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  • Writer's pictureHans Faber

A Frontier known as Watery Mess: the Coast of Flanders

At the end of the eighth century, by decree of Charlemagne and under the supervision of the wise men Wlemar and Saxmund, the customary law of the Frisians was codified. It is called the Lex Frisionum. Its jurisdiction included the land between the Flehum and Sincfalam rivers 'between Vlie and Sincfalam River'. The River Flehum flowed into the North Sea, where the sea strait Vlie is located today, between the islands Terschelling and Vlieland. Sincfalam, also written as Sincfalem, refers to the inlet of the Zwin in Flanders. It still marks a border, currently between Belgium and the Netherlands. Sincfalam can be translated as 'plain of wet lowlands'. In other words, a watery mess. Waterzooi, meaning 'watery mess' in Flemish, happens to be a traditional dish of Flanders. We noticed that not much has been written about this southern frontier of early-medieval Frisia. This post is an attempt to fill in the gap.

If you think Waterzooi is a straightforward dish, think again. Actually, it is quite a lot of work to prepare it. A lot of cutting and vigorous chop-chopping before you start boiling it into a mess. Voilà, your ultra-short version of the history of West Flanders! So, the reader has been warned before starting this long-read about the March of Flanders.

1. Sincfal or Sincfala?

The overall jurisdiction of the Lex Frisionum, a codex written in Latin, were the lands between Sincfalam fluvium ‘River Zwin’ and Wisaram fluvium ‘River Weser. The Lex Frisionum is written at the end of the eighth century, between 785 and 794, but its clauses possibly date back to the end of the sixth century (Henstra 2010). However, the laws of Frisia differed slightly between the three civitates 'subregions' of Frisia. These were: (1) civitas West Frisia, as mentioned, between the River Zwin and the River Vlie, (2) civitas Mid Frisia or Central Frisia between the River Vlie and the River Lauwers, and (3) civitas East Frisia between the River Lauwers and the River Weser.

Tusscen der Wesere enten Zwene, Dat tien tiden hiet Sincval, Wart ane Gode bekeert al, Bi Willebrorde, bi Willade, Ende bi Bonefacis predicade. (Spiegel Historiael written by Jacob van Maerlant, ca. 1330)

Between the River Weser and the Zwin, | Back then called Sincfala, | Converted to God before, | By Willibrord’s, by Willehad’s, | And by Boniface’s sermons.

There are different theories about the linguistic origin of the name sincfalam. One is that sincfalam refers to land or dike subsidence, or to the sinking of riverbanks (Coen 2008). Val, meaning to fall/drop, is a toponym found also in province Zeeland. Sincfal as in ‘sink-fall’ would then, however, be a pleonasm (Van Renswoude 2021). Another explanation is that sincfal derives from the word swytfal. This developed from the Old-Germanic word swinþa meaning powerful. The word fal meaning waterway, which might have derived from the River Waal called Vacalus in Latin (Kuiper 2013). Swinþa later developed into swīth and into swyt. Swytfal then would have been written as suitfal, and through a clerical error written as sincfal, because of the c and t being mixed up. The latter was not uncommon. However, if you follow this theory, equally well swytfal might have been a clerical error, and it just was sincfalam from the start (Van Renswoude 2021).

We stick with what we started with this post, a waterzooi. Sinc is an older variant of sink or zink meaning (wet) lowland, a basin, and fala might be related to the Swedish fala meaning plain (Van Renswoude 2021). Therefore, plain of wet lowlands, or in more fashionable language The Big Sink. The explanation of wet lowlands fits smoothly how the landscape of West Flanders looked like at the closing of the eighth century. A seashore with flat, barren tidal marshlands, intersected by many creeks, inlets, and with rivers and streams flowing from the interior. An area regularly flooded by the sea and bordered by wet peatlands and swamps. Therefore, a true sincfala, a true waterzooi. Albeit with loads of added salt. Contrary to most academic studies, we therefore use Sincfala instead of Sincfal. We are pleased the museum for local history of the Zwin Region in Heist-aan-Zee is correctly named Sincfala.

Much of its history West Flanders would stay a watery mess. After the Flemings had managed to embank most of their coastal lands with dikes during the High Middle Ages, with the Eighty Year’s War in the second half of the sixteenth century, and the War of the Spanish Succession at the start of the eighteenth century, made of the wider Zwin Region a continuous battleground. A frontline on both sides defended through inundating the Zwin Region for years on end, and thus allowing tidal movement scraping new gullies into the landscape (Winstein 2003). This besides all the fortresses being built, dikes demolished, towns and villages ruined etc. Ravaging the historic landscape of Flanders thoroughly. We do not even mention the Great War and the Second World War. The reader can make a picture.

The watery-mess explanation of the word sincfala pairs well with one of the explanations concerning the names Flanders and Fleming. These names might be related to the Germanic flauma meaning 'flood', or the Old-High-German verbs flewen and flouwen, the Old-Norwegian verb flaumr, the Mid-Frisian verb floeie, or the Dutch verb vlieten. All meaning 'to flow'. It was the Roman geographer Pomponius Mela described lacus Flevo ('lake Flevo' modern IJsselmeer) in the Netherlands and gave it its name. That was in the first half of the first century AD. Also the waterbody Flevo, later named Flie or Vlie, is related to 'to flow' as well. These words would also be related to the word flâm in Ingvaeonic, also called North Sea Germanic. Therefore, the names Flanders and Fleming would point to a flooded landscape (Verhulst 1995, De Maesschalck 2019, Toorians 2021).

As so often with etymology, another - completely different - explanation of the name of Flanders is that the word stems from the proto-Celtic word wlana meaning 'wool'. Under Roman influence the word was extended into wlanaria (Clerinx 2023). Lastly, according to Chronique de Flandre written in the fourteenth century, the word vlaanderen has its origins in the name of the wife of (the fictional figure) Count Liederik, namely Flandrine (De Maesschalck 2019). Anyway, the iron-armed Flemings are quite capable to restart another war on this etymological issue, so we let it rest before making a rude mistake.

Most literature and studies equate Sincfala to the Zwin, and then refer to the current inlet in West Flanders, just south of the border with the Netherlands (Claerhout 1886, Knol 2021). By the way, it must be the Zwin in region Flanders and not the Swin located between the lakes Fluessen and Slotermeer in province Friesland. Niether the Suyder Swin, a sea gully that existed in the sixteenth century, north of former island Wieringen in province Noord Holland.

But is it really? Is Sincfala identical to inlet the Zwin as we know it today? Other scholars namely, presume Sincfala is the coastal zone around the mouth of the stream Honte (Henstra 2012, Van der Berg 2016). At first, the stream Honte had become a smaller branch of the River Scheldt, and then gradually turned into the River West Scheldt. Its river mouth is known as Zwake. Yet other historians speak of the stream Sincfala near the River West Scheldt (De Langen & Mol 2021). What is ‘near’ we wonder? Still, others consider Sincfala being part of the river mouth Zwake with inlet the Zwin being a smaller branch of the stream Honte (Coen 2008). Another description is that inlet the Zwin was connected via different branches with the mouth of the stream Honte, within a coastal landscape composed of the islands Cadzand, Koezand, Schoneveld, Waterdunen and Wulpen and Zuidzande (Zijlmans 2016). The simplest geographic indication we found is: “Sincfala is the estuary of the River Scheldt” (Bremmer 2020). Lastly, the most recent one concerning the southern border of early-medieval Frisia, says in very general terms: “Arguably, parts of Flanders and North Frisia [Nordfriesland] also formed part of the Frisian area at certain points in time” (IJssennagger-van der Pluijm 2021). All feels a bit like the Infinite Improbability Drive of the Starship Heart of Gold (Adams 1979).

detail The Temptation of Saint Anthony by Hieronymus Bosch (ca. 1450-1516)

Indeed, a bit of a watery mess when you zoom in. Confusion generated by science because the pixels of the historic image they present to us are still too few. This confusion, however, has roots in war and politics. Or, better, in politics and war. At the beginning of the seventeenth century, during the Eighty Year’s War between the Dutch Republic and the Kingdom of Spain, a geographical map was falsified by the Flemings to support their claim that the border with the Netherlands was more to the north, namely the River West Scheldt. Therefore, the so-called Generality Lands of Zeelandic Flanders should not be part of the Dutch Republic. For this, surveyor Lieven van Thuyne had erased inlet the Zwin, the historic Sincfala border of Frisia, conveniently and completely from the map. In the nineteenth century, yet again debates concerning the region Zeelandic Flanders, and arguing that it was never part of Frisia. This stance supported Belgium in its claim that the border of the Netherlands ought to be the River West Scheldt, and not inlet the Zwin (Zijlmans 2016). We do not exclude that some Flemings still adhere to this argumentation.

Aside the confusion some academics generated with pixel-poor definitions of Sincfala, the variation in definitions could imply that the jurisdiction of the Lex Frisionum did not necessarily reach that far south in the Early Middle Ages, as often is taken for granted. This way leaving the door open that the southern border of Frisia might just as well have been the Walcheren island, and not any further. Do we hear in the distance West-Flemings shouting hurray? Finally, freed from die Vriesen fel ende quaet ‘the Frisians evil and wicked’, as characterised by the West-Flemish, thirteenth-century poet Jacob van Maerlant. But hold your horses and boats. Not so fast. Frisians still might be your daddy!

Let’s continue.

