Haute couture from the salt marshes

It was not the city of Parisius. Nor that of Lundenwic. Believe or not, the early-medieval center for expensive cloth and chique clothing in the northwest of Europe was the Wadden-Sea coast. Here the highly sought-after pallia Fresonica ‘Frisian cloth’ was fabricated and distributed over the wider world. It possessed a quality good enough for red capes of handsome superheroes like Superman and Thor, and for the heklu blá ‘blue capes’ which Odin wore. And, it was used as palm grease for international diplomatic endeavors of early-medieval rulers.

We tend to think of medieval Frisians as a Viking-like people with rough faces, long beards, braids, wearing bearskins, furs and black leather. Oh, and tatoos. No such thing. Not by far. Okay, Vikings were a kind of cousins. And yes, probably Frisians were tall too, given the fact people from the coast of former Frisia are the tallest people on earth to this day. If you have any doubt about that, read our post The Giants of Twilight Land. Contrary to the black-fur-image, these tall men of the north were not insensitive to fashion. And that is an understatement. Rather, they were dressed in fancy, colorful and fine fabrics. In fact, it would be no exaggeration to say they were the dandy predecessors of Karl Lagerfield, and of Viktor and Rolf. Although, probably a bit less refined in manners.

So, let’s dig into their art of cloth-making, especially into this famous pallia Fresonica where everyone was bragging about in the Early Middle Ages, and see who these Frisian sissy-boys with swag were.

1. Linen

The feel for fashion of the Germanic people and the quality of cloth they produced, was already noticed by the Romans. Not the most primitive of peoples. It is the over-frequently cited Plinius the Elder who wrote in the first century, that the most distant tribes the Cadurci, Caleti, Ruteni, Bituriges and the Morini produced linen. He also wrote specifically that the enemies of the Romans across the River Rhine wove cloth, and their women were dressed in the most beautiful (linen) garments.

‘Hilde’, Frisia, fourth century AD, Castricum, the Netherlands

Archaeological research has been carried out concerning the production of linen in the coastal zone of the Wadden Sea. Linen is made from the fibers of the flax plant (Linum usitatissimum) consisting mainly of cellulose. Cellulose degrades easily in wet conditions, and therefore nearly no Roman or early-medieval remains of linen cloth have been found along the southern coastal area of the North Sea. Nevertheless, products of flax, especially linseed and threshing remains, have been found in the terp region (terp being an artificial settlement mound, check our Manual Making a Terp in 12 steps to understand these manmade hills) quite abundantly. Thanks to experimental research, it has been established flax does grow on higher parts of salt marshes, albeit less enthusiasticly and abundantly than on its preferred more calcareous, porous and thus better drained soil. Also, straight flax stems have been found at the archaeological site of Ezinge in province Groningen, indicating cultivation of the plant not only for seeds and oil, but also for fibres. Furthermore, a pit was discovered of one meters wide and a depth of 1.65 meters, which probably was used for retting flax (Nieuwhof 2020).

Furthermore, the early-medieval stuff you certainly will find at your spade when randomly turning over a clay sod in the northwest of Germany and in the north of the Netherlands are, besides boring golden jewelry and silver coins or sceattas everywhere, countless weights and spindle whorls. These weights and spindle whorls which look like little donuts, all have a unique shape and were produced at the dwelling itself. With these finds, together with finds of among other tools used for scutching, it is safe to assume the flax plant was also grown for the weave production from ca. 500 BC onward.

Linen can be produced in different colors, depending on the technique of retting one applies. Retting is the process of rotting away cellular tissues and pectin with moisture, mostly with a kind of water bath. Whether you use running water of the river, or shallow basins filled with sweet water, or deeper basins filled with sweet water, or basins filled with sea water, each technique will result in a different color. It’s a kinda magic.

According to a local legend from the hamlet of Firdgum in the northwest of province Friesland, an area where before the potato was introduced in the seventeenth century, mainly flax was grown, even the pope in Rome walked in cloths made in Firdgum. Just, so you know. Read also our post Know where to find your sweet potato and get familiar with the area where potatoes where commercially produced in Europe for the first time ever.

