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  • Writer's pictureHans Faber

The bishop from Frisia who proceeded The Hunger Games

Katniss Everdeen, a character portrayed by the American actress Jennifer Lawrence, is survivor and victor of The Hunger Games. She comes from the impoverished mining region, District 12, of the country called Panem. In fact, Katniss was not supposed to be a tribute in the games. Initially, her little sister was chosen, but Katniss volunteered to take her place. Every year, a total of twenty-four district residents, referred to as tributes, were selected by lottery from the twelve districts of Panem to fight each other until only one remained. Katniss emerged as the winner. In the ninth century, during the violent era of the Vikings, a bishop named 'Hunger the Frisian' had to play a similar game and was the bishop who survived.

Bishop Hunger the Frisian, often written as Hungerus Frisius in the old medieval texts, lived in the ninth century AD. Not much is known of his background, except that he was a priest of the bishopric of Utrecht, and the fact that he had some kind of visible physical deformity. Tempting one makes associations with the Notre Dame and Quasimodo, but we do not know the nature of his deformities. Rumour has it that actress Jennifer Lawrence had to lose weight to get the part of Katniss Everdeen. She did not and got the job too, without suggesting she was misshapen. From where in Frisia Hunger came from, we do not know either. Speculations are he was from the River Stichtse Vecht area.

Hunger is a typical Germanic name in the sense that it is brave, warrior-like, and composed of two words. It has nothing to do with feeling hungry. The first word hun means either 'cub, young bear', or is a reference to the Huns for having a 'dark complexion'. Most probably 'cub, young bear' is the meaning. The word ger means 'spear'. Hunger is a surname you can find especially in Germany, the United States of America, and in Switzerland. In the Spanish language he is known as San Hung(u)ero de Utrecht.

After his death, Hunger was declared a saint by the Catholic Church. His feast day is on December 22nd. Hunger is remembered as being pious and having a modest personality. Not out for gain, neither personally nor for his family. He is depicted with a shining wedding ring. As to why, it will become clear further below. Hunger is not the only Frisian bishop of Utrecht. Other bishops probably belonging to early-medieval noble Frisian families are Alberik I, Frederick from Sexbierum (also declared a saint), Alberik II, Ricfried, Liudger, and Hartbert from Bierum. Although not born in Frisia, Bishop Radboud is said to be a descendant of King Redbad. The same is being said about Bishop Frederick by the way.

Just like Katniss Everdeen, Hunger was never supposed to be selected to become the new bishop of Utrecht. After the death of Bishop Liudger, a struggle for power dominated the election of a new bishop. Back then, a bishopric elected itself a new bishop. Only later would this become a prerogative of the Pope. Of course, because a bishop was an influential political agent, different Frankish powers exercised influence as to who would become the new bishop. Moreover, because the bishopric of Utrecht bordered both Lotharingia and East Francia. At first, the provost named Craft was the intended successor. But he refused because, as he explained, of the insecurity of the Vikings. It was the elderly priest Odulf, who had just been active in Frisia ministering to the Frisians, that was decisive for the selection of Hunger. Odulf said not to look at Hunger’s ugly appearance, but at his deeds. More plausible, however, is that Craft had to step down under political pressure from East Francia (Van der Tuuk 2003).

In the year 854, Hunger became bishop and would stay in this position until his death somewhere in the mid '60s. Where his grave was is uncertain. According to tradition, he died at Prüm Abbey in Germany, just north of Luxembourg. But we know nothing of a grave. Another theory is that he was buried on Estate Weeresteyn, located at the former border of the bishopric of Utrecht, also the border between the provinces of Holland and Utrecht. The small water stream called Weere translates to 'border'. Here in the estate's garden, in the year 1760, a sarcophagus was found with among other a crosier inside, which indicates the grave of a bishop. Estate Weeresteyn is close to the villages of Nieuwersluis and Breukelen along the River Stichtse Vecht, an area that for much of the Early Middle Ages was a heartland of influential Frisian nobility tied to the Frankish court; check out our blog post Attingahem Bridge, NY. After being exhibited, the sarcophagus was smashed to pieces and disposed of.

Saint Hunger Frisus
Saint Hungerus Frisus showing the wedding ring

Hunger lived in roaring times. Pillaging Vikings had been active in the wider region in the decades leading to his consecration. However, from 841 until circa 876, the Danish warlord Rorik - also written as Hrœrekr and Roric - of Dorestad ruled on behalf of King Lothar II of Lotharingia (viz. Middle Francia) over West Frisia. A benefice which comprised more or less of the central river lands and the western coastal area of the Netherlands. Rorik was converted to Christianity at some point, a precondition when in employment of the Franks, and was by and large able to protect this area from raids by Danish warbands. Bishop Hunger maintained direct relations with Rorik, being the two most powerful men of the area.

