A severe case of inattentional blindness: the Frisian tribe’s name
The name Frisii for the people living on the southern coast of the North Sea is old. Very old. It dates from the Late Antiquity. Today we call them Frisians. Roman and Greek historians and bureaucrats have written down the tribe’s name of this Germanic or Celtic people in many texts. Almost two millennia ago. With that, modern Frisians carry one of the oldest documented tribe’s names in Europe. But no unanimous agreement on what the name means. Many theories still float around in the scholarly debate. We, humble hikers, decided it was time to put this endless debate out of its misery. A recent archaeological publication provided an opportunity to do so. Yes, the explanation lies hidden in plain sight.
Almost two millennia ago, when the Mediterranean civilization reached the backwaters on the southern shores of the North Sea, they wrote that the people living in the west and north of what is now the Netherlands, were Frisians. The Romans and Greek, notably Cornelius Tacitus, Pliny the Elder, Cassius Dio and Ptolemy I Soter, spoke of the Frisii, Phresii, Frisei, Fresones, Frusiones, Frisiones, Phresones, Phresiones, Frixones, Frigones, Fresonici, Friszozi, or Fraisoz, and probably we missed one or two. These names have evolved into among others Fresan, Frysan, Frýsum, Freeschen, Vriesen, Vresen, frison, frieson, frísir, Frisere, Friesen, Friezen, and, of course, Friesians and Frisians. In the meantime we are not merely talking of humans anymore, but also of cows and horses.
A first thing we noticed, most papers and articles discussing the origin of the tribe's name of the Frisians generally have as assumption, that Frisians already carried their name when the Romans arrived. In other words, in this scenario the Romans walked into the area, inquired at the long-haired locals living in the watery mess who they were, and how they named themselves. In a low-throat voice the answer must have sounded something like 'frayze/phraise'. Et voilá, the name explained! Unfortunately, those Roman visitors forgot to inquire what the name meant.
When reasoning from the assumption that Frisians had filed their tribe’s name at the then civil registry before Roman troops entered the territory, another issue has to be dealt with to explain the origin of the tribe’s name. Namely, whether Frisians were a Germanic people or Germanic-Celtic people, or perhaps an admixture thereof. If they spoke a Celtic language, and the linguistic odds are becoming stronger and stronger they were indeed (Schrijver 2017; check also our post The Killing Fields, of the Celts), you will have to construct a different theory than when they spoke another language (Van Renswoude 2012).
Hawar, for many centuries after the arrival of the Romans nobody cared what the name of the Frisians meant anyway. Not among Frisians themselves. Not among the rest of the world. Until, let’s say, two centuries ago when history and Romanticism were hot, and every country, proud national state and its peoples were trying to proof they had the most ancient roots. If not the oldest, surely more noble and older than their neighbours’. Frisians played this game as well. Passionately even, and already in the second half of the fifteenth century!
We found many explanations of the tribe’s name fries/frisian, of which we have listed below the most heard.
A classic one, in the category fashion, often found, is that fries/frisian is related to Old-Frisian frisle and fresle, or English frizzle meaning ‘curly hair’. Think also of friseren ‘to make hair curly’ in Dutch language, albeit friseren is a French loanword. Apparently, if you are to adopt this theory, Frisians had curly hair 2,000 years ago (Grimm 1840, Müllenhoff 1900, De Vries 1971, Van Veen & Van der Sijs 1997). In this respect, think also of vrieze, Fries, frise, frisa and friz in successively English, German, French, Portuguese and Ukraine language, which is a rough woolen fabric type (Van der Sijs 2010). The woolen fabric vrieze in Middle Dutch language was known as frise.
True, we cannot deny that the history of Frisia is one of in which sheep and their curly woolen fleece played a major role. We all know of the famous pallia fresonica ‘Frisian cloaks’ mentioned in several early-medieval texts, and of the production of fresum in Frisia as mentioned in the late-eighth-century codex Lex Frisionum. But to say Frisians were named after curly hair, rough wool, or sheep, doesn’t make much sense, we think. More plausible the other way around. Therefore, the best we can do with this frivolous theory is to listen to the Dutch ‘80s teenage girl group Frizzle Sizzle and their song Alles heeft een ritme ‘everything has a rhythm’. Check our posts Haute couture from the salt marshes and Rescuing The Rolling Sheep for more background on wool production and fashion in early-medieval Frisia.
By the way, because the Frisians have been named Frigones too, in the Ravenna Cosmography ca. AD 700, their tribe’s name occasionally has been explained in relation to coldness and the cold climate. However, if the southern shores of the North Sea with its mild temperature was already considered cold by the Romans and Greek, other tribes living more to the north would have earned this title even more. Perhaps these frigid people should have worn more clothes made of vrieze fabric. No more words on this theory. Basta.
