With a Noose through the Norsemen’s Door
Although the conversion was a slow and cumbersome process, and only succeeded in-depth over the course of the tenth century, Frisia subsequently turned into the richest ecclesiastical area of Europe. Nowhere else were that many monasteries and churches. Although nearly all monasteries have been dismantled with the arrival of protestantism, till this very day nowhere in the world you can find so many high-medieval churches packed together as along the coast of Frisia. This is, in fact, the Wadden Sea coast. From the (former) island of Wieringen to the island of Sylt. Many of these old churches have a common feature, namely a bricked-up little door in the wall facing north. According to folklore these are the doorways of the Vikings.
Much has been written about these little doors over the years, and it still is a vivid part of regional folklore. You can find plenty of Norsemen’s doors in former Frisia, for example in the churches of Bierum, Buitenpost, Collinghorst, Eggelingen, Fransum, Greetsiel, Groothusen, Heiloo, Heveskes, Hollum, Hoorn (isl. Tersch.), Jellum, Jelsum, Jennelt, Jorwert, Leons, Marsum, Oldeberkoop, Oosterend, Oosterland, Oosterwijtwerd, Oudega, Resterhafe, Siddeburen, Stroe, Tettens, Ulrum, Uplengen-Remels, and Wijnjewoude. This is not at all meant to be a limitative list. By the way, also astray from the Wadden Sea coast some examples exist, like in Abcoude, Asselt, Doorn and Sint Laureins.
Doorways of the Norsemen, often no more than five feet high, are locally known as Duvelsdoar, Noardsk doarke, Noarmannepoarte, Noormannendeur, Noormannenpoortje, Normannendör, and Normannentür. In the sagas on the (former) islands of Wieringen and Terschelling, above the Norsemen’s Door respectively a head of a pig and a wild boar was hung. Symbol of Germanic believes. There exist many sagas about these doorways in the provinces Noord Holland, Friesland, Groningen, and in the regions Ostfriesland and Nordfriesland. We have freely translated one of those sagas, one from Ostfriesland.
The Norsemen often came to Frisia with their longships to rob and plunder. They murdered the Frisian King Rorik and made themselves lord of the area under King Godfrid. Also, they imposed a high tax on the population, the so-called Klingschatz ‘clink-tax’.
A tax collector would place a Frisian warrior shield, in the colour red or brown, in one of the wooden longhouses. Then, the collector would place himself twelve lots away from this longhouse. The Frisians now had to throw their tax money at the shield. If the far-off collector did not hear a coin clink, he did not accept the payment. All the money that was thrown at the shield but missed or could not be heard by the tax collector, was also taken by the Danes. This way all the wealth was taken from the Frisians.
The Frisians were also not allowed to wear silver or gold jewellery. Instead, they had to wear around their necks a noose made of willow rods, which was used to hang criminals those days. This is how the pride of the Frisians was broken.
To ensure that they would not forget who they were subject to, the houses of the Frisians may only have one door, and only on the northern side of the house. This door had to be so low that people were forced to bow to the north each time they left their house. To the north, where the heathen Norsemen came from. The same rule was enforced concerning their churches. In addition to the south door, also a low northern exit door had to be made for the same purpose.
One day, however, King Godfrid was slain by one of his own warriors. After that the Norsemen returned to their homelands. The Frisians removed the north-facing doors. All that remains today of those days, are the bricked-up doors in the walls in the north-facing walls of old churches.
Firstly, this saga shows how far-reaching and unjust taxation systems can work out for citizens, if not managed properly. The Dutch government can tell you all about it. Just google the word ‘toeslagenaffaire’, and shudder and shiver. Secondly, this saga explains why people in region Ostfriesland are excellent at playing the game of Boßeln or klootschießen. After all, if you missed the shield, you lost a lot of extra money.
Moreover, the real relevance of the saga is that it contains ancient symbols that can be traced back to the period medieval Frisia shifted allegiance from paganism to christendom. From the sphere of influence of the Norsemen from the North, to the sphere of influence of the Franks from the south. Imagine, how profound Frisia must have been transformed during the tenth and eleventh centuries. From a barren, heathen coastline often in league with the raiding Danes and thus forming a serious threat for the Frankish kingdom, to a thorough christian buffer zone, filled with religious stone structures as a first line of defence against those same Danes. Clever framing by the Frankish bureaucracy, a millennium ago. The symbols mentioned in this saga and in many others as well, and in many high-medieval law codes and texts too, express this sharp, mental contrast.
