• Hans Faber

A Theelacht. What a great idea!


Halfway the ninth century Vikings had established more-or-less permanent presence in Frisia in the former district called Nordendi or Norditi. By AD 884 the Frisians were fed up with it. The forged new swords, raised an army and drove the Norsemen out. For good. It took exactly 10,377 lives at the side of the Viking. But the crisis with the Vikings provided the Frisians with an idea. The new land that became available, was managed in an innovative way. In fact, the Frisians founded 1,100 year ago the first farmers cooperative of Europe: the Theelacht. This co-op still exists in the town of Norden in region Ostfriesland, also East Frisia, and has served as an example for co-ops around the globe.

The Battle of Norditi

There are two principal sources that tell us about the Battle of Norditi, also called the Normannenslacht or the Battle at Hilgenrieder Bay (Hilgenriederbucht). These are the, contemporary, Annales fuldenses and the Gesta hammaburgensis ecclesiae pontificum 'deeds of bishops of the Hamburg church'. The Gesta hammaburgensis is written around AD 1075 by the chronicler magister Adam of Bremen. What other sources Adam of Bremen possessed of, besides the Annales fuldenses, is unknown. According to magister Adam himself it was the contemporary abbot Bovo I of the mighty Abbey of Corvey in Höxter, Germany, who wrote a report on the battle. Alas, this report has been lost. From the Gesta hammaburgensis we may conclude magister Adam still had possession of this report when he wrote the Gesta hammaburgensis. Thus, explaining why he has more details to offer than the writer of the Annales fuldenses earlier.

Based on the Annales fuldenses most scholars agree today that the actual date of the battle between the Vikings and the Frisians is indeed AD 884. However, you might still come across other dates as well, like AD 880 (still popular on Wikipedia), AD 882 and AD 888. One of these, AD 880, is unleashed on the world by the great Frisian academic Ubbo Emmius (born in Greetsiel, Germany) in his impressive Rerum frisicarum historia written in AD 1616, seven centuries after the events at Norditi. We won’t take this flaw of Ubbo too seriously and for our part the University of Groningen in the Netherlands may continue with being excessively proud of him. Those readers who are surprised; indeed Groningen has a university.

Lets quote the Gesta hammaburgensis:

Gesta hammaburgenis; book 1: chapter 41

In view of what we have said about the persecution which then raged far and wide against the churches, it seems not improper to touch upon a great miracle manifested to the Frisians through the merits of Saint Rimbert. I do not know why the author of his Gesta passed over this wonder, but Brovo, the abbot of Corvey, in writing of what happened in his times did not keep silence. He wrote:

"When in recent times a distressing irruption of barbarians raged savagely in nearly every kingdom of the Franks, it happened also that by the judgement of God they were routed in a certain Frisian district. Situated in a remote region and close to the great sea, it is called Norditi. This district, then, they undertook to destroy. The venerable bishop Rimbert was there at that time and, encouraged and prepared by his exhortations and instructions, the Christians joined battle with the enemy and laid low 10,377 of them, over and above the many who were slain crossing the streams as they sought safety in flight."

These facts Brovo recorded in writing. By reason of this miraculous occurence the merits of Saint Rimbert are to this day most highly regarded among the Frisians, and his name is cherished with a certain singular affection by the people, so much so that even the hill on which the saint prayed while the battle was in progress is noted for its perpetually green turf.

It was archbishop Rimbert of Bremen, originally from Turholt (Torhout), Belgium who helped to lead the Frisians to victory. The Gesta hammaburgensis speaks of a hill where Rimbert prayed to his god. Also, it says the hill is ever green (since). The exact place where the battle took place is unknown, but it must have been near the modern town of Norden, region Ostfriesland. Some suggest the Vikings had settled at the trading village of Nesse, by then still located at the shores of the Wadden Sea. But this is speculation as no archaeological evidence has been found yet to support this theory.