2. Romans moving in, first century BC

Although the etymological explanation of Sincfala matches the water-messy area of the delta of the stream Honte and inlet the Zwin, it is not specific enough to tell up to where the Frisians had sway over the area. Neither does the Lex Frisionum give more details as to where exactly its jurisdiction stretched. But, no worries. The area has been a frontier much older than the Early Middle Ages. Already in the first century BC the fighting had started. They were Romans pushing north and arrived at the maritimi loca ‘coastal districts’. Indeed, the region is a border area for almost 2,200 years. At least 2,200 years.

At the dawn of the common era, the landscape of modern West Flanders and province Zeeland looked very different from today. The coastline was still more or less closed, meaning a closed row of low dunes protecting the land from the North Sea. Behind the dune-wall complex, wooded peatlands and swamps existed. The coastline then was located probably several kilometres to the west. These so-called Old Dunes formed a semi-circle from current Nieuwpoort in Belgium, to Westkapelle on the Walcheren island in the Netherlands (Bracke 2015). Nearly everything of the Old-Dunes habitat along the southern North Sea coast has been lost, except for the area south of The Hague where you can still see them. Read also our post Rowing souls of the dead to Britain: the ferryman of Solleveld about a unique ship burial in the Old Dunes of The Hague.

artist impression of the dune-wall complex, coast of Flanders, Zeeland and Holland by Ulco Glimmerveen

Between ten to fifteen kilometres inland of Flanders, in a line approximately parallel to the coast, was and is the drier, elevated sandy ground. Following the sandy ridge ran the old Roman road now known as Zandstraat 'sand street' (Deckers 2017). It is on this coversand edge to the wetlands to the west, especially at spots where waterways to the sea existed, where the first larger settlements developed. Bruges, Oudenburg, and Veurne are the classic examples in Flanders. But also Bergues and Bourbourg in France, and Aardenburg and Oostburg in Zeelandic Flanders, the Netherlands (Tys 2018, Lichtenberg 2011). Indeed, a lot of burghs. We will tell that story later in this post.

At the time the armies of Julius Caesar arrived in what is now Belgium, the mouth of the River Scheldt was located more to the north than it does today. Originally, the River Scheldt joined the River Meuse via the stream called Striene. “Ad fluminem Scaldem quod influit in Mosam” (‘where the River Scheldt flows into the Meuse’), quoted from the Commentarri de Bello Gallico ‘Commentaires on the Gallic War’ written between 58-49 BC by Julius Caesar himself. In fact, the confluence of the rivers Scheldt, Meuse, and the River Waal was a sea bay. It is where nature reserve Dintelse Gorzen is located today. You will pass it when hiking the Frisia Coast Trail. The Romans called this confluence of rivers Helinium, Helius or Helinius, what is today more or less the River Haringvliet. It explains the toponym of the modern town Hellevoetsluis, namely 'foot of Helinius' or 'lowest land of Helenius'.

The mouths of the River East Scheldt and the stream Honte, the latter which eventually turned into the River West Scheldt, developed shortly after the beginning of the common era (Coen 2008). At the mouth of the River East Scheldt, at modern Colijnsplaat, the Roman port of Ganuenta was located. The name Honte, or Ont, is probably of Celtic origin. It derived from the word onno meaning swamp or pond. Because of higher sea activity, the stream Honte expanded eastward, deeper into the peatlands. At long last it made connection with the River Scheldt. From then, the River Scheldt had three alternative routes to discharge its water into the sea: via the River Meuse, via the River East Scheldt, or via the stream Honte. What more could a river wish for? Well, much more, and it had bigger plans.

Many who are first will be last, and many who are last will be first. It was the tiny stream Honte that became first, and turned into the massive River West Scheldt we can see today. The sole survivor of the three mouths of the River Scheldt. Between 1000 and 1200, the stream Honte widens steadily, consuming all the peatlands in its valley. In the year 1202 the mouth of the Honte is named mere ‘sea’ for the first time. Around 1300, at its mouth, only remains are left of the islands Koezand, Wulpen, and Schorrevelde. From then on, no real barriers anymore left for the North Sea to penetrate the Scheldt valley. The lands of Saeftinge and Stuyvesande have not drowned yet, but barely could keep their heads above the water. The great flood of 1377 changed the situation at the mouth of the stream Honte fundamentally. Island Wulpen largely disappeared into the waves. After the great flood of 1513, the last remains of island Wulpen disappeared as well. Island Koezand fully drowned in the year 1570. Island Cadzand was saved and securely glued to the rest of Zeelandic Flanders.

Check our post Atlantis found! Wait, there is another one, or 7, wait 12 in total… No, 19! to have a more complete picture of the Frisian islands washed away.


Name Scheldt - The oldest preserved name of the River Scheldt is Scaldis. Mentioned by the Roman historians Plinius (ca. AD 23-79) and Tacitus (ca. AD 56-120). Possibly the name is of Celtic origin, namely scald, which means shallow water. Later, other forms developed like scalda, escalda, scaldi, scelde, and scelt. The latter still exists in a Flemish dialect as ‘t Scelt. In the course of the sixteenth century the name Schelde sees the light of day (De Graeve 2010).

A famous Viking chapter was called the Scaldingi. It had its stronghold at the Walcheren island. The Scaldingi were pivotal in the successful conquest of the medieval Anglo-Saxon world in England. Under the command of Ubba the Frisian, also known as Ubba dux Fresciorum and as Ubbi fríski, these Vikings were significant players in the Great Heathen Army. Amai, terrorizing England between 865 and 878. If you want to know more about the Walcheren island and Ubba the Frisian, read our post Island the Walcheren: once Sodom and Gomorrah of the North Sea.

the sixteenth-century Dampierre map, reflecting the situation in 1274, based on handed-down information

Ecologically, the first five centuries was a time of a high-energic North Sea. The closed coastline, meaning an almost uninterrupted wall of dunes shielding the interior from the North Sea, as described above, was being breached by the sea. This due to dune formation, sedimentation and silting-up of tidal gullies in the wider North Sea basin (Dumolyn & Leloup 2016). This process led to exhaustion of sedimentation sources in the North Sea, which in turn triggered an erosion process of the southern North Sea coast. Deep inlets were carved out into the interior, and tons of peat were carried off to sea (Tys 2002). These inlets, like the Yser and the Zwin, also drained the water from the spongy peatlands, in turn causing land to shrink and becoming even more vulnerable to the penetrating sea (Wintein 2003). In other words, the rise of the sea level was not as such the issue, and scholars have mostly abandoned the general theory of trans- and regressions of the North Sea. Regional ecological and climatic differences, including the influence of men on the landscape, are factors of much more relevance (Van Steensel & Chamuleau 2021).

Main economic activity at the coastal plain of Flanders during the first centuries of the common era, was the production of salt. The Romans constructed big salt pans at the coast to extract salt from the sea. Salt was not only a very precious and thus an expensive trade commodity those days, but also essential for a big army that relied on food preservation. The fourth-century military forces in Britannia already needed about 110 tons of salt for the preservation of mutton. Maybe, the fortresses at Oudenburg and Aardenburg, and possibly Watten, were built to protect and supervise the salt production (Dhaeze 2019). Toponyms like De Panne and Zeepanne remind of this economic activity. Before the Romans arrived, people cut peat on a small-scale basis. The Romans started to cut peat too, but still not massively (Wintein 2003). Maybe they did this to extract salt out the peat, or maybe as fuel for heating sea water to accelerate the extraction of salt. More to the north at Polder Westmade between the cities of Rotterdam and The Hague, Romans did cut peat on a larger scale. Check our post The United Frisian Emirates and Black Peat.

salt production at the coastal plains of Flanders in the Roman period, by Yannick De Smet and Michiel Dekoninck

In the Late Iron Age, the River Scheldt already was a border. Between the Menapii and Nervii tribes (De Graeve 2010). When the Romans arrived in the region in the first century BC, they waged many wars against the tribes living there. They were the Morini (meaning sea people), the Menapii (meaning hill people), and the Eburones (meaning yew people). Julius Caesar defeated, murdered, and deported all of them. Veni Vidi Vici, was an understatement. The with Rome affiliated tribes, the Cananefates and the Batavi, were allowed to occupy the former lands of the dispersed Eburones and Menapii (Zijlmans 2016). Furthermore, the organised Romans established the province Gallia Belgica. In the late-third century the province was re-organized into Belgica Prima (i.e. the east of Belgium), Belgica Secundo (i.e. the west of Belgium) and in Germania Secunda. This was Germania Inferior before, i.e. south of the lower River Rhine. Furthermore, in the area what is now more or less province Zeeland in Germania Inferior, lived the Frisiavones, with their capital possibly at Goedereede-Oude Wereld (Dhaeze 2019). The Frisiavones are considered Romanized Frisians (IJssennagger 2017). The Frisians proper, Frisii or Fresones in Latin, lived in Germania Superior north of the River Rhine along the coast and adjacent interior. Indeed, too superior to be conquered.

