This post is not about the Westfrisian writer Hendrik Jan Marsman (1937-2012), whose pen-name was Bernlef. Nor is this post about the student corporation Bernlef in the city of Groningen in the Netherlands. This is all about the original. Bard and harp player Bernlef, who lived in Frisia somewhere between 760 and 840. And if you like circles in history and life, this post offers a few.
Thô gifragn ic
With these words early-medieval bards used to start when telling or singing a tale in front of an audience. Similar to the Old High German song of Hildebrand which starts with “Ik gihôrta ðat seggen“. Both part of an ancient oral tradition. Thô gifragn ic is Old Saxon meaning ‘so I heard’. That is how we will start this post too.
1. So I heard
Efforts to convert the heathen Frisians, started with the Franks. It was in the year 630 that the Frankish king Dagobert I took the initiative to build a small church in Trajectum, modern city of Utrecht, in the center of what is today the Netherlands. Possibly for the sake of the Frankish soldiers stationed there. Soon after, king Dagobert instructed bishop Cunibert of Cologne to use this little church as outpost to convert the Frisians. It all was without achieving any lasting results among the Frisians. From then on, the Anglo-Saxon clergy stepped in, notably monk Ecgberht of Ripon from the monastery Rath Melsigi, also written as Rathmelsigi, in Ireland. This was at the end of the seventh century. Read our post The Abbey of Egmond and the Rise of the Gerulfing Dynasty to understand more about the conversion of the Frisians by the Anglo-Saxon monks.
One of the many Anglo-Saxon clergy who gave it try to convert the Frisians, was monk Winfrid or Wynfreth, better known as Saint Boniface (ca. 673-754). However, he was murdered by the Frisians with a blow of an axe on 5 June 754. Boniface tried to fend off the axe with the Holy Bible, but, somewhat surprisingly, in vain. The supposedly original, damaged bible is kept in the town of Dokkum. Perhaps the Frisians had a sense irony. At Geismar in Thuringia (Germany) in the year 723 or 724, Boniface had felled with also an axe the holy Donar Oak of their cousins the heathen Saxons. What goes around, comes around.
After subsequently the Franks and the Anglo-Saxons, it was time for the Frisians to convert the Frisians. It was three decades after Boniface found his peace in Frisia, that the Frisian missionary Ludger (742-809) again went to northern Frisia. To convert his still predominantly heathen countrymen. Ludger was a Frisian from the pagus ‘district’ Nifterlake. Pagus Nifterlake is the area where the river Stichtse Vecht flows, i.e. present-day region ‘t Gooi in the Netherlands. Ludger belonged to the influential family of Wurssing. Check our post Attingahem Bridge to read more about pagus Niterlake and the Wurssing family.
Near-death Experience of Ludger’s Mother – Legend has it that the mother of Ludger, named Liafburch, was almost killed by her grandmother. Her grandmother, the great-grandmother of Ludger therefore, had wished for a grandson, not a granddaughter. According to heathen tradition, a newborn child could be killed as long as the child had not been fed yet. A slave was instructed by the grandmother to drown babygirl Liafburch in a water tank. The slave did as instructed, but the baby girl desperately hold on to the sides of the tank. When a woman from the village, i.e. the settlement of Suecsnon (modern Oud-Zuilen), saw the tragedy taking place, she was filled with compassion. She took the baby from the slave and brought her to her house. Quickly she poured some honey in the mouth of the child. When the slaves entered the house to get the baby back, the woman showed the honey on the baby’s lips. They had no other option than to let the child live.
The baby girl was raised by the unknown woman at first. The mother of Liafburch, who never had wished for her baby to be killed, secretly took care of her child. Only after the death of the grandmother of Liafburch, the mother could take her daughter into her own house.
This practice of killing a child had nothing to do with idolatry, but was part of the laws of the Frisians. The legal right of the mother to do this under certain conditions, is codified in the late eighth-century law book Lex Frisionum. Read also our post Women of Frisia: free and unbound? to have some more information on this practice.
