On May 5th, 2018, it was exactly two centuries ago that Karl Marx was born. When in 1867 the good man published the first part of Das Kapital, Marx was actually 1,300 years too late to turn the tide. The ship had sailed. Ships of selfish Frisian merchants in pursuit of personal wealth, to be precise. If only Karl had known, the world would have been, let’s say, a different place today.
One might say that the Frisians originally have much in common with sea nomads. Living on one of those little pieces of our planet that was neither land nor sea. In a way, عرب الأهوار ‘Marsh Arabs’ of the Germanic tribes. Indeed, salt-marsh people. Accepting no higher authority than the gods they worshiped, since centralist power structures could not get hold on these watery twilight-lands.
During the turbulent Migration Period and its aftermath, this sea people with their nautical skills, being possibly even the first to re-introduce sails again since the pull-out of the Romans, and with a lifestyle forced to be pragmatic, had recognized the opportunities the dangerous waterwolf offers. Seas were, in fact, the medieval interstate highways. With their ships and sails, their overseas network and these excellent ‘highways’, the enterprising Frisian merchants in pursuit of profit was crucial for the rebirth of commercial activity in Western Europe. Moreover, they lay the foundation for free-trade and economic liberalism as we know it today. A concept of thinking and of working together globally, conquering the world of Homo sapiens ever since. Or, should we say, a concept that hás conquered the world? The prison of path evolution. No escaping it now, anymore.
It is no coincidence the name of ruler Audulfus or Audulfo of Frisia has been preserved on Frisian coin money when the birth of liberalism was about to take place. It are solidi minted around the year 600. Money with a portrait comparable to a U.S. dollar note with the portrait of president George Washington on it. The era ruler or king Audulf lived, marks the start of the heyday of the Frisian trade.
The first coins revealing the name of Audulf were found in April 1897, in the village Escharen near the River Meuse and the city of Nijmegen in the east of the Netherlands. These coins were part of a hoard consisting of twelve golden solidi and fifty-four tremesses dating between 491 BC and AD 630. Therefore, the hoard must have been buried at 630 latest, and places the reign of Audulf at the end of the sixth or the beginning of the seventh century. Even between the years 534 and 628, according to some scholars. Later on, more coins have been found, and even a die designed for the minting of coins with the name Audulf was found in province Friesland. All unearthed in the Netherlands. In total between five coins, according to Faber, and seven coins, according to Dijkstra, have been found bearing the Latin texts:
The way the legacy of king Audulf (mind you, a contemporary of Anglo-Saxon king Æthelbert of Kent, and under whose rule production of gold tremisses started) is being handled, is at best extremely sloppy. We are still flabbergasted, to be honest. No consistent overview and inventories of these coins exists. One coin has been lost, alas. Some coins are being kept in London. Other coins were archived at the Nederlands Muntmuseum (Netherlands’ Coin Museum) at first, but after the Muntmuseum closed down in 2013 the complete coin collection was divided, or scattered, between De Nederlandse Bank (National Bank of the Netherlands) and Rijksmuseum voor Oudheden (National Museum for Antiquities). Though we try not to see similarities with the monetary system of the European Central Bank, we cannot escape the conclusion of Dijkstra nine years ago: “A total overview and a thorough analysis of these [Audulf] coins, as well as their place within the coinage system, is urgently needed.” Indeed, it is. Again, Dijkstra wrote this nine years ago.
Besides Adulf, there are three more ‘big men’ known from early-medieval golden coins. Only with a coin each.
The first of the three other Frisian big names handed down via a gold solidius is that of Skānomōdu (see image above). The found conditions have been lost, alas. Although without provenance, it was part of the collection of king George III and donated in 1825 to the British Museum. It is dated the first quarter of the sixth century, but can be as old as 423, which is the numismatical date ante quem non. It was also used as a pendant, which was a quite common practice. The name is written in so-called anglo-frisian type runes, and means something like skauna ‘beautiful’ (comparable with modern Mid-Frisian skjin/skiente) and mōda ‘brave’ (comparable with modern Mid-Frisian moed). It must have been an important figure too. But no further archaeological or historical information exists about Skanomodu, to date. With this, ᛋᛣᚨᚾᛟᛗᛟᛞᚢ ‘skanomodu’ is the oldest written Frisian word known, and therefore the oldest written word of the Netherlands too. Good it is proudly kept in the British Museum. Much safer there, if we see how the Dutch handle the solidi of Audulf. There is also a theory Skanomodu was not a personal name of a man, but that of a woman (Nielsen 1993). Not a big man, but a whole lotta woman. Names of women on pre- or early-medieval coins is extremely rare, so not the most obvious explanation.