2. Wool

The woollen clothing of the Celts was of interest of the Romans when they arrived at the northwest of Europe. The Celts kept sheep too. According to the Greek scholar Strabo (ca. 64 BC – AD 24), the wool of the local sheep breed was rough and thin at the end. From this wool, the Celts produced coats. Because of the wet and cold climate, the Cetlic garments came in quite handy for the Romans. Especially the birrus Britannicus, a kind of duffel-coat with hoodie was popular among the Romans (Coulthard 2020). We may assume, the Celtic-Germanic Frisians in a similar climate had similar fabrics to stay warm and dry. The proportion sheep of the Frisian livestock sharply increased with the arrival of the Romans (see further below). We can only speculate, it was to meet the demand of woollen clothing for the Romans.

Things really took off in Frisia with wool in the seventh century. It is from this century onward, that pallia Fresonica was produced with great craftsmanship and in large quantities. And it is the internationally renowned, Frisia-coast based, wool-textile artist Claudy Jongstra who fully stands within this local tradition 1,400 years later. As thru-hikers, we appreciate woolen products because it prevents us from starting to smell badly for a while longer when on the trail. Although, some hikers say when you start to smell bad it, it means you are having a good time. Frieze fabric today, by the way, is a heavy durable coarse wool fabric. A fabric with a rough surface.

Poet Ermoldus Niggelus, when he was in exile in Strasbourg during the reign of Louis de Pious in the beginning of the ninth century, wrote that the people of the Vosges were receiving from the Frisians cloaks of diverse colors such as they had not known hitherto. These cloaks were exchanged for goods like wine, wood and corn, which the Frisian traders transported down the River Rhine. By the way, if you want to have an impression of the magnitude of the trading networks of these selfish, Frisian merchants of free trade, read our posts Porcupines bore U.S. bucks and Merciless medieval merchants.

Later that ninth century, Notker Balbulus monk of Saint Gall in present-day Switzerland, also known as Notker the Stammerer, wrote that at the Carolingian court pallia Fresonica of (again) various colors were given to the lower orders serving the palace. Notker also described how the Franks imitated Gaul warriors. The latter were dressed in new Frisian fashionable short, striped cloaks. When Charlemagne found out that Frisian merchants sold these fashionable, albeit shorter cloaks for the same price as the traditional bigger ones, he forbade buying the smaller pallia Fresonica for the same price. The great strategic Charlemagne motivated his decree in a very intellectual manner:

What is the good of those little napkins? In bed I cannot have sex with it. And, when I am on horseback, I cannot protect myself from wind and rain. And, when I have to relief myself, I suffer because my willy freezes off.

Trump Charlemagne

Charlemagne, apparently, was not ready yet for new trends in fashion. Or, it was he treasured his moments of sex and relief too much. Or, were it clever Frisian merchants maximizing their profits? (Van der Tuuk 2011) Besides this, Charlemagne apparently had an obsession with cloaks and cloak sizes, since he also complained to the king Offa of the kingdom of Mercia about the size of cloaks Offa had send him. Charlemagne was a big man in many aspects.

The Frisians did not merely produce fashion for big markets and mass-consumption. They produced different qualities, also suitable for high-end markets. As mentioned at the beginning of this post, pallia Fresonica could be one of the gifts presented during diplomatic missions abroad. Part of easing relations between the world of the christians and that of the saracens. One of the rulers who received from Charlemagne the highly prized cloaks from Frisia was none other than the fifth Abbasid caliph of Baghdad, Harun al-Rashid. He received pallia Fresonica in the colors white, grey, red and blue.