Once the sea became ‘high-energetic’ and started de-generating and consume the southern coastal zone of the North Sea, the peoples living along this strip did likewise. We mean, they too became very energetic. From the second century onward until the Early Middle Ages, piracy became a plague and was omnipresent. The southern coast of the North Sea was the homeport of these pirates, among them the Frisians too. Then living in the north-western area of the Netherlands. In his Germania, written at the end of the first century, Tacitus speaks of the Ingaevones, denoting the peoples nearest to the sea. These peoples were, among other, the Chauci and the Frisians who were each other’s neighbours and shared the same salt-marsh culture living on terps (artificial dwelling mounds). With full dedication, both tribes would engage in the raiding business for centuries. Especially, the Chauci were feared pirates. Pillaging became so fierce, it made the Romans calling out to their deities with desperation how to defend their endless shores on both sides of the English Channel, and up to the mouth of the River Old-Rhine. Read our blog post It all began with piracy for more background on the platinum age of piracy.

In the third and fourth centuries, Frisians and other Germanic tribes started to migrate south to the delta regions of the rivers Meuse, Waal and Scheldt. They even moved upstream the River Scheldt in province Belgica Secunda. An area from the Carolingian era onward known as pagus Wasia, or Land van Waas. Frisians also settled in the pagus Ghent or Gentgouw in East Flanders (Zijlmans 2016). At Zele, twenty-five kilometres east of Ghent, typical hand-shaped, Frisian ware vessels have been excavated. Furthermore, they were, in fact, Frisians who revolted against Emperor Constantius I in the River Scheldt region in the year 293, albeit the Panegyrici Latini ‘praise speeches’ speak of the Franci (Dhaeze 2019). The Romans were successful in crushing this rebellion and deported both Frisians, calling them praedatores ‘looters’ and Chamavi to the Gaul interior. Piracy was that much lucrative, that the Roman admiral Carausius, who was tasked to secure the English Channel from piracy, got in league with those very pirates and even declared himself emperor of Britannia. The horror. It was in that same year 293 that Constantius also defeated this corrupted Walter Kurz of the wilderness in Britannia.

An intriguing found we like to highlight, is the ship’s figurehead found upstream the River Scheldt, near Appels in Flanders. The so-called ‘dragonhead’ is made of oak and dated between 250 and 550. It is kept on the wrong side of the Channel, namely in the British Museum. The ship to which it belonged, had an estimated length of eighteen metres. Look at it, and your imagination runs wild: raiders rowing up the river, armed to the teeth, looking for loot. Were they Frisians? Well Vikings, back to you, with your dragon figureheads many centuries later. Now you know where it all began. Read our post A Raider’s Portrait of Appels. Lastly, again at Zele in Flanders, the spot of the Frisian handmade vessels, also an animal head has been found. It is dated Early Middle Ages, between ca. 510 and 870.

A forever-frontier

It is very plausible that the frontier Sincfala as mentioned in the Lex Frisionum, is a continuation of the administrative lay-out and network of the Roman Empire, and therefore of its provincial borders. According to Plinius, the River Scheldt was the border between the provinces Germania Inferior and Gallia Belgica. This must be understood as the wider delta of the River Scheldt and included inlet the Zwin. Probably the Roman provincial border, and that of Frisia later on, also ran between the town of Oudenburg to that of Bruges, whereby Bruges was part of Frisia as well. Bruges, connected with the sea via inlet the Zwin. The River Scheldt was also the administrative border for Roman taxes, namely between the tax districts Trajectum (current Utrecht) and Gesoriacum (later Bononia, current Boulogne-sur-Mer). This administrative division was maintained by the early-medieval ecclesiastical organisation. Sincfala was the jurisdiction of the archbishopric of Cologne, and thus of the bishopric of Utrecht. Therefore, it is logical that the Merovingian border between the Frankish kingdoms Neustria, the western kingdom, and Austrasia, the eastern kingdom, was defined by the previous Roman provinces (Zijlmans 2016).

Saint Bavo Abbey at Ghent, Flanders (Belgium)

The inherited administrative organisation of Rome might explain why two abbeys of Ghent so close to each other, only one and a half kilometres apart, had such a different orientation concerning their mission area. Ghent was located on the border of two pagi 'districts'. And not only on the border of two pagi but also on that of German and French empires.

The Saint Bavo Abbey, at the confluence of the River Scheldt and the River Leie, is traditionally regarded as ‘Frisian’, whilst the Saint Peter’s Abbey as typical Frankish. The Saint Bavo Abbey focused on including and converting the Frisian people. It is after all the early-eleventh century Vita Bavonis confessoris gandavensis ‘The life of Saint Bavo of Ghent’ that mentions that Frisians (i.e. those in West Flanders and Zeeland) are numerous and strong, but weak in their faith. From the eighth century, the Saint Bavo Abbey also possessed domains on the Walcheren Island, in West Frisia (Henderikx 2021), and on the island Zuid-Beveland. We are informed about these latter possessions by a tenth-century charter of the Holy Roman Emperor Otto II (Van Steensel & Chamuleau 2021). Count of Flanders Robert I, known as Robert the Frisian (ca. 1035-1093), was prelate of the church of Saint Bavo.

Emperor Otto II (955-983) was, because of its strategic location, very committed to the Saint Bavo Abbey. Also his vassal Count Dirk II (ca. 932-988) of West Frisia, a brother-in-law of Count Arnulf I of Flanders, had close ties with the Saint Bavo Abbey. From this abbey, Dirk II had founded the abbey at Egmond in West Frisia, modern province Noord Holland. Not long before his death Otto II even acceded to the monastic community of Saint Bavo Abbey (De Maesschalck (2012). Incidentally, the fact that the Saint Bavo Abbey was more oriented toward Frisia, helps to understand why the Grote Kerk ‘Great Church’ in the city of Haarlem in province Noord Holland has Saint Bavo as its patron. Very appropriately, the Frisian statesman Wigle van Aytta van Zwichem (1507-1577), commonly known as Viglius, is buried in the church of Saint Bavo in Ghent, of which he was coadjutor abbot.

The church of Saint Bavo, by the way, was preceded by a smaller, wooden church founded in the late seventh century by the Anglo-Saxon missionary Saint Willibrord. A time when the entire province Noord Holland was still called (West) Frisia. Today, you can only admire the ruins of Saint Bavo Abbey, just east of the city centre of Ghent. A metaphor, perhaps, for what happened to its cherished Frisia. Lastly, the site of the Saint Bavo might have been an early-medieval thing site as well (Tys 2018). Read our post The Thing is... about the history of the medieval Germanic assemblies called the thing, also called ding or ting, with surprisingly quite a distinct role for the Frisians.

Close ties between West Frisia and Flanders existed also between the counts of both regions. In the year 1063, Robert the Frisian, or Roberto comite Frisone ‘Robert count of Frisia’ married Countess Gertrude, widow of the count of West Frisia. That was after Count Floris I of West Frisia was narrowly defeated by the bishops of Utrecht, Liège and Metz in 1061. In Flanders he was named Rodbrecht or Robbrechte de Vriese. The nickname ‘the Frisian’ he got already during his reign after he married countess Gertrude of Saxony, widow of Floris I count of West Frisia (Nieuwenhuijsen 2022). Robert himself was count of Flanders, and, after his marriage with Gertrude, also regent of West Frisia for a while. After the battle of IJsselmonde in the year 1076 an army of Robert the Frisian and Count Dirk V, the son of Gertrude and first heir, defeated Bishop Conrad of Utrecht, after which Dirk V retook control over his West Frisia.

The centre and east of Zeelandic Flanders probably belonged to the jurisdiction of the Lex Frisionum as well. The Lex Frisionum as such gives no information how the border ran in eastern direction from Sincfala following the River Scheldt basin. This area of Zeelandic Flanders, which consisted of many islands too during the Early Middle Ages, became known as Vier Ambachten ‘Four Districts’. These were Assenede, Axel, Boekhoute, and Hulst. Early medieval law practices show traces of Old-Frisian law in the Vier Ambachten, like the legal construct ferdban, or vredeban, and the obligation of hercogghe (Van der Tuuk 2007, Zijlmans 2016).

The legal construct of ferdban, by the way, lived on in province Friesland until the early sixteenth century. It was procedural law concerning the transfer of property. Any person who obtained a piece of land or real-estate, had to ask a skelta 'judge' for a so-called ferdban, literally translated as ‘peace decree’. This procedure meant the judge gave the opportunity for others to object to the transfer if she or he held a stronger right (Vries 2021). Indeed, speak now or forever hold your ‘ferd’ ('fredus', peace).

map Vier Ambachten, Zeelandic Flanders in 1670 by G. Coeck


Conscription in the Early Middle Ages (Van der Tuuk 2007) - In early-medieval West Frisia, stretching from Sincfala in the south to the River Vlie in the north, what is now Strait the Vlie between the Wadden Sea islands Vlieland and Terschelling, existed a system of mobilising boats and warriors in response of seaborn threats. The entire coast was divided into districts called a cog(ge). Each cogge had to provide a boat manned with warriors annex oarsmen when called upon. This was also called a heerban, 'providing an army for battle'. At the same time, a cogge was also the name for a flatboat type designed for navigating shallow waters, especially the Wadden Sea. No keel, for one thing. Thus, a typical Frisian boat type, with the valley of the Rhine being the cradle (Westerdahl 1995). A boat type that can be traced back to the ninth century. It also is the predecessor of the famous high-medieval kogge or cog. The boat type that was partly reason for the success of the powerful Hanseatic League.