They can be grouped in a mind map as follows.
De saga Die Nordmänner from region Ostfriesland is part of the collective memory of the Frisians that once they were under the direct influence of the Danes. In the medieval legal texts written in Old Frisian language, much consideration is given to the history how Frisian were free, became unfree and became free again. And how eventually they were free to chose their own law. Roughly the storyline is that the Frisians were the direct descendents of Sem, son of Noach and the first king, and lived in a land called Fresia in Asia. Read also our blog post We’ll drive our ships to new land. From there they migrated to Europe where they were enslaved by the northern king. Then God send Saint Willibrord to help the Frisians to free themselves from the north. Later, again, the Frisians came under the heel of the north. This time, after the Frisians had helped to free the eternal city of Rome from the heathens, they received their freedom for a second time. This occasion from Charlemagne. The Frisians would remain free as long as they would help to defend the empire against the heathens (i.e. the Danes and the Saracenes).
North and South
"dat elffherten wapen Radbodi wapen is west, de een tijran ouer de fresen is west, de oeck niet lange darna worde wth gedreuen, want de fresen holten halsbanden mosten dragen vnd hoere doeren na den noerden hebben, so leerden dat se buckende, als nigende vor radbodo, wth den huse gingen" (Gozewinus Acker Stratingh, 1804-1876)
the eleven hearts emblem has been Radbod’s coat of arms, who was tyrant over the Frisians, who also not long after had been driven out, because the Frisians had to bear wooden collars and to have their doors facing north, so they learned that they went bended, as to bow for Radbod, out of their homes
The folklore concerning the Norsemen’s doors can without any doubt be assigned to the realm of fiction. So-called Romanesque hall churches in Frisia have been built more or less a century after the reign of the Norsemen and the Viking raids, the end of which is commonly fixed at 1066. Above, the time when the Vikings were active in Frisia until the end of the tenth century, most Frisians were by and large still heathen. Sagas concerning the Norsemen’s doors only started to appear in fifteenth- and sixteenth-centuries chronicles. Of course, they might have been a older than that.
It is a typical design of the north along the Wadden Sea coast: Romanesque hall churches that have two doorways opposed to each other, one in the south-facing side and one in the north-facing side. This concept, however, might be of Anglo-Saxon origin.
The real story behind these doors is probably that they were the entrances for women. From the start, these doors were not high. Gradually, with a steadily raising ground level of the adjacent graveyard, the doors became even lower. Later, when the doors were no longer in use, they were bricked up. The north entrance is at the shadow-side. Thus, the colder, windier, and darker side. The northern part of the graveyard was also the part where criminals were buried. Not for nothing high-medieval Frisian law used the metaphor ‘the north-facing tree’ for the gallows if someone was to be hanged. The late-medieval Emsinger Recht (‘law of Emsingen’) also speaks of taking a criminal ‘to the north’ when he was sentenced to death.
"en vrrede and hi wrreth lond and liude and hi fart inur Saxenna merka and hi uthlath thene haga helm and thene rada skeld and thene sareda riddere and hi binna Fresena merkum man sleith and burga barnd, sa ach ma hine north inna thet lef to ferane and theron te sansane" Emsinger Recht
a traitor to the land and he betrays land and people and goes into the border region of the Saxons and gets from there the high helmet and the red shield and the armed knight and he goes into the land of the Frisians and kills men and burns strongholds, then he should be taken northward to the sea and be thrown in the sea
In short, the north door was an appropriate church entrance for women who were carrying the original sin after all. After service, they would leave through the door in the southern wall, stepped into the light and into the warmth of the sun. Reborn after prayer, chant, and uplifting teachings of the priest. Others have a slightly different explanation and think the northern doorway was used by all churchgoers to enter the church. Men, women, and children alike.
Besides the north entrance, these Romanesque churches regularly have small windows placed in the northern wall too. Unclear exactly what the purpose was of these tiny windows. Perhaps for lepers or for people suffering from other contagious deceases. We can think of one today. Its nickname in the Netherlands is leprozenvenster ‘leper-window’ anyway. The north door is also where the baptismal font was placed. When someone was baptized, the north door was left open so the Devil could flee during the purifying ritual. Furthermore, through the north door the dead were carried into the church and the procession left through the south door. That way not only the soul of the deceased travelled from the darkness into the light, but also the Devil was tricked in the process. It would be waiting outside the northern doorway in vain for the deceased to come out and to take its soul to Hell. Quickly bury the corpse in consecrated ground on the south side of the church and the soul was protected.
