• Hans Faber

The Batwing Doors of Northwest Europe

“Is seaport the Maasvlakte the gateway of northwestern Europe? No? Is it Europoort then? No? Is it the Botlek area? Is it Vlaardingen? No? Surely it's the city of Rotterdam! Say what? Okay, final guess. Since you guys only can talk about Frisia, is it the town of Vreeswijk ‘Frisian wic’ perhaps?”

Sorry to disappoint you. None of these options are right. It is the town of Dorestat, currently known as Wijk bij Duurstede, or simply called Wijk by its inhabitants.

Dorestat entered history mid seventh century in style: with golden coins. These coins were produced by mintmasters Rimoaldus and Madelinus and carried the name Dorestat Fit 'made in Dorestat' (read our blog post Porcupines bore U.S. bucks to learn more about these coins, and about the immense trading connections of Dorestat). Later, well into the ninth century silver coins were minted still, carrying the more jazzed-up name Dorestado in the meantime. At the end of the seventh century, Dorestat appears in written sources too. These spoke about Dorestat as the vicus famosus or the vicus nominatissimus 'town of great repute'. The early-medieval town of Dorestat became the biggest shipping hub of northwest Europe. Over the course of the seventh century it had become the clearing-house between the hinterland of the river Rhine and the river Moselle, in Germany. It, furthermore, had trade connections in the west with England, in the north with southern Scandinavia and (via the river Meuse) with northern France. Its location was central. At a spot where the river Rhine forks into the river Rhine proper (also known as the Kromme Rijn "Crooked Rhine) to the northwest and the river Lek to the west.

coinage of Dorestat: left golden coin ca. 650; right silver coin ca. 800

Yes, Dorestat was a true batwing door. Between the European continent and the North Sea. Linking the maritime to the terrestrial world, and vice versa. Trade going through in both directions. And those licentious saloons of the Wild West had these swinging doors for a practical reason. They facilitated suppliers to carry their goods in and out without too much hassle. No need using your hands. You could use both your hands to carry stuff. And because batwing doors are half-sized doors, they are not too heavy to push open either. Illustrative for the American straightforwardness way of thinking. Smooth flow of people and goods. Exactly where Dorestat was all about. An open settlement without fortified stone walls, without powerful clergy and, initially, without emperors. It was a place of private trading and money-making for individual benefit. And when you think of it, Dorestat wás in fact the Wild West, the western frontier. Behind it, impenetrable swamps, dark forests and dangerous seas. Above, Dorestat marked the border between the Christianized world and the still heathen world of the Frisians and the far north. In other words, a corner of civilization. From a continental perspective, that is.

The economic axis of the rivers Rhine and Meuse estuaries with the Rhineland in Germany is ancient. Dorestat had this head position at first. Later the towns of Tiel and Vlaardingen took over. After that Rotterdam took over forming the axis with what was named the Ruhr area in the meantime. But a third party is buying-in: China.

Early-seventh-century Dorestat developed into a modest trading place under sphere of influence of Frisia. Frisian merchants and ships dominated the trade in northwestern Europe. At the beginning of the eighth century, however, Dorestat came under the sphere of influence of the Franks. Frisian merchants and businessmen, however, continued doing their business with their ships and gigantic oversees network. But also skippers transporting goods back and forth to the Rhineland and the Meuse basin. The early-medieval Liana Engibarjans, so to speak. Dorestat grew even in importance and reputation under Frankish royal rule; a Frankisch-Frisian commerce. Its heydays were from the second half of the eighth century until the first quarter of the ninth century. From then on, archaeological data no longer shows expansion of jetties, quays and docks. The production of coin stagnated as well. At the end of the ninth century Dorestat was abandoned. Overall, still, more than two centuries of being a leading city in international trade.

artist impressions of Dorestat

Massive archaeological excavations in the ‘60s and ‘70s revealed a settlement of ribbon development along the western bank of the river Rhine, about three kilometres in length. Encompassing 250 hectares. It had an estimated 10,000 inhabitants. Today we call them Waikers. A two-meter-wide road ran along the riverbank aligned with houses and warehouses. In a right angle with the riverbank numerous jetties annex dams were built. The jetties were about six to seven meters wide. In the center these jetties were up to 200 meters long. Now, that is what we call a jetty! Probably on top of the jetties warehouses and houses were built too. Behind the warehouses standing along the riverbank road, were farmsteads. Quite big ones. About twenty-five meters long and six meters wide. Many had an oblong, ship-shaped lay-out.