The area liberated was possibly what is the area Norden together with parts of Harlingerland, Brokmerland and of Wangerland. The casualties at the Viking's side are quite impressive. Even for the Frisians. The Gesta hammaburgensis is written two centuries after the battle. That implies we must be cautious whether all facts are accurate. So, it may not have been 10,377 slew Vikings at all. Maybe just 10,376, or as high as 10,378. The Gesta hammaburgensis suggests that the Vikings not only were killed by the swords, arrows, fists and spears of their opponents, but that, in fact, most of them drowned in streams during their retreat. Lets pretend you did not read this and still think they were all killed on the battlefield.

Vikings at the shoreline getting ready for the charge of the Frisians - Battle at Norditi

Frisian myths and sagas in province Friesland, the Netherlands have been documented in the first half of the twentieth century. One of these concerns the Battle of Norditi too. It’s clearly inspired by the Gesta hammaburgensis but has some bonus facts. It goes as follows:

The miracle at Norden

After the death of Charlemagne, the Norsemen raided repeatedly Frisia and their ruthless war bands marched through the Frisian shires. Under the reign of Charles the Fat, a fleet of Viking ships landed at the Heksenkolk (translated more-or-less as ‘the bewitched water’) of Nordwidi (Norden) in East Frisia. From here, their bands rampaged through Frisia, murdering and burned down villages, until the Frisians got in their way. Archbishop Rimbert of Bremen had gone to the camp of the Frisians to assist them. When the Frisians were ready for battle, the archbishop ascended a hill to pray. He knelt on a stone and prayed to the Almighty. To receive his assistance in the fight against the heathens. Humbly he asked for a sign of victory. When the archbishop rose, he saw that the curve of his knees had been eroded into the stone, and in this the bishop understood the divine sign. He spoke enthusiastically to the Frisians. The Frisians, strengthened by the miracle in faith of victory, were so overpowering in their charge that it made the Norsemen flight. The enemy left 10,0377 dead on the battlefield. Many of them were killed during their flight over the river. The stone on which archbishop Rimbert kneeled was kept for a long time in the Ludger Church (Ludgeri Kirche in Norden. Saint Ludger, by the way, is a Frisian born at modern Zuilen in the Netherlands. Read our blog post to learn more about him), and on the hill where he received his prayer, the trees and grass always remained green.

Where the hill must have been is unclear too. Be advised that what Frisians call a hill, might not be more than an elevation of a few meters, if you're lucky, in the landscape. In East Frisia too, hills proper are non-existent. Maybe it was a ting. Why else was a stone atop this hill? And where? The same with the ‘streams’. The Battle of Norditi is situated in general near the Hilgenrieder Bay. This bay was located west of the village Nesse. Did the Vikings drown in this shallow bay? The bay is now gone, after it silted up and was reclaimed in the Middle Ages.

The stone Rimbert prayed on with his knees, known as the Warzenstein, can still be seen at the old graveyard of Norden. The water collected in the holes of the stone is said to be medicinal. Go there when it rains, which shouldn't be too difficult. Others say the original stone is buried somewhere below the Ludger Church. What’s more interesting is that the Warzenstein is a cup-mark stone, or Näpfchenstein (in German) or napjessteen (in Dutch). Similar stones can be found at the terp-village Holwierde in province Groningen (a stone called the duivelsteen 'devil’s stone') and on the graveyard of the terp-village Rinsemageest in province Friesland, both in the Netherlands. The use of these stones probably dates back to pagan times and practices. According to tradition, these cup marks were used for offering to elves and the scrapings were being used as medicine. The fact Rimbert prefered to put his knees on a stone instead of on the soft clay of Frisia, might indicate the stone already had a tradition of magic. What other possible reason could he have for putting his knees on a rock?