The second Frisian ‘big name’ is that of Had(d)a (see image above). This name has been preserved in runes as ᚻᚨᛞᚨ on a gold solidus as wel. It was found in the area of the town of Harlingen, province Friesland, and generally dated the third quarter of the sixth century. Again, just like Skanomodu, we have no clue as to who Had(d)a was. All we can say is that the name probably derives from Old Germanic haþu ‘battle’. There is no additional historical or archaeological material available about this person, again, to date. One historian who suggests Hada was the same as bishop Ceadda from Northumbria. Ceadda was the teacher of Saint Wilfrid who once stayed at the court of king Aldgisl of Frisia. Read our post The biography of King Aldgisl, unplugged. It is then that Wilfrid gave this coin of Ceadda or Hedda as a gift to king Aldgisl (Kramer 2016). You have to be well-rested to follow the reasoning of this theory. We still have not had enough sleep yet.
There is another early-medieval Hadda known. He was an abbot in the city of Utrecht. At least, according to a note of Alcuin of York dated around 780. Much later than the coin.
Concerning the images above of the coin of Had(d)a, unfortunately, we have not found better images on the web. Let us know if you have one.
The third and last one is Wela(n)du (see image above). This golden coin was found on a field near the village of Schweindorf in northern Germany in 1948. It is dated between 575 and 625, or even 575 and 600. The name of this Frisian ‘big man’ was Weladu, and the name is written (backwards) in runes too: ᚹᛖᛚᚩᛞᚢ ‘weladu’. It is being kept in Ostfriesischen Landesmuseum Emden. The intriguing thing of this name is, that it is the name of Weland or Wayland the Smith. The mythical blacksmith in Germanic mythology, mentioned in several old written sources, including the epic poem Beowulf and the Deor poem. Then, of course, we cannot avoid to speculate that the famous blacksmith Wayland was a Frisian. For our argumentation Wayland was a Frisian, read our post Weladu the flying blacksmith.
Besides the vanity of (early-medieval) rulers, the question arises what the cash flows and the long-distance trade of the Frisians looked like? Bellow we have tried to give a very basic overview, knowing that the world of early-medieval coin is voluminous, detailed and truly, truly complex. If you want to have an optical impression of the world of medieval coin, check out the publicly accessible numismatic information system (NUMIS-database) of De Nederlandse Bank. But be careful. Do not get hooked on this type of money too!
The silver age of golden coin
After the Romans arrived in the northwest of Europe at the beginning of the era, they introduced the money economy. Coinage was regulated, meaning coins had a certain appearance and were mainly made of solid gold.
In the Netherlands in total 1.100 golden solidi and tremisses have been found, of which 100 pieces at the Walcheren Island (Domburg) in the province Zeeland.
In the third and fourth centuries, the Roman Empire started to crumble. According to Gildas’ On the Ruin and Conquest of Britain, written in the sixth century, the retreat of the Romans from Britain went with much bloodshed. Gildas: “Fragments of corpses, covered with a purple crust of congealed blood, looked as though they had been mixed up in some dreadful wine-press.” It was in the year 410 that the Romans left Britain. Although Roman silver and low-value bronze coins continued to circulate in Britain in the fifth and sixth centuries, their volume and role in commerce changed. On the other side of the North Sea, the Limes Germanicus along the lower parts of the River Rhine were abandoned already in the third century, and around the year 300 most of the castella ‘fortresses’ in the Netherlands had been given up by the Romans. Around 400, all presence of the Romans had disappeared from the Netherlands. With the total fall of the Western Roman Empire at the end of the fourth century, trade and cities shrunk, and the money economy, especially north of the River Seine, collapsed. Barter being again the primary means of local trade from then on. One relativisation, though. Agricultural economy and goods were and stayed mostly un-monetized, before, during and after the Roman presence.
Nevertheless, not long after the fall of the Roman Empire, Germanic tribes did start to produce coin themselves. These were loose copies of Roman solidi, thus depicting fictional emperor’s heads and ‘real’ deities. This way local rulers ordering the mint presented themselves as rightful heir of Roman Rule. To this tradition might belong the coins of Audulf, Had(d)a, Weladu and Skanomodu. At first there was no regulation of coinage, but at the end of the sixth century, the Franks set first steps towards regulation. Additional to an emperor’s portrait, the name of the mint location and of the mint master were added on the coin too. Measures adding trust to the currency. From this period names of circa 1,500 mint masters have been preserved.
The Frisians and the Anglo-Saxons started minting coin at the same time as the Franks did, namely at the end of the sixth century. The Frisian approach was somewhat different and more pragmatic than that of the Franks, you could say. The solidi were not workable in the north, as they represented too much value. Therefore, tremisses were being produced weighing a third of a solidus and contained less gold. Tremisses weighed 1,3 gram. Its appearance was more stylized with unrecognizable portraits and unreadable, pseudo-lettering characters. Do not judge a book by its cover. What is inside that counts.
Interestingly, early-seventh-century monetarius ‘mint master’ Madelinus moved from a town with religious prestige, where the fourth-century bishop Saint Servatius was buried, namely the town of Maastricht in the south of present-day the Netherlands, to the commercial hub of Dorestat, also written as Dorestad, Dorestate or Dorestado. Indicating the growing importance of this buzzing trading town in the lower River Rhine area at the former spot of the former Roman castellum Levafanum. On its way to become the biggest emporium of Europe even. Read our post The Batwing Doors of Northwest Europe for more about the history of Dorestat. Remarkable, whilst during the decennia before the mint of Maastricht had set the example for coinage in the region. A coin, confusingly, called Dronrijp-type by archaeologists. Dronrijp being a small terp village in province Friesland. In his new town, from mid-seventh century, master Madelinus struck coins with the text DORESTATI FIT meaning something like ‘made in Dorestat’, and similar to today’s ‘made in China’. And, his coin was what we would call today a strong brand. During his life, Madelinus’ coins were being copied abundantly but actually were not made in Dorestat.
