Upstalsboom: why solidarity is not the core of a collective

So many supranational organizations, whether governmental or juridical, are struggling with their legitimacy and survival, it is almost becoming tedious. Take for example the European Union with a humiliating Brexit and their seemingly, or actual, endless debates on urgent monetary and migration policy reforms. Take for example the International Criminal Court (ICC), accused for being biased and parties leaving the treaty. Some even boycotting it from very the start, and among them not the least. But take the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) too that celebrates its seventieth birthday last year (2019). Despite its honorable age the never-ending quarreling about who has to pay how much, spoiled the party.

The remedy everyone is calling for, is solidarity. Politicians, civil servants, the public and the media shout the word from the rooftops. Raising the volume like talking to someone who does not speak your language, thinking additional volume does make them understand. Is this truly the answer to end the lingering and insecure step of these organizations? Will it help to start operating smoothly? How to be a smooth operator? How to achieve the same level of collectivism as The Borg of Star Trek, and Seven of Nine Tertiary Adjunct of Unimatrix Zero One (commonly known as Seven of Nine) used to be part of? Or, is this level of unity not what we want?

We take you back to one of the ancestors of the NATO, namely the supranational treaty organization called the Upstalsboom, with upstal meaning ‘high’ and boom meaning ‘tree’. Pronounce the oo as in Rome. So, the treaty of the high tree. Comparison with the NATO has more recently also been made by historian Steensen (2020) from Nordfriesland. Albeit the Upstalsboom league was not founded at the North Atlantic, still it was at the nearby North Sea, at the beginning of the thirteenth century. Headquarters of the Upstalsboom was exactly 363 kilometers as the crow flies northeast from NATO headquarters in Brussels. Indeed, the town of Aurich. A modest place of forty-thousand inhabitants in the region Ostfriesland. A town primarily known for being the birthplace of the founder of the gay rights movement, Karl Heinrich Ulrichs. The Upstalsboom had seven members. The NATO started with twelve. The founding articles of the treaty of the Upstalsboom have many similarities with those of the NATO, almost eight centuries later. Or should we say, those of the NATO showed many similarities with those of the Upstalsboom? Especially when it comes to the preferred behavior of its members when confronted with external threats, it is almost copy paste. Read below, compare and be surprised:

North Atlantic Treaty Organization

Article 5: The Parties agree that an armed attack against one or more of them in Europe or North America shall be considered an attack against them all and consequently they agree that, if such an armed attack occurs, each of them, in exercise of the right of individual or collective self-defense recognized by Article 51 of the Charter of the United Nations, will assist the Party or Parties so attacked by taking forthwith, individually and in concert with the other Parties, such action as it deems necessary, including the use of armed force, to restore and maintain the security of the North Atlantic area.

Article 9: The Parties hereby establish a Council, on which each of them shall be represented, to consider matters concerning the implementation of this Treaty. The Council shall be so organised as to be able to meet promptly at any time. The Council shall set up such subsidiary bodies as may be necessary; in particular it shall establish immediately a defense committee which shall recommend measures for the implementation of Articles 3 and 5.

Upstalsboom treaty

Thet forma: thet hia gaderkome enes a iera to Upstelesbame a tyesdey anda there pinxstera wika and ma ther eratte alle tha riucht, ther Fresa halda skolde. Jef aeng mon eng bethera wiste, theth ma thet lichtere lette and ma theth bethere helde.

The first: that they would gather once a year at Upstalsboom on the Tuesday in the week of Pentecost and that they would discuss there all the laws that the Frisians should uphold. If someone knows a better law, then they give up the lesser and uphold the better.

Thi other kere alra Fresena: gef there eng lond urherad urde, ovder fon tha sutherna sereda ieftha fon tha northeska wiszegge, thet tha sex tha sogenda hulpe, thet hit alsa wel machte sa thera sex hoc.

The second statute of all Frisians: when any land would be devastated by the southern armed or the northern Viking, then the six will help the seventh, so that it may remain as strong as the other six.