Besides fashion, heroism and Frisian nationalism have been productive angles in explaining their tribe’s name as well. A first theory of this category says its name is related to Old High German freisa ‘danger’, and to proto-Germanic fraistōn ’to fear’, or to Middle Gothic fraisan ‘to attempt’. The tribe’s name fries/frisian can then be explained as ‘the brave’ or ‘the daring’ (Zeuß 1837, see Neumann 2008). Think also of the Dutch verb vrezen meaning ‘to fear’ used to this day.
Another one in the category heroism and nationalism is where fries/frisian means ‘free’. For this, connection has been made with the Gothic word freis and the Old High German fri meaning ‘free’, freobroþur ‘your own brotherly’ or ‘popular/loved’. The Old Germanic words frisijoz and frijaz meant something like ‘free’ or ‘unbound’ and ‘brotherly’ (Krogmann 1964, Ramat 1976, see Neumann 2008; Van Renswoude 2012). A fragile element of these scenarios is, as said more above, we do not know whether the Frisians spoke a Germanic, Gothic language at all. If not, the whole theory goes through the shredder.
Yet another heroic type of explanation is that fries/frisian relates to weapons. The Greek words πριων (prion), πρισμα (prisma) for a certain type of saw, apparently, might etymologically be related to fries/frisian. It refers to a sharp, jagged tip of a harpoon. A harpoon made of bone even. Therefore, Frisians were named after these fishing weapons they carried (Loewenthal 1929, see Krogmann 1964). Well, if you say so…
A final heroic type explanation is that fries/frisian originates from the Germanic goddess Freyja or Freya, or maybe from its twin-brother Freyr or Frey. Besides the -s of fries/frisian misses, Germanic idols are also much younger than the tribe’s name. Only with the Early Middle Ages, Germanic mythology finds access to this region. Even more, it is highly doubtful there ever was a notable Germanic mythology cult and devotion of its gods, like Wodan and Donar, in the area what is the Netherlands today (Schuyf 2019). So, as a free advice, don’t get carried away too much with Thor hammer pendants and stuff when imagining early-medieval Frisia or the Low Countries for that matter.
Goddess Freya, by the way, was the equivalent of the Roman god Venus and later of the christian ‘deity’ Virgin Mary. Beautiful Freya also wore the legendary necklace Brísingamen of which we have boldly suggested earlier that it has been recovered in former Frisia, more precise in province Friesland. See our post Ornament of the Gods found in a mound of clay.
A less grand and captivating explanation is that the tribe’s name fries/frisian denotes ‘those who live on the edge of land’. The name fries/frisian in this theory is related to the Latin prīmus, or its older form prismo, meaning ‘that what lies in the front’. Additionally, the Indo-Germanic word preis and the related Gothic fēra and Old High German fēra, fiara mean ‘side, fringe or flank’. In other words, again, people who lived on the edge, who lived on the coast (Ten Doornkaat-Koolman 1879, Grienberger 1913, Hellqvist 1939, Törnquist 1958, see Neumann 2008). Think also of a frieze in classic Roman and Greek architecture. A long stretch construction element, often decorated with reliefs.
One thing becomes immediately clear from the short overview above; nobody has a damn clue. Such is the fate of etymology. A thousand explanations for one word. And this time without knowing to what original language family the labelling fries/frisian belonged. Thus all we end up with are free, flower-power bums with curly hair, perhaps with braids, dressed in woolen clothes. Hanging out on the beach and cutting bones into little harpoons as their main activity. Probably to catch a meal of fish to be fried on the campfire in the evening.
You’d think that there must be more to it.
We recently published a post on the American surname ‘Fries’. It turned out this surname had no connection to the tribe’s name fries/frisian at all. Instead, friesen were skilled migrant workers active in the south of Germany in the seventeenth century, and who originally came from mountainous Switzerland. These friesen workers possessed the skills and tools to cultivate swamps and to turn wetlands into dryer and arable land. They did so by digging ditches and raise dikes. A typical tool these trenchers used was the Friesenbeil. An axe to cut ditches and canals. Read our post From Patriot to Insurgent: John Fries and the tax rebellions for more about this piece of history.
The etymology of the friesen workers from Switzerland has everything to do with cutting land. Like fresar el paisaje ‘cutting the land’ in Spanish tongue today. Compare also the French verb fraiser ‘to cut’ or ‘to mill’. In Mid-Frisian language the verb freze exists. In Dutch the old-fashioned spelling for a router or milling cutter was a frais, and specific, very fine chisels were named fraisbeitels. The Germanic verbs freze (Mid Frisian), frezen (Dutch), fräsning (Swedish), and fräsen (German), and -more importantly- the verbs of the Romance languages fraiser (French), fresar (Spanish) and fresare (Italian) all have developed from the Vulgar Latin verb fresare. It had the meaning of milling, cutting, grooving, crushing, removing shells (Philippa, et al 2003-2009). For the joy of it, we like to add the Greek word for a milling cutter as well: φρέζα. Pronounce it!