Another early-seventh-century mint master who probably moved his headquaters to Dorestat, was Rimoaldus. Before moving his seat to Dorestat he issued coins at the towns of Huy and Maastricht. The number of coins struck by Rimoaldus in Dorestat are quite rare, however.
A last remark concerning the age of the golden coin is, although suitable for payment, these coins moreover functioned as symbol of power, of status and of ceremony. And, as always, for paying taxes. Thus, this type of cash was not circulating fast and was hoarded a lot. Not suitable for the shaking money-making trade that was about to emerge.
The golden age of silver coin
The true golden age of coin started when they were being made of silver.
In the Netherlands in total 3.000 denarii en sceattas have been found, of which an amazing 1.000 from the Walcheren at modern Domburg.
Around 650, an important development took place: the Franks and the Frisians started to mint silver coins. As often, real great innovations in history are small steps. Two decennia later, the neighboring Anglo-Saxons on the other side of the Channel, followed their example. From then on, no golden coins were struck anymore in the whole wide region. A new utilitarian currency was needed to facilitate the growing long-distance trade. This trade needed a cheap coin that circulated quick, that had no ceremonial use as such, and stayed within circulation. Cheaper, because one golden tremissis was still worth the support of a child for a whole year. That represented a lot value. Ask any divorced parent paying alimony. Anyway, too much for the trade.
The solution was the dinarius or penny, and widely known as sceatta. Sceatta is derived from the Old Germanic word ‘skaet’ and comparable with the modern Mid-Frisian word ‘skat’. The original meaning of ‘skat’ is ‘cattle’, comparable to the Latin word ‘pecunia‘, also meaning ‘(small) cattle’. ‘Pecu‘ is related to the Old Saxon ‘fehu‘, which in Dutch is still ‘vee‘. But also the English ‘fee’ for a honorarium, has the same origin (Miedema 1972). Sceats or sceattas were minted in England, Frisia, Francia and in Jutland. And it had another advantage: access to silver was more easy for the Franks with silver mines in southern Europe, whereas gold had to be imported from outside the Continent. The discovery of silver in central Europe might also have stimulated the production of silver sceattas (Blackburn 2003). The Frisians, however, probably purchased silver for their private mints also, or even mainly, from their trading partners in southern Scandinavia. This was possible due to a positive trading balans of the Scandinavians. Southern Scandinavia got its silver via the eastern trading routes, from the silver mines in Afghanistan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. The purchase of silver was financed with the trade of among other fur and ivory. For those readers wondering about all the truly global connections, yes, we are still talking Early Middle Ages.
Of the silver coins produced by the Anglo-Saxons, the Franks and the Frisians, the thick Frisian sceattas were the real hit, especially in the eighth century. Frisian sceattas were produced from the end of the sixth century well into the last quarter of the eighth century. It was the U.S. dollar of the Early Middle Ages, certainly in the wider North Sea region, and the Frisians sceattas (i.e. sceatta series E and D) flooded into England (Blackburn 2003). The rough picture of sceattas in England was: ten percent minted in York, ten percent minted in Southamton (Hamwic), thirty percent minted in East Anglia and fifty percent minted in Kent and London (Lundunwic). On top of this, more than twenty percent of the total English money consisted of Frisian sceattas (Metcalf 2003). The south coast of England and Humberside reached even thirty percent Frisian sceattas.
The D and E sceatta series were heavily represented in the hoards found at Aldborough (Norfolk) of London and, notably, of Fincham. The Fincham hoard consisted solely of crisp porcupines (i.e. sceatta series E). Like paying with dollars in, for example, West-African countries today. Only the crisp ones are being accepted. And, to quote Michael Metcalf: “The Frisian sceattas were pervasive. There was no part of England which the Frisian money failed to reach.” This, by the way, in stark contrast to Merovingian coins. Not even one percent of foreign coinage in England originated from the powerful Franks.
Again, the stylized and rougher appearance of these coins was different from their continental southern and overseas western neighbors. The traditional portrait of an emperor and deity had become a Picasso-like abstract and resembled more a porcupine. Hence the name porcupine (i.e. sceatta series E) is today’s prevailing archaeological classification. That is, by the way, not without tradition as the word ‘buck’ refers to a deerskin used in the past by American trappers as a unit for barter. The porcupine came in many different variations, since many different moneyers struck these coins spread over Frisia. Frisia back then, the coastal territories stretching from the coast of Flanders near inlet the Zwin, called Sincfala back then, to the River Weser in Germany.