So, the main objective of both texts is: to have meetings to discuss matters that extend over more than one land of the treaty community, and to help each other against threats from outside. An attack at one, will be considered an attack at the others, and the others will help out the one being under attack. This Musketeer-logic is identical in both the NATO and the Upstalsboom texts. In addition, the assembly at the Upstalsboom was also a legislative and judicial body.

There was a difference. The Upstalsboom treaty specifically sanctioned the killing of a person on his way to an assembly at the Upstalsboom, namely with a weregeld ‘man-price’ of 80 marks sterling. Read our blog post You killed a man? That’ll be 1 weregeld, please to learn more about the function of weregelds. Normally, that would have been 10 marks sterling. Killing a judge on his way to the Upstalsboom, was sanctioned with a weregeld of 200 marks sterling. Or put differently, killing Upstalboom judges was really, really not the acceptable. We are not aware the NATO has similar statutes.

The Upstalsboom treaty was a true supranational community. Of tota Frisia, as the community was named too at that time. In the eleventh century, an opposite development, when compared to the rest of the continent, took place at the southeastern shores of the North Sea. Frisia between the River Vlie in the west, and the River Weser in the east, broke free from external, Frankish domination, although influence of the Franks had always stayed fairly limited. Already in the ninth century, under the rule of King Louis de Pious, the Frisians regarded themselves as free folk who were not to answer to any count or lord other than the king. Feudal structures, actually just taking root, crumbled completely again in Frisia.

First, these feudal structures crumbled in the area of Frisia between the River Lauwers in the Netherlands and the River Weser in Germany. This is the region Ommelanden of present-day province Groningen together with region Ostfriesland. A century and a half later, feudal structures west of the River Lauwers disappeared too, i.e. present-day province Friesland, together with the region Westfriesland in province Noord Holland. This whilst in the rest of the European continent feudal structures grew stronger and stronger, into the fine, centralist states of today.

This lord-less era of Frisia started around the year 1100, and existed for roughly four centuries, depending which part of scattered Frisia you look at. It became known as the Frisian Freedom. It is also reflected in the Old-Frisian legal text of the High Middle Ages, in the sense that the social classes of ‘noblemen’ and ‘serfs’ completely disappeared from the law texts and ‘freeman’ is the only social class left.

Different myths and sagas exist on how this freedom was given to the Frisians. However, these myths and sagas were no bedtime stories but necessary to legitimate the lord-less situation, and not to be subdued to any power-mad person, whether originating from outside Frisia or from within. The most common version of the myth tells, in short, that the freedom was given to the Frisians by Charlemagne himself out of gratitude for their heroic deeds during battle. Based on this privilege, the Frisians were not to recognize any other lord than the Holy Roman Emperor himself. Frisia was in proper English classified as Reichsunmittelbar. As expression of this given freedom, also mixed with the (forced) transformation from heathenism to christendom, Frisian men were allowed to wear a golden necklace around their ‘free neck’ and shave their hair off high, only saving a little tuft on the top of their skull. Read also our posts With a Noose through the Norsemen’s Door and Magnus’ Choice. The origins of the Frisian Freedom to appreciate more in depth the freedom sagas.

Some Frisians, especially in present-day province Friesland, still wallow in this former freedom, and love to use the expression kening op eigen hiem wêze ‘being king on your estate’. Thus stressing the individuality of this freedom that has a somewhat Texican feeling. Be that as it may, socially it meant there existed no real nobility. Neither cities, knighthood nor governmental institutions and structures developed in Frisia. It was just a loose federation of sovereign peasant republics, or a society of Bauerenkaufleute (Schmid, 1988). Quite egalitarian. These small republics were named Landesgemeinden (in German) or landsgemeenten (in Dutch), and locally united into so-called Sealands. In total there were seven Sealands.