A manned boat with oarsmen and warriors was called a heercogge, with heer meaning army. In the part of West Frisia what Zeelandic Flanders is today, and specifically in the district Vier Ambachten, it was called hercogghe. However, the custom of heercogge was not known in the rest of Frisia. Perhaps because lack of centralistic institutions strong enough to enforce the heercogge. Or, was it simply not needed along the Wadden Sea coast? Cogge districts were subdivided into smaller units called riem, meaning oar. Each riem had the obligation to mobilise one armed warrior annex oarsman. Persons under this obligation were called cokingi. In West Frisia a cogge was subdivided into twenty or thirty riemen. A man-o’-war carried therefore between twenty or thirty warriors. The sign to mobilise heercoggen was (also) communicated with light beacons.

This defence organisation possibly dates to the fifth and sixth centuries, when piracy along the coasts was a scourge. A time when it was necessary to patrol the coasts during the summer, sailing season.

Besides the heercogge conscription, a tax was imposed named cogsculd ‘cogge debt’ and collected by the bishopric of Utrecht. During the time Danish warlords, on behalf of the Frankish king, ruled over parts of Frisia for most of the ninth century, they also relied on the heercogge. A system familiar to them because a similar practice existed in Norway and Sweden. There it was called leidang or skipreiða, and the tax was called skeppslag. The skipreiða in southern Norway also functioned as a thing, assembly to discuss besides matters of defence also other matters of mutual interest, like taxes (Ødegaard 2013). In Anglo-Saxon England a similar system of conscription was called fyrd. In region Nordfriesland ‘North Frisia’ in the north of modern Germany, the toponym harde (compare Old English ‘hir(e)d’ household) possibly originates from it. Think of current districts Wiedingharde, Bökingharde, Westerharde, Karrharde and Goesharde.

During the so-called Golden Age of the Dutch Republic, a kaag was flatboat for inland waterway transport, and also used for loading and unloading cargo ships leaving for or coming from sea (Doedens & Houter 2022). In the northwest of Jutland in Denmark, still a boat type related to the Frisian cogge can be admired, namely the kaag. A kaag is a flatboat type that existed in the Netherlands until the nineteenth century too. The kaag floating the waters of the shallow Limfjord today, is called a kåg. No coincidence there. Lastly, at Viking Age trading town Birka in modern Sweden, the toponym kugghamn, meaning cog harbour, possibly with its origin to these Frisian ships (Westerdahl 1992).

Many centuries later, the authorities of the same coastal region imposed a system for rescue at sea that had many similarities with the old heercogge. It was the States of Holland and West-Friesland of the Dutch Republic that ruled in the year 1768 : “op ieder Zeedorp van deese Provinciën te doen onderhouden een Boot met al desselfs toebehoren mitsgaders een wagen, ter vervoeringhe van de Boot” ('at every Sea-village in this Province shall maintained a Boat with all its equipment including a trailer, to transport the Boat'). These were rowing boats normally with twelve oarsmen, who rowed on high waves during storms to rescue sailors and crew in distress (De Haan 1976).


In summary, the southern border of early-medieval Frisia is a continuation of the Roman administrative organisation. This border ran more or less from Ostend, Oudenburg, Bruges, Aardenburg to Oostburg, including all of Zeelandic Flanders up to where the River Scheldt makes a bend to the west at Antwerp. Later, this area would be organised in the pagi Flandrensis, Rodanensis and Wasia

One side remark on the border area of Sincfala. This looks fine on written parchment, but in practice the landscape was as volatile as water. Better yet, in such an ever-changing landscape it was hard to define what was land and water. Only think of the enormous chunks of land in western Zeelandic Flanders, namely the islands Koezand, Waterdunen and Wulpen, that were consumed by the sea. Easily two hundred square metres of land, and what used to be habitation area of Frisians and North Sea Germanics. Thus, borders inescapably became diffuse as well in this watery mess called Sincfala.

3. Frisians moving in, sixth century AD

By the end of the Roman period, the environmental situation along the southern coast of the North Sea had stabilized. A period of a so-called ‘low-energetic’ sea had started and would last throughout most of the Early Middle Ages. A continuous, albeit slower rise of the sea-level made it possible that layer after layer of mineral rich clay was deposited by the sea on the coast (Deckers, et al 2012). The Flemish plain had become a tidal marshland landscape, comparable to the Wadden Sea coast in the Early Middle Ages. A coast of islands with barrier beaches and dune belts, sea inlets, mudflats, marshes, silt ponds, (more inland) peatlands, and streams and rivers disposing excessive rainwater from the interior. Of the former inlets of the Roman Period, only the bigger ones survived in West Flanders, namely the Yser, the Reie, and the Zwin.

Supported by archaeological research, we know that from the sixth century onward the coastal plain had become suitable for people to dwell again. It is from this period people started to settle (Loveluck & Tys 2006). Others, however, suggest colonisation of the Flemish salt marshes only started in the seventh century (Coen 2008), or in the eighth century (Van Dierendonck 2009, Lichtenberg 2011). Toponymic research indicates a core area of permanent settlement on the coastal plain between the Yser and the Scheldt during the Merovingian period (Deckers 2013). From the late seventeenth century onward also similarities in toponyms indicate close ties between the coastal plains of Flanders and England. Anyway, we propose a prompt parley between all these scholars before, god forbid, another century is added to the list.

According to a sixteenth-century Flemish origin saga, three Scottish monks named Guthago, Guidolf and Gillo, arrived at Knocken in Sincfala, somewhere between the seventh and eighth centuries. Three holy men to undertake ministry among the marsh people of the Zwin Region. Guthago was even of noble descent. Son of a king even, some say. When Guthago died he was buried where the village of Oostkerke is today. His companion Gillo, also written Gillon, did not want to leave Guthago’s side, and chose to live as a hermit near his grave. Soon, miracles started to happen, and a chapel was built on his grave. Later the church of Saint Quentin was built on the grave. Notwithstanding this beautiful saga about Saint Guthago cum suis coming from the west, for the true founders from overseas we must face north. And a century before, as said, in the sixth century.

Note that more to the north in West Frisia, another Scottish monk made history. This was Saint Jerome who was killed by Vikings at Noordwijk near the mouth of the River Old-Rhine. His remains were placed in the prestigious Abbey of Egmond. Read our post The Abbey of Egmond and the Rise of the Gerulfings.

Besides archaeology and sagas with a broad timespan, the historic texts tell us one or two things too about who occupied West Flanders and when. The sixth-century poet Venantius Fortunatus wrote that the Merovingian King Chilperic I (ca. 539-584) of Neustria was feared by the Frisian and the Suebi tribes. Chilperic picked a fight with the Frisians probably because with the occupation of the coasts of West Flanders, Zeeland and the lower River Rhine, the Frisians controlled the trade via waterways to important Frankish centres of Cologne, Tournai and Maastricht. Who knows the Frisians were levying tolls. Possibly, already during Chilperic’s rule the small coastal strip of West Flanders and Zeelandic Flanders were brought under Frankish control, but we do not know for sure. Also, in the vita of Saint Eligius, written by Bishop Audoin who lived in the seventh century, the Frisians and Suebi appear on the scene in West Flanders. The vita recounts: “But in Flanders and Antwerp, the Frisians and the Suebi, and other barbarians coming from the seacoasts or distant lands who had not broken the plough yet [i.e. who were still heathen], received him with hostile spirits and averse minds.” Apparently, Frisians and Suebi lived along the coastal plain of West Flanders, and upstream the River Scheldt in the vicinity of Antwerp by the mid-sixth century (Lanting 2012).

An early submission of the Frisians south of the River Scheldt during the reign of the Frankish King Chilperic I, i.e. the pagi Flandrensis, Rodanensis and Wasia in the course of the sixth century, was followed by the submission under Frankish control of the bordering pagi Scheldeland and Maasland only between 687 and 695. In the year 689 or 690, the delta of the River Scheldt as such was brought under control of the Franks (Henderikx 2021). Obtaining control over the pagi Scheldeland and Maasland by maior domo Pippin of Herstal was probably not too difficult, because it is unlikely King Radbod had real sway over the area (De Langen & Mol 2021).

Most of the pagi (districts) of early-medieval Frisia by De Bruijn, De Langen & Mol (2021). In this post it is argued that the southern border Sincfala was different from how presented this map, and included the area of pagi Flandrensis, Rodanensis and Wasia in Flanders as well.

The terp dwellers

Habitation on the coastal plain of Flanders was not seasonal, as has been thought by scholars for a long time. It was a theory that was only abandoned fifteen years ago. The presence of surface pottery concentrations and coins dating between the fifth and early twelfth centuries, among other things, is the reason why this long-standing theory of seasonal occupation has been discarded. Settlement at the salt marshes of Flanders was already permanent from the sixth century (Loveluck & Tys, 2006). People settled on creek ridges and built terps to live on (De Jongh, 2014). Settlements on level ground are called Flachsiedlungen, like the ones in Uitkerksepolder near Blankenberge (Pype, 2002).

Terps are artificial dwelling mounds which you can find all along the North Sea coast, from Leffinge in West Flanders to Misthusum in the southwest of Jutland. Check the Annex of our Manual Making a Terp in 12 Steps for loads of background on this terp-thing phenomenon. Although archaeological research into the terps of West Flanders is still modest, early-medieval occupation on terps has been proven at the terp of Leffinge-Oude Werf. This terp, just east of Leffinge, was occupied between 600 and 1100. There is also archaeological evidence of terp settlements at Leffinge itself, i.e. Leffinge-dorp, and at Bredene (Ervynck, et al 2013). Another terp is the one at Ramskapelle, and we do not mean the local restaurant De Terp (see note below), but archaeological survey only recently started there (Verwerft, et al 2017). Just like Leffinge, the radial pattern of the fields surrounding Dudzele also indicates a terp settlement. A pattern identical to terp villages like Marsum and Foudgum in province Friesland (Tys 2002). The onetime village of Mikhem, also written as Michem or Mikkem, was located on a terp located on the banks of the inlet Old Zwin (De Langhe 1996).