Besides the porcupine, other Frisian and non-Frisian sceatta types circulated as well, of which the Frisian ‘Wodan/monster-type’ was a remarkable one. It looks like Wodan/Odin with a spine haircut. Although these are called Wodan/monster-type, the image might not depict the god Wodan at all, and might be a portrait of Christ instead. If so, Christ must have had the same funky hairdresser as Wodan. Think it is strange to connect money with religion? No, it is not. Putting the name of your god on money is still popular to date. ‘In God we trust’, is for everyone a well known phrase. We all know about what money we are talking about when using this phrase. In medieval England, there are indications that coinage was commissioned and supervised by minsters. Some Anglo-Saxon pennies carried the inscription MONITA SCORUM ‘money of the saints’.
Perhaps things made to function as alienable items, like metal coins, also need to refer to an overarching, permanent ‘totality’. Money, a commodity par excellence even in our secular times, tends to be decorated with symbols of national identity and/or religion. There are indications this social mechanism, i.e. things that function as alienable commodities, need to have a cultural reference, was already in place in the Bronze Age, 3200-600 BC (Fontijn 2020).
In heathen Frisia no religious authorities, monasteries or minsters were involved. Sceattas were minted by these simple pagans all over Frisia with Dorestat in the central river area, the terp region in the north, the Schouwen Island and the Walcheren Island in the southwest, being the main minting sites. ‘Productive sites’ still for archaeologists and metal detectorists. If interested in the importance of the Walcheren Island in the Early Middle Ages, read our post Island Walcheren: once Sodom and Gomorrah of the North Sea.
Despite lack of central power, coinage flourished in the Frisia territories. The fact that the Franks, who ruled over big parts of Frisia from the mid-eighth century, were not able to install a proper feudal structure, the normal payment in kind was not possible. Therefore, these payments were often done in coin, which in turn stimulated the money economy within Frisia even further.
The Frisian middlemen used silver sceattas to purchase goods for the long-distance trade. For example, with sceattas buying goods in East Anglia, transporting the stuff via emporium Dorestat to the upper River Rhine region to sell it at the markets of, for example, Cologne and Worms. This way thousands of coins found their way (far) outside Frisia for the import of goods. In England 3,000 Frisian sceattas already have been found, outnumbering local Anglo-Saxon production. Frisian coins entered England via all major points of entry along the North Sea coast and along the south coast. Vice versa it is not the case, and Anglo-Saxon coins consist only a minor part of coins that circulated within Frisia and the wider region.
Frisian money found its way via these export payments outside the North Sea region too. For example, in the Baltic Sea area at the former eighth-century trading town of Reric at modern Groß Strömkendorf in the Bay of Wismar, thirty Frisian sceattas have been found. Being second after sixty Arabic dirhams. Dirhams reached Scandinavia via the eastern trading routes, as explained above.
Calculations have been made about the number of sceattas that might have been produced, and these numbers are so gigantic they are almost too difficult to accept. During the period 710-750 around 4,000 dies were being used, and a staggering fifty million sceattas might have been produced between 695 and 800, of which the majority was of Frisian origin. Yes, it is almost too difficult to accept. Although not all dies were in existence at the same time, the volume of the coinage was “remarkably high” as researchers have put it with a feel of understatement.
Birth of economic liberalism
At the beginning of the Early Middle Ages, and centuries before, trade mainly supprted the gift economy. Alliances, partnerships, loyalties were forged through the exchange of precious gifts. A constant supply of valuables and bullion was therefore needed. When the first inter-regional markets emerged in the seventh century, the trade consisted of luxury goods distributed. With the rise of the Frankish kingdom and the introduction of the feudal system, the gift economy lost much of its importance. Albeit gift exchange continued to be important, loyalty was primarily secured through granting fiefs and privileges to henchmen. New land reforms and improved farming techniques, also led to agricultural surpluses in the eighth century. These surpluses were traded as well, but in ever more quantities, which in turn stimulated the long-distance bulk trade (Van der Tuuk 2021). Thus a growing demand for merchants and transporters. It were the Frisians who, convincingly, filled this gap and became the freighters of bulk cargo in northwestern Europe from the Early Middle Ages onward.
The word ‘Frisian’ became synonymous to ‘free trade’. The Frisian Trade. It was Frisian money that made the world go round, and the North Sea was the podium where the self-interested Frisian merchants spun their commercial web. A trade that started at the end of the sixth century, and was on its height during the eighth and beginning of the ninth centuries. Indeed, after Frisia was incorporated within Francia in the first half of the eighth century, the trade network survived and even flourished well into the tenth century, although for a short while not financed with Frisian sceattas but with Frankish’. Probably, after the Battle of the Boarn in 734, when the Frisian dux Poppo was defeated by Charles Martel, Frisian coinage of sceatta type E ceased to exist (Breternitz 2018). The year 734 might also have been 736; check our post The Boarn Supremacy.
The fact that the Franks gained control over Dorestat and its revenues through taxation of bulk goods (Loveluck 2006), meant also that the Frisian merchants could gain better access to the Frankish hinterland. Private mint production in Frisia picked up probably quick after the monetary reforms of the Franks, since the Frankish kingdoms lost their grip on the inaccessible northern and eastern Frisia pretty soon after it had been submitted. Not without reason the Mare Germanicum or the Mare nostrum ‘our sea’, as the North Sea was called by the Romans, was renamed Mare Fresicum ‘Frisian Sea’ from the end of the Migration Period. It kept the name throughout the Early Middle Ages.