Yet, Dorestat was a modest-looking place. Not monumental, like Cologne or Tours (Abulafia, 2019). The lay-out of Dorestat was typical Frisian expressing individualism and a strong sense of private property. Every merchant had its own house, storage, quay, ship and well. No communal storage. Packed closely but each made itself into an island. Just like their terp villages in the northern heartland (Pye, 2014).

the jettie of Dorestad
development of the jetties, harbour area of Dorestat

From 834 onward, the Vikings raided Dorestat on a yearly basis. Like clockwork. This happened when the reputation of Dorestat was already in decline. The raiders missed the boat. Let that be a lesson never to have your shares and stocks managed by a Viking. The reason why Dorestat lost its position also had to do with the fact that the river Rhine slowly silted up. A process initiated with the creation of the river Lek earlier; see further below. In 839 Holy Roman Emperor Lothair I gave part western Frisia (more-or-less current provinces Noord Holland, Zuid Holland and part of province Utrecht), including the central river area with emporium Dorestat, in fief to the Viking warlord Rorik. This was arguable the deathblow of Dorestat’s already waning hegemony.

We cannot help wondering how such a Viking raid would look like in practice in the case of Dorestat. First, rowing up slowly the bend rivers Vecht and Kromme Rijn for sixty kilometers long, which already would have alarmed everyone. Then, at Dorestat, docking their longships somewhere at the endless jetties, and still having to walk a few hundred meters. All the people would have been gone in the fields by then, with all their gold and silver, you would think. Of course, the Vikings could take the products and goods in the storehouses for as much as their ships could carry. If this was the practice, it sounds more like a kind of yearly tax collection, to us. Would explain why despite the yearly raids, Dorestat stayed in business, and no proof has been found of sacking and burning down the (wooden) place.

Was the early-seventh century really the start of Dorestat?

According to Frankish chronicles the Frisians and the Franks got entangled into a heavy conflict at the end of the seventh century. The price was Dorestat. The place of battle was described as fortress Duristate. Check our blog post The Battles of Redbad, unplugged to read more about this conflict. This fortress might have been the remnants of a Roman fortress near the present town of Rijswijk (province Gelderland), on the opposite, southern bank of the river Rhine from Dorestat’s point of view.

We have checked the third/fourth century Roman world map, the seven-meters-long Tabula Peutingeriana, to see if the Romans already gave Dorestat any significance. Although the flevo Renus 'river Rhine' and the flevo Patabus 'river Meuse' are mapped, it only shows the fortresses Lugduno 'present Katwijk' and foro Adriani (aka forum Hadriani) at the present town of Voorburg. All place names in the left of the white square. No Dorestat, alas. Or, maybe it is fortress Levefano (see white arrow), as some scholars say it is. Check at this great site (Pars II) the Tabula and see if you can manage without Google Maps navigation. Interesting to see, is that this river area for the Romans was 'the end' of the world.

central river area Tabula Peutingeriana
lower Rhine and Meuse area - Tabula Peutingeriana

Around 50 BC the Romans arrived at the lower river Rhine basin. After a period of in vain expeditions trying to control Germanica above the river Rhine along the North Sea coast, the Romans settled with the river Rhine as the most northern frontier on the continent. In the first century, they started to construct the limes 'border' of Lower Germanica along the river Rhine, with fortress Lugdunum (also Lugdono, see above) at the river mouth (at the present town of Katwijk) being the most western castellum 'fortress'. Lugdunum is popularly known as fort Brittenburg. The fortress at Rijswijk at the banks of the river Rhine near the fork with the river Lek, was in use between ca. AD 50 till the end of the third century. This fortress, maybe Levefano, might be called the origin of the settlement Dorestat. It was around this period the river Lek, a new branch of the river Rhine, was formed. Steadily, the river Lek turned into a full-fledged river, flowing to Hoek van Holland. With this process the river Lek creamed off water from the river Rhine proper (now the river Kromme Rijn) and the latter started to silt up slowly. But important, for the river Rhine was the connection with the river Vecht more down stream. The river Vecht flows into lake IJssel (IJsselmeer) from where you could sail to the Wadden Sea, to the north.

Who were the early inhabitants of Dorestat?

That is an awful difficult question to answer. If we take the linguistic theory, it was a people speaking a Celtic language. The name Dorestat is comprised of the part dworest, meaning 'gate' or 'door' together with the ‘inhabitant’ suffix -atis. Thus, Dworest-atis, door-people. Which must be understood as the people who lived at the door, at the gateway. So, by the way, we are back at swinging the batwing doors of the (wet) Wild West! Those Celts had foresight and understood the potential of this area.