But more terps are desperately waiting to be revealed and its content uncovered. The many terp, wi(e)rde, stelle, werve and werf toponyms in West Flanders for sure indicate presence of an early-medieval terp culture familiar to the north of Germany and the Netherlands, but archaeological research still must separate the wheat from the chaff. Which of these mound toponyms are terps indeed, and which are fake? Interestingly, the Zwin Region in West Flanders does not know wierde toponyms, except for Locwirde (also written Lockwierde) and Weerdenburg. However, werf toponyms in abundance in the Zwin Region: Barezeles Werf, Blevins Werf, Boenzacs Werf, Bogaerts Werf, Commerswerve (before Cumbingascure), Houtwerf, Litterssuerua (later Letterswerve, current Damme), Molenwerf, Muenickewerfven (later Monnikewerve), Oude Werf, Outvaarts Werf, Stekels Werf, Wallewerve, Werf (or Ramskapelle), Zuidwerf etc (Zwaenepoel, et al 2016). By far, most of these toponyms are in the vicinity of the former municipality Dudzele, just north of Bruges.

Recent archaeological-DNA research into a grave field with fifty-three skeletons found at the Flanders coast at Koksijde, near Nieuwpoort, has proven settlers with 'northern Saxon DNA' lived here between 650 and 750 (Larmuseau 2021). Because the (new) early-medieval Frisians basically were of Saxon origin, read our post Have a Frisians Cocktail about the Frisian DNA, we may call them Frisians just the same. Perhaps, scholars of the university of Louvain are still adjusting to this historical concept of ties with the sea scum from the Frisian lands. Interesting fact, one of the bodies had a coin placed near his mouth, possibly to pay the ferryman to ferry him to the netherworld. This is familiar with Procopius' sixth-century description in his History of the Wars, about how people of this wider coastal region believed their souls were carried from there across the sea to England. Find out how in our our post Rowing souls of the dead to Britain: the ferryman of Solleveld.

Interesting fact is also that a migration process with a many similarities of that to West Flanders occurred on the other end of Frisia, namely at the region Nordfriesland south of Jutland (Denmark). From the mid-seventh century, Frisians settled and populated these near-empty, low-laying landscape. Here too, both terp, locally known as Wurt, settlements on the tidal marshlands and Flachsiedlungen on the elevated, sandy grounds developed. The settlements on these dryer geests were often located on the edge to the wetlands with access to navigable waterways (Majhczack 2021). This way the best of two worlds was combined. On the one hand, dryer sandy soils out of reach for the salty sea, (more) suitable for growing crops. On the other hand, the high biologic productivity of grassy tidal marshlands, suitable for husbandry (Knol 2021). And, being connected with waterways and the wider world as well. Excellent opportunities to connect with the supra-regional trade networks.

So, although (possibly) a bit later than the colonisation of West Flanders, time and manner of the migration are fairly comparable. The Frisians apparently knew how to survive in these barren, wet and salt environments. When examining the historic texts, there is no evidence the terp dwellers of West Flanders came under any significant political control, and is therefore in line with the nucleon-like culture of the Frisians living on terps along the Wadden Sea coast (Loveluck & Tys 2006).

But who were these Flemish-Frisians?

The Smokers of Waterworld

The early-medieval pottery found in West Flanders, can be found all along the southwestern coast of Frisia, up to the Wadden Sea area (Van den Berg 2016). The inhabitants of West Flanders were clearly influenced by the material culture comparable to those in East England and Central Frisia (Lichtenberg 2011). Toponymic research also indicates close ties between the coastal plains of Flanders and England from the late seventeenth century onward. In fact, early-medieval place-names in the southern North Sea region share many features (Deckers 2013).

Also, the fact that the terp culture has been proven present in West Flanders, albeit to what extent must unfold in the years to come, is another argument that it were Frisians who expanded their presence and (political) influence southward, up to the area around Leffinge. Of course, merely along the narrow strip of soggy coastline, inlets, and islands, including the tidal marshlands south of the River West Scheldt in Zeelandic Flanders and Vier Ambachten.

Probably the early-sixth century settlers in what are today Zeeland, Zeelandic Flanders and West Flanders, were a mixed people originating from the wider southern North Sea area, but politically being Frisian. Born out of a piracy culture that had developed during Late Antiquity, read our post It all began with piracy, and flooding the coasts like jellyfish plagues in summer time ruining your beach holiday. These Frisians mainly settled in the pagus Flandrensis, i.e. the western coastal plain of Flanders around Oudenburg, the pagus Rodanensis north of the pagus Flandrensis and covering the western part of what is today Zeelandic Flanders. We assume that (parts of) pagus Wasia was occupied with the same seabased lowlife. Inlet the Zwin lay within the Flemish-Frisian pagus Rodanensis and included the upcoming town of Bryggia ‘Bruges’ (Zijlmans 2016).

Early-medieval pagi (districts) of West Flanders. Pagus Wasia was situated east of pagus Rodanensis.

They were free proprietors (Tys 2002), part of a southern North Sea Germanic culture, who lived off wind, water, and trade (Zijlmans 2016). "A [maritime] dynamic cultural system that made sense in its own right and operated largely outside the homogenizing tendencies of major political [inland] centers of power" (Deckers 2017). Settled on riverbanks and tidal marshland, and traded on beaches on both sides of the English Channel and far beyond.

The network of trading and artisan settlements of these North Sea Germanics stretched from the northern Netherlands westward, through the river deltas of the Rhine, Meuse, and Scheldt, and into West Flanders and northern France. Between the seventh and ninth centuries, trading centers existed, from north to south, at Medemblik, emporium Dorestat, Walcheren, Antwerp, Bruges, Veurne, Iserae Portus (i.e. mouth of the River Yser), Wissant, emporium Quentovic, and the River Seine. All the aforementioned sites were in existence between the seventh and ninth centuries. The evidence from settlements on the coastal edges of the English Fenlands, the estuaries of the rivers Humber and Thames, the dune belts of the English south coast, together with Frisia, including coastal West Flanders, suggests a permanently occupied, vibrant, and interconnected network (Loveluck & Tys 2006).

Frisia and the Frisians were clearly part of this sea culture.


Mead and Swords - Even the drinking habits of the coastal culture differed from the people living more inland. Early medieval glassware can be divided into two types of drinking vessels: the stable and the unstable ones. Unstable glassware, like cone beakers, palm cups and funnel beakers, cannot be put down and must be held in one’s hand while drinking. When comparing the glass assemblage of coastal markets and emporia along the North Sea coast, like Ipswich and Dorestat, with the glass assemblage of inland, archaeologists have found that unstable glassware is the preferred type of the coastal people (Broadley 2021). In other words, while inland people enjoyed a refined dinner and nipped their wine from a globular beaker placed on a set table, the boisterous, smelly scum of the sea, by contrast, were raising their palm cups filled with mead and shouted: “bottoms up!”

Another difference between coastal and inland culture which comes to the surface from archaeology, are rituals concerning swords. In the Early Middle Ages two types of deposition can be distinguished, namely depositions in graves and deposition in water. If you look at the differences between heathen Scandinavia and those of the Christian Frankish Empire in the Carolingian period, nearly all swords found in Scandinavia are grave founds, whilst swords found in the Frankish territory are mainly found in water (Maczek 2021). Especially along the north-western coast of Europe in navigable rivers, and even more specifically downstream of the rivers Loire, Seine, Scheldt, Rhine, Ems, Weser, Elbe, and Eider. Maritime Frisia firmly positioned in this Excalibur-in-water ritual. One exception, inland upstream the River Rhine near Koblenz, a concentration of river depositions has been found too. Seemingly, all seven swords found in Belgium have been dug up from rivers. Mainly downstream the River Scheldt. At least twenty-eight out of the forty-two swords found in the Netherlands come from water as well. Most of these have been found in the central river area, including emporium Dorestat.

It seems, once the coastal people were christened and grave gifts had become a pagan, thus forbidden practice, they started to ritually deposit their precious swords in important waters. This phenomenon did not take place in Scandinavia. Perhaps because people remained a bunch of not-so-cozy pagans for a while longer.

disposing of a sword by Sjoerd Bijkerk

The coastal landscape, especially the tidal marshland offered only limited, albeit productive, economic possibilities. These were especially livestock of cattle and sheep, and thus meat, dairy products, leather and wool. Check our post Rescuing Rolling Sheep for an overview of economic possibilities of sheep. But also, the production of salt, extracted from the sea or from peat. The limited variety of natural resources of the marshland, including quite essential products like wood, crops, grains, stone, and even sometimes sweet water, meant this sea culture had to trade. By no means it could be fully self-sufficient. Thus, the Frisians needed to be connected to waterways, rivers, and seas to have access to the missing products.