Death and Taxes
The change from the Klingschatz (‘clink-tax’) klipskelde taxation imposed by the Vikings, to the huslotha taxation imposed by the Franks, was also symbolic for the Frisians where their new allegiance lay. The huslotha, by the way, was basically a taxation on property. The system to raise the klipskelde tax was quite awkward to say the least, as you might have read in the saga Der Nordmänner above.
Interestingly, another similar practice can be found in medieval Frisian law texts. It can be found in the late eighth-century Lex Frisionum ‘law of the Frisians’ and the Leges Barbarorum, which is a collection of several Latin law codes between the fifth and ninth centuries. These laws also contain the practice of throwing stuff at a shield to make it clink. This time it is part of a procedure to settle disputes and to determine the weregeld ‘blood money’ to be paid by the offender and his/her kin to the victim and his/her kin. In this case, by throwing the bone splinters from the victim’s body to a red or brown shield. If the splinters were big enough to produce a clink loud enough to be heard by a man who stood twelve steps away from the shield, then these splinters were fit for setting the compensation.
Find out more about the institute of the weregeld and how compensation (extensively) was regulated in medieval Frisia in our blog post: You killed a man? That’ll be 1 weregeld, please.
"Thit is thiv sivgunde liodkest, thet alle Frisa an fria stole besitte and hebbe fria spreka and fri ondwarde; thet urief us thi kinig Kerl, til hiv thet wi Frisa suther nigi and clipskelde urtege and wrthe tha suthera kininge hanzoch and heroch alles riuchtes tinzes and tegotha, and huslotha urgulde bi asiga dome and bi lioda londriuchte, al with thet wi er north herdon Redbate tha unfrethmonne, al thet Frisona was" Rüstringer Recht
This is the seventh statue, that all Frisians possess a free chair and have free speech [i.e. accusation] and free answer [i.e. defence]; that privilege was granted by Charlemagne, so that we Frisians would turn to the south and refuse to pay taxes in clinking money and would be subordinate and loyal to the southern [i.e. the Franks] king in all levy and tithe, and pay house tax according to the decision of the asega [i.e. law expert] and the people’s land law, all because we once belonged to the north [i.e. the Danes] to Redbad, the quarrelsome, all who were Frisian
Another part of the sagas is that the people of Frisia were obliged to wear a noose made of willow rods around their necks. A sign of not being free. A sign of being a slave. With their change of allegiance to the Franks, the necks of the Frisians were freed from these wooden collars. From then on, they were so-called free-necks, and allowed to wear golden collars and all other jewellery again around their necks. This freedom was given to them by Charlemagne, and for this he has a central role in all the legends and sagas of the Frisians, from province Friesland to Kreis Nordfriesland. Read our blog post: Magnus’ Choice. The Origins of the Frisian Freedom.
Want in sinen tiden, segghen si, Waren si so eighin als ende als Dat si strop droeghen om den hals.
(Rhyme-Chronicle of Holland, mid-fourteenth century)
Note 1 – If you would like to sleep in one of those old churches, know that is possible. A great initiative, we think. In province Friesland quite a few are available as refugio. Check the websites Jabikspaad (‘Jabik path’) and Santiago aan het Wad (‘Santiago at the Wadden Sea’). At the day of writing you can stay the night in the following churches: Blesum, Boksum, Britsum, Foudgum, Hiaure, Jorwert, Nijland, Peins, Swichum, Sybrandahûs, Terband, Wânswert and Zurich.
The refugio’s are open from March until September. You need to ring 24 hours in advance and it will cost 15 euro. You need to have either:
- Pilgrim pass of the Nederlands Genootschap van Sint Jabob;
- Stamp card or route book of the Jabikspaad (‘Jabik path’);
- Route book of the Sint Odulphuspad (‘Saint Odulphus path’);
- Route book of the Bonifatius Kloosterpad (‘Saint Boniface Monastery path’);
- Route book of the Claercamppad (‘Claercamp path’), or be;
- Donor of the Âlde Fryske Tsjerken foundation.
Note 2 – If you really want to know what happened to Vikings in Frisia, read our blog post Frisia, a Viking graveyard. Hope the title is not a spoiler.
Note 3 – Featured image is the village of Groothusen, Ostfriesland. Its church has a Norsemen’s door too.
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