal, gas and salt, and what it did to the psyche of the people of provinces Limburg and Groningen. Think of the ultra-complex structure and governance of water irrigation and protection. Et cetera, et cetera. One of the effects of land use that becomes clear but which nature and importance isn't fully understood and felt yet by society, is the growing disconnect between central and local, and between city life and countryside. In other words, the valve for the pressure on scarce useable land is 'identity'.

In the year 961 or 962, the Hispano-Arabic traveler Ibrahim ibn Ya'qub 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 a kind of mud, dried and then burnt it. Of course, this was the elegant process of peat cutting. What the purpose was of burning the blocks of soil, early hiker Yaqub didn't tell us. Or, maybe he simply didn't understand what he saw.

From archaeological research we know peat cutting started in the coastal zones of what's now the coast of Flanders up to the river IJ, near Amsterdam in the Netherlands, during the Early Iron Age between 700 and 500 BC. The oldest traces of peat cutting in the Netherlands have been found in Westmade polder (polder meaning 'embanked land') between the cities of Rotterdam and The Hague. Calculations are that between 800 and 400 BC, around 40,000 cubic meters of peatland has been dug out here.

Peat as fuel was (also) needed for commercial production of sea salt. The North Sea with a 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. But, most probably this latter 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. Later, during the Roman period, peat as fuel was also used 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. During the Early Iron Age, sea salt was being produced at, for example, De Panne in Flanders, and at Monster in the Netherlands.

Large-scale peat cutting activity during the Roman period already had its effect on the environment and landscape. Big floods in the Flemish coastal zone and in 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 local combinations of marine transgression, a more high-energetic North Sea due to sedimentation, and the slow defrosting process, thus shrinking process, of the deeper soils since the last Ice Age. A defrosting process known as the Great Watering which was on its height in the fourth century. Everything taken together, not the best set of factors for a durable coastal environment.

To date, no archaeological indications exist salt was being produced commercially above the river IJ, nor in the terp regions ('terp' being an artificial dwelling mound) of Flanders, Germany and of the Netherlands before the Early Middle Ages. Also, peat cutting started along the Wadden Sea coast only at the end of, or after, the Roman period. Besides, dried dung provided terp dwellers with fuel for heating and craft already. On the salt marshes of northwestern Germany and of the Netherlands cow-dung was available in abundance. Above that, dung wasn't needed to fertilize the land, since tidal marshlands were fertilized through regular flooding by the sea. So, maybe there was lesser need to cut peat large-scale.

In the treeless, barren Nordfriesland, the practise of cow dung being dried for fuel by Warft (i.e. terp) dwellers of for example Hanswarft, continued well into the '50s of the last century. A region, by the way, where people live on tidal marshlands unprotected by (high) dikes to this day. Islands flooded by the sea during storms several times every year. lastly, since this blog is written by hikers, dried dung as fuel is exactly how it is still being used to heat houses and trekking lodges at higher altitudes in Nepal, where trees are scarce too.

Reclamation of peatlands in West Frisia, i.e. the area between the coastal zone of Flanders and the former river Vlie in the Netherlands, started near the current town of Medemblik in region Westfriesland. It is assumed these activities mainly focused at creating arable land. This meant draining the boggy peat soil with ditches and canals. This in turn led to an oxidation process of peat, and simply of drying out and crumbling of soil. Therefore, the soil started to settle, to shrink, and became more vulnerable for sea floods. Also, many sweetwater lakes emerged in these lowered lands bordering the southern shores of the North Sea. If you do not protect the shores, due to wave action lakes itself eat and carry away peat soil too. The larger the surface of a lake or sea inlet becomes, the bigger the volume water becomes that is set into motion during storms, and hence the force that swallows land. Gullies like Marsdiep, Vlie and Jetting, today known as the Blauwe Slenk, pushed more and more water with great force onto the shores (Schroor 2015).