It immediately brought an advantage. Contrary to communities further inland, the coastal community had open access to all kinds of other products, including to the most luxurious and exotic stuff of the era. They even transported the stuff. This was very relevant in the gift-exchange culture of the Early Middle Ages. “Such a degree of access on the part of, often modest households, put coastal dwellers outside the social norms and relations reinforced by access to imported commodities, within settlement hierarchies away from the coasts. The simple fact appears to be that a broader social spectrum of coastal societies had access to a greater quantity of imports than contemporaries inland, even if the sites of exchange were overseen by local royal officers” (Loveluck & Tys 2006). And, the coastal zone of Frisia from Jutland to the Rhine delta in early-medieval time, and the Zwin Region with Bruges in high-medieval times, was the crossroad of European and Mediterranean trade traffic (Westerdahl 1992). In sum, a strategic spot.

Flemish Broadcloth

One of the products the Frisians manufactured themselves mentioned briefly already, deserves more attention since it became world famous, namely the Frisian cloth called pallia Fresonica or Fresum. The pallia Fresonica was highly valued in north-western Europe (Tys 2002). It is made of wool and therefore sheep husbandry was an important economic activity all over Frisia in the Early Middle Ages. From historic documents we know that wool and broadcloth production was the most important locally fabricated product in coastal Flanders during the Carolingian period (Deckers, et al 2012). For example, we know that King Childebert IV (694-711) donated mariscos duodecim ’twelve marshlands’ which were in the pagus Rodanensis to the Saint Peter Abbey in Ghent in the year 707 already. These mariscos ‘marshlands’ were used for grazing sheep. The abbey also received a marisco at Greveninge in 757, and a marisco at Cumbingascure in 794. For a more in-depth story on the pallia Fresonica, read our post Haute couture from the salt marshes. Later, in the High Middle Ages, when Flanders production of broadcloth went through the roof, wool production in Flanders itself could not keep up the demand, and thus wool needed to be imported from the British Isles.

detail of the Adoration of the Mystic Lamb, Hubert and Jan van Eyck (1420-1432)

Today, Flanders is still remembered for its medieval broadcloth or ‘Vlaams laken’. It was an important pillar of its wealth and power during the High Middle Ages. Bruges would become one of the most powerful and creative cities of Europe (Trachet 2018). Ieper and Ghent also developed into broadcloth producing cities in the ninth and tenth centuries. Wool and sheep are therefore deeply engraved in the psyche of the Fleming. Not without reason we like to think that the altarpiece painted by Hubert and Jan van Eyck between 1420-1432, was named the Adoration of the Mystic Lamb. A piece so significant, it is considered world heritage.

Sheep farming is still a distinct feature of the landscape of the coast what used to be Frisia. From West Flanders to southern Jutland you can see the white fluffy animals with their alien eyes grazing, ruminating and bleating everywhere. On dikes, embanked lands, laying on the warm asphalt road, blocking your way, and sometimes to be admired on tidal marshlands still. Sheep, namely, can handle a salty environment well. Today, island Texel in province Noord Holland is still famous for its sheep’s race. The Texel sheep carries that much wool, that when it accidently rolls on its back, it will never be able to get on its feet again. If not helped, it simply dies. Please, memorize our post Rescuing Rolling Sheep how to assist a sheep laying on its back. Essential for hikers of the Frisia Coast Trail. Also, to this day region Ostfriesland is preoccupied with sheep. It considers it even its national mascot.

The Zwin and Bruges

Since the Zwin is identified with Sincfala, and because the inlet was the foreland of one of the most prestigious cities of Flanders and the world, namely Bruges, we must elaborate a bit on its history. The Zwin Region, of which inlet the Zwin is part, encompasses the municipalities Damme, Knokke-Heist, Maldegem, Sint-Laureins, Dudzele, Lissewege and Zeebrugge in West Flanders, and the municipality Sluis in the Netherlands. Furthermore, inlet the Zwin of today gives you a glimpse of how the West Flanders’ coast looked like in the Early Middle Ages. A row of dunes breached by an inlet, creating an inland area of barren, tidal marshlands. Inlet the Zwin is a nature reserve since 1952 already. In 2019, the so-called Internationale Dijk ‘International Dike’ has been excavated to give inlet the Zwin more space and enlarging the surface of tidal marshlands.

The sea inlet was created during the first centuries of the common era. By the Early Middle Ages, after sea activity had quiet down and inlets along the Flemish coast slowly started to silt up. This was also the case with the Zwin. Furthermore, sheep husbandry was also in the Zwin Region a long-standing economic activity. Shepherds have been active in the Zwin Region for an amazing period, from the eighth till the eighteenth centuries (Zwaenepoel & Vandamme 2016).

Bruges was strategically located at the point where three shires came together, namely the pagus Flandrensis, the pagus Rodanensis, and the pagus Mempiscus. And, it was connected to the North Sea. The name became Bruges might stem from the Old Dutch word brugga ‘bridge’. Originally, Bruges was connected with the sea via the inlet Blankenberge and the stream Reie. The inlet Blankenberge silted up in the tenth century. After this, a canal was dug to connect Bruges with the channel Old Zwin, and this way being reconnected with the sea again. Soon after, also the Old Zwin started to silt up. Relief came in the first half of the twelfth century with several great floods hitting the coast hard but deepening existing sea inlets at the same time. Especially the great flood of October 1134 had a major impact on the landscape. In the words of Jacques Brel: “Wanneer de noordenwind de vlakte vierendeelt” (‘When the northern wind quarters the flat’). A new navigable channel was created after the sea had reshaped and deepened the small channel Budanvliet or Budanflit. This became the Zwin proper. Channel Budanvliet ran a bit more to the south, parallel to the Old Zwin (Dumolyn, et al 2016). By the way, after the creation of the Zwin proper, still a canal of fifteen kilometres had to be dug to connect Bruges with the (new) Zwin at Damme.

Along the Zwin several port towns developed during the late twelfth and thirteenth centuries, namely Hoeke, Letterswerve (later Damme), Lamminsvliet (later Sluis), Monnikerede, and Mude (later Sint-Anna-ter-Muiden). It became a portuary network, but all dominated by the powerful city of Bruges. Once Bruges hegemony came to an end and the Eighty Year’s War commenced, Hoeke, Monnikerede, and Mude (nearly) ceased to exist (Tranchet, et al 2016). The towns of Damme and Sluis survived as fortified cities during the many wars.

map of the Zwin by Jan de Hervy (ca. 1501)

Mid fifteenth century is generally marked as the end of the hegemony of Bruges. Inlet the Zwin had silted up. Again. A process this time further stimulated because of cultivating the wetlands in the Zwin Region. Much of the Zwin Region was embanked with innumerable dikes from the tenth century onward, and with monasteries, churches and feudal lords being the driving forces behind it. Dikes, however, had a counterproductive effect when it comes to keeping inlet the Zwin navigable. Effect of embanking the floodplain of the Zwin meant less sea water can enter the valley and therefore reducing the force of the sea inside the inlet, leading to more sedimentation and thus net growth of land (Wintein 2003). A similar process happened in the valley of the River West Scheldt once the river forelands were embanked there too. Otherwise, Belgium and the Netherlands have a smooth cooperation dredging the River West Scheldt to keep the harbours of Antwerp accessible. Really, they have. Smooth, really.

Furthermore, concerning the decline of Bruges, province Holland and the British Isles had become strong competitors in the production of high-quality broadcloth, respectively around 1400 and 1500. On top of this, in the second quarter of the fifteenth century Holland cracked down the supremacy of the Hanseatic League and Amsterdam was racing unstoppable to pole position in global sea commerce. Read our post Yet another wayward archipelago on how things developed in and after the Late Middle Ages. Lasty, in its struggle for independence, the Dutch Republic had turned West Flanders into a big war zone with Spanish, French, and any other European army for that matter.

4. Danes moving in, ninth century AD

After two previous arranged marriages with successively the Anglo-Saxon kings Aethelwulf and her step-son Aethelbold, both who died soon after marriage, Judith must have thought: “Enough is enough”. She took matters in her own, capable hands. In the year 862 she flees from the monastery in Senlis, where she was locked up by her father, and secretly marries a certain bloke named Baldwin. Her father, the illustrious Charles the Bald and king of West Francia, was, to put it mildly, outraged. The newlyweds had to find shelter to sit out her father's’ rage. The Danish warlord Rorik of Dorestad, who ruled over his benefice West Frisia at the time, offered them refuge. They kindly declined Rorik’s offer and accepted a similar offer from King Lothar II of the Kingdom of Middle Francia. By now, Charles was out of his mind. Secretly marrying and then staying at the house of his rival.

Finally, Charles forgave his daughter. He made a margrave of Baldwin and gave him the watery mess of West Flanders. An area infested with Vikings at the time. Judith gave birth to Baldwin II and arranged a marriage with Aelfthryth, the daughter of the King Alfred the Great, king of the West Saxons. Margrave Baldwin II (879-918) became the first powerful ruler of Flanders. Also his successor, Count Arnulf I, is considered a powerful ruler who expanded the territory. The saying is hard times create strong men. These were hard times, indeed. Nevertheless, when it comes to the origin of the county of Flanders it all started with a decisive woman, named Judith.

The first Viking raid at the Frankish Empire was in the year 810. With a fleet of two hundred ships they attacked the north of Frisia and placed the Frisians under tribute. Charlemagne immediately reorganised the coastal defence, and this kept the Vikings at bay for a while. But between 834 to 839 Frisia was regularly pillaged, including the trading towns, Antwerp, Dorestat, the Walcheren island, and Witla (Heeringen 1998). The Walcheren island was attacked in 837 and defended by, interestingly, a Danish commander by the name Halfdane Hemming. Read our post Island the Walcheren; once Sodom and Gomorrah of the North Sea about this attack. From 841 to 885, the so-called prefecture West Frisia was given as benefice to Danish warlords. First to Rorik of Dorestad, and after him to Godfrid the Sea-King. This Frankish strategy was effective because the raiding of Frisia did come to a halt.