Regarding this so-called egalitarian society, it is good to put things into perspective. Although there were no counts and no real nobility either, it was still an elite of wealthy farmers who had in practice control over the Landesgemeinden. Later on, during the endgame of the Frisian Freedom, the so-called haadlings (also called Häuptlinge or hoofdelingen of hofflinghen) gained increasingly more power. They were mostly individuals who possessed several farms and a fortified, stone house called a stiens or borg. Calling them warlords, is perfectly fine too. Furthermore, a haadling had a small standing armed militia. According to some scholars, the haadlings as a social class is a continuation of the early-medieval class of nobiles mentioned in the codex Lex Frisionum. The Lex Frisionum is written in the late eighth century. On the other hand, as said, the class of nobiles (and serfs) fully disappeared from the legal texts of the High Middle Ages; see further below. Nevertheless, a fully egalitarian society in the High Middle Ages, as sometimes is being painted by scholars, was not the case (Schuur, 1987).

Seven Sealands

How much more mythical can it be? Once a year on Tuesday after Pentecost chosen and sworn delegates from the Seven Sealands gathered in open air under a big tree on a hill, chose new law, ruled in legal disputes, and above all, decided on how to respond together at external threats. Very romantic retro-Germanic tribe life, is it not?

No, it was not.

After all this romanticism, myths, sagas, legends, ideology and everything in between, it is about time we start looking at the timelessness of ruthless politics. If we want to answer the question of this post whether solidarity is at the core of a collective, we must learn what the reasons were why the collective of the Upstalsboom was founded and, moreover, why it ended. Be prepared for some shocking Realpolitik below.

The Upstalsboom collective was formed at the beginning of the thirteenth century, and the main reason was that of self-protection. As said, feudal structures had crumbled in Frisia whilst their neighbors built powerful governmental institutions, bureacracies and armies, created a knighthood, with emerging powerful cities to support all this modernism. If not the bishops of Utrecht, or of Munster, or the abbots of the abbeys of Fulda, Werden or Echternach, it certainly were counts or other warlords claiming legitimate control over Frisia. At the start of the twelfth century, the comes Fresonum ‘counts of Frisia’ renamed themselves ‘the counts of Holland’. They had their powerbase in the region Kinheim, or Kennemerland as it is named today, including control over the mouths of the River Meuse and the River Rhine. In the twelfth century, the comes Fresonum started an open civil war against the first of the Seven Sealands, namely region Westfriesland in the present-day province Noord Holland.

Let’s say, a lot of manly ego and testosterone was floating around through Europe those high-medieval days already. Thus, serious threats all around, and a Musketeer-doctrine, league or collective was the answer of these small farmer republics to cope with their hostile and much better organized surroundings. The Hunger Games had started.

An additional challenge the communally governed peasant republics had, was that they had to rely fully on a people’s army or militias for their self-defense. Whereas outside Frisia, secular and ecclesiastical rulers had the possession of increasingly professional mercenary armies, for example like the famous Swiss mercenaries. You can still spot these colorful mercenaries in the crowds at the Vatican. Not in Frisia. The ‘citizens’ themselves needed to be prepared to go to war still and risk their lives to protect their land and the Frisian Freedom. It turned out, in fact, they were pretty motivated and stood their ground for centuries.

Defend yourselfIn the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries being properly armed as a man was even regulated and supervised by the community. It meant every individual who could afford it had the obligation to possess weapons and armor. The richer the more weaponry you were obliged to have. The standard kit was a small sword and a pike or spear. The rich needed to have an armor, a helmet and a steel ring collar too. The culture of every man being able to defend his property and that of his kin or his community, probably dates back to the earliest social organization of Germanic tribes. Kind of a Second Amendment. Again, the Texican feeling comes up.

However, despite the flat grasslands it was not a level playing field at the end, because they could not keep pace with ‘international’ developments.

Despite the formation of a treaty collective, things derailed completely for Frisia. In 1297 the so-called beastly people of region Westfriesland were finally defeated by Count Jan of Holland (read our blog post In debt to the beastly Westfrisians). The first of the Seven Sealands was lost without Westfriesland receiving any assistance from the other six. Despite delegates of the Sealands solemnly kept gathering under the high tree at Aurich during this war. Jolly assemblies that must have been. Maybe a bit like Security Council meetings of today.