The starting pistol for this degradation process was fired around the turn of the eighth and ninth centuries. When in the last decennia of the twelfth century also temperatures rose leading to more rainfall and a higher frequency of storms, most of the peatlands disappeared and turned into either (inlet) sea or lakes. This process was locally accelerated because of the commercial production of salt.

These early-medieval reclamations stimulated, or possibly even caused, the widening of the river Vlie that flowed east of Medemblik, connecting lake Flevum (also lake Almere) with the Wadden Sea and North Sea. This process in turn had all sorts of ecological, house-of-cards-falling consequences, including contributing to the process of lake Almere turning into a full-fledged inland sea, the Zuiderzee 'southern sea'. There are theories that the very start of the creation of the Zuiderzee started with the Romans. It was army commander Drusus who had canals dug between 12 and 9 BC, primarily to improve military transportation. One of those canals might have connected the river Vlie with lake Flevum (Verhagen 2022).

area of (former) river Vlie and Moer Wardt, map by Christiaan sGrooten (1573)

Another activity that helped to create the Zuiderzee, was the exploitation of Moer Wardt or Moerwaard. This was an salt-marsh area south of Wadden Sea island Vlieland, consisting of peatland covered with sea clay. Because this area was regularly flooded by the sea, the peat of was very rich of salt. Today, the name Waardgronden of this part of the Wadden Sea still reminds of this former land. From medieval chronicles we know this area was heavily commercially exploited and canals were dug, like Monnikensloot canal, also called De Pan, which accidently refers to the production of salt. Jetting was another canal, connecting the seaside settlement Harlingen with (former) river annex sea strait Vlie.

All these high-medieval ditches and canals enhanced the emergence of sea gullies and widened the western part of the Wadden Sea. Possibly, salt was isolated from the ashes of burned peat on Moerwaard itself, and then transported to the mainland to, among other, the settlement of Harlingen. At the end of the twelfth century, the western Wadden Sea had fully merged with lake Flevum/lake Almere (Schroor 2015). Needless to say, this whole lake-turning-into-sea thing has meant giant, giant loss of land.

During the ninth century, peatlands were claimed by nature south and west of the town Medemblik, including the peatlands of the area De Beemster. De Beemster became a big lake, was reclaimed by men from the nature in the early-seventeenth century again, and is now a Unesco-listed heritage site. In the eleventh century, region of Spaarnwoude followed and much land was lost to water. The result was that around 1200 all peatlands of West Frisia north of the river IJ, i.e. most of present-day province Noord Holland, had been cultivated or had been lost to the many emerging lakes. As said, even a complete new inland sea, Zuiderzee, had emerged due this cultivation.

Also, at the terp region opposite to the town of Medemblik, on the other side of the river Vlie, peatlands were being exploited. Here, peat cutting and salt extraction out of saline peat took place. This started in the eighth century. A bit later, the terp region of Ostfriesland 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 two meters thick. Production of salt out of peat was at its height in present-day province Friesland, province Groningen and in Ostfriesland during the eleventh to fourteenth centuries. Again, much loss of land happened during these centuries. Think of the bays of Lauwers, Dollart, Jade et cetera. All bays east of river Vlie that emerged or were enlarged in this period.

Medieval testimonia of Frisian salt production activity have been documented in writing too. In the year 775 or 776, the abbey in Lorsch near Frankfurt in Germany received as a gift seventeen culinas ad sal faciendum. These were ‘salt kitchens’ located on the island of Schouwen between the river Scheldt and a water called Sonnemare. Water stream Sonnemare seems to be the border between the dominium of Voorne and modern province Zeeland. Culinas were buildings or sheds used for salt boiling. In 877, the abbey of Saint Gertrud in Nivelles, Belgium possessed in Frisia terram et mancipia ad salem. Charles the Bald ceded these lands to the abbey of Saint Gertrud. In 897, this property was confirmed as in Fresia terra ad sal acquirendum, and must have been located somewhere in current province Zeeland or coastal Flanders. That province Zeeland was an area where salt production took place in early ages, is known further from a trader from Trier in Germany whose ship was loaded with salt. This was documented in the late sixth century already (Tuuk 2021).