Ludger wisely avoided the inland sea Bordine, where his colleague Boniface refused to defend himself but with a bible. No, Ludger did not accept prompt martyrdom. He therefore tried his luck somewhere else in Frisia, namely on the muddy shores of the Wadden Sea coast of present-day region Ommelanden in province Groningen. Give or take fifty kilometres as the crow flies to the east from where Boniface was murdered. Here, at the village Helewyret, he met the beloved blind and pagan bard named Bernlef. Helewyret or Heleuuwyrð, what is the hamlet of Helwerd today. The name Helewyret is often explained as ‘holy wierde/Wurt‘. Thus the holy terp, with terp being an artificial dwelling mound.
Ludger was welcomed by a women by the name Meinsuit. She invited him and his followers into her homestead to drink, and to give the men shelter for the night. Meinsuit had the bard Bernlef come to her hall to sing for her guests about the great deeds of the kings of Frisia (Mulder-Bakker & Bremmer 2021). The singer-of-tales Bernlef had become completely blind three years before. Ludger gave him back the light in his eyes. Together they walked from Helewyret via the village Werfhem, present-day Warffum, to the village Wyscwyrd, present-day Usquert.
The enlightenment of Bernlef was thus both physical and spiritual. Both literally and metaphorical. For a change, it was not achieved by sitting for a long time below a bodhi tree in the hot, mountainous and landlocked country Nepal. Quite the opposite. It was achieved by walking through the mud in a cold, flat and treeless landscape near the sea, And only for half a day or so. Very efficient.
Killing Boniface was legally just – The death of Boniface in 754 on the shores of the inland sea Bordine is often portrayed as being an act of an angry, heathen mob resisting Christianity, or simply by robbers. This is totally besides what really happened. For one thing, Willibrord was already preaching in Frisia from 690 onward without any recorded difficulties. He died in peace in 739 after twenty year of mission in Frisia. Boniface, however, was primarily a church reformer, and moreover a very dogmatic one. To quote historian Lucien Febvre:
Und der Rhein des Bonifatius’ mit seinem minutiösen Formalismus und seiner von Rom kontrollierten alttestamentarischen Gesetzestreue.
And Boniface’s Rhine, with his meticulous formalism, and abidingness to the Old Testament law, controlled by Rome.
Boniface’s travel to Frisia had a political background (Wagenaar 2006). He wanted to make a statement toward the archdiocese of Cologne that Frisia was his turf, the mission area of his bishopric of Utrecht, and not that of Cologne. For this, he traveled with a large party of not only clergymen, but also military and guards, to Frisia east of the river Vlie. Here he destroyed pagan temples and idols. This was in total contrast with how Willibrord operated before, namely lenient toward pagan rituals and traveling in small parties.
According to the laws of Frisia, as codified in the Lex Frisionum at the end of the eighth century, destroying a pagan shrine was sanctioned with death.
Qui fanum effregerit, et ibi aliquid de sacris tulerit, ducitur ad mare, et in sabulo, quod accessus maris operire solte, finduntur aures eius, et castratur, et immolatur Diis quorum templa violavit.Lex Frisionum, ca. 790
Whoever breaks into a sanctuary and takes one of the sacred objects there is taken to the sea, and on the sand which is covered by the flood, his ears are cleft, and he is castrated and sacrificed to the god whose temple he dishonored.
Therefore, when Boniface was ravaging pagan objects, it was the Frisians legal right and duty to kill him. No arbitrary killing but the execution of a judgment. Who knows, a judgment made at an ad hoc thing gathering. Boniface got away with just a blow of an axe, you could say.
About ten years after the death of Boniface, monk Willehad from Northumbria made Dokkum his missionary post not far remote from the place where Boniface was executed. Willehad established churches at Holwerd, and on the Wadden Sea islands Ameland and Terschelling. All churches were dedicated to Saint Willibrord. Willehad was a relative of Willibrord and was supported by Willibrord’s abbey in Echternach. After Willehad, Ludger stepped in.