The gift Charlemagne received from the caliph, was a single elephant. Sounds impressive maybe, but better give the wool than the sheep, as the saying goes in the cold, wet and capitalist world of the Northwest.

sheep at the salt marsh

The thing you need in order to produce pallia Fresonica are sheep. Heaps of sheep. Research has shown that during the Roman Period the percentage of sheep as part of the total livestock increased. Maybe because of increase of demand for woollen products by the Romans. As said, from Roman Britannia we know the Romans were hung up on birrus Britannicus. Roughly one can say that the share of sheep doubled from around a fifth to around a third of the total livestock at the salt marshes. During the Merovingian (ca. 450-750) and Carolingian (ca. 750-900) periods, the percentage of sheep increased even further to three-quarters of the total stock. Although from around the year 900 the percentage of sheep dropped to more or less fifty percent, to this day sheep are everywhere along the Wadden Sea coast. It is even the mascot of region Ostfriesland. Study carefully our post Rescuing rolling sheep, to know how to rescue pregnant sheep laying on the treir backs.

Not only in the former terp region of northern Netherlands and of region Ostfriesland in Germany there was sheep and wool. Of course, also in the northeast of England, Wales and in Scotland. Here woollen cloaks were produced too, and these areas are famous for their woollen cloaks to this day. Indeed, tweed. However, there is no direct proof of wool export from England until the early twelfth century. Only the place name Woolwich might indicate wool was traded from there (Ekwall 1964). Or, Ekwall, traded to there from Frisia?

About four centuries after the heyday of pallia Fresonica, the southwestern-most part of Frisia, namely the area of Sincfala what is today part of the region West Flanders, became famous for its own kind of pallia Fresonica. This was from the eleventh century onward. But the product was re-branded as Flemish laken or Flemish broadcloth. The name pallia Fresonica, and its original creators, got into oblivion. Or, is Flemish laken a continuation of pallia Fresonica since the coast of Flanders where the wool production took place, was part of Frisia in the Early Middle Ages? Read our post The Frontier known as Watery Mess: the Coast of Flanders to learn more about among other sheep husbandry and wool production on the salt marshes of Flanders.

Besides wool, you need paint. The plant common madder (Rubia tinctorum) was used to dye cloaks red. To dye cloaks blue, the plant woad (Isatis tinctoria) was being used. All very environmental friendly production techniques, regaining popularity today. If you wonder why sheep are mostly white, it is because the wool can be dyed easier than black or brown (Coulthard 2020).

It is ill shaving against the wool, and several scholars in especially the Netherlands had to overcome their general uneasiness exquisite things can originate from the barren salt-marsh cultures too. Quite recently they reached consensus that pallia Fresonica was not only distributed and sold by Frisian merchants in the wider North Sea region, but also that it actually was being produced in Frisia. Duhhh. “Made in Frisia” therefore might have been on the label. Frisia then, an area covering more or less the southern coast of the North Sea, from the northwest of Flanders to region Ostfriesland.

Excavations and archaeological finds of textiles in both Germany and the Netherlands, have been convincing to accept the local production of broadcloth. From the archaeological research on the terp of Ezinge, also nicknamed Pompeii of the North, we know that people undoubtedly produced clothing made of wool and linen (Nieuwhof 2020). In early-medieval northeast England, as said, and at Iceland broadcloth was produced too. Archaeological research based on wool-isotopic composition has also shown that in each region of the North Sea, both local and non-local wool was being used for the production of textiles. Therefore, also reconfirming the interactions within the North Sea culture. Early-medieval production of broadcloth in what is now Flanders, receives little support from archaeology to this day. This also might have to do with the fact that very little archaeological research in terps has been carried out in West Flanders thus far. One observation from archaeological research on the terp settlement of Leffinge in West Flanders, is that sheep were kept (Loveluck & Tys 2006). Furthermore, in written resources from early eighth-century the settlement of Leffinge is mentioned being a mariscus, i.e. a place where sheep farms existed on the tidal marshlands of Flanders and Zeeland for wool production (Ervinck, et al 2016).