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 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.


Peat cutting and salt production was not only along the Dutch and Flemish coast, i.e. West Frisia and Mid Frisia, and in Ostfriesland a commercially lucrative activity. Also in Nordfriesland, south of the Danish border. In the Early Middle Ages, Frisians, probably from Ostfriesland, migrated to Nordfriesland and introduced their skills to extract salt from saline peat. The medieval historian Saxo Grammaticus wrote in his Gestae Danorum 'deeds of the Danes' of 1160 that the North-Frisians cooked salt out of clod. Read also our post Beacons of Nordfriesland about the colonization of Nordfriesland. Famous but not unique is the story of the prosperous town of Rungholt. A rich town thanks to commercial salt production. It, however, had to pay a heavy price for digging out and burning so much peat. In the year 1362, Rungholt together with his inhabitants disappeared overnight in the waves of the dark-green sea during the Saint Marcellus’ flood. Read our post How a town disappeared overnight and be warned what irresponsible use of land can have as a consequence.

Frisians started to reclaim peatlands more inland 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 happens to be the only area where the East-Frisian sub-dialect Seeltersk has survived, although the odds for its future survival are exceptionally grim. Only about a thousand speakers are left to date, and they are in general not the youngest. Check our page Language to pick up some words of Seeltersk.

Let’s turn to West Frisia again, the area comprising of present-day provinces Noord Holland, Zuid Holland and Zeeland, and parts of province Utrecht and the coast of Flanders as well.

Commercial peat cutting in West Frisia had far-reaching consequences. Not only on the environment, but also on the cultural identity. From the tenth and eleventh centuries, the counts of West Frisia started with the reclamation and cultivation of the extensive peatlands of what is today more or less the province Zuid Holland and parts of the province Utrecht up to the Utrecht Hill Ridge. The latter is a push moraine from the Pleistocene glacial period, about 150,000 years old.

The way the Frisian counts, but also the bishopric of Utrecht, approached the reclamation was innovative for that time. Revenues from this industry became an important base of power of the counts of West Frisia to gain more independence, and thus eventually the rise of Holdland or Holtland, later corrupted into Hollant and Holland. And, since province Holland was the driving force within the Dutch Republic to become independent from Spain, brown gold played a pivotal role in the emergence of the Netherlands as such. With the counts of Frisia/Holland being the oil sheikhs of the Wadden Sea.

The innovative approach became known as the Great Reclamation Period. It was that successful, that the concept was exported at the beginning of the twelfth century to peat areas of both bordering the river Weser around the city of Bremen and bordering the river Elbe around the city of Hamburg. It even led to several settlements in the Bremen-Hamburg area. Settlers locally known as Frisians and Holler, the latter meaning 'those from Holland'. The lands became known as Hollerland. This so-called cope-contract concept was exported to the British Isles and other to parts of Frisia too (Van Doesburg 2019, Van Bemmel, et al 2022, Mostert 2022).

By the way. The names of the persons who exported the concept of cope contracts to the marsh areas around Bremen and Hamburg have been documented. They were Helekinus (Helekin), Arnoldus (Arnold), Hiko (Hijo), Fordolt, Referic (Referik) and priest Heinricus (Hendrik) who emigrated in the year 1113 to this region and agreed with the local bishop a cope contract. More high-skilled migrants from Frisia and Holland came in the decennia that followed. Frisians settled also in the area of Süsel in East Holstein.