At ipsi, cum navigarent circa Pictos, vastaverunt Orcades insulas, et venerunt et occupaverunt regiones plurimas ultra Mare Frenessicum usque ad confinium Pictorum.
But when they sailed around the Picts, they wasted the Orkney islands, and they went and occupied many regions past the Frisian Sea till the border of the Picts. (Historia Britonum of Nennius, ninth century, quoting Gildas, sixth century)
Mare Fresicum, id est quod inter nos Scottosque est.
The Frisian Sea, that lies between us and the Scots. (Historia Britonum of Nennius, ninth century)
In 1076, Adam of Bremen wrote the Gesta hammaburgensis ecclesiae pontificum ‘History of the archbishops of Hamburg-Bremen’. In his Gesta, Adam still spoke of the River Eider that flows into the Frisian Ocean.
If you had the ships and you knew how to sail, long distances could be covered relatively quickly. Much quicker than over land and river anyway. The Frisian ships were clinker-built early cogs (Early Middle Ages) which were replaced by the smarter carracks, also called hulks (High Middle Ages), with the carvel technique. It has been calculated that travelling from the town of Rijnsburg at the mouth of the River Old Rhine to the town of Norwich took two days. That is around 220 kilometers as the crow flies. While travelling from Rijnsburg to Dorestat, at the present-day town of Wijk bij Duurstede, via the river, took seven days and over land four days, around seventy kilometers as the crow flies. Even the current name ‘North Sea’ could be a Frisian geographical perspective, as it is east of England, west of Denmark and, indeed, north of Frisia. But, with hindsight the North Sea, in fact, should have been named Interstate Highway 1.
With their dynamic large-scale and supra-regional trade, the tall Frisians merchants welded the North Sea, the upper River Rhine region, the English-Channel area, and parts of the Baltic Sea into one economic zone. Maybe not yet a fully operational European Economic Area, but it was getting there. On both sides of the Channel, a new economic world was created: the trade settlements or wics (also written as wijk, vicus, wich, wiccium, vico, vic, wico, et cetera) tripled in size during the first half of the eighth century, and also the coin finds support this economic development during the late seventh and eighth centuries. For a large part, all because of the doing of Frisian merchant activity in the seventh until the beginning of the ninth centuries, after which their Viking cousins took over the hegemony at sea, albeit clearly with a more imperialistic business model.
Yet again, Frisian trade-networks survived despite this new, Norse hegemony at sea. Just as it had done after the Franks had conquered them. An indication of the strong position of their network, excellent nautical skills, and maybe their pragmatic life style. But, maybe also an indication that the Frisians culturally were still not that far removed from their northern and heathen cousins. Yes, the Frisians would soon even join the Viking raids with significant numbers. Read more about this adventurism in among other our post Foreign fighters returning from Viking war bands. Frisia continued to stay a prosperous seafaring nation throughout most of the Middle Ages, although less phenomenal as during the Early Middle Ages.
The geographical position of Frigonum patria ‘motherland Frisia’ was central. The technical, nautical skills and the commercial fleet of this sea people were other crucial assets. It is known that Frisian traders sailed in specific vessels and operated in convoys. A population regularly partly washed away by great storm floods. Furthermore, being part of the wider North Sea culture, this people possessed the right linguistic and cultural background needed for this international or overseas trade. Having the Anglo-Saxons and the Danish peoples as their cousins. At the same time, the Frankish landlubbers were their direct neighbors, and intensive contacts therefore existed with them too. And, with permanent Frisian presence at important overseas commercial hubs, this people must have been well connected and well informed about business opportunities and about relevant social and political developments in the region for doing business effectively.
Neighboring Saxony stayed quite isolated and economically backward. Despite being surrounded by the Frisian trade networks, the Saxons did not connect. Finds of coins are rather sparse and it took until the second half of the tenth century before the Saxons started minting coins significantly.
The (early) medieval trade connections were truly dazzling and emporium Dorestat being the biggest trading port of northwest Europe at that time. Dorestat located at the junction where the mighty River Rhine had split itself around 300 into the River Old Rhine, or the River Kromme Rijn ‘crooked Rhine’, flowing north via Trajectum (present-day Utrecht) to the current town Katwijk/Rijnsburg, and the River Lek flowing west to the current city Rotterdam. Rotterdam, arguably the successor of Dorestat. From Utrecht the trading town Dorestat was connected via the River Stichtse Vecht to Lake Almere (today Lake IJssel) and the (former) River Vlie flowing north into the Wadden Sea. From there on, eyes on southern Scandinavia. A vicus nominatissimus ‘a town of very great repute’ as Dorestat was named in 834 by Saint Ludger, the Apostle of the Frisians. A settlement that extended over three kilometres along the river with jetties that had a length up to two-hundred metres. Read our post The Batwing Doors of Northwest Europe to get a greater picture of Dorestat.
