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  • Writer's pictureHans Faber

A Theelacht. What a great idea!

Vickey the Viking

Halfway the ninth century, Vikings had established more or less permanent presence in Frisia in the former pagus 'district' called Nordendi, also named Norditi. By the year 884, the Frisians were fed up with it. They forged swords and axes, raised an army, and drove the Norsemen out. For good. It took exactly 10,377 lives on the side of the Vikings. This crisis with the Vikings provided the Frisians also with a great idea. The new land that became available, was managed in an innovative way. In fact, the Frisians founded 1,100 year ago the first farmers co-operative of Europe called the Theelacht. Moreover, this co-op still exists, and has served as an example for co-ops around the globe.

1. The Battle of Norditi

There're two principal sources that tell us about the Battle of Norditi, also called the Normannenslacht or the Battle at Hilgenriederbucht 'Hilgenrieder Bay'. These are the, contemporary, Annales fuldenses and the Gesta hammaburgensis ecclesiae pontificum 'Deeds of bishops of the Hamburg church'. The Gesta is written around 1075 by the chronicler magister Adam of Bremen. What other sources Adam of Bremen possessed of, besides the Annales fuldenses, is unknown. According to magister Adam himself it was the contemporary abbot Bovo I of the mighty Abbey of Corvey in Höxter, Germany, who wrote a report on the battle. Alas, this report has been lost. From the Gesta text we may conclude magister Adam still had possession of this report when he wrote the Gesta. Thus, explaining why he has more details to offer than the writer of the Annales fuldenses earlier.

Based on the Annales fuldenses, most scholars agree today that the actual date of the battle between the Vikings and the Frisians is indeed the year 884. However, you might still come across other dates as well, like 880 (popular on Wikipedia), 882 and 888. One of these, the year 880, is unleashed into the world by the great Frisian academic Ubbo Emmius (born in Greetsiel, region Ostfriesland) in his impressive Rerum frisicarum historia written in the year 1616, seven centuries after the events at Norditi. We'll not take this flaw of Ubbo Emmius too seriously, and as far as we are concerned the University of Groningen in the Netherlands may continue being excessively proud of him. Those readers who are being surprised; indeed Groningen has a university.

Let's quote the Gesta:


Gesta hammaburgenis ecclesiae pontificum; book 1: chapter 41

In view of what we have said about the persecution which then raged far and wide against the churches, it seems not improper to touch upon a great miracle manifested to the Frisians through the merits of Saint Rimbert. I do not know why the author of his Gesta passed over this wonder, but Brovo, the abbot of Corvey, in writing of what happened in his times did not keep silence. He wrote:

"When in recent times a distressing irruption of barbarians raged savagely in nearly every kingdom of the Franks, it happened also that by the judgement of God they were routed in a certain Frisian district. Situated in a remote region and close to the great sea, it is called Norditi. This district, then, they undertook to destroy. The venerable bishop Rimbert was there at that time and, encouraged and prepared by his exhortations and instructions, the Christians joined battle with the enemy and laid low 10,377 of them, over and above the many who were slain crossing the streams as they sought safety in flight."

These facts Brovo recorded in writing. By reason of this miraculous occurence the merits of Saint Rimbert are to this day most highly regarded among the Frisians, and his name is cherished with a certain singular affection by the people, so much so that even the hill on which the saint prayed while the battle was in progress is noted for its perpetually green turf.


It was archbishop Rimbert of Bremen, originally from the town of Turholt (Torhout) in Belgium who helped to lead the Frisians to victory. The Gesta speaks of a hill where Rimbert prayed to his god. Also, it says the hill is evergreen since. The exact spot where the battle took place is unknown, but it must have been near the modern town of Norden, region Ostfriesland. Some suggest Vikings had settled at the trading village of Nesse, then still located on the shores of the Wadden Sea. But strictly speaking this is speculation, as no archaeological evidence has been found yet to support this theory.

The area liberated back then, possibly is the area of Norden together with parts of Harlingerland, Brokmerland, and of Wangerland. The number of casualties on Viking side are quite impressive. Even for Frisians. The Gesta is written two centuries after the battle. This implies we must be a bit cautious whether all facts presented are accurate. So, it may not have been 10,377 slain Vikings at all. Maybe just 10,376, or as high as 10,378. The Gesta suggests that Vikings not only were killed by the swords, arrows, fists and spears of their opponents, but that, in fact, many of them drowned in streams during their retreat. Let's pretend you didn't read this, and still think they all were killed on the battlefield by the strong hands of Frisians.