Around the year 850 Arabs introduce the game of chess in Spain. It was however also from 850 onward that Vikings started harassing Flanders intensively, especially penetrating the region via the River Scheldt. In 851 they set fire to the ‘Frisian’ Saint Bavo Abbey in Ghent. Things really worsened in July 879. The year before, at the Battle of Edington, the Great Heathen Army was finally defeated by the Anglo-Saxons, which resulted in the Treaty of Wedmore. After the defeat in 878, the Scaldingi chapter of the Great Heathen Army returned to its former base, the estuary of the River Scheldt in West Frisia. From there they started raiding the Flemish coast and the upper River Scheldt. Maybe using the Walcheren island as base for foraging and to supply the raids inland. Several times the Vikings even wintered in Flanders. It was King Arnulf of Carinthia who defeated the Vikings in a final battle at Louvain in the year 891. The same Arnulf, by the way, who had before an army of Frisians driven out the Vikings from East Frisia at the Battle of Norden in 884, and the same Arnulf who had Godfrid the Sea-King assassinated in 885 and his warband defeated by a combined army of Saxons and Frisians at Spijk near Emmerich.

A major innovation of the Franks to keep the Vikings out, was building a network of fortresses. The Annales Bertiniani speaks in the year 891 of castella ibi recens facta ‘recently built castles’. Archaeological research confirms that from the last quarter of the ninth century all along the southern coast of the North Sea so-called ring fortresses were built. Many of them in West Frisia, with quite a concentration of forts in what is now West Flanders and province Zeeland. Already three fortresses, at least, at the Walcheren island. These were circular fortresses consisting of an earthen wall with a palisade on top, and with a ditch around it. The diameter of these fortresses varied but reckon easily about two hundred metres.

Perhaps, the Frankish kingdom followed the recent example of King Alfred the Great of Wessex who had also built a network of castles or burhs to resist the Vikings and to strengthen his control over Wessex. Although, his castles were made of stone. A commodity which is scarce along the coasts of Frisia. Who knows, the resolute behaviour of Judith lay the foundations for this military knowledge and the so-called ‘burghal hidage’ policy of King Alfred (Tys 2018). It were probably the meiers ‘bailiffs’ and lords of royal domains and the domains of the abbeys of Echternach (Luxembourg) and Saint Bavo in Ghent, who were governing the Walcheren Island, and consequently organized the raising of circular fortresses (Henderikx 2021).

Notwithstanding the ring fortresses on the continent were constructed during the Viking Age and several can be found in Denmark too, it is a general misconception these fortresses were Viking-build. Instead, these fortresses were a (also) successful strategy in defeating the Vikings. At the same time, these fortresses were crucial to wield military and political control over the maritime society of West Flanders. Especially Baldwin II and Arnulf I might have invested in these fortresses. This way a centralistic, feudal power could be created successfully (Tys 2018). Albeit a bit later, the same principles were applied in West Frisia, where many fortresses have been built. However, this tactic never took root in Frisia along the Wadden Sea coast. Here the so-called Frisian Freedom would last another five centuries, until the end of the fifteenth century. However, it just so happens that in this region no archaeological proof exists of early-medieval fortresses.

Innovations in the North Sea coastal area, were not a one-way street. If the Franks learned to construct fortresses from English, the English learned from the maritime Frisians how to raise a naval fleet. From the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, the year 896, we know that King Alfred of Wessex had Frisians help him to design a new type of long warship, and that he had Frisian warriors man his fleet as well. Also, this knowledge exchange might have been facilitated by the marriage of King Alfred's daughter Aelfthryth with Margrave Baldwin II of Flanders (Williams, Smyth & Kirby 1991). Read our post They want you as a new recruit for more details on Frisians and building and manning English naval fleets.

5. Conclusion

What about the Flemish-Frisians? Well firstly, most of it is still unclear. Especially since archaeology in West Flanders has much work to do. Research into the terps of West Flanders is fairly limited hitherto. But the picture is that when at the end of the Roman period Germanic tribes moved south, including Frisians (called Frisii or Fresones by the Romans). They probably also migrated to England, leaving behind their terps along the Wadden Sea after almost a millennium of occupation. The landscape, except for some small pockets of habitation, depopulated completely between ca. 325 and ca. 425. The end of the Roman period and the period of the Wandering of Peoples that followed, is also a period when a North Sea Germanic culture is being formed, partly born out of large-scale seaborn raiding. A maritime culture that begins to occupy the coastal zones of the North Sea, and on both sides of the English Channel.

The empty salt marshes of the Wadden Sea were re-populated in the fifth century, by a people that would be named Frisians again. These (new) Frisians were probably an admixture of Saxons, Angles and southern Scandinavians, together with some original Frisians in surviving pockets of habitation, and with some (old) Frisians remigrating from current provinces Noord Holland and Drenthe. Read also our post Have a Frisians Cocktail for more information on these migrations. From the heartland at the southern coast of the Wadden Sea they first expanded south, all the way to the watery mess of West Flanders. That was in the early sixth century. In the seventh century, again from the heartlands at the Wadden Sea, they also expanded north, to Nordfriesland, and also there populated the nearly emptied marshlands.

Political Frisia was limited to an area with Sincfala as its southernmost border and the River Weser as its northernmost border, and mainly the strip “zwischen meer und moor” (‘between sea and peat’) as they say in Ostfriesland. Political, since here the laws of the Frisians held jurisdiction. In West Flanders and Zeelandic Flanders the Frisian presence was limited to only a small fifteen kilometres wide coastal strip from more or less Leffinge or even from Koksijde near Nieuwpoort, all the way to where the Flemish-Frisian terp culture reached the region Vier Ambachten, with Bruges probably just within the jurisdiction of West Frisia. The Frisians brought with them the maritime culture. A culture quite different from the inland, and one without central rulers, quite individualistic, and with extensive, overseas trading networks along the North Sea coast and at river mouths. Products they manufactured or produced were especially dairy, leather, salt, and woollen cloth. At least from around 600 they started building terps in West Flanders as well.

Linguistically traces of the old Frisian coastal speech can be identified in especially place names. The element muide(n) is an old Frisian form related to the English word ‘mouth’ and denotes the mouth of a waterway. The Dutch word is different, namely mond(e) (Kerkhof website). The toponym muide(n) can be found along the wider Flemish and Dutch coastal area, like the place names Diksmuide, the already mentioned Sint-Anna-ter-Muiden, and Muide (Ghent) in Flanders, and Muiden, IJmuiden, IJsselmuiden, Genemuiden and Leimuiden in the Netherlands. In the ninth century the Flemish coast switched from the Frisian to Dutch language.

The Frankish kingdoms probably were able to have their influence over this maritime culture of (Zeelandic) Flanders south of the River West Scheldt in the course of the sixth century already, albeit much is still very uncertain concerning the relationship between the coastal Flemish-Frisians and the continental Franks in this region. The early supremacy of the Franks, together with the arrival of the Vikings, and worsening natural living conditions along the Flemish coast, caused the Frisian identity south of the River Scheldt to vaporise relatively quick. As would happen not long after with the Frisians in province Zeeland as well. Consider also, that in the ninth century the difference between Frisians and Vikings was not very sharp defined. Besides being physically neighbours, both originated from the same Germanic maritime culture, both were (still) heathen and shared the same concepts, and both were heavily interconnected in trade and, yes, in raiding operations too, as we have seen.

Inferioris Germaniae Provinciarum Nova Descriptio by Willem Jansz. Blaeu (1604)

This story also illustrates that the history of the coast that once was political Frisia, i.e. the area from West Flanders in Belgium up to Ostfriesland in Germany, is an intriguing one, and one that did not stay unnoticed in world history. Despite lacking great kings and emperors. Firstly, the early-medieval Frisians were forerunners in introducing free trade and economic liberalism. Being innovative in means of transport, ship building (cog ship) and the money economy. Read our post Porcupines bore US bucks to learn more how capitalism was introduced to the world. Secondly, in the High Middle Ages, it was Flanders that picked up the baton from Frisia and developed into the cultural and economic leading region of Western Europe and way beyond. Very much connected with that other trade network, the Hanseatic League from northern Germany and the so-called free cities of Hamburg, Altona and Bremen. Lastly, in the course of the fifteenth century Flanders was succeeded by what would become the Dutch Republic, with the three coastal provinces Zeeland, Friesland and, especially, Holland taking the lead. It led to the first successful bourgeois revolution in the world.

The history of this region has many things in common. Among other, it is not perse a history of great kings, feudalism, imperialistic wars, and of imposing the Christian faith. Rather, it was more defined by individualism, weak central structures, a high level of urbanisation, and above all by businessmen making money through inter-regional trade.

All that, in a very dynamic, narrow strip of sincfala, stretching much further than West Flanders alone. An endless strip of watery mess, in fact, which carries Frisia as its overarching, ancient name.


