Haute couture from the salt marshes

It was not the city Parisius, and it was not that of Lundenwic either. Believe or not, the early-medieval center for expensive cloth and chique clothing in northwest Europe was the Wadden-Sea coasts of Germany and the Netherlands. 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, or the for the heklu blá ‘blue capes’ which Odin wore. Or, 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. No such thing. Not by far. Okay, Vikings were a kind of cousins. And yes, probably the Frisians were tall too, given the fact till this day people from the coasts of former Frisia are the tallest people on earth. If you have any doubt, read our blog post The Giants of Twilight Land. Contrary to the black-fur-image, the 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, the dandy predecessors of Karl Lagerfield, and of Viktor and Rolf, although probably a bit less refined.

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

1. linen

The feel for fashion of the Germanic people of the north and the quality of cloth they produced, was already noticed by the Romans. 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) clothes.

‘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 easy in wet conditions, and therefore nearly no Roman Period or early-medieval remains of linen cloth have been found at the southern coastal area of the North Sea. Nevertheless, products of flax, especially linseed and threshing remains, have been found in the terp region (a terp being an artificial settlement mound; check our Manual Making a terp in 12 steps) quite abundantly. Thanks to experimental research, it has been established flax does grow on higher parts of salt marshes, although a bit less enthusiastic and abundantly than on its preferred more calcareous, porous and thus better drained soil. Also straight flax stems have been found at the site of Ezinge indicating cultivation of the plant not only for seeds (oil) but also for fibres. Furthermore, a pit was discovered of 1 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 north of Germany and the Netherlands are, besides boring golden jewelry and silver coins or sceattas, countless weights and spindle whorls. These weights and spindle whorls, that 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 you apply. 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, shallow basins filled with sweet water, deeper basins filled with sweet water or basins filled with sea water, each technique will result in a different color.

According to the local legend of the hamlet of Firdgum in the northwest of province Friesland in the Netherlands (an area where before the potato was introduced in the seventeenth century, mainly flax was grown), even the Pope in Rome walked around in cloths made in Firdgum. Just, so you know. Read also our blog post Know where to find your sweet potato.

2. wool

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.

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 blog post Porcupines bore U.S. bucks.

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 the Gaul warriors. The latter were dressed in new Frisian fashionable short, striped cloaks. When Charlemagne found out that the Frisians sold these fashionable but little 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, he treasured his moments of sex and relief too much. Or, as historian Van der Tuuk has suggested, were it clever Frisian merchants maximizing their profits? 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.

But the Frisians did not merely produce fashion for the big markets and for mass-consumption. They produced different qualities also suitable for high-end markets. As mentioned at the start of this blog post, pallia Fresonica was one of the gifts that could be presented during diplomatic missions abroad. Part of easing relations between the worlds 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 still maybe, but better give the wool than the sheep, as the saying goes in the cold and capitalist world in 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 woolen products by the Romans. 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 900 the percentage sheep dropped to more or less fifty percent, till this day sheep are everywhere along the Wadden Sea coast.

Not only in the former terp region of northern Netherlands (Mid Frisia) and of region Ostfriesland (also East Frisia) in Germany there was sheep and wool. Of course, also in the northeast of England and in Scotland. Here woolen cloaks were produced too, and they are famous for their woolen cloaks till 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, more to the south the region Flanders became famous for its version 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 got into oblivion.

Besides wool, you need paint. The plant common madder (Rubia tinctorum) was used to dye the cloaks red. To dye cloaks blue, the plant woad (Isatis tinctoria) was being used. All very environmental friendly production techniques regaining popularity today.

It is ill shaving against the wool, and several scholars in the Netherlands had to overcome their general uneasiness exquisite things can originate from 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. ‘Made in Frisia’ therefore might have been on the label. Frisia, an area covering by then more or less the Wadden Sea coastal zone of Germany and of the Netherlands, and most of the Netherlands’ North Sea coast as well.