Furthermore, the second and the third Sealand did not participate actively in the Upstalsboom treaty. These were the Sealands Westergo and Oostergo, together consisting more or less present-day province Friesland. The passiveness of these two only changed after the counts of Holland turned their eye to them in 1323. The eye of Sauron. ‘Surprisingly’ Westergo and Oostergo tried to revive the alliance of the Upstalsboom treaty, which by that time was already dozing in. It was in 1327 that both lands called on the collective to help them out against the aggressors of Holland. But the other four remaining Sealands refused to be dragged into that conflict. And it was not that the two lands had earned a lot of credits in the previous years by actively helping out others.

In the year 1361, the Saxon city of Groningen, in alliance with the fourth Sealand (i.e. more or less present-day region Ommelanden), made a final effort to revive the Upstalsboom treaty. It was in vain again. The duck was dead.

The rest is history. Fat-clay Frisia was eaten alive. As said, in the year 1297 Jan, count of Holland, had enjoyed Westfriesland as an entree already. Although, it was a bit too little for his taste. Häuptling or chieftain Ulrich Cirksena got the main course in the year 1464, when the Holy Roman Emperor gave him in fief all of Frisia east of the River Ems. Ulrich I became the first count of the sixth and the seventh Sealand, indeed of what is now region Ostfriesland. A heavy and filling dessert was reserved for Albert III, the Duke of Saxony. In 1498 this man with a big appetite, subdued the second, third and fourth Sealand, corresponding with present-day province Friesland and region Ommelanden. Communal government and defense with militias was history. Contrary to the movies, these Hunger Games ended without having one single survivor.

No one left of the fellowship of the Seven Sealands to send to the Upstalsboom headquarters in Aurich. So far, for the whole optimistic Musketeer-thing. And the irony was that in the year 1417 “universorum Incolarum et inhabitantium tam Orientalis quam Occidentalis frisie” (meaning: all people and inhabitants of East Frisia and West Frisia) received from the Holy Roman Emperor Sigismund the freedom privilege for real. But this did not put an end to the binge-eating on Frisia that was going on. Apparently the gift of Emperor Sigismund was a piece of paper with signatures and seal, without commitment thus without any meaning.

myth was real before it turned into reality

As a bonus you will find below the Old-Frisian tract of 1416 with an English translation. It is a state of the union, maybe the very first in Western history, of the Frisian Sealands and their seven nations army. And, its state was not a rosy one. Very interesting to read, we think, and with hindsight you know “resistance was futile”.

The all too familiar and sad conclusion must be once again, that individual interests are the biggest threat for the response and survival of the collective. The Borg, interestingly meaning a fortified house in province of Groningen and castle in Danish language, knew this and operated as one. It had given up every shred of individual freedom and individuality. Feudalism in optima forma.

When looking at the Upstalsboom, it was not the lack of solidarity why the collective fell apart. Instead, it was lack of tangible, urgently felt self-interest. This combined with a republican-style identity of individualized freedom of the Frisians, did not help either. As long as you can defend yourself, why risk your own life or pay good money for it? was too often their motto. The Texican feeling keeps coming up in this post. It is well-known, of course, freedom and collectively are difficult to reconcile. The fact is, when the parts of the Upstalsboom treaty realized they needed the collective, it was already too late. In other words, short-term interests blind long-term interests. If you like you can replace ‘interests’ by ‘politics’ in this sentence.

When tota Frisia fell apart so did the identity of its people.

Keeping an eye on the ball of the long-term self-interest, is maybe what should be defined as ‘solidarity’. Bit less grand but more workable. Who knows how the history of Frisia would have looked like if they would have had a bit more Borg-attitude.

Below, as promised, the dramatic State of the Union of tota Frisia of the year 1461, written in Old-Frisian language with an English translation below it (see the map above with the Seven Sealands). Pay special attention to the atrocities that were attributed to warlord Keno tom Brok in northern Germany.

