Latið meg ei á Frísaland fordervast!
Updated: Jul 19
Latið meg ei á Frísaland fordervast! 'Do no let me perish in Friesland!' A cry out of a Faroese young woman when she was being kidnapped by Frisian pirates in the Middle Ages. The question of this blog post is not about how on earth it was possible that the people of the Faroe Islands had such a bad image of Friesland. Instead, we will review the old Faroese sagas about the Frisians.
Faroese oral accounts tell about encounters with Frisian pirates. Accounts that were codified at the end of the eighteenth century. Especially of a Frisian settlement on the south-end of the archipelago. These are folklore songs or poems called the Frísa kvæđi ‘Frisian poem’ or Frísarnir ‘Frisians’ and the children’s rhyme called Frísaspæl 'Frisian game' or Frísa vísa ‘Frisian tune/rhyme’. In this blog post we combined the different sagas into one story, which might, who knows, roughly be the historic course of events of Frisian presence on the Faroe Islands. The Frísa Vísa can be viewed as a social memory of early-medieval times when women were captured and brought to new colonies (landnám) at for example Iceland, Vinland (i.e. Newfoundland), and the Faroe Islands.
From the beginning of the eighth century onwards, the Franks conquered much of Frisia. The Frisians were heathen and therefore the Franks also put a lot of effort in trying to convert the people. Some Frisians could not live with foreign domination and wanted to stay loyal to their ancient pagan believes. So, many set off to sea. At sea they lived from piracy by raiding merchant ships. If we are to believe the stories, these pirates were real gentlemen because the crew of the merchant ships was never done any physical harm.
One of the fleets of these pirates, who harboured a fierce hatred towards Christianity, made landfall at Suðuroy ‘south island’ of the Faroe Islands. Some say, after a heavy storm. That was not long after Grímur Kamban had settled, the first Norwegian settler at the Faroe Islands, and who was Christianized by the papar 'fathers', i.e. Irish hermit monks, around AD 825. The rest of the Faroe Islands was inhabited by Norsemen who already were converted to Christianity, when the Frisian pirates arrived. Therefore, the heathen Frisians did not feel much urge to integrate with the other, christianized islanders, and formed their own, isolated community. Neither did they desire the Faroese women. No explanation is given for this. Apparantly they had brought their own women. Any other explanation would soon be ackward, so we refrain from doing that.
The settlement, consisting of only thirteen houses, was located on the mountain Akraberg (see cover photo of this blog post) and was defended by a bulwark. Here, the Frisians lived off fishing, farming and off piracy. They had two, lean (pirate) ships. Ships that were locally known for their manoeuvrability. Each ship had place for twelve rowers. The ships were moored at the settlement of Sunnbøur, current Sumbo. The Frisians, after a while, did trade with the Faroese, but the Faroese were not allowed to enter the Frisian village.
The new settlers for long gave no food for more oral accounts, until Bishop Erlendur wanted to build a genuine cathedral, dedicated to Saint Magnus, in the village of Kirkjubøur at the southern tip of island Streymoy. This was around the year AD 1300. Such ambitions have a price tag and thus taxes were raised by the bishop. The Faroese people south of Hórisgøta, i.e. the islands Sydstreymoy, Sandoy, Skúvoy en Suðuroy, revolted against the northerners. A civil war broke out. A first battle took place at Mannafellsdal 'slaughtered-men's valley', a valley north of the village Kaldbaksbotnur on Streymoy. The southerners lost the battle. So much blood was spoiled that till this day the grass is coloured slightly red. Also, you can still see many mounds which are the graves of men who died that day. North of the valley stands the brynjumanna borð ‘the table of the brynmen, the fountain men’. This big stone received its name after the northerners celebrated their victory at this spot.
Saint Magnus is, by the way, also a saint very popular with the Frisians in the Middle Ages. Magnus was even transformed into a leader of the Frisians during the battle for Rome in the early ninth century. Magnus chose, and received from Charlemagne, the freedom privileges. Check out our blog post Magnus' Choice. The Origins of the Frisian Freedom.
But the revolt was not over. Bishop Erlendur launched a second punitive expedition, a year later. The second battle took place at the inlet of Kollefjord, a bit more north of Kaldbaksbotnur. This time the southerners had asked the heathen Frisians for help. The help of bondin í Akrabyrgi 'the farmer of the Akra mountain', and his seven sons. Some say his name was Hergeir. The Frisians were known for their stature and strength (read also our blog post The Giants of Twilight Land). Why the Frisians took part this time and not already the first time, is not told. Maybe they were handsomely rewarded by the southerners. If so, it would support the Frisians at Akraberg were still a pirate-like colony and to be feared in battle. To involve them on your side, you needed to have a trade-off.