When the Romans arrived in the central river area the people (also) adopted the Latin language, possibly a variant comparable to Picardian. This developed into Old French and later the river-area population switched yet again, but this time to a Germanic language, namely Central Dutch. Sparing you all the different stages, the result was that Dorestat developed into today’s (Wijk bij) Duurstede. Interestingly, Late Latin was spoken in this region, including the river area in province Gelderland, well into the early medieval period. It's also the region where the Central Dutch language developed.

Historically, in the Netherlands there is always much ado about the origins of the Batavians. A brave tribe, among others responsible to lead a rebellion together with the Frisians against the Romans in AD 69, but disappeared in oblivion. Archaeological research shows more and more that at the beginning of the era influences of the northern cultures in the river area became stronger. Pottery of the Frisians (Frisii) and of the Chauci, who lived at the northwestern coastal zone of Germany and the Netherlands, dating from this period is being found in the region of Batavia (viz Betuwe). Research also indicates that large parts of the region Batavia depopulated when the Romans arrived. This might have offered an opportunity for the northern tribes to occupy these fertile lands. The historical episode of the two Frisian kings, Malorix and Verritus, who traveled in AD 58 to Rome to settle their dispute in appeal with Emperor Nero personally concerning the use of land along the limes, fits this very well. Also, as said, the fact that the Batavians and the Frisians teamed up to fight against the Romans, makes sense in this context.

Note that the Romans coined the term Germanic but that is a term which says nothing about the Germanic identity of the tribes as we understand it today. Many of these tribes did not even speak Germanic but a Celtic language. This was a wide-spread language in Europa at the beginning of the era. That also might hold true for the Frisians during the Roman era. They might also have spoken Celtic. The names Malorix and Verritus are even of Celtic origin. Read our blog post Celtic-Frisian heritage: There's no dealing with the Wheel of Fortune. And to be complete, the fact people speak Celtic doesn't rule out the possibility they adopted the language from the Celts.

It is likely that with the rise of Dorestat as a commercial hub of northwestern Europe, people from everywhere settled in this town. Perhaps in settlements in the wider region too. Of course, Frisians settled in significant numbers simply because they dominated the trade for most of the time. Frisians also settled in the current town of Vreeswijk, known in the ninth century as Fresionouuic ‘Frisian Wic’ which makes clear that the central river region as such wasn’t Frisian. There's no Vreeswijk in Friesland. It furthermore shows, tribe identity did exist, both in the river area and among the Frisians. However, parts of the central river area were for long under the sphere of influence of Frisia during the first centuries of the Middle Ages. Under Frankish rule, from around 700, probably more migrants from the south and the German hinterland settled in Dorestat too. Mintmaster Madelinus is one of those settlers. He first worked at the town of Maastricht more to the south, but moved his business to Dorestat halfway the seventh century. To make money. But we also know, from historical sources, of Danish merchants and Anglo-Saxons who traveled to and lived in Dorestat. You might say, an average metropolitan composition.

We cannot end a story about Dorestat without showing the most marvelous piece excavated at the site: the Fibula of Dorestad. It is dated 775-800 and is of Frankish origin.

fibula of Dorestad
Dorestad fibula

Note: Near the crossing of Het Sant and Prins Hendrikweg road in Wijk bij Duurstede, you can find a sign giving information on Dorestat. Unfortunately, the sign starts describing the history from 800, during Frankish rule when in fact the rise of Dorestat started in the early sixth century already.

Further reading

Abulafia, D., The boundless sea. A human history of the oceans (2019)

Fouracre, P. (ed), The New Cambridge Medieval History, volume I, c. 500-c.700; Lebecq, S., The Northern Seas (fifth to eighth centuries) (2005)

Heijden, van der P., Romeinen langs de Noordzee. De limes in Nederland (2020)

Meier, D., Seefahrer, Händler und Piraten im Mittelalter (2004)

Pey, M., The Edge of the World. How the North Sea Made Us Who We Are (2014)

Schenk, J., Port Barons and Ruhr Tycoons: the origins of an interdependent relationship between Rotterdam and the Ruhr area, 1870-1914 (2015)

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

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

Tuuk, van der L., Katla. De reis naar Dorestad (2021)

Willemsen, A., Gouden Middeleeuwen. Nederland in de merviovingische wereld, 400-700 na Chr. (2014)

Willemsen, A. & Kik, H. (ed), Dorestad and its networks. Communities, Contact and Conflict in Early Medieval Europe (2021)