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  • Writer's pictureHans Faber

Dissolute Elisabeth and Her Devil

In the Middle Age lived a once promiscuous girl named Elisabeth. She had come to repentance, found honorable employ as a maid, and had established herself at the hamlet of Vrieswijc, modern Friezenwijk. Hamlet Friezenwijk is located near the scenic village of Heukelum in the region Batavia (viz. region Betuwe) in province Gelderland, the Netherlands.

Because of Elisabeth’s former dissolute and honorless lifestyle, the Devil still preyed on her body and soul. This was after all how medieval people thought of women in general. Women, namely, could easily be swayed, as was evident after Eve had eaten an apple, the forbidden fruit, at the behest of the Devil. Especially, dishonorable, unmarried girls were susceptible. Read our post Harbours, Hookers, Heroines, and Women in Masquerade to understand more of the concept of honor and the position of women in the late medieval (and early modern) period.

In the year 1282, Elisabeth went for a walk on what must have been a very hot summer’s day (Van Engelen 1995). Probably somewhere along the River Linge near Friezenwijk. After she got thirsty, Elisabeth drank from a pond filled with clear water. Inexcusable, she forgot to make the sign of the Cross before she started to quench her thirst, and did not notice that the Devil poisoned the water by throwing a small clot of earth into the pond. That Elisabeth failed to cross herself, probably was because she still lacked discipline of her former rowdy life and had not mastered all the rules of piousness yet.

At the house in her room, she became possessed by evil. It was so bad, she had to be tied down to her bed. A scene we are all familiar with since the movie The Exorcist (1973). Only this time her name was Elisabeth instead of Regan. Anyway, the lady of the house where Elisabeth worked as a maid cared and brought Elisabeth during lent to the priest in Heukelum to confess her sins. For a while this offered solace. The Devil inside was pacified. Until Easter, when she was about to take communion. Elisabeth’s mouth turned into stone, and she could not swallow the holy host. A white dove came flying in and took the host out of her mouth. Probably as a precaution not to watse any holy bread. Back in her room, she became possessed again and total madness came over her.

After three days of suffering, Virgin Mary decided it was enough and time to help out Elisabeth. Virgin Mary, together with John the Evangelist and Saint Elizabeth, announced to Elisabeth they would visit her in Friezenwijk. Elisabeth tried to find the most beautiful white cloth to lay over her bed in order to respectfully welcome her three esteemed guests. But in vain, because she had too little time. Instead, Elisabeth put a modest bedspread made of hemp over her bed. The holy trinity came, sat down on Elisabeth's bed, and cured her. After Elisabeth had cleansed her mouth with purified, blessed water, the same dove from before at Easter came flying in again and put the host back into her mouth. Finally, Elisabeth was able to swallow it.

One last time Elisabeth's Devil made an effort to get hold on her body and soul, but it was not able to get inside anymore. It left the room, and out of frustration the Devil set fire to the mattress made of straw. Elisabeth extinguished the flames with both her arms, which got burned heavily. When Elisabeth wrapped her arms with the hemp bedspread the three saints had sat on, the skin of her arms healed immediately.

old Heukelum with the River Linge


The above account is basically a free translation of documentation collected by the Meertens Institute. The story of this miracle can be traced back in texts dating back to around the year 1480. Different accounts speak of the yearly procession held on Pentecost Monday carrying the statue of Virgin Mary. Departing from the parish church in Heukelum to the chapel in hamlet Friezenwijk. The chapel was built on the spot where the exorcism had happened. The hemp bedspread was kept as relic in the church of Heukelum, but has been lost. Probably after the turbulent times of the Reformation in the sixteenth century.

One can think of many explanations for this story. A likely one, we think, is that it was about a young girl with a (perceived) rebellious character who was pressured by her environment to accept the social, conservative conventions. Maybe she had a strong personality and vigorously resisted to conform. At the end it got her off balance and caused distress, and even mental sickness. Or, who knows, she was mentally unstable in the first place, which made her behave socially unacceptable. Out of social ignorance she was pressured into obedience and 'healed'. Either way, Elisabeth had to fight (her) demons. We cannot help to think that a free female spirit was victim of her constricting time.

The procession of Virgin Mary was very popular. People from all over the country attended. Even after the Protestant Reformation and the Beeldenstorm ‘image/statue fury’ in the year 1566, devotees continued to organize the procession. Halfway the seventeenth century, the procession was popular still. A century later, however, the tradition had fallen into disuse at last. Not much later, the chapel must have been dismantled, likewise the procession pathway. Where exactly the chapel stood, is unclear. It might be that it stood in the area that has been fully excavated by the local brick factory. So, we will never know.

The sinful girl of monastery Bloemhof

The early thirteenth-century Cronica Floridi Horti ‘Chronicle of monastery Flower Garden’, of the equally named monastery at the hamlet of Wittewierum in Frisia, speaks of tragedy of a similar nature as that of Elisabeth from Vrieswijc. The monastery is known in Dutch as klooster Bloemhof. It is about a young girl who was haunted by an impure ghost or monster, even after she entered the monastery as sister oblate. Abbot Emo (ca. 1175-1237), the first foreign student at the University of Oxford by the way, performed exorcism rites, including sprinkling the girl with holy water.

Et intravit assumpto sacerdote, et premissa letania exorcizavit aquam, et invocato nominee Iesu Christu et excitata fide cordis necessaria contra tumultus phantasticos, orations complens aspersit et recessit.