The Frisians, with their important trading centers and entrepots Dorestat, the Walcheren Island and the Schouwen Island, traded with the British Isles, especially with the kingdoms of East Anglia, Isle of Wight and of Kent. Probably already from the sixth century, trade relations existed between the (new) Anglo-Saxon world and Frisia (Brooks & Harrington 2010). Places like Flixborough, Fordwich, emporium Ipswich, all giving access to East Anglia, emporium London (Lundenwic), giving access to Mercia, Sandwich and emporium Southampton (Hamwic), giving access to Wessex, belonged to the Frisian network. Early-medieval Frisian merchants have been documented in texts in e.g. London and York (Eoforwic), giving access to Northumbria.
Regarding the Continent, the Frisian presence and trade extended to Saint-Denis near Paris, Rouen and, of course, the emporium Quentovic near modern-day Boulogne. Frisian sceattas have been found all the way in Marseille in southern France. The Frisians were also trading intensively in Birten/Xanten, Hamburg, Cologne, Worms, Mainsz and Trier. We know from the Vita et miracula sancti Goaris ‘life an miracles of Saint Goar’, written by the monk Wandalbert in 839, that Frisian merchants sailed up the Rhine with ships being towed. The particular story tells how a (heathen?) Frisian skipper refused to make offerings to Saint Goar, at present-day Sankt Goar in Germany, for a save onward journey, and steered its ship away from the riverbank and Sankt Goar. There it ended up in a whirlpool and everybody drowned except, miraculously, the tow man around whose waist the towing rope was tied (Van der Tuuk 2021).
With Scandinavian tribes more to the north, the Frisian free-trade network encompassed the wics ‘markets’ of Ribe, the island Bornholm and Haedum (later Hedeby/Haithabu) in respectively Denmark and Germany. It is on ninth-century coins struck in Hedeby, where cog-shaped ships are depicted for the first time, probably Frisian ships (Meier 2004). Legend has it that the town of Ribe, being the oldest town of Scandinavia, was even founded to attract the rich Frisian trade. Speculation Ribe even was founded by the Frisians. But also in southern Norway and southern and eastern Sweden, with respectively the trading towns Sciringssal (now Kaupang), Birka and later Sigtuna, the Frisian traders were well connected. One of the houses in Kaupang, Norway has been identified as Frisian (Skre 2011). As said, of course, also into the Baltic sea with Frisian presence at the trading place Reric at present-day Groß Strömkendorf at the Bay of Wismar. ‘International’ presence at Reric of people of Franks, Saxons and Frisians has been established, based on grave rituals, coins and pottery.
It were not solely merchants passing by during the sailing season in the trading places mentioned above. More permanent settlers existed too. Frisian colonies had been established in many of these towns, like Hedeby, York, Mainsz, Birka and Worms, including the establishment of local Frisian guilds. Besides trading, the Frisians also built their early cog ships, also known as kugg or kogg(e). Kugg is presumed Frisian and at the early-medieval town Birka the toponym ‘kugghamn’ existed, meaning harbour of cogs, indicating Frisian presence (Westerdahl 1992).
As we have seen already, Frisians were keen financiers. Doing business requires a balance between pragmatism and giving trust to the buyer. If people trusted the trader, they trusted his own minted money and his goods. Producing massive amounts of cheap silver coins was a pragmatic innovation, and if not invented by the Frisians, at least exploited to the max by them. Although no governmental supervision existed and the mint of coinage was a free occupation, the money makers were able to maintain the weight of silver of sceattas at a constant 1,3 grams. Whilst the Anglo-Saxon pennies originally weighing 1,3 grams too, slowly devalued in the amount of silver, despite supervision of minsters or feudal authority. Do we here a renewed plead for deregulation? Frisian pragmatism was further illustrated in the way they dealt with southern Scandinavia. The Norsemen still refused the money economy and payments were solely done in silver or gold, well into the tenth century; and some Scandinavian countries still refuse to join the euro-zone.
Anyhow, when coins were cut or bend by their northern cousins, needed to establish to silver content and to be sure it were no fakes, Frisian merchants had no problem with it. Regardless the fact cutting of coins was forbidden by Frankish law after most of Frisia had been incorporated into Francia. They simply struck the deal if the price was right. No scruples, no matter what distant Frankish kings thought. It was business, it was making a profit. With silver money they bought goods, oh, and slaves too. Read our post Merciless medieval merchants to learn of the first, Frisian slave trader documented in London in 637. Goods and slaves, probably not for personal use, but primarily for the sale somewhere else. Shipped to be sold for a higher price where the demand was higher. The effort put into, was the labor for transportation. The surplus (partly) was probably invested again to enlarge the trade. Thus accumulating wealth with individuals: the Frisian middlemen.