The commercial importance of the production of pallia Fresonica in Frisia is also clear from the severe penalties for destroying a barn for weaving, being mostly a small pit house called a screona. In German language these are called a Grubenhaus, and in Dutch language a hutkom. It is also called a sunken-featured building (SFB) in historian’s speech. Another early-medieval penalty existed specifically for hitting the hand of a woman weaving fresum, i.e. broadcloth. These penalties are codified in the Lex Frisionum written at ca. 790. Destroying a screona meant the perpetrator even had to face the death penalty. We, therefore, can safely conclude that fresum or pallia Fresonica was truly a key commodity for the population of Frisia and its economy. Below the relevant article of the Lex Frisionum, protecting craftsmanship vigorously:

Qui harpatorem, qui cum circulo harpare potest, in manum percusserit, componat illud quarta parte maiore compositione, quam alteri eiusdem conditionis homini. Aurfici similiter. Feminae fresum facienti similiter.

Who hits the hand of a harp-player, who can play harp in a circle (audience), pays with a fourth bigger fine, as with another man of the same status. Goldsmiths likewise. Women making fresum likewise.

By the way, the fact pit houses or SFBs were sunk partly into the wet ground, meant humidity stayed at a high and constant level, which is needed for the production of woollen broadcloth. With the rain and humid climate next to the sea, an ideal situation to produce wool. If you do not believe us, ask Claudy Jongstra. An SFB had a ground surface of around sixteen square meter. The number of SFBs increased at the tidal marshlands, or terp region, during the fifth century with the new Anglo-Saxon-Scandinavian settlers, the new Frisians. The terp dwellers from before the Migration Age also had pit houses, but these are mainly known from the higher sandy soils of present-day province Drenthe during the Roman Period.

Below a recently reconstructed SFB at the terp of the hamlet of Firdgum in province Friesland. By the way, convenient slam bam along the Frisia Coast Trail. Check out the website of the nice little museum in Firdgum to read more about this project. Further below a reconstruction drawing (Van Gorp 1986).

replica of a SFB or pit house at Firdgum
SFB or pit house reconstruction Van Gorp

Pallia Fresonica had specific weaving patterns, namely the standard diamond twill. Already from the first century AD, this was the standard twill for woollen cloth in the North Sea region. The pallia Fresonica had a completely different texture than that of the Flemish laken centuries later. Pallia Fresonica was thinner and had a more complex weave, among other. In the Early Middle Ages too, a completely different use of textiles has been found above and south of the big rivers of the Netherlands, at least if you look at textiles found in graves. In the north, the traditional diamond twill was popular. Possibly marking different cultural backgrounds of the North Sea culture and of the Continent. This fits with other cultural divisions between north and south of the big rivers. For example, the different house-building traditions. But also in legal systems. North of the big rivers all the way into Scandinavia the asega jurisdiction was the prevailing legal system, whilst south of the rivers this was the schepen jurisdiction. The latter (schepen) being, let’s say, a government official, and the first (asega) being a commoner who was specialized in the law and proceedings of judgement, but who had no higher authority and was not the judge. Read our post The Thing is… for more information.

Lastly, it is interesting to mention that in the year 830 ten sheep farmers in Frisia were to deliver 855 pallia Fresonica each year to the Abbey of Fulda which possessed these farms (Lebecq 1983). When the production of at least 80 or more woollen coats per sheep farm per year can be extrapolated, the quantity of these coats produced by the coastal inhabitants of Frisia, including West Flanders, must have been impressive (Ervynck, et al 2016). 

Although we implicitly focussed above on clothing, another commodity might have been the outfit of cargo and war ships with woollen rugs, clothing and sails. The amount of wool needed for a cargo ship amounted between 200-400 kilograms, and it would perhaps take ten year of labour to manufacture the products. It is in the eighth century also that the Scandinavian seafarers finaly started to use sails for their boats as well, with disastrous consequences for the world. However, sailcloth and waterproof fabrics might have given additional economic opportunities for the sheep-breeding and wool-producing Frisians. It has been calculated that the number of sheep needed to provide the fleet of the Vikings with sails, must have been about two million beasts. A sail for a warship might have cost 200 kilograms of wool and ten years labour (Bender Jørgensen 2012). The Scandinavians not only manufactured woollen sails themselves, they also bought woollen cloth, and sheep’s tallow to make the cloth waterproof, in the North Sea region (Coulthard 2020).