Below we will zoom into the cope model type of reclamation of the peatlands of province Zuid Holland and Utrecht. It is, however, instructive to know that in other areas different types of reclamation existed, like the drifting settlements in provinces Noord Holland, Friesland and Groningen. Here, parallel with the quarrying process, villages steadily moved inward peat areas. Sometimes leaving their churches and graveyards, often situated on handmade mounds (terps), behind. The reason why villages were adrift, is under scholarly debate. Probably, it had to do with sinking soils and rising groundwater, and with growing distances between the farmsteads and the newly created arable land (Van Doesburg 2019). Another factor probably was that the cope model reclamation was designed and directed top-down by feudal, counts and bishops, institutions, as we will see in a moment, whereas this was not the case in northern Frisia where these governmental institutions were largely absent.

How was the Great Reclamation organized?

The Great Reclamation Period started in the tenth century and was completed around 1300. It started at the peatland villages Rijnsaterwoude and Esselijkerwoude in modern province Zuid Holland. The counts of West Frisia and bishops of Utrecht gave out peatland concessions to contractors called locatores. These locatores, to quote Van Doesburg (2019), organized the reclamations, prepared the establishment of villages, were responsible for water management, and recruited colonists to carry out the actual reclamation work. You could say locatores were the project developers of the Middle Ages (Van Bemmel, et all 2022).

Colonists got a contract for a plot of land of which they were allowed to dispose of freely. These plots were called a cope. In return for receiving a cope the farmer and his family had to pay an annual tax called a tijns, which amounted one penny, also penning, denier, denarius et cetera. Later the tax was raised, as we will see below. Furthermore, these colonist farmers were obliged to perform defensive military tasks when called upon by the count. In the western parts of the Netherlands toponyms and family names with the suffix cope or koop or schop exist, like Benschop, Boeicop, Boskoop, Galecop, Gerverscop, Heikenkoop, Herbertscop, Nieuwkoop, Oukoop, Rijerscop, Teckop, and Vuylcoop. Koopgoot in Rotterdam is not part of this list. Copes also received exotic, foreign names like Demmerik (Denmark), Prijs (Parijs, France), Pavijen (Pavia, Italy), Poortugaal (Portugal), Portengen (Bartangen, i.e. Britannia), Raven (Ravenna, Italy; albeit etymology unsure), and Spengen (Spain).

Original measurements of a cope, also called a hoeve meaning 'farmstead', were 30 roede wide and 6 voorling deep. A roede measured approximately 4 meters, and a voorling 205 meters. Hence, an acreage of 115 by 1,250 meters. In other words ca. 14.5 hectares. A cope or a hoeve measurement of 30 roede by 12 voorling was also common in the river Rhine and Meuse delta (Henderikx 2001, Van Bemmel 2022). Note that the exact measurements of a roede and voorling differed slightly between regions since no universal standards existed, of course.

To make things a more complex, often the size of a hoeve was indicated with morgen as unit of measurement. A morgen, literally meaning 'morning', is the amount of land a farmer was able to plough in, indeed, the morning. A hoeve measured 16 to 18 morgen, therefore about 0.85 hectares (Van Bemmel 2022). At least it gives you a different perspective when your colleagues at the office greet you with 'good morning'. Furthermore, the size of a hoeve was also determined by the quality of the land. If the quality was poor, of course 16 morgen might not have been enough to sustain a farm.

Measurements of a cope were a practice of the feudal system already. The standard 30 roede by 6 voorling, generally was considered to be enough for one farmer's family to live off. The word voorling is related to the Dutch word voor meaning 'furrow', also compare the Mid-Frisian word fuorge for furrow. A voorling was the distance during plowing after which the beast of burden had to rest before turning around and plough the next furrow in the opposite direction.

Another feature was that the dimensions of copes were elongated, whereas the dimensions of traditional plots were more evenly squared. Reason for rectangular, elongated plots of land was efficiency. When ploughing a cope, less turns with plough and beast of burden were necessary compared to the smaller square-sized plots of before, and thus saving time. But also, straight stretched pieces of land lined with ditches, made the discharge of abundant water quicker. Every kink or bend in a ditch slows down the flow of water. Dryer land enhances the productivity of land.