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 Ezing we know that the 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 a reconfirming the interactions within the North Sea culture. Early-medieval production of broadcloth in what is now Belgium receives till this day no support from archaeology. One observation, archeological research at the terp Leffinge in Belgium shows that sheep were kept. Furthermore, in written resources from early-eighth century Leffinge is mentioned being a mariscus, 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 in Old Frisian a screona (a Grubenhaus in German language, or a hutkom in Dutch language. It is also called a sunken-featured building SFB, in historian’s language). Another specific penalty existed for hitting the hand of a woman weaving broadcloth called fresum. These penalties are codified in the Lex Frisionum written at ca. 790. Destroying a screona meant you even had to face the death penalty. We can safely conclude that fresum or pallia Fresonica was therefore a key commodity for the population of Frisia. Here is 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 woolen broadcloth. 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 settlers, the new Frisians. The terp dwellers from before the Migration Periode also had pit houses, but they are mainly known at the higher sandy soils of present-day province Drenthe during the Roman Period.

Below a recently reconstructed pit house 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 of a loom by Van Gorp.

SFB or pit house reconstruction Van Gorp

The pallia Fresonica had specific weaving patterns, namely the standard diamond twill. Already from the first century, this was the standard twill for woolen cloth in the North Sea region. The pallia Fresonica had a completely different texture than that of the Flemish laken, which followed four centuries later. The pallia Fresonica was thinner and had a more complex weave, among others. 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. That fits other cultural divisions between north and south of the big rivers. For example, the different house-building traditions. But also in the 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 magistrate/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.

Lastly, we mention that in 830

In 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 Flanders) must have been impressive (Ervynck, et al, 2016). 

For the record, some UK-based scholars plea in favor of a theory Frisian cloth was not produced in Frisia but solely distributed by Frisians merchants (Campbell, 2003; Schuuring 2014). They, however, does not deal with the abovementioned aspect from livestock, archaeological findings, isotopic research, Frisian early-medieval law et cetera. Basically, the stretched arguments are: “Why not? and if King Offa gave cloth to Charlemagne, all other cloth including the pallia Fresonica, must have been coming from Britain too”. Why cloth, or any other trade product for that matter, adopts the name of the merchants, is not explained either 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. That is now the case, and it was probably then too.

3. leather

The fancy 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 blog post Boots made for walkin’.

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

Well that must be a shock! That is quite a different appearance from TV series The Last Kingdom, or from the TV series Vikings, or from the (Red)bad movie. They 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 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 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, et cetera. Oh, vanity of vanities. All is vanity!

But, their products were a big success for all levels of societies around the globe. And the money they earned with it, correspondingly. Even against the willy, sorry, 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

By the way, the fashion tradition of the Frisians did not end in the Early Middle Ages. In the twelfth century, the Frisians were still known for their vainglory with clothing. Wearing golden and silver fibulae made of Almohad coins, or copies thereof, to show off they had been participating in the Crusades. Read also our blog post Foreign Terrorist Fighters from the Wadden Sea.

But later still. The Hausbuch manuscript of the Frisian chieftain (called Häuptling, haadling or hoofdeling) Unico Manninga from region Ostfriesland, near the town of Norden in Germany of ca. 1560. The manuscript contains many colored representations of the well-known, very exuberant Frisian costume. Again, different hats for different occasions, and all that.

Of course, less elegant examples of Frisian dress existed too. In 1907 in Hogehahn, near Aurich in region Ostfriesland, a bog body was unearthed during peat cutting, It was dated seventh/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 blog post Notre dame of Grou to learn about a very misshapen woman buried in a coffin made of boat remains.


Note. 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.

Suggestions for accompanying music

Suggestions for further reading

  • 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)
  • 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)
  • 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)
  • 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)
  • Wochnik, P., Einfach königlich; Der kostbare Goldschmuck der Osfriesinnen (2019)

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