Battle of Norditi
Vikings at the shoreline getting ready for the charge of the Frisians - Battle at Norditi

Frisian myths and sagas in province Friesland, the Netherlands have been documented in the first half of the twentieth century. One of these concerns the Battle of Norditi too. It's clearly inspired by the Gesta but has some bonus facts. It goes as follows:


The miracle at Norden

After the death of Charlemagne, the Norsemen raided repeatedly Frisia and their ruthless war bands marched through the Frisian shires. Under the reign of Charles the Fat, a fleet of Viking ships landed at the Heksenkolk (translated more or less as ‘the bewitched water’) of Nordwidi (Norden) in East Frisia. From here, their bands rampaged through Frisia, murdering and burned down villages, until the Frisians got in their way. Archbishop Rimbert of Bremen had gone to the camp of the Frisians to assist them.

When the Frisians were ready for battle, the archbishop ascended a hill to pray. He knelt on a stone and prayed to the Almighty. To receive his assistance in the fight against the heathens. Humbly he asked for a sign of victory. When the archbishop rose, he saw that the curve of his knees had been eroded into the stone, and in this the bishop understood the divine sign. He spoke enthusiastically to the Frisians.

The Frisians, strengthened by the miracle in faith of victory, were so overpowering in their charge that it made the Norsemen flight. The enemy left 10,377 dead men on the battlefield. Many of them were killed during their flight over the river. The stone on which archbishop Rimbert kneeled was kept for a long time in the Ludger Church (Ludgeri Kirche in Norden. Saint Ludger, by the way, is a Frisian born at modern Zuilen in the Netherlands. Read our blog post to learn more about him), and on the hill where he received his prayer, the trees and grass always remained green.


Where the hill must have been, is unclear too. Be advised that what Frisians call a hill, might not be more than an elevation of a few meters, if you are lucky, in the otherwise flat landscape. But, maybe Rimbert's hill was a thing or þing site. Why else was there a stone atop this hill? Stones often indicated a spot where ecclastiastical justice was done? More about the Germanic thing assemblies, in our post The Thing is.... The same uncertainty as to where the hill must have been located, goes for the ‘streams’ mentioned in the story. The Battle of Norditi commonly is situated near the Hilgenrieder Bay. This bay was located west of the village Nesse. Did the desperate Vikings drown in this shallow bay? The bay, by the way, is now gone, after it silted up and was reclaimed in the Middle Ages.

The stone Rimbert prayed on with his knees, known as the Warzenstein 'Warts' stone', can still be seen at the old graveyard of the town of Norden. The water collected in the holes of the stone is said to be medicinal. Go there when it rains, which shouldn't be too difficult. Others say, the original stone is buried somewhere below the Ludger Church. What's more interesting, is that the Warzenstein is a cup-mark stone, also called a Näpfchenstein in German, or napjessteen in Dutch. Similar stones can be found in the village of Holwierde in province Groningen, a stone called Duivelsteen 'devil’s stone', and also on the graveyard of the village of Rinsumageest in province Friesland. The use of these stones probably dates back to pagan times and practices. According to tradition, these cup marks were used for offering to elves, and the scrapings were being used as medicine. The fact Rimbert preferred to put his knees on a stone instead of on the soft clay of Frisia, might indicate the stone already had a tradition of magic. What other possible reason could he have for putting his knees on a rock?


The Moon Battle

Not far from the town of Norden lies the village of Manslagt, near the Ley Bay in Ostfriesland. Local legend tells that the name Manslagt derives from a great battle with the Vikings. Back then during the Viking Age, the area of Manslagt was an island. It was surrounded by two sea lochs. When the inhabitants saw the longships they fled from their island to the villages of Pilsum, Groothusen and Visquard to ask for help. During the night under moonlight they entered the island. Many Vikings were slaughtered and others fled. This victory became known as the Moon Battle, or in local speech Maanslagt. And that's how the village of Manslagt got its name.


The example of kicking out the Vikings from Ostfriesland, or East Frisia, in 884 was quickly followed in West Frisia, i.e. the territory west of the (former) river Vlie. That time, West Frisia was under control of the Viking warlord Godfrid the Sea-King. In 885, Godfrid was murdered near the town of Herispich, and his army present defeated by Frisian and Saxon contingents. A few years later in 889, the Frisian nobleman Gerulf received West Frisia in fief of king Arnulf of Carinthia. Read our post The Abbey of Egmond and the Rise of the Gerulfings to learn more details about this history of intrigue and treason.