Note – The dish Waterzooi. We translated waterzooi as ‘watery mess’. That is what it literally means in modern Dutch speech. Its etymology is a different, though. The component zooi derives from the Middle-Dutch verb sode and comparable to the current Mid-Frisian verb siede. Both meaning to boil. Optional, since no recipe is the same, ingredients of the dish are: fish, potatoes, butter, celery, carrot, onion, leek, fish stock, egg yolk, cream, chives, salt, and pepper. Fish is the classic, but waterzooi of chicken (stock) gains ground. If you are not a Wout Bru yourself, make reservations at a restaurant. Perhaps the owners of restaurant De Terp in Ramskapelle (Knokke-Heist) in West Flanders are willing to fix you a tasty bowl with this watery mess. Or, they might only use it to extinguish the barbecue with it...

Suggested music

Brel. J., Mijn vlakke land (1962)

Further reading

Abernethy, S., Judith of France, Queen of Wessex and Countess of Flanders (2015)

Adams, D., The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy (1979)

Berg, van den B., Migranten of Passanten? Scandinavische vestiging in negende-eeuws Frisia (2016)

Bervoets, G., Gentse waterzooi. Een culinaire ontdekkingsreis rond de wereld (2000)

Bolhuis van Zeeburgh, J., Kritiek der Friesche geschiedschrijving (1873)

Bracke, W. & Leenders, E., Vlaanderen in 100 kaarten (2015)

Bremmer, R.H., “Thi Wilde Witsing”: Vikings and Otherness in the Old Frisian Laws (2020)

Broadley, R., Glass vessels from the early medieval emporium Ipswich (2021)

Bruce-Mitford, R., Ships figure heads in the Migration Period and Early Middle Ages (1970)

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

Charlier, R.H., The Zwin: From Golden Inlet to Nature Reserve (2010)

Claerhout, J., De Franken, de Friezen en de Saksen. Onze voorouders (1886)

Clement, C., et al (ed.), Terra Incognita. Annual Review of Archaeological Master Research in Flanders (Belgium). Academiejaar 2008-2009 (2012)

Clerinx, H., De god met de maretak. Kelten en de Lage Landen (2023)

Clius, V., De Gentse Sint-Baafsabdij, parel uit het verleden (2016)

Coen, I., De eeuwige Schelde. Ontstaan en ontwikkeling van de Schelde. Waterbouwkundig laboratorium 1933-2008 (2008)

Coornaert, M., De Delta van de Zinkval (1991)

Coulthard, S., A Short History of the World According to Sheep (2020)

Deckers, P., A toponymic perspective on the early medieval settlement of the southern North Sea shores of mainland Europe (2013)

Deckers, P., Cultural Convergence in a Maritime Context. Language and material culture as parallel phenomena in the early-medieval southern North Sea region (2017)

Deckers, P., Ervynck, A. & Tys, D., De vroegmiddeleeuwse bewoning van de kustvlakte: de terpsite Leffinge – Oude Werf (2012)

De Clercq, W., Dombrecht, K., Dumolyn, J., Leloup, W. & Trachet, J., Monnikerede: The Rise and Decline of a Medieval Port Community in the Zwin Estuary (2020)

De Clercq, W., Trachet, J., Poulai, M. & Ruijsscher, de D., Een archeologische evaluatie, waardering en ruimtelijke afbakening van de verdwenen Zwinhavens Hoeke en Monnikerede (gemeente Damme, provincie West-Vlaanderen) (2018)

De Graeve, A., Het vergeten deel van de collectie Maertens de Noordhout boven water gehaald. Studie naar de vroegmiddeleeuwse rivierdeposities in de Scheldevallei (2010)

De Keyser, R., Sint Guthago te Oostkerke (1957)

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

Devinck, F. & Lannoy, D., Keltische oorsprong in een Germaans daglicht gesteld (2009)

Dhaeze, W., The Roman North Sea and Channel Coastal Defence. Germanic Seaborne Raids and the Roman Response (2019)

Dierendonck, van R.M., The Early Medieval Circular Fortresses in the Province of Zeeland, The Netherlands: Ten Years After (2009)

Dillen, K., Porpoise, punishment and partnership: the meaning of presenting and consuming a marine mammal in late medieval coastal Flanders (2021)

Doedens, A. & Houter, J., Zeevaarders in de Gouden Eeuw (2022)

Dumolyn J., Leloup W., The Zwin estuary: a medieval portuary network (2016)

Ervynck, A., Deckers, P., Lentacker, A., Tys, D. & Neer, van W., Leffinge – Oude Werf: the first archaeozoological collection from a terp settlement in coastal Flanders (2012)

Evans, N. & Jenkinson, A., What’s cooking in Belgium? Recipes and stories from a food-loving nation (2012)

Freriks, K. & Storms, M., Grensverkenningen. Langs oude grenzen in Nederland (2022)

Haan, de A.C. (ed.), Roeiend redden. Het roeireddingwezen van Texel tot Rottum (1976)

Heeren, S., From Germania Inferior to Germania Secunda and beyond. A case study of migration, transformation and decline (2017)

Heeringen, van R.M., The Construction of Frankish circular fortresses in the province of Zeeland (SW Netherlands) in the end of the ninth century (1998)

Henderikx, P.A., Walcheren en de Vita sancti Willibrordi van Thiofried van Echternach (2021)

Henstra, D.J., Friese graafschappen tussen Zwin en Wezer. Een overzicht van de grafelijkheid in middeleeuws Frisia (ca. 700-1200) (2012)

Hillewaert, B., Verdwenen bewoning te Michem (1985)

Hines, J. & IJssennagger-van der Pluijm, N.L. (ed.), Frisians of the Early Middle Ages; Majchczack, B.S., Recent developments in early-medievalsettlement archaeology: the North Frisian point of view; IJssennagger-van der Pluijm, N.L., Structured by the sea: Rethinking maritime connectivity of the Early Middle Ages (2021)

Hollevoet, Y. & Roeyen, van J.P., Germanic Settlers at Sint-Gillis-Waas? (1992)

IJssennagger, N.L., Central because Liminal. Frisia in a Viking Age North Sea World (2017)

Jongh, de I., Romeinse en Vroegmiddeleeuwse Bewoning in de Vlaamse Oostkust. Predictieve modellering getoetst op bewoningslocaties in een dynamisch kustlandschap tussen 0 en 1000 CE (2014)

Kerkhof, P.A., Van Fries naar Hollands (website)

Koning, de J., De betekenis van Noord-Holland binnen vroegmiddeleeuws Frisia (2012)

Kuiper, W., Tussen de Elven ende de wat? (2013)

Kuipers, J. Encyclopedie van Zeeland; Het Zwin (2020)

Knol, E., For Daily Use and Special Moments: Material Culture in Frisia, AD 400-1000 (2021)

Langen, de G. & Mol, J.A., Landscape, Trade and Power in Early-Medieval Frisia (2021)

Langhe, de J.E., Wat betekent de plaatsnaam Mikhem of Mikkem? (1996)

Lanting, J.N. & Plicht, van der J., De 14C-chronologie van de Nederlandse pre- en protohistorie VI: Romeinse tijd en Merovingische periode, deel A: historische bronnen en chronologische thema’s (2010)

Leloup, W. & Vannieuwenhuyze, B., Damme en Sluis: de oorsprong en vroege stadsontwikkeling van twee middeleeuwse Zwinstadjes (2013)

Lichtenberg, L., Nieuw Verhaal over Oudste Historie van Brugge & Omstreken (2011)

Loveluck, C.P. & Tys, D., Coastal societies, exchange and identity along the Channel and southern North Sea shores of Europe, AD 600-1000 (2006)

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Nieuwenhuijsen, K., Robrecht de Fries. Graaf van Vlaanderen, held van Holland (2022)

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Trachet, J. & De Clercq, W., Verdwenen haven sites in een verzwonden havennetwerk. Resultaten van vijf jaar onderzoek in de Zwinstreek (2018)

Trachet, J., Delefortrie, S., Dombrecht, K., Dumolyn, J., Leloup, W., Thoen, E., Meirvenne, van M. & De Clercq, W., Turning Back the Tide: The Zwin debate in perspective. A historiographical review of the medieval port system northeast of Bruges (2015)

Trachet, J., Verlande voorhavens. Verdwenen middeleeuwse havensites in de Zwinstreek (2017)

Tuuk, van der L., De Friezen. De vroege geschiedenis van het Nederlands kustgebied (2013)

Tuuk, van der L., Deense heersers en de Friese kogge in de vroege Middeleeuwen. 2. De koggenorganisatie en de rol van de Deense heersers (2007)

Tuuk, van der L., Herekoge in Vredelant (2012)

Tuuk, van der L., Vikingen. Noormannen in de Lage Landen (2015)

Tys, D., Cult, assembly and trade: the dynamics of a ‘central place,’ in Ghent, in the County of Flanders, including its social reproduction and the re-organization of trade, between the 7th and 11th centuries (2018)

Tys, D., De inrichting van een getijdenlandschap. De problematiek van de vroegmiddeleeuwse nederzettingsstructuur en de aanwezigheid van terpen in de kustvlakte: het voorbeeld van Leffinge (2002)

Tys, D., De omgang van de mens met overstromingsgevaar in de Belgische kustvlakte tussen de 8ste en de 12de eeuw, enkele aanwijzingen (1999)

Tys, D., Landschap als materiële cultuur. De interactie tussen macht en ruimte in een kustgebied en de wording van een laatmiddeleeuws tot vroegmodern landschap (2003)

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Vries, O., Ferdban. Oudfriese oorkonden en hun verhaal (2021)

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