For the record, some UK-based scholars plea in favor of a theory that Frisian broadcloth was not produced in Frisia but solely distributed by Frisians merchants (Campbell 2003, Schuuring 2014). They, however, do not deal with the abovementioned aspect from livestock, archaeological findings, isotopic research, Frisian early-medieval law etc. Basically, the stretched arguments are: “If king Offa gave cloth to Charlemagne, all other cloth, including the pallia Fresonica, must have originated from great Britain too”. Why cloth, or any other trade product for that matter, adopts the name of the merchants, is not explained, neither by Campbell. Not quite logic, since a buyer prefers to know the origin of the maker and not who is selling it. That gives not much information in the trade. This is now the case, and it probably was back then as well.

3. Leather

The fancy, fashion-forward Frisians also had a taste for elegant shoes. Especially in the terp region in the north of the Netherlands a very elegant type of leather shoe has been found, dating from the fifth century. The shoes were made out of one piece of leather, and had no separate sole. Read more about (these) shoes in our post Boots made for walkin’.

So, now it is time to present you the idle Frisians!

Well that must be a shock! Quite a different appearance from TV series The Last Kingdom, or from the TV series Vikings, or from the bad, bad Radbod movie. The men might even have more in common with the more contemporary detectives Sunny Crockett and Ricardo Tubbs of the TV series Miami Vice in the ’80s. Imagine sunglasses with their outfits, and the comparison is complete. It were sharp-dressed men in colorful, Burberry outfits of the most expensive cloth to be found in the wider region at that time. Probably always terrified their slick clothes would become dirty from the smelly mud of the salt marsh, or become wet and out of model from the sea or constant rains. Of course, having a different hat for each occasion etc. Oh, vanity of vanities. All is vanity!

But, their fabrics and products were a big success for all levels of societies around the globe. And the money they earned with it, correspondingly. Even against the will of the illustrious Charlemagne. Yes, even handsome superheroes like Thor and Superman were inspired by the ruby-red cloaks of high quality. Haute couture from the salt marshes, indeed.

S W A G!

(if you think swag is todays slang, you are mistaken. Swâg in Old-Frisian language meant ‘enclosed pasture’. Think of all the modern toponyms ending with – zwaag)


Note 1 – The fashion tradition of the Frisians did not end in the Early Middle Ages. The Hausbuch manuscript of the Frisian chieftain (called Häuptling, haadling or hoofdeling) Unico Manninga from region Ostfriesland of ca. 1560, contains many colored representations of the well-known, very exuberant Frisian costume. Again, different hats for different occasions, and all that. If these women and men below were not proud, stiff Frisians, we do not know what is.

Note 2 – Of course, less elegant examples of Frisian dress existed too. In 1907 in Hogehahn, near the town of Aurich in Ostfriesland, a bog body was unearthed during peat cutting, It was dated seventh or eighth century. The tunic of this individual, the so-called Bernuthsfeld Man, was composed of many patches of cloth stitched together. In total 43 patches of 19 different types of fabrics. Theories are that this cloth-Frankenstein was a kind of tramp or wanderer. If you are interested in graves of these period, check out our post Notre dame of Grou to learn about a very misshapen woman buried in a coffin made of boat remains.

Note 3 – If interested in reproductions of pallia Fresonica, or friesischen Tuch in German language, look at the website of Kjarni Willison, Nordmann zwischen den Welten, in Germany.