And he [abbot Emo] entered together with a priest the monastery, and having recited the litany he consecrated the water, and after invoking the name of Jesus Christ, and having awakened the faith of the heart, which is necessary against assaults of evil spirits, he prayed, sprinkled her and left.

This exorcism helped for a few days, but then the monster returned during the night. It came four days before full moon and another six days during the month. Always in the darkness after Matins. Then the monster would force itself on the girl as a true physical creature. The girl got confused and committed sins of a sexual nature. Abbot Emo tried to comfort her and to bring her back to Christ. He told her to confess, sing psalms and take communion daily. No matter how often the girl confessed etc., it felt like it did not help her. Until one day abbot Emo was overcome by the Lord and said to the girl to pray and praise as honest as Hannah once did in the Books of Samuel. After these heavenly inspired words the girl found a way to pray worthy, finally, and immediately was freed from the impure ghost and committing sexual sins.

Was she cured or did she finally gave up and bowed her head?

Angela at the monastery in Bologna

One more example concerns non Angela Tussignana in the monastery dedicated to Saint Lawrence in Bologna, Italy. In 1583, Inquisitor Eliseo Capis of the Holy Roman Church accused her of witchcraft and being possessed by the Devil. Another, brave non defended Angela against the Inquisitor and stated she was angry and unhappy for being confined to walls of the monastery for much of her life (Rendsmark 2023).

The name Friezenwijk

How hamlet Friezenwijk received its name is a bit of a mystery. Originally, local people used to call the hamlet Agter Vrieswijc, or later Achter Friezenwijk meaning ‘behind Friezenwijk’. The best and simplest explanation is that the name Friezenwijk means ‘settlement or farmstead of Frisians’ (Van Erkel & Samplonius 2018). Some speculate that after the retreat of the Romans, Frisians settled here. Others say, however, there was a little waterway called the Vree, Vrede or Vreze, and that this explains the part Fries or Vries. Etymological wise, the jugglery with d and z might be complicated. Yet others say Fries or Vries stems from the Dutch word fris meaning ‘fresh/windy’, and therefore ‘windy area’. Or it could mean ‘swampy area’, but no sound etymological explanation is given for these suggestions (Van Honk 2020) so we stick with 'settlement of Frisians'.

Not far from the hamlet Friezenwijk, you can find the town of Vreeswijk ‘Frisian wic’, and also the neighbourhood Friezenbuurt ‘Frisian neighbourhood’ at the town of Maarssen. Vreeswijk’s orginal spelling is Fresionouuic. Of the early-medieval settlement Fresdore, meaning ‘Frisian’s burh’, it is unsure where it was located. Some scholars say it was another name for Vreeswijk, while others say it was the predecessor of village Cothen along the river Kromme Rijn (Van Bemmel, et al 2022). Check our post The Batwing Doors of Northwest Europe for a bit more information on these place names.

Okay, we drop one more Frisian wic, namely Freswick (Chamson 2014). Not so close but located in the upper northeast of Scotland. The identical town name of Fresvik in Norway is commonly explained as 'Freyr's bay' and might be alternative explanation to 'settlement of Frisians' for Freswick. Or, then again, were there medieval settlements of Frisian traders on in Scotland and in Norway, both located at the coast of the North Sea? In fact, both are natural harbours. It won't come as a surprise, but we think 'Frisian/Fresian/Frieswic' is a more sound explanation than 'Freya wic'. No explanation is needed either why an 's' was inserted in the name and the 'ya' fell out of it.

grief trauer
Grief by Anna Ancer (1859-1935)

Note 1 – When hiking the Frisia Coast Trail, you will pass through Friezenwijk and Heukelum. Do you dare to walk through the scrub of the river floodplains west of Friezenwijk by night, where the Devil must have roamed?

Note 2 – Besides fries(en) denoting a people, it can also denote a profession. It is the occupation of friesen known in Germany and Switzerland; land workers who irrigated fields in the seventeenth century. See our posts From Patriot to Insurgent: John Fries and the tax rebellions and A severe case of inattentional blindness: the Frisian tribe’s name.

Suggested music

INXS, The Devil Inside (1987)

Sandra, Maria Magdalena (1985)

Further reading

Bemmel, van A.A.B., Cohen, K.M., Doesburg, van J., Hermans, T., Huiting, J.H., Poppe, E.L., Renes, J. & Vliet, van K., De dam bij Wijk en het Kromme Rijngebied in de middeleeuwen (2022)

Boer, de D.E.H., Emo's reis. Een historisch culturele ontdekkingstocht door Europa in 1212 (2017)

Chamson, E.R., Revisiting a millennium of migrations. Contextualizing Dutch/Low-German influence on English dialect lexis (2014)

Engelen, van A.F.V. (ed), Jan Buisman. Duizend jaar weer, wind en water in de Lage Landen. Deel 1. Historisch onderzoek 764 tot 1300 (1995)

Erkel, van G. & Samplonius, K., Nederlandse plaatsnamen verklaard. Reeks Nederlandse plaatsnamen deel 12 (2018)

Herwaarden, van J., Heukelum, O.L. Vrouw van Heukelum (the Meertens Institute website)

Honk, van M., Het grote wonder van Vrieswijc (2020)

Jansen, H.P.H. & Janse, A. (transl.), Kroniek van het klooster Bloemhof te Wittewierum (1991)

Rendsmark, M., Stoute nonnen overtraden kloosterregels (2023)


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