We can only guess as to how the pagan beliefs and heathen shrines looked like. We have the description of the Roman historian Tacitus of the first century, about the Germanic believe. He comments on the search of omens, the casting of lots, and the role of women as holy and gifted with the talent of prophecy. Holy places were woods and groves, and the Germanic people did not portray idols in human likeness. Furthermore, we have the Indiculus superstitionum et paganiarum which translates as ‘small index of superstitions and paganism’. A text dated mid eighth century. The Indiculus is carefully kept in the Vatican. Unfortunately, it is only the index of a work that has been lost. The Indiculus sums up thirty, we think, fascinating heathen practices of the northern Germanic tribes, i.e. the Saxons and the Frisians. Because the work itself has been lost, the rituals and practices are difficult to interpret and understand by the index alone. Again, the casting of lots is one of the practices, but many more. Check out our post Groove is in the Hearth to learn more about the pagan rituals of the old Frisians, and about the Indiculus.
Also part of the same codex in which the Indiculus has been preserved, is a baptismal vow; the so-called Utrecht Vow. There is much discussion about the origin of the text since it contains elements of Old Saxon, Old Frisian, Old English and Old Low Franconian (Old Dutch) languages. Be that as it may, the baptismal vow Boniface and Ludger used, and who knows Bernlef too, was more or less as follows:
Do you forsake the Devil? And he should reply: I forsake the Devil
And all Devil’s money [offerings]? He should reply: And I forsake all Devil’s money
And all Devil’s works? He should reply: And I forsake all Devil’s works and words, Donar and Woden and Seaxnot and all those demons who are their followers
Do you believe in God the Almighty Father? I believe in God the Almighty Father
Do you believe in Christ, God’s Son? I believe in Christ, God’s Son
Do you believe in the Holy Spirit? I believe in the Holy Spirit
Let’s return to the historic hike of Saint Ludger and Bernlef.
It must have been a twelve kilometers, probably, circular walk. Circular, since from the village of Helewyret they first reached Werfhem, which is located to the west of Helewyret, and then reached Wyscwyrd, which is situated east of Werfhem and north of Helewyret. Got it? Also, take into account they must have been chatting a lot, and Bernlef’s eyes and brain were still recovering from his former blindness of three years. It must have given him a headache, at least. Lastly, Ludger was in his fifties, and Bernlef probably even older. Their pace was a bit slow. Taking all this into account, it must have been a walk of roughly five hours. Besides regaining his eyesight, Bernlef also was converted to Christianity during this stroll, and together they prayed at a chapel in Wyscwyrd. An efficient walk it was, indeed.
Et de ore eius procedit gladius ex utraque parte acutus: ut in ipso percutiat gentes.Book of Revelation 19: 15
Coming out of his mouth is a sharp sword which to strike down the nations/ heathens.
If not convinced by the new faith, Bernlef for sure was indebted to Ludger for the rest of his life anyway because of regaining his eyesight. Quid pro quo, was the deal Ludger made, giving away the merchant mentality of the Frisians. Bernlef became the missionary’s strong ally in converting his own people in the years that would follow. This strategy was a silver buckshot. Bernlef, popular under his people and a non-clergy, would baptize infants and small children during the insecure periods caused by the fierce and extremely brutal wars between the Saxons and the Franks. Times when it was not safe even for brave men like Ludger to travel through rough Frisia anyway. The fact that the Northumbrian missionary Willehad, who was preaching in the lower river Weser area, had the flee to Utrecht in order to save his life in the year 780, is illustrative.
Ludger’s efforts, with the help of Bernlef, made the Frisians finally turn their back to their gods Foseti, Freya and Wodan. In the year 790, Alcuin of York, under whom Ludger had studied before, writes in a letter to the Irish scholar Colcu Ua Duinechda at the monastery of Clonmacnoise in Ireland, that both the Old Saxon and the Frisian tribes have been converted to Christianity. For Ludger’s achievement, he was later declared a saint. We are still waiting for the Vatican’s plans with Bernlef. Waiting for the apotheosis of the Frisian singer-of-tales, who did most of the field work while things were too hot and too risky for holy, noble clergymen.