Generally it is thought that Hunger fled from Viking raids to Sint Odiliënberg in the south of the Netherlands in the year 857 and never returned. This is incorrect. More probably is that Hunger left the episcopal see in Utrecht only temporarily during a time when Rorik had left for Denmark and the situation became insecure. Rorik was outside Frisia between 857 and circa 861 (Halbertsma 2000, Van der Tuuk 2003). We can assume that Hunger was back in Utrecht between 861 until his death. When he died is not known. Often the year 866 is considered his year of death. The last record of Hunger dates from 863. That year Hunger is too sick to travel. Maybe he died not long after.

Sint Odiliënberg by Johannes Adrianus van der Drift (1808-1883)

When King Lothar II dies in 869, King Charles of West Francia takes possession of parts of Lotharingia. King Charles keeps Rorik in place as the duke of West Frisia. A year later, with the treaty of Meerssen, the borders between West and East Francia are redrafted once more. Frisia north of the River Meuse becomes part of East Francia and Rorik, therefore, a vasal of King Louis the German.

Six years after Hunger was consecrated bishop of Utrecht, and thus had become part of the Games being played in the political arena, he came into a very difficult situation. This was in the year 862 (Blok 1918). King Lothar wanted to divorce from his wife Teutberga because she allegedly gave him no children. Minor detail, Lothar also had an affair. With a woman named Waldrada with whom he had four children. Dissolution of the marriage needed to be sanctioned by the bishops in the kingdom. Initially, the bishops resisted the king but at the end gave in. All except one, namely bishop Hunger. He made the right decision in this delicate matter because Pope Nicholas fired the other bishops of Trier and Cologne. Hunger being the survivor.

An interesting anecdote, again in marital matters, is when Bishop Hincmar of Rheims approached Bishop Hunger in the year 863. He asked Hunger to use his influence on Rorik to prevent him from sheltering Margrave Baldwin I of Flanders and his wife Judith, the daughter of King Charles of West Francia. Beautiful and desirable Judith had eloped with Margrave Baldwin from her father, and were married by the bishop of Tournai without Charles' consent (De Maesschalck 2019). The two fled from West Francia, to the north. King Charles is said to have been be out of his mind for many years. That angry. Not even the Pope could calm him. Either Bishop Hunger disregarded Bishop Hincmar's plea, or his influence on Rorik simply was limited, but Rorik did give shelter to the lovers. The more you read about this warlord, the more he grows on you. Note that Rorik resided in the kingdom of Lothar II. A king who already had a conflict with the Pope about dissolving his marriage.

Concerning the wedding ring with which Saint Hunger the Frisian is shown, it speaks for itself. To stick with his principles, Hunger resisted one of the most powerful men of his time, the Frankish king of Lotharingia. Almost how Katniss Everdeen became a symbol of rebellion against the Capitol. He did, however, not prevent that the renegade couple Judith and Baldwin were given protection by the Rorik.


Note 1 – Featured image Howall Papers.

Note 2 - It is not entirely sure Margrave Baldwin and Judith of Flanders stayed at Rorik. Baldwin threatened to do so, and had to flee from the jurisdiction of King Charles .

Note 3 - Saint Frederick from Frisia, bishop of Utrecht before Saint Hunger, also had to deal with family matters of his king. King Louis the Pious had married his cousin Judith of Bavaria. Not long after bishop Frederick criticized the marriage he was murdered with a knife in the church while performing mass.

Suggested music

Rachel Zegler, The Hanging Tree (2023)

Chris Isaak, Wild at Heart – Wicked Game (1989)

Further reading

Aa, van der  A.J., Biografisch woordenboek der Nederlanden, bevattende Levensbeschrijvingen van zoodanige Personen, die zich op eenigerlei wijze in ons Vaderland hebben vermaard gemaakt (1867)

Blok, P.J. & Molhuysen, P.C., Nieuw Nederlandsch biografisch woordenboek (1918)

Capelleveen, van R., Buitenplaats Weeresteyn of Weerestein (website)

Collins, S., The Hunger Games (2008)

De Maesschalck, E., De graven van Vlaanderen (861-1384) (2019)

Erfgoedcentrum Nederlands Kloosterleven, Vestigingsplaats Sint Odiliënburg (website)

Fries Museum, Breien! de Hunger Games-col (2016)

Gosses, I.H. & Japikse, N., Handboek tot de Staatkundige Geschiedenis van Nederland (1947)

Halbertsma, H., Frieslands oudheid. Het rijk van Friese koningen, opkomst en neergang (2000), Hunger van Utrecht, Nederland; bisschop; † 866 (website)

Kroonenberghs, F., Egmond-Binnen, Jeroen van Noordwijk (website)

Nieuwenhuijsen, K., Nordic Names in the Low Countries – List (website)

Nijenberg plus Van Tongeren, Winhilde van Vlaanderen (website)

Schaar, van der, J., Voornamen (1964)

Tuuk, van der L., Gingen de Utrechtse bisschoppen Hunger, Odilbald en Radbod vanwege de Noormannen in ballingschap? (2003)

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

Universiteit Utrecht, Bijzondere collecties. Het sacramentarium van Odilbald? (website)

Winkler, J., Friesche Naamlijst. Onomasticum Frisicum (1898)


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