The example of kicking out the Vikings from East Frisia in AD 884 was quickly followed in West Frisia (i.e. west of the river Vlie). This area was by then under control of the Viking warlord Godfrid the Sea-King. In AD 885, Godfrid was murdered at Herispich and his army defeated by Frisian and Saxon contingents. And in AD 889 the Frisian noblemen Gerulf received West Frisia in fief of King Arnulf of Carinthia. Read our blog post The Abbey of Egmond and the Rise of the Gerulfings to learn more details about this history of treason. Archbishop Rimbert obtained market, mint and toll rights for the city of Bremen in AD 888. And guess what? Rimbert got these rights from King Arnulf of Carinthia as well. Or, were the Battle of Norditi (AD 884) and the assassination of Godfrid the Sea-King (AD 885) one big, blackadderian scheme of King Arnulf with the Frisians? "You scratch my back, I'll scratch yours." Anyway, according to the Gesta hammaburgensis the Vikings subsequently turned into angry white men. Humiliated and provoked as they were, they ransacked the known world, notably England and Scotland.

And sorry to say, what the Frisians were very capable of, took the Anglo-Saxons a bit longer. Vikings invaded England in AD 865 and established the Danelaw. It took the Anglo-Saxons until AD 1066 with the Battle of Stamford Bridge (only ca. 8,000 casualties) to get rid of the Vikings. Not realizing that while busy fighting at Stamford, they had left the backdoor open through which yet another Norsemen came in with an army. Already that same year: William the Conqueror. Back at square one.

By the way, according to legend the East Frisians (i.e. east of the river Ems, the river that flows through the heart of the Frisian country) were given the so-called 'freedom privileges' by King Charles the Fat. Privileges that meant they were not subordinate to any other lord than the Holy Roman Emperor himself. With their battle cry “Lewer doot as Slav” the Frisians charged at the Vikings who must have been standing with their back against the muddy water. The Vikings fled to their ships. But in-vain. Their ships were damaged, their rudders broken, and their sails set on fire. Apparently, the whole operation had been carefully planned by the Frisians. With the tide coming in, the Vikings were adrift at sea. Defenseless against wind, waves and water. Nobody made it home alive. That’s all together a very different freedom legend from the one that existed among their fellow Frisians living more to the west. Read more about these other freedom privileges in our blog post Magnus’ Choice. The Origins of the Frisian Freedom.

Co-op Theelacht

After archbishop Rimbert and the Frisians jointly had exorcised the pagans from their lands, the question was what to do with it. It was, as said, the area of the Hilgenrieder Bay. A bay that silted up and offered good possibilities to reclaim it from the sea and to be turned into fertile land. The Frisians rubbed their noses to the left, to the right and up, and exclaimed: "that's it, we've got it!" They decided to govern these news lands in a cooperative and to make good money out of it. With that they, without knowing it probably, founded the first farmers cooperative of Europe. Its name: Theelacht. We think even of the first of the world, but stand corrected if we have exaggerated this.

This initiative has parallels of risk-sharing with what happened in AD 1811 at the terp-village of Achlum, province Friesland where Ulbe Piers Draisma founded an insurance company together with 39 other farmers after farmsteads had been struck by lightning too often. It became one of the oldest and most successful insurance companies: Achmea. Currently, a turnover of more than 20 billion euro. Read also our blog post Clinton: I did not have financial relations with that village.

The Theelacht is the legal entity that owns the Theel-lands. The first regulations, the so-called Theelrecht ‘Theel-law’ was formulated in AD 1583. The regulation was recently revised in AD 1759 under the name Jus Theelachticum Redivivum. A book of 200 pages and it still stands.

The Theel-lands are a set of fixed, immovable lands belonging to the Theelacht and can be leased. These are eight Theel-lands, called Bezirke. These are: Linteler Theel, Gaster Theel, Trimser Theel, Ekeler Theel, Osthover Theel, Neugroder Theel, Hover Theel and Eber Theel. At the end of the nineteenth century, the size of these lands amounted for around 4,650 morgen (i.e. the Hannover morgen, unit of measurement), which equals around 1,200 hectares today. A Theelachter is a member of the Theelacht descending from the founding families of the Theelacht.

location of the Theel lands in the little red square

map of East Frisia by Ubbo Emmius, AD 1616

The shareholders of the Theelacht were primarily hereditary and only they are qualified to vote. These are called the Arfburen. The hereditary Theel-lands are inherited by the youngest son. Furthermore, if two families with each a Theel-land unite through marriage, it’s regulated that an Arfbur can only have one Theel-land. No accumulation of land, therefore. Shareholders can also buy themselves in, the so-called Koopburen. They, however, have no voting right.