The whole story of Bernlef and Ludger has been documented by Altifridus episcopus Mimigardefordensis, or simply Altfried von Münster for intimates. Altfried (ca. 800-849) was a career monk who made it to bishop of Münster. The manuscript is called Vita sancti Liudgeri and provides an account of, needless to say, the exemplary life and wonders of Ludger. The full story of the hike somewhere between 787 and 793 (Mol 2007), can be found at the end of this post. In the original Latin language together with an English translation. Three, at least, observations from this text can be made.
A first observation is, that Ludger is welcomed by a distinguished woman in Helewyret, not by a man. She would also donate part of her possessions to the church (Mol 2007). Since a visit of a monk of such a stature and from a noble Frisian family from afar must not have been your regular thing up north, this is an interesting fact. The woman by the name matrona Meinsuit is not described as a relative of Bernlef either. A second observation is, that although Bernlef was still a heathen and he would convert many of his folk himself later on, apparently some progress had been made already by the Franks in converting the Frisians in this isolated part of Frisia, since at Wyscwyrd a chapel existed already. A third observation is, the parallel with the also blind singer Homer of ancient Greece who lived around 800 BC. A difference with Homer is, no single syllabus of Bernlef’s oeuvre has been saved. The poet without a poem, as Bernlef is sometimes called.
Cloisters, including that of Warffum – This area of fat and fertile clay would in the centuries to come become the basis of relatively rich, religious houses and cloisters, of which the monasteries and houses of Oosterwierum, Oosterwijtwerd, Wijtwerd and, indeed, of Warffum (Werfhem) were examples.
In 1495 the inhabitants of cloister Warffum were: Commander Rodulphus, two chaplains and around sixty nuns. In 1533 the numerous nuns were led by a female prior in the meantime. Men were sent away, apparently. The cloister of Warffum was one of the biggest in what is now the Netherlands. It possessed 1,743 hectares of land and an additional 1,000 so-called ‘grazen’ in peat areas (a gras (sg) was a measure unit. 1 gras is about 1/2 hectare and is enough grass for 1 cow. A 1,000 grazen (pl) is thus enough for about 500 cows). They were prosperous, indeed.
The first churches in Frisia between the river Vlie and the river Ems, were built around 900 in the terp villages Bolsward, Dokkum, Farmsum, Ferwerd, Garnwerd, Franeker, Holwerd, Leens, Leeuwarden, Loppersum, Winsum, Tzum and Usquert. Some were built on existing terps ‘artificial dwelling mound‘, and for other churches a new terp was erected.
The reason for the gap in time between the submission of gentes (i.e. non-Christian people) of Frisia by the populus (i.e. Christian people) of Francia, and the moment the first churches were built, had to do with the still ongoing resistance of their heathen neighbors the Saxons (see further below). But also due to the fact the Franks made an alliance with Viking warlords during the second half of the ninth century, to let them govern most of Frisia. Parts of western Frisia (more precisely, region Holland, Zeeland, the coast of Flanders, and most of the central river lands) were given in fief to the Viking warlords Rorik of Dorestad and after to Godfrid Haraldsson the Sea-King. The latter in folklore known for his cruelty. Region Ostfriesland was given as beneficium to Viking warlord Harald Klak. Leaving the part of Frisia of what are current provinces Friesland and Groningen stuck in the middle.
The de facto Viking Rule meant that the conversion of most of Frisia came to a halt in practice. Only after these elegant dukes annex warlords were gone, Christianization of the Frisians could resume, or repeated. Historians sometimes call it the period of the second conversion, or the depth-conversion. It was for example bishop Adalbold of Utrecht who complained at the beginning of the eleventh century that Frisians in coastal areas criticized Christendom, and nearly nobody appeared during Easter to receive communion. Also, in the eleventh century, archbishop Unwan of Hamburg-Bremen was compelled to cut down ‘holy hedges’ on the tidal marshlands which were still being worshiped, apparently. In sum, the Christianisation process of Frisia started around 600 and lasted until the early-thirteenth century, before the Christian message became truly internalized (Groenewoudt, et al 2016).