Archbishop Rimbert obtained market, mint and toll rights for the city of Bremen in 888. And, guess what? Rimbert got these rights from king Arnulf of Carinthia as well. Just as the Frisian count Gerulf had. Or, were the Battle of Norditi (884) and the assassination of Godfrid the Sea-King (885) one big black-adderian scheme of king Arnulf with the Frisians? You scratch my back, I'll scratch yours.

With the Battle of Leuven in the year 891, king Arnulf also kicked out the Vikings in West Flanders, after which margrave Baldwin II may retake his county. The coast of Flanders was, in fact, part of Frisia and inhabited by Frisians (check our post A Frontier known as watery mess: the coast of Flanders).

And sorry to say, what the Frisians were very capable of, took the Anglo-Saxons a bit longer. Vikings invaded England in 865 and established the Danelaw. It took the Anglo-Saxons until 1066 with the Battle of Stamford Bridge, with only a meager 8,000 casualties, to get rid of the Vikings. Not realizing that while busy fighting at Stamford, they'd left the backdoor open, through which yet another Norsemen came in with an army. Already that same year, namely William the Conqueror. Back at square one.

Frisian Freedom myth

According to legend the Frisians east of the river Ems, were given the so-called 'freedom privileges' by king Charles the Fat after the Battle of Norditi. Privileges which meant they weren't subordinate to any other lord than the Holy Roman Emperor himself.

With their battle cry “Lewer doot as Slav”, the Frisians charged at the Vikings who must have been standing with their back against the muddy waters. The Vikings fled to their ships. But in-vain. Their ships were damaged, their rudders broken, and their sails set on fire. Apparently, the whole operation had been carefully planned by the Frisians. With the tide coming in, the Vikings were adrift at sea. Defenseless against wind, waves and water. Nobody made it home alive, all according to the freedom sagas.

This is all together a whole different freedom legend from the one that existed among their fellow Frisians living more to the west. More about that freedom privilege in our post Magnus’ Choice. The Origins of the Frisian Freedom.

2. The Theelacht co-op

After archbishop Rimbert and the Frisians jointly had exorcised the pagans from their lands, the question was what to do with it. It was, as said, the area of the Hilgenrieder Bay. A bay that silted up, and offered good possibilities to reclaim it from the sea, and to be turned into fertile land. The Frisians rubbed their noses to the left, to the right and up, and exclaimed: "That's it, we've got it!" They decided to govern these news lands in a co-operative, and to make good money out of it. With that they, without knowing it probably, founded the first farmers co-operative of Europe. Its name: Theelacht or Theel Acht. We think even of the first of the world, but stand corrected if we've exaggerated this historic fact.

This initiative has parallels of risk-sharing with what happened in 1811 at the village of Achlum, province Friesland where Ulbe Piers Draisma founded an insurance company together with 39 other farmers after farmsteads had been struck by lightning too often. It became one of the oldest and most successful insurance companies: Achmea. Currently, a turnover of more than 20 billion euro. Read also our blog post "I did not have financial relations with that village".

The Theelacht is the legal entity that owns the so-called Theel lands. The first regulations, the so-called Theelrecht ‘Theel law’ was formulated in 1583. The regulation was recently revised in 1759, under the name Jus Theelachticum Redivivum. A book of 200 pages, and it still stands.

The theel-lands are a set of fixed, immovable lands belonging to the Theelacht, and can be leased. These are eight theel-lands, called bezirke in German language. These are: Linteler Theel, Gaster Theel, Trimser Theel, Ekeler Theel, Osthover Theel, Neugroder Theel, Hover Theel, and Eber Theel. At the end of the nineteenth century, the size of these lands amounted for around 4,650 morgen, i.e. the Hannover morgen. A unit of measurement which equals around 1,200 hectares today. A theelachter is a member of the Theelacht descending from the founding families of the Theelacht.

location of the Theel lands in the little red square map of East Frisia by Ubbo Emmius, AD 1616

The shareholders of the Theelacht were primarily hereditary, and only they're qualified to vote. These are called the arfburen 'heir neighbour/member'. Hereditary theel-lands are inherited by the youngest son. Furthermore, if two families with each a theel-land unite through marriage, it's regulated that an arfbur can only have one theel land. No accumulation of land, therefore. Shareholders can also buy themselves in, the so-called koopburen 'buy neighbour/member'. They, however, have no voting right.