The trade consisted of, among other, hides and parchment, bone, wool and cloth (the famous locally produced pallium Fresonicum, read our post Haute couture from the salt marsh), milk products like cheese and butter, eggs, flax and linen, hides, wood, jewelry, pottery (including Tating-type being the fine luxurious stuff), glassware (including funnel beakers), arms, spices, walnuts, raisins, olive oil, gold brocade, Chinese silk, exotic shells, beads, wine (in wooden barrels) from the upper River Rhine area, tephrite quern stones from Mayen, mortars and whetstones of sandstone or quartzite, furs from Scandinavia, walrus ivory, amber, grain, construction wood, ore, dried and salted fish, combs and slaves. Many of these goods clearly meant for luxury as well, and were part of the gift economy that had arisen after the Migration Period; the era of ring-givers, and an inspiration for the trilogy Lord of the Rings too.
Poor Marx. He would have become nauseous when he would read all this. To soften his pain, though, the Frisians did produce too. They added value too. Like Frisian broadcloth and salt, which were highly sought after products. To soften Marx’ pain even further, the offspring of these Frisian self-interested traders ended up living at a poor, aging, trembling and sagging countryside, threatened by a rising sea level due to global warming.
Lastly. For long there was no significant central power. Frisian trade was commissioned neither by secular powers nor by minsters, abbeys, cloisters or monasteries or other important people dressed in robes or capes. In alignment with the principles of economic liberalism, it were individuals and their relatives who were trading freely and purely for their personal benefit. No imperialism, to be clear. It was an open market that was almost completely regulated without any state interference: a mercantile community operating outside royal (state) controle. As illustrated above, even coinage was successfully organized on the local level until the centralist Franks intervened. Albeit for a short while. A thousand years later, during the Golden Age, the Dutch Republic took liberalism and the triangle trade to a next level, in many aspects. With the very same sea-coastal area still having the lead, only by then carrying the free-republic names Friesland, Holland and West-Friesland, and Zeeland. Therefore, if you think the United States are the true representatives of economic liberalism and republicanism, know who their ancestors are.
One of the ancestors, literally, was the American President Franklin D. Roosevelt. His Dutch ancestors migrated in the seventeenth century to New Amsterdam, a city we now know as New York. It was Roosevelt who understood the ancient, Frisian principles of trade, namely that primarily all individuals and families should profit from trade and production, ánd hold power over economics. Not a small group of bankers and investors. In the ’30s, with his hand on the family Dutch Bible published in the year 1668 during his inauguration as President, he retook with the New Deal control over the economy from bankers by leaving the Gold Standard. Governments, serving the people, had become too dependent on those guys on Wall Street; a Dutch street name by the way. In the meantime, countries yet again have become dependent on bankers, investors and hedge funds. Upcoming leaders like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez plead for a Green New Deal. So, from the Frisian Deal, to Roosevelt’s New Deal to AOC’s Green New Deal.
Indeed, do not underestimate the cultural ties between the Anglo-Saxons and the Frisians when it comes to individualism, economics and free-trade. The Declaration of Independence of the United States is not only filled with individual freedom and the pursuit of happiness. It also mentions explicitly (free) trade interests. On 26 February 1782 the Republic of Friesland was the second sovereign state in the world that voted in favor to recognize the United States’ independence. Coincidence you think? And, to this day one may find this coastal people still being an interlocutor or broker between the old Continent and the new Anglo-Saxon World, or as they say: “The Dutch are part of the transatlantic axis.” Mark our words, the Dutch will be front runner in Europe in repairing the damage of the Brexit. They will ignore it.
Read our post History is written by the victors – a history of credits to understand how the American values on civil liberties and free market were planted on its soil in the seventeenth century. Even how the Frisian-born Governor of the New Netherland colony, Pieter Stuyvesant, made sure in the Articles of Captiualtion of 1664 that the bourgeois liberties and rights, including free trade, of the citizens were to be respected by the British when they took over the colony from the Dutch again. Also, in the New World the Dutch showed being pragmatic again when it came to currencies, and embrased the local currency of the native American tribes, namely the sewant. These were small, relatively scarce cylindrical or barrel-shaped white beads made from seashell found along the Atlantic coast; the knobbed or channelled whelk (Venema 2003). Not only they represented valua, they also functioned in storytelling, ceremonial gift exchange, and (condolence) rituals. It is estimated that about 3 million of these sewant beads may have come into circulation with the Iroquois and Mahicans to facilitate the beaver pelt trade. Its value as ‘light money’ was even regulated by the Dutch colonial authorities.
But the early-medieval Frisian trade could not do without a stable market on the Continent where to buy and sell their goods. Oh, and slaves. The Franks had pacified or integrated, pardon our euphemistic language, the hinterland into a more or less stable market. And that is the symbiose, or love-hate relationship if you like, between the Franks and the Frisians, and later the Dutch and Germans. Emporium Dorestat, the New York of the Early Middle Ages, with an estimated population of 10,000 people with docks and quays extending a 1,000 meters along the banks of the River Rhine, was a city being neither Frisian nor Frankish. This hybrid nature of Dorestat was illustrative for the interdependence between the two peoples. The Cosmographia Ravennatis, written in the second half of the seventh century, classifies Dorestat as a Frisian settlement, though.