Present-day province Zeeland, part of West Frisia too, was ruled by Northmen as well. This was, however, more of a free enterprise. Especially island the Walcheren. Read our post Island the Walcheren: once Sodom and Gomorrah of the North Sea. Here too, the mid-eleventh Passio Friderici notes that the people of Zeeland were still prone to paganism.
Regarding the third observation, namely no texts have been preserved of Bernlef, leads to another controversial topic: the Bernlefgate. This serious gate started in the ’60s of the last century and, no kidding, is still going on. Frisian scholars suggest that the monumental Old Saxon manuscript Heliand, meaning Healer or Savior, of which the author is unknown, was actually written by Bernlef. It are Van Weringh, Veenbaas and Quispel who make the “revolutionary claim” (Porck 2017) that Bernlef is the author of the Heliand.
The Heliand is a rhymed version of the Diatessaron of Tatian; the gospel harmony of the four gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, dating from the second century. When looking at the size of things, the Heliand with exactly 5,983 long-line verses is comparable with the works of the blind bard Homer. Homer’s famous Iliad consists of ca. 7,000 verses, and the Odyssey of ca. 5,500 verses. Size does matter. The Heliand was written sixteen centuries after Homer’s works, namely at the beginning of the ninth century. A time slot that could fit, or does not dismiss, the revolutionary theory of Bernlef being the author of the Heliand. However, the Heliand is dated between 825-850, making Bernlef a very old man. Non-Dutch historians think it is more likely the Heliand is written by monks anyway. Also, since the Diatessaron was translated and available in the monastery of Fulda.
In any case, the critics from German historians are merciless, and dismiss the Frisian scholars for being unscientific romantics. And that is saying it friendly and diplomatic. Also, the Anglo-Saxon scholars degrade the Frisian scholars, and say the writer of the Heliand was a not a layman, but most certainly a theologically trained cleric (Green 2003).
We will await, if ever, the outcome of this identity, sorry, scientific debate with interest. For now we can not help to be reminded to the book title of the aforementioned Westfrisian writer Marsman alias Bernlef, namely Hersenschimmen meaning something like phantasms or hjernespind.
It is because of the Vita sancti Liudgeri we know that Frisia too had a culture of bards, singing about the heroic deeds of great ancestors. Just like it is described in the Old-English epic Beowulf. Where bards recite and sing during gatherings in halls and longhouses. For example singing the tale that recounts how Hengest betrayed the young Frisian king Finn Folcwald. Read our post Tolkien pleaded in favor of king Finn. Also, the Lex Frisionum, codified customary law of Frisia at the end of the eighth century, includes a specific, high sanction on assaulting a harp player. Below the text of the Lex Frisionum which apparently still knew the value of craft and art:
Qui harpatorem, qui cum circulo harpare potest, in manum percusserit, componat illud quarta parte maiore compositione, quam alteri eiusdem conditionis homini.
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.
Not only these contemporary texts of Altfried and the Lex Frisionum give away the existence of bards and of an oral culture. Archaeological research in the terp region in the northwest of Germany and in the north of the Netherlands, has shown music instruments existed, including harps but also flutes. Excavated pieces of harp reveal a model similar to the early-seventh-century harp or lyre found at Sutton Hoo in East Anglia.
2. More blind poets and Bernlefs
Sometimes lines are being drawn through history that are almost of a divine nature. The famous modern Frisian poet Tsjêbbe Hettinga (1949-2013) was, believe it or not, blind. And just like his colleague Bernlef 1,200 years earlier, he too became blind at older age. The amazement does not end here.
In a film documentary of the Frisian, international filmmaker Pieter Verhoeff about Tsjêbbe Hettinga, he visits his parents’ old farmstead where his brother still lives. By the way, his brother is getting blind as well. Besides all the impressive implicit silent-suffering you can hear in their voices and read on their faces, ánd in their near blind eyes, Tsjêbbe Hettinga and his younger brother tell with great passion and admiration about a beautiful horse both had known when they were kids. This was end ’60s. Yes, a shining black Friesian. It was a magnificent horse in character, in walking and in appearances. Still, their father had tried to sell the animal on five different occasions. Each time he felt remorse afterward, and bought back the horse from the new owner. Of course, for more money than he had sold the animal. The end of the story was that the horse carried their deceased father to the graveyard. Like it was inevitable and predestined. Watch the intense silence when they have told this part of their lives in the documentary.