Each theel-land has its own theelbuchtheel book’. In spring and autumn, the shareholders meet in the illustrious theelkammertheel room’. It's located at the ground floor of the old Rathhause ‘town hall’ of Norden. Here board members sit at the fire, smoke a stone pipe, have a good local craft beer, review the theel books, determine the height of the yearly ground canons, and, finally, decide on paying the shareholders.

The word theel stems possibly from the word diel (in Mid-Frisian language), or deel (in Dutch language), or Teil (in German language) meaning 'lot' or 'part'. For example, compare the name of nature park De Deelen in province Friesland, where deel originates from the times these peatlands were commercially exploited in deelen, in parts, lots or plots. The word acht is of Old-Frisian origin, and has its origin in 'wakefulness' of a partnership of people. So, the Theelacht means something like 'the wakeful part'. These partnerships could be of a more informal and of a more formal status. The still existing Deichacht Norden and Sielacht (in Old-Frisian known as silfestene, sil meaning sluice, and festene meaning authority) are partnerships invested with power that have an official role in maintaining the proper functioning of dikes, sluices, and waterways.

The Theelacht was pretty successful. It had significant assets at the end of the nineteenth century. These have been lost during the first decennia of the twentieth century due to hyperinflation and the money reforms of the ‘20s, and, of course, during the Second World War. Currently, only two of the eight bizerke are still being administered by a theelachter. The other theel-lands are in possession of non-theelachters. Of course, the Theelacht as such continues to have control over these lands if the owner wants to sell it. In that case the Theelacht has the preferent option to buy the land. Therefore, in practice the whole process of ownership transfer goes in close consultation with the Theelacht to this day.

At present, the Theelacht has about 450 hectares left of the 1,200 they still had around 1900. That is just enough for the maintenance of the Theelkammer and basic expenditures. Perhaps the local craft beer and tabacco too.

Theelachter in the Theelkammer
The Theelkammer, the Theel room today

Before going to bed

In sum, the Theelacht is still there after more than a milennium. However, it has become more a of club than the thriving economic co-operation it once was. And, that's excellent! Giving the good example of unwinding and stepping out of the rush and tempo of modern-day living.


Note 1 - Every year in hig summer, a reenactment event takes place at Grünstrand Norddeich close to the town of Norden. During the event the Battle of Norditi between the Frisians and the Norsemen is being revived. It's called Wikingerfest am Meer 'Vikings feast at sea'. Check their website for more information.

Note 2 - There's one minority report about where the Battle of Norditi between the Frisians and the Norsemen took place, namely at Northout near Nielles lès Ardennes in Belgium or at Northout near Bayenghem lès Eperlecques in France (Delahaye 1999). We're not convinced that only a very vague resemblance of the place name with Norditi is enough. Besides, no preference is given between the two Northouts. And archbishop Rimbert was working at Bremen and Hamburg, and not in Belgium or France. Rest assured we didn't include this note to provoke the Ostfriesen (again). We wouldn't dare to. Please let them peacefully drink their beer and smoke their pipe at the hearth.

Further reading

Bremen, of A., History of the Archbishops of Bremen-Hamburg. Translated with an introduction & notes by Francis J. Tschan. With a new introduction & selected bibliography by Tomothy Reuter (2002)

Delahaye, A., De ware kijk op. Deel II. Het eerste Millennium. Mythen van de Lage Landen (1999)

Emmius, U., Rerum frisicarum historia (1616)

Folkerts, R., Die Theelacht zu Norden. Ein seit 1100 Jahren auf genossenschaftlicher Basis geführter Familienverband (1986)

Freese, F., Lewer doot as Slav. Die Saga der Normannenschlacht im Jahr 884 in der Hilgenrieder Bucht bei Norden (1976)

Hillebrand, M., Wikingerfest am Meer kehrt nach Norddeich zurück (2022)

Lewis, S.M., Rodulf and Ubba. In search of a Frisian-Danish Viking (2018)

Rau, S. (ed), Quellen zur karolingischen Reichsgeschichte III (1960)

Rieken, B., Nordsee ist Mordsee. Sturmfluten und ihre Bedeutung für die Mentalitätsgeschichte der Friesen (2005)

Schuyf, J., Heidense heiligdommen. Zichtbare sporen van een verloren verleden (2019)

Siefkes, W., Ostfriesche Sagen und sagenhafte Geschichten (1963)

Tuuk, van der L., Gjallar. Noormannen in de Lage Landen (website)

Wiersma, J.P., Friesche mythen en sagen (1937)

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