Each Theel-land has its own Theelbuch ‘Theel-book’. In spring and autumn, the shareholders meet in the illustrious Theelkammer ‘Theel-room’. It’s located at the ground floor of the old Rathhause ‘town hall’ of Norden. Here the board members sit at the fire, smoke a stone pipe, have a good local craft beer, review the Theel-books, determine the height of the yearly ground canons and, finally, decide on paying the shareholders.

The word theel stems possibly from the word diel (in Frisian) or deel (Dutch) or Teil (in German) meaning 'lot' or 'part'. For example, compare the name of nature park De Deelen in province Friesland where deel originates from the times these peat lands were commercially exploited in deelen, in lots. The word acht is of Frisian origin and means 'a partnership of people'. These partnerships could be of a more informal and of a more formal status. The still existing Deichacht Norden and Sielacht (in Old Frisian known as silfestene, sil meaning sluice and festene meaning authority) are the partnerships invested with power that have an official role in maintaining the proper functioning of dikes and waterways.

The Theelacht was pretty successful. It had significant assets at the end of the nineteenth century. But these have been lost during the first decennia of the twentieth century due to hyperinflation and the money reforms of the ‘20s and, of course, during Second World War. Currently, only two of the eight Bizerke are still being administered by a Theelachter. The other Theel-lands are in possession of non-Theelachters. Of course, still the Theelacht as such has control over these lands if the owner wants to sell it. In that case the Theelacht has the preferent option to buy the land. Therefore, in practice the whole process of ownership transfer goes in close consultation with the Theelacht. At present, the Theelacht has about 450 hectares left of the 1,200 they still had around AD 1900. That’s just enough for the maintenance of the Theelkammer and basic expenditures. Perhaps the local craft beer and tabacco too.

The Theelkammer, the Theel-room today

In sum, the Theelacht is still there, but it has become more a club instead of a thriving economic cooperation it once was. And that’s good. Giving the right example of unwinding and stepping out of the tempo of modern life.

Note: There is one minority report of a notoriously controversial historian about where the Battle of Norditi between the Frisians and the Norsemen took place, namely at Northout near Nielles lès Ardennes in Belgium or at Northout near Bayenghem lès Eperlecques in France (Delahaye, 1999). We are not convinced that only a very vague resemblance of the place name with Norditi is enough, and besides, no preference is given between the two Northouts. And archbishop Rimbert was working at Bremen and Hamburg, and not in Belgium or France. Rest assured we didn't include this note to provoke the Ostfriesen (again).

Suggestion for further reading:

Bremen, of A., History of the Archbishops of Bremen-Hamburg. Translated with an introduction & notes by Francis J. Tschan. With a new introduction & selected bibliography by Tomothy Reuter (2002)

Delahaye, A., De ware kijk op. Deel II. Het eerste Millennium. Mythen van de Lage Landen (1999)

Emmius, U., Rerum frisicarum historia (1616)

Folkerts, R., Die Theelacht zu Norden. Ein seit 1100 Jahren auf genossenschaftlicher Basis geführter Familienverband (1986)

Lewis, S.M., Rodulf and Ubba. In search of a Frisian-Danish Viking (2018)

Rau, S. (ed), Quellen zur karolingischen Reichsgeschichte III (1960)

Rieken, B., Nordsee ist Mordsee. Sturmfluten und ihre Bedeutung für die Mentalitätsgeschichte der Friesen (2005)

Schuyf, J., Heidense heiligdommen. Zichtbare sporen van een verloren verleden (2019)

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

Wiersma, J.P., Friesche mythen en sagen (1937)

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