Tract of the Seven Sea Lands

Hyr bigint een cleen tractaet fan da saun zelanden des gansen landis fan Freesland mey syn tobiheer ende eylanden.

Here begins a modest tract of the seven sealands of the entire land of Friesland with its belongings and islands.

Dat aerste zeland dat is Westfriesland bi dio ode sida des zees, alse Hoern, Enchusen, Medenblic, etc., hwelc di grewa fan Holland him haet onderdenich maked haet alderaerst.

The first sealand is Westfriesland on the other side of the sea, also Hoorn, Enkhuizen, Medemblik, etc, which the count of Holland made submissive to him first.

Dat oder is streckende fan Starem to Liouwerd, alse Westergo ende Doyngaweerfstal, Weimbritse, mit al hyara toebiheer.

The second [sealand] stretching from Stavoren to Leeuwarden, also Westergo and Doniawerstal, Wymbritseradeel, with all their belongings.

Dat tredde is heten Aestergo mei al Smellingaland, Boerndeel, foerd meer Handmare, Haskerwald, dae neersta Walden ende Rauwerde, Aetzespel ende Colmerland. Dizze twa zeelanden, als dat oder ende dat tredde, sint eta fry ende oers neen hera bicannet bihalua diin keyser des Roemschen rikes. Mer ontellika schada ende manich oenfiuchtinga ende grata bloedstirtingha habbet disse landen lith om dine frydoem to bischyrmen, hwelck hem is ioun fan dine grata koninck Kaerl, ende deerto manich sueer striden habbet slain inst dine grewa fan Holland om hiara land to bischyrmen.

The third [sealand] is called Oostergo with all of Smallingerland, Boorndeel, further Haudmare, Haskerland, the Lage Wouden and Rauwerderhem, Achtkarspelen and Kollumerland. These two sealands, namely the second and the third, are still free and recognize no other lord than the emperor of the Roman Empire. But untold damage and many assaults and great bloodshed have these lands suffered to protect the freedom, which was given to them by Charlemagne, and for this they have fought many battles with the count of Holland to protect their land.

Dat IIII is Stellingwerf, Scoterwerf, Kunersyl, Geethorn, Fullenhoef, Steenwyck ende al Drentland. Dit zeland haet bituongen di biscop fan Vtrecht, als Drent, Steenwyc, Fullenhoef, Geethorn ende Kunersyl, mer Stellinchwerf, Schoterland, disse twa sint eta fry, ende grata anfiuchtinga mit grata orlogen, deer hia habbet hand toienst dat sticht fan Vtrecht.

The fourth [sealand] is Stellingwerf, Schoterwerf, Kuinderzijl, Giethoorn, Vollenhove, Steenwijk and all of Drenthe. This sealand has been conquered by the bishop of Utrecht, namely Drenthe, Steenwijk, Vollenhove, Giethoorn and Kuinderzijl, but Stellingwerf, Schoterland, these two are still free, and they have many attacks with great wars, which they have had against the stift of Utrecht.

Dat fyfte zeland is Langwald, Freedwald, Humers, Mydach, Husinga, Fiwellingha, Groninghen, Aeldambecht, Reyderland, Uesterwald mey al da walden, deer aldeerbi lidset tuisscha da Eemse ende Westfalen. Dat maeste deel fan disse zeland is esta fry ende sommich sint onderdenich ioncker Kene ende grewa Vlrick ende sommich sint da Groninghera onderdenich.

The fifth sealand is Langwold, Vreedewold, Humsterland, Midday, Hunsingo, Fivelgo, Groningen, Oldambt, Reiderland, Westerwolde with all the wolden [type of districts], which lie between the Ems and Westphalia. Most of this sealand is still free and some are subjected to jonker [a honorific] Keno [Keno tom Brok] and count Ulrich and some are subjected to Groningen.