The name of the horse? Indeed, Bernlef. We did not make it up…
Please watch the short impressive fragment of this documentary titled Yn dat sykjen sûnder finen ‘within that searching without finding’, a strophe of one of Tsjêbbe Hettinga’s well-known poems. With the above in mind, try to keep your own seeing eyes dry. We have not succeeded.
3. Vertigo years
We leave the blind poets Homer and Hettinga behind us, and turn back to the other blind poet where this post is about: Bernlef. Where did he and Saint Ludger hike? We mean, what did the world look like back then?
ienst den salta se ende ienst den wilda witzenges floedSchoutenrecht; Old Frisian law
against the salty sea and against the wild Vikings’ flood
It were not the most quiet years. The Frisians had battled against the imperialistic Franks for a century or so, but had lost the emporium Dorestat (present-day town of Wijk bij Duurstede) and their freedom in the first half of the eighth century, at the decisive battle at the river Boorne. Read our post The Boarn Supremacy for more information about this lost battle. Successively, the Franks tried to convert the gentes of Frisia. That came with much violence and struggle, of which the famous murder of Saint Boniface in 754 was likely a part. It was not without reason the Frankish poet Ermoldus Nigellus described king Charles Martel as Frisonum Marte magister meaning ‘with Mars’ help master of the Frisians’.
The neighboring Saxons, with whom the Frisians were closely akin (Flierman 2021), still put up the toughest fight against the Franks. During their incursions in the early 750s, the Saxons burned thirty churches. In response, maior domo Pepin the Short ravaged Saxonia in 753. However, it was his son, the famous Charlemagne, who was utterly ruthless. In the year 772, he destroyed the sacred tree Irminsul of the Saxons, and carried off the gold and silver of this sanctuary. Just as Ludger would do a bit later when he ruined the Frisian pagan temples of the idol Fosite on, probably, island Heligoland around the year 785 (read our post Liudger, the first Frisian apostle). The gold and silver carried off from island Heligoland was divided between Charlemagne and Saint Ludger. Two-third for Charlemagne and the rest, still nice to have and worth the efforts, for Ludger. Before we forget, in 782 Charlemagne beheaded no less than 4,500 Saxons at Verden, located upstream the river Weser.
Notwithstanding, or because of, all these genuine war crimes, the Westphalian (Saxon) nobleman Widukind revolted against the Franks during the period between 782 and 785. Typically, the Frisians east of the river Vlie joined this heathen commander in a final attempt to shake off Frankish domination and the new religion. Earlier, between 783 and 784, the Frisians were up in arms (Mol 2007). Widukind is said to have the Frisians to rebel against the Franks by urging them to relinquish the Christian faith and sacrifice to their former idols. But the Franks were victorious against both tribes, In the year 785, Widukind agreed a peace with the Franks and let himself be baptized.
The Saxons, however, continued to rebel against the Franks. Also the Frisians continued to be jumpy. In 793, the Frisians revolted a second time under the leadership of the principes Unno and Eilrad from Rüstringen, the area west bordering the river Weser (Mol 2007, Flierman 2021). Several years later in 797, Charlemagne “crossed the swamps and impenetrable places” to confront a combined rebellion force of Saxons and Frisians in the Elbe-Weser region. In th year 798, the Saxons of region Nordalbingia, meaning ‘north of Elbe’, were defeated in the Battle of Bornhöved, also Schlacht auf dem Sventanafeld, by prince Thrasco of the Obrodites, a West-Slavic people, in an alliance with the Franks. During this battle, between 3,000 and 4,000 Saxons lost their lives. The submission of the last Saxon, and thus Frisian too, tribe is commonly fixed at 804. In this year Charlemagne deported and dispersed the Nordliudi ‘north people’ from north of the river Elbe. Indeed, ethnic cleansing is of all times.