In this respect not much has changed. Later on, it were the sea-trading Low Countries with the ports of Amsterdam and Rotterdam, including Delfshaven but later also Emden, that flourished because of a big and stable hinterland. A hinterland that had gotten a new name: the Rhur. And, again no coincidence. The Netherlands were among the founding fathers of integration of economic area’s like their coastal ancestors had done before with the wider North Sea region. We name the Benelux of 1944 and the European Coal and Steel Community in 1951, being the origin of the European Union.
What about Marx?
When in 1867 Das Kapital was published, it was actually a representation of the secluded mountains and woods of the Continent. A landlubber who had no clue what was going on at dynamic sea for centuries. He could have guessed, though, since his birthplace Trier at the banks of the River Moselle had depended on Frisian free-trade in early-medieval times already. Just like nearby town Worms to the east at the banks of the River Rhine had done so too. The influential monastery of Echternach near Trier was even founded by Willibrord in the seventh century, whose title was Archbishop and Apostle of the Frisians. To put it bluntly: no person from the southern North Sea coast in his right mind would have written Das Kapital. Read also our post The Abbey of Egmond and the rise of the Gerulfings about the medieval links between Frisia, Saint Willibrord and Echternach.
In 1883 Marx died at the other end of the ancient Frisian trade route: Lundunwic, a city that had gotten a new name too, London.
Post scriptum Audulf
We are, of course, aware of the mist still surrounding king Audulf. Some scholars argue the quality of the coins is too good to be true to be Frisian, and therefore should be made by the apparently more refined Franks. Scholars had for long the same hesitation with the origin of pallia Fresonica (read our post Haute couture from the salt marshes). On the other hand, we have seen the Frisians were no backward farmers trapped in the woods. In fact, a worldly people able to make cloth and jewelry of the highest international quality imaginable of which fibulae found in the northern terp region are magnificent examples. Jewelry matching without a doubt the quality of the finds of Sutton Hoo in England (read our post Ornament of the Gods found in a mound of clay). Making quality dies and minting small coins, therefore, should have been within their grasp. We would say, that is a no-brainer. And yes, the appearances of the coin was more robust. But it was what was inside that counted, namely the stable silver content. That makes you a reliable trader. And the weight of silver in the sceattas was more consistent than the money of their so-called sophisticated neighbors. That was the real finesse, the real trust.
Let us explain it one more time:
Scholars adhering to the Frankish origin-theory, subsequently have the additional challenge to explain the text AVDVLFVS VICTORIA, and to make somehow plausible it was a victory of a Frankish king over the Frisians instead. So, a victory over Audulf. Other scholars dismiss this argument as far-fetched, since this was not the practice of rulers in that era. You put as a ruler, of course, your own name on the coin and not somebody else’s. Imagine a portrait of Stalin on a U.S. bank note. Not gonna happen. Neither is there support in early-medieval Frankish texts for this victory over Frisia at the beginning of the seventh century. Lastly, the same question marks are not being placed at the rule and existence of the Anglo-Saxon king Æthelstan who ruled from 825-845 and who is principally known from extensive issue of coins.
All in all, the Frankish-origin clique seem to apply double standards and lack a winning argument. At the same time, local theories arguing the battle referred to in fact was a victory of king Audulf over king Theudebert II of Austrasia, are far too concrete considering available evidence and must be dismissed as well.
Until now we can only speculate as to where big man Audulf had his power base or where his hall stood. The fourteenth-century pro-Holland chronicler Johannis De Beke argued that Audulf had his burh, or burgh, at Foreburg (present-day town Voorburg) in province Zuid Holland. This has been dismissed as fiction. But we can assume it must have been in the central river-lands of the Netherlands. The river basins of the River Old Rhine, of the River Stichtse Vecht and the estuaries of the mighty rivers Rhine and Meuse at the coast of present-day province Zuid Holland, might very well be power bases of early-medieval rulers. It gave them control over important trade networks, and at the same time they were connected to the elite network of the wider North Sea that had developed from the sixth century. It is also thought Frisian (over)kings or counts like Aldgisl and Radbod might have had their power base here, and perhaps also the fifth-century king Finn.
Note 1 – Although the exceptional achievement of the Frisians being the central freigthers of the Early Middle Age was never equalled again, in the eigtheenth century skippers from the coastal strip between the port towns of Lemmer and Harlingen along the southwest coast of province Friesland, dominated the trade on the Baltic Sea (again). The trade with the Baltic Sea area was called: the Oostzeevaart ‘Baltic Sea-trade’, the Grote Oost ‘Great East’ (as opposed to the Kleine Oost ‘Little Oost’, being the trade with the North Sea coast of Germany), the Sontvaart (‘the Sound-trade’), or the Moedernegotie ‘Mother Trade’. During the period of the Oostzeevaart the Frisians are known as ‘The Freighters of Europe’.
The modern Dutch word vracht for ‘freight’ is by the way of Frisian origin, just like the word eiland ‘island’ meaning ‘water-land’. Between 1000 and 1200 these words found their way into western Dutch language, which can be understand in connection with the important role Frisians played in the water trade in northwestern Europe from the Early Middle Ages and beyond (De Vaan 2014).
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