The Frisians arrived with two Viking ships, disembarked and led the charge at the northerners. The army of the bishop lost many men and fled to Kirkjubøur with the southerns in pursuit. At Kirkjubøur the armies came to a standstill. This, because the Christian southerners did not dare to enter Kirkjubøur. Afraid of being cursed by God and the Pope. However, the heathen Frisian farmer and his sons did not care and chased the bishop all the way to the cathedral that was under construction, and where Erlendur had taken refuge on top of a wall. The farmer of Akraberg and his sons were in no hurry and therefore did not sacrilege the place. Instead, they surrounded the cathedral’s wall and waited for three days and three nights. By then the bishop was exhausted due to severe thirst and hunger, and fell of the wall. The farmer killed the bishop with his bare hands against the wall of the cathedral. After that, there was peace on the Faroe Islands. The construction of the Saint Magnus Cathedral was never finished and the ruins are still there as a warning for people who risk becoming overambitious.
In the years 1349 and 1350, the Black Death haunted the Faroe Islands. Many were killed and most of the Frisian colony as well. Only a few Frisians at Akraberg survived. They left the place and settled at Sumbo, Hargar and Laðangarður near Froðbøur where they became Christian and mingled with the locals. That was the end of the Frisian pirate colony. Or not? It are the people of Sumbo who claim today to be descendants of these Frisians.
Besides the saga of Frísarnir, there is the Frísa vísa. It is a children’s rhyme and game wherein a young woman is about to be kidnapped by rude Frisian pirates who want to take her back to Friesland. In the game, the girl and here family make one team, and the Frisian pirates make the other one. The game is to try to ransom the girl by singing verses. It starts with asking her father for help but who refuses to ransom his daughter, then her mother, then her brother and so forth. Up to the game when the team gives in. If they do, then it is her fiancé who rescues her.
A variant of the same rhyme, also with Frisian pirates, exists at Iceland. It seems, when non-Scandinavians spoke of pirates, it were Norse Vikings. When Scandinavians spoke of pirates, it were Frisian Vikings. And, raiding women in the North Atlantic and North Sea area was not uncommon. In the late ninth-century Vita sancti Findani confessoris ‘The Life of Saint Findan the confessor’ it was the sister of Saint Findan (a Leinster monk), along with other women, who was abducted by Norsemen during raids on 'that Scottish island called Ireland’. The father of Findan gave his son money to buy his sister free, with no avail. Also, according to Icelandic folk tradition and sagas many Irish and Scottish women were enslaved by Vikings and brought to Iceland. Genetic research has confirmed about half of the women on Iceland originates from the British Isles.
Anyway, reflecting these North Atlantic practices of kidnapping women, here is the first verse of the rhyme of the Frísa Vísa:
Frísar lögdu sínar árar í sjó,
so vildu teir frá landi ró;
jomfrúin græt og hendur sló:
"Lati meg ei á Frísaland fordervast!
Bía, bía min, Frísar!
meg mann fair loysa;
eg trúgvi so gott til fair mín,
hann loysir meg vi borgum sínum,
hann letur meg ei á Frísaland fordervast."
[the father replies:]
"Eg havi ikki borgar uttan tvá,
hvörga kann eg lata fyri teg gá;
forvist mást tú á Frísaland fordervast."
The Frisians laid their oars in sea,
they wanted row away from the land;
the maid cried and wrung her hands in despair:
“Do not let me perish in Friesland!
Wait, wait, Frisians!
my father will ransom me;
I believe him so good,
he will ransom me with his castles,
he will not let me parish in Friesland”
[the father replies:]
“I have no castles except two,
neither of them I can give up;
indeed you may perish in Friesland.”
We modified the sagas a little bit, especially the timelines. The first choice we made, was that there are versions that date back the arrival of the Frisian pirates to the Early Middle Ages, and other versions that say the Frisian pirates arrived halfway in the eleventh century. We chose the first period, since that fits indeed the time of Frankish expansion and Christianization. In the eleventh century the Frisians were already obedient and pious church folk.
The other choice we made, is the time the struggle with the bishop took place. The saga namely says -historically correct- that in AD 1350 the Black Death decimated (also) the Frisians. Only one very strong and tall farmer, and two (or seven or eight, numbers vary) sons survived. Soon after that, the drama with Bishop Erlendur took place, according to the saga. This cannot be correct, since Bishop Erlendur is historical and lived around AD 1300, which is also the date of the partly completed Magnus Cathedral. So, we turned it around. First the bishop thing and then the plague thing. It would also explain better why the settlement ended there and then.
Furthermore, there is the legend that a certain bloke named Hergeir burned down the house of Bishop Erlendur. Except that it illustrates Erlendur was really, really not popular on the southern Faroe Islands, we found too little information to place this person in the story. We simply suggest he might have been the Frisian farmer annex pirate and Viking. We stand corrected.
Note 2: Besides the Faroe Islands, also in the heart of Switzerland sagas and songs exist of Frisian settlers. These were no heathen pirates but warriors and their families, who emigrated from Frisia during a great famine. Read our blog post Make way for the dead.
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