Because colonist farmers got a contract and were free how to use the land, it socially meant people got more liberties. The cope model of social organization was very different from the centuries before and from the Carolingian feudal society, where most farmers were unfree and ‘property’ of a homestead. The cope model, the massive reclamation, better irrigation techniques, new plough techniques (i.e. the turnover of soil), smarter seasonal variation of crops and fallow land, meant an agricultural revolution (Van Bemmel 2022). The agricultural revolution, hand in hand with more personal liberties from around the year 1000 onward, changed the early-medieval society profoundly.

With the reclamation of the peatlands, the amount of arable land increased as well. This led to a surplus of crops and therefore stimulated the introduction of trade and the money economy in the rural areas in the twelfth century. The counts of West Frisia/Holland were confronted with increasingly richer farmers whilst their incomes were pretty stable. From the twelfth century, the tax for a cope was raised, from one denarius to four denarii. A tax raise of 400 percent. Hopefully it does not inspire current governments. Anyhow, it made count Floris II, known as Floris the Fat for no reason, filthy rich. Fatboy Floris was known as someone who surpassed his forefathers in power, in prestige, and in wealth. And, probably in body-weight, we add.

The peat area of the river Meuse-Merwede, a lower branch of the river Rhine, were reclaimed by the counts of West Frisia. Something that did not do much good to the relations with the bishops of Utrecht who considered it their turf. The river 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, they also built a stronghold at the town of Vlaardingen at the confluence of the rivers Meuse and Merwede. Vlaardingen might be a continuation of the Roman settlement Flenium.

At this stronghold, the Fladertingi 'people of Vlaardingen' demanded toll from passing ships. This illegal toll threatened the trade between the trading town of Tiel in the Central Netherlands, upstream the river Waal, with the English coast. Furthermore, the subversive actions of the West-Frisian counts meant a fall in toll revenues at Tiel. This toll was held by the bishop of Utrecht (Van der Tuuk 2021). The conflict that arose between the two eventually led to the Battle of Vlaardingen in the year 1018, which was won by the Frisian count Dirk III. Revenge for the Frisians, at last, after the lost Battle at the Boorne in the year 734.


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


It is history repeating itself when at the beginning of the nineteenth century king William I of the brand-new kingdom of the Netherlands immediately disregards the agreement reached during the Congress of Vienna of 1815, according to which the complete river Rhine, from Switzerland up to the North Sea was declared a free trade zone. King William I refused to end the levying of toll at the harbors of Dordrecht and Rotterdam. According to the king, tidal influence of the sea extended all the way to Gorinchem and therefore Dordrecht and Rotterdam were not part of the river Rhine. Thus he was legally entitled to levy toll (Hendriksma 2017). Internationally, the king did not make many friends with this creative reasoning.

Anyway, the massive reclamation and cultivation of the interior in the Middle Ages came with a price which amounted more than the tijns tax. Namely the change of identity of the Frisians living in West Frisia. Social and landscape related organization and identity, are closely intertwined, as explained. The massive reclamation and cultivation led to urbanization which attracted large numbers of colonists 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 hyper-dialect. 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 onward, Frisian place names started to disappear in West Frisia and were replaced by Frankish ones (Cordfunke 2018). Read our 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 topsoil was scraped away a few meters deep, similar to 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 true social paradigm shift.

It should be noted, note only the identity of West Frisia changed as a result of the Great Reclamation. Also peatlands outside the territory of Frisia in the Central Netherlands were culturally influenced. The region of river Kromme Rijn 'bended Rhine' between the town of Wijk bij Duurstede and the city of Utrecht was cultivated from the late tenth century onward as well. Here too, settlers from outside the region came to get a cope contract in the new land, and among the them Frisians, albeit also many locals took up the reclamation. Toponyms Vriesenlant, Vriesenhoeve and Vreeshuservelt, and the name of the De Vriese family in Utrecht probably testify of this. We say 'probably' because another possibility is also possible, namely that it were not Frisians but friesen, i.e. those who cut land and dig ditches to irrigate swampy lands. Therefore, the toponyms with vries(en) or vrees might not refer to a people but to a profession. Similar as known in Switzerland and southern Germany. For more on this confusion, which is painful for the average proud Frisian of today, check our post From Patriot to Insurgent: John Fries and the tax rebellions.