Dat sexte zeland is Eemda mit al Eemderland, Brokmerland, Aurikerland, Aesterghaland, Heerlingerland ende Dole Noerderland mei syn toebiheer, ende dit edele land, deer ryckst was ende fruchtbaer, huelc ioncker Kene fan Broeckmerland, een broders in boesheed, ende mei quaedheed dit land bituong ende makese eerm wrmits zeeraweren ende hi spared gastelyck ner wraldsch ende was boes in alle tinghum ende wt da tzerken naem hi al dat ield ende clenodien, deer hi dat stryd mei feerd.

The sixth sealand is Emden with all of Emsingo, Brookmerland, Auricherland, Astringen, Harlingerland and Norderland with their belongings, and this noble land, was the richest and fertile, which jonker [a honorific] Keno of Brookmerland [Keno tom Brok], a successor of his father and brother, and with evilness conquered this country and made it poor through pirates and he spared neither the clergy nor the worldly and was evil in all things and from the churches he took all the money and jewels, that he used for wars.

Dat VII zeland is Rustringaland, Winingaland ende Buthiaingheraland, huelc land bisith Sibolt Ede soen, ioncker Kene suager. Item Owerlengerland, Moermerland ende Lingen, dat sint delen disser zelanden, huelc ioncker Kene aec bituongh, ende Focke Ukema disse tria landen fan Keno bileende, ende neen landishera ne mochte disse zelanden bituinga, bihala disse Focke vorscrioun. Item Segelterland is aec een deel van disse VII zelanden en iout tribuet ende schat den biscop fan Munster. Ende Scheedland, Haedelreland, Wymderlan wr dio Wesere sint aeck delin fan disse VII zelanden. Disse haet bituongen di biscop fan Bremen, mer Dithmers is eeta oenbihinderd.

The seventh sealand is Riustringen, Wangerland and Butjadingen, which land possesses Sibolt Edezoon, brother-in-law of jonker [a honorific] Keno [Keno tom Brok]. Furthermore, Overledingerland, Moormerland and Lengen, these are parts of this sealand, which jonker Keno also conquered, and Focko Ukena lent these three countries from Keno, and no landlord succeeded to conquer these sea lands, except for this Focko aforementioned. Furthermore, Saterland is also part of this seventh sealand and gives tribute and treasure to the bishop of Munster. And Stadland, the land Hadeln, Wigmodië over the Weser are also parts of this seventh sealand. This is conquered by the bishop of Bremen, but Dithmarschen is unhindered.

Note 1 – Parallel to the external threats, the Landesgemeinden of Frisia had to cope with many returning and veteran foreign fighters who had been participating in the Crusades. That had further destabilized Frisian society. Read our blog post Foreign Terrorist Fighters from the Wadden Sea.

Note 2 – Please find here an informative brochure (in English) of The Upstalsboom, published by Ostfriesische Landschaft.

Note 3 – Since the Texican feeling so often popped up in this post, check this documentary of Frisian farmers migrated to Texas a few decennia ago.

Suggestions for accompanying music:

Suggestions for further reading:

  • Henstra, D.J., The evolution of the money standard in medieval Frisia. A treatise on the history of systems of money of account in the former Frisia (c.600-c.1500) (1999)
  • Mol, J.A., De Friese volkslegers tussen 1480 en 1560 (2013)
  • Munske, H.H. (ed), Handbuch des Friesischen. Handbook of Frisian studies (2001)
  • Nijdam, H., Lichaam, eer en recht in middeleeuws Friesland. Een studie naar de Oudfriese boeteregisters (2008)
  • Schuur, J.R.G., De Friese hoofdeling opnieuw bekeken (1987)
  • Steensen, T., Die Friesen. Menschen am Meer (2020)
  • Tuuk, van der L., Radbod. Koning in twee werelden (2018)
  • Vries, O., Asega, is het dingtijd? De hoogtepunten van de Oudfriese tekstoverlevering (2007)
  • Vries, O., De taal van recht en vrijheid. Studies over middeleeuws Friesland (2012)

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