The link between ‘cutting the land’, the Swiss friesen workers, and the name of the Frisians has been made before (Krogmann 1964). According to this theory, Frisians already had adopted their tribe’s name as soon as they settled on the salt marshes of what is today the Netherlands. A name expressing ‘those who cut land’. From archaeological research in the ‘50s-‘60’s namely, it had already became clear that Frisians were real navvies, and dug plentiful of ditches and dikes. To both drain the land from saltwater, and to collect sweetwater. Only think of the excavations of the Feddersen terp in Land Wursten between 1955 and 1963. A terp settlement dating from the first century BC to the fifth century AD. The ploughed fields were bordered by natural creeks and dug ditches (Nicolay & Huisman 2022). We wrote about the culture of digging ditches before in our post Groove is in the Hearth. Ditches were that much important they were honored with all kinds of ritual deposits during the Iron Age (Nieuwhof 2015).
Then there was the news this month (August).
In province Friesland a 2,200 years-old dike was discovered and researched (Bakker 2022). A unique find (see image below). A dike of 4 meters wide and 3 kilometers long. Its functions were to -modestly- limit the frequency of floodings by the sea, and at the same time serving as a road for the transport of wagons and cattle. But not only a dike was discovered. Also tens of ditches have been found, dug in a right-angle with the dike. In straight lines. Indeed, fresar el paisaje in optima forma. This digging-mania was all in place when Roman soldiers arrived in the area. Everywhere ditches on the flat salt marshes, in plain sight.
Somehow the not-so-sexy, dirty theory of land cutting (Krogmann 1964) never became popular. It also excluded the idea that it was the Romans who could had given the tribe’s name to the Frisians. According to this theory the Frisians must have had their name as landscapers already. Maybe as early as 600 BC. Perhaps this contributed to all the juggling with alternative, etymological explanations listed above which make no heads or tails. Whilst the solution was down to earth and right under everyone’s nose, namely that 2,000 years ago the Romans came, saw ánd named: ‘those who cut the land’.
Sure, if we are right about the Romans attributing the name to the Frisian tribe around the date of Christ, the name does not date back to the times the Frisians settled on the tidal marshlands five or six centuries before that. Hence, the tribe's name turns out to be quite a bit younger. Well, you win some, you lose some. And connecting to use of land with group identity is not surprising. Since time immemorial ditches (but also banks, walls, hedges and so on) embodied control over resources through agricultural property rights. They gave, among other, expression to social relationships, status and communal identity. In fact, identity originally was determined by the land the group possessed (Oosthuizen 2019).
That history repeated itself with the Swiss friesen migrant workers in the early modern period, is not by chance but rather a confirmation of the theory Romans are responsible for naming a people after what they saw them doing strikingly. Just like the people in Germany and in Switzerland a few centuries back who were named Friesen. The traditional construct that the Swiss friesen workers were named after the Frisians proper, who were known for their skills in building dikes and digging canals, is not correct. Both the Swiss friesen workers and the Frisian people living at the Wadden Sea got their Latin-origin names for the very same reason. For the same economic activity: cutting marshland in straight lines with ditches, to route excess water through the land. Maybe not a very heroic explanation, but no less praiseworthy either.
Note 1 –Below a passage from the Saga of Egil. An Icelandic text written around 1230. It recounts the adventures of a Viking named Egil in the year 956, including a raid on Frisia. It describes how Frisia looked like; flat land with ditches everywhere. It was, by the way, a bit of a spontaneous and hence chaotic raid. Initially Frisians went on the run, but soon they regrouped and made the 300 Vikings retreat to their three longships and leave for sea. Very Egil, not agile.
Þar var jafnlendi og sléttur miklar; díki voru skorin víða um landið og stóð í vatn. Höfðu þeir lukt um akra sína og eng, en í sumum stöðum voru settir staurar stórir yfir díkin, þar er fara skyldi; voru brúar og lagðir yfir viðir.
There [Frisia] were great flatlands and plains; the land was cut into many parts surrounded by ditches filled with water. They [Egil cs] had gone about their [Frisians] fields and meadows, but at some places large stakes were placed over the ditches, there where you should go; bridges were covered with planks.
Notice that the Icelandic word dík means ‘ditch’. The etymology of dyke/dike and ditch is explained as one and the same activity. When you dig a ditch you create a dike at the same time.
Note 2 – We still have to look into the name Dr. Fraiser Crane.
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