The Frisian character of the people disappeared, and it was the already mentioned count Floris the Fat (see his, possibly somewhat too slender, image below) who in the year 1101 no longer named himself count of Frisia but Florentius comes de Hollant 'Floris count of Holland'. 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 Frisians. His life came to an end near present-day Norden in the district Aurich. Henry the Fat should have been more careful in Norden, since Frisians had slaughtered an army of more than 10,000 Vikings at that same spot in 884. We are off topic; re-branding himself as Floris the count of Holland was, you might say, the deathblow of Hollant being Frisian of identity. Of course, after reading this post the reader understands that the title 'sheikh of Holland' would have been more appropriate. Anyhow, from this time onward, the Frisian language disappeared as well in West Frisia.


Frisia versus Holtland - 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 geest soils 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 through 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 around the borders of the river Old-Rhine. ‘Fresie’ was what before was named ‘Westflinge’, i.e. west of the river Vlie, more or less current region Westfriesland, the island Texel, region Waterland and 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 river Meuse-Merwede region (Henderikx 2001).


The exception to the rule was region Westfriesland in current province Noord Holland. This region had opposed fiercely to the counts of West Frisia and remained Frisian in identity much longer. Until they were finally subdued to the county of Holland by force and genuine war atrocities, at the very end of the thirteenth century. To this date, the Westfrisian speech contains many elements of the former Frisian language. In the north of province Noord Holland, Frisian might have been spoken until the seventeenth century.

Floris the Fat
'sheikh' Floris the Fat


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

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 predominantly located in province Groningen. A region what used to be part of 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. Up to now, that promised money is mainly paid to smart but costly damage experts and their reports, and to lawyers. Always 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 wíll work, and a brilliant way of compensation for the last five decennia of profits.

Also, the Emirate or Gulf 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 than the heirs of Frisia: the Dutch, Flemish and the Germans.


Suggested music

Midnight Oil, Beds Are Burning (1987)

Further reading

Bemmel, van A.A.B., Cohen, K.M., Doesburg, van J., Hermans, T., Huiting, J.H., Poppe, E.L. & Vliet, van K., De dam bij Wijk en het Kromme Rijngebied in de middeleeuwen; Bemmel, van A.A.B., Bedijken, afdammen, verkavelen en ontginnen (2022)

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)

Doesburg, van J., Medieval settlement dynamics in peatland reclamations in the western, central and northern Netherlands (2019)

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)

Heerma van Voss, L., Bouras, N., Hart, 't M., Heijden, van der M. & Lucassen, L. (eds), Nog meer wereldgeschiedenis van Nederland; Mostert, M., Hollandse polders bij Bremen (2022)

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

Hendriksma, M., De Rijn. Biografie van een rivier (2017)

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)

Kruse, A. & Paulowitz, B., Holler Colonies and the Altes Land: A Vivid Example of the Importance of European Intangible and Tangible Heritage (2019)

Kunst, G., Landschappen als uitdragers van identiteit. 19 Friese schilders en hun visie op het landschap (2015)

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)

Remkes, J., Wat wel kan: uit de impasse en een aanzet voor perspectief (2022)

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

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

Schroor, M., Harlingen. Geschiedenis van de Friese havenstad (2015)

Tuuk, van der L., Handelaren en ambachtslieden. Een economische geschiedenis van de vroege middeleeuwen (2021)

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)

Verhagen, J.G.M., Op zoek naar de kanalen van Drusus. De Utrechtse Vecht in de Romeinse tijd (2022)

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

Zijlmans, R., Troebele betrekkingen. Grens-, scheepvaart- en waterstaatkwesties in de Nederlanden tot 1800 (2016)

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