Suggested music

Further reading

  • Bender Jørgensen, L., The Introduction of Sails to Scandinavia: Raw materials, Labour and Land (2012)
  • Brandenburgh, C.R., Early medieval textile remains from settlements in the Netherlands. An evaluation of textile production (2009)
  • Brandenburgh, C.R., Clothes make the man. Early medieval textiles from the Netherlands (2016)
  • Coulthard, S., A Short History of the World According to Sheep (2020)
  • Dijkstra, M.F.P., Rondom de mondingen van Rijn en Maas. Landschap en bewoning tussen de 3de en 9de eeuw in Zuid-Holland, in het bijzonder de Oude Rijnstreek (2011)
  • Doorn, van F., De Friezen. Een geschiedenis (2021)
  • Driel-Murray, D. van & Plicht, van der H., Het gelijk van Boeles: schoenvondsten uit de Friese terpen (2016)
  • Ervynck, A., Deckers, P.J., Lentacker, A., Tys, D. & Neer, van M., ‘Leffinge – Oude Werf’: the first archaeozoological collection from a terp settlement in coastal Flanders (2016)
  • Gorp, van P.J.M., Friese mantels, een wolnijverheid van voor Christus tot in de 11de eeuw (1986)
  • Goscinny, R. & Uderzo, A., Obelix & Co (1976)
  • Heeren, S. & Willemsen, A., Fibula’s. Vondsten, vormen & mode (2017)
  • Holstein, von I.C.C. & Rogers, P.W. & Craig, O.E. & Penkman, K.E.H. & Newton, J., Provenancing archaeological wool textiles from medieval northern Europe by light stable isotope analysis δ13C, δ15N, δ2H (2016)
  • Hullegie A. & Prummel, W., Dieren op en rond de Achlumer terp (2015)
  • Jørgensen, L., Manor and Market at Lake Tissø in the Sixth to Eleventh Centuries: The Danish ‘Productive’ Sites (2003)
  • Lebecq, S., Marchands et navigateurs frisons du haut Moyen Âge (Vol. 1). Essai (1983)
  • Leyser, H., A short history of the Anglo-Saxons (2017)
  • Loveluck, C.P. & Tys, D., Coastal societies, exchange and identity along the Channel and southern North Sea shores of Europe, AD 600-1000 (2006)
  • Makin, A., Early Medieval (mostly) Textiles #8 (2021)
  • Nicolay, J. Nieuwe bewoners van het terpengebied en hun rol bij de opkomst van Fries koningschap. De betekenis van gouden bracteaten en bracteaatachtige hangers uit Friesland (vijfde-zevende eeuw na Chr.) (2005)
  • Nieuwhof, A., Ezinge Revisited. The Ancient Roots of a Terp Settlement. Volume I: Excavation – Environment and Economy – Catalogue of Plans and Finds (2020)
  • Nieuwhof, A., Vlas in Ezinge: de herkenbaarheid van linnenproductie in het terpengebied (2017)
  • Pestell, T. & Ulmschneider, K., Markets in Early Medieval Europe. Trading and ‘Productive’ Sites, 650-850 (2003)
  • Postan, M.M., The Cambridge Economic History of Europe: agrarian life in the Middle Ages (1966)
  • Prummel, W., Lezing: Terpenarcheologie op het archeologiecongres de Reuvensdagen in Groningen (2013)
  • Scheenstra, N., Kleding en accessoires, blog (2018)
  • Schepers, M., Gebruiksplanten in het terpen- en wierdengebied (2016)
  • Schokker, J., Insigne van een kruisvaarder? Over een pronkfibula gevonden nabij Uithuizen (2018)
  • Schuuring, M.P., The Circulation and Use of Coins in the Carolingian Era of the Netherlands: A distribution analysis (2014)
  • Stracke, J.C., Altfriesische Trachten nach dem Hausbuch des Unico Manninga (1967)
  • Tuuk, van L., De eerste Gouden Eeuw. Handel en scheepvaart in de vroege middeleeuwen (2011)
  • 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)
  • Wochnik, P., Einfach königlich; Der kostbare Goldschmuck der Osfriesinnen (2019)

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