Interestingly, the military cooperation between Frisians and Saxons was not limited to this rebellion against Charlemagne. Not long after the uprising of Widukind, Frisians and Saxons were fighting together on the side of Charlemagne against the Slavs in the year 789. And in the year 791 Frisians and Saxons were also fighting together in service of the Franks against the Avars all the way in modern Hungary. In 850, emperor Lothar I wrote about the “gens Saxonum et Fresonum commixta“, describing the people of the northern area of his empire. Expressing there was not much difference between the two tribes.
In 885, it was again a combined force of Frisians and Saxons, under command of Everhard Saxo count of Hamaland, that defeated the Viking army of Godfrid the Sea-King at Herispich, near modern Spijk in the Netherlands. Read more about this piece of history in our post The Abbey of Egmond and the Rise of the Gerulfing Dynasty. Lastly, also the early-medieval scholae in the city of Rome attest of the close relationship between the two peoples. Frisian pilgrims stayed, at first, in the schola Saxonum. Only later, Frisians established their own schola Frisonum. Read our post Magnus’ Choice: The Origins of the Frisian Freedom to learn more about Frisians and their presence in the Vatican and Rome.
All these examples illustrate that early-medieval Frisians and Saxons were very closely akin.
The saga of the Holy Wurt of Willehad – In Land Hadeln, the marshlands between the mouths of the rivers Weser and Elbe, the sage Die hillige Wurt (‘the holy terp’) exists. The story takes place in the time of Charlemagne when he tried to subdue the Saxons and the Frisians. To achieve this, Charlemagne asked for someone who dared to convert the most stubborn enemies of the faith, the Frisians and the Saxons, in the area of the lower river basins of the Weser and Elbe in the pagus (‘district’) Wigmodi. This turned out to be a man called Willehad who had risked his life converting Frisians before. Indeed, Willehad succeeded to convert the Saxons and the Frisians. After that, Willehad traveled to the free and confident people of Land Hadeln. On the terp, also called a Wort or Wurt, at the current village of Ihlienworth the first church was built: ‘die hillige Wurt’, the Holy Wurt.
Not only the armies of the Franks were a threat for the Frisian people. Also, the nearby Danes became a threat. The Scandinavian tribes had just started their infamous Viking campaign that would last for two centuries. Notably the Viking attack on Frisia in the year 810, in this very coastal area of Bernlef, would stir things up. The Norsemen made the inhabitants pay a tribute of a two-hundred pound of silver, which would be equivalent to the weregild ‘man-price’ of thirty-six freemen. Probably, the Danes tried to push back the Franks, and made a statement about whose sphere of influence Frisia really was. Comparable to statements still being made in the twenty-first century in the Kaukasus and near the Black Sea.
The presence of the Danes in East Frisia continued until 884, after the Battle of Norditi, also called the Slacht bei Nordendi, when the Frisians were victorious and pushed the Vikings out of East Frisia for good. According to Adam of Bremen’s Gesta hammaburgensis ecclesiae pontificum no less than 10,377 Vikings lost their lives during this battle. Read our post A Theelacht. What a great idea! to learn more about this disastrous battle for the Vikings.
Once Were Warriors – The fact that during the eighth century, after the incorporation of Frisia (and Saxonia) into the Frankish kingdom, there is an increase in weapon gifts, swords and shields especially, in graves along the North Sea coasts of Germany and of the Netherlands in comparison with the centuries before, is generally regarded as an expression of a period of social and political unrest. A period the warrior culture and warrior identity became more prominent.
Around the time of all these troubles, and without a doubt well aware of the massive bloodshed in the wider region, Ludger and Bernlef were having their pleasant stroll at the muddy Wadden Sea coast. Maybe they even discussed the political situation. Pleading for a better and new administrative culture.
The natural landscape was just as tumultuous as were politics then. Herewyret, Wyscwyrd and Werfhem were small villages at the very edge of land in the pagus ‘district’ called Hunsingo in present-day province Groningen. It is the coastal zone between the estuaries of the river Lauwers and the river Ems. Even more precise, the area between the river Hunze and the (former) river Fivel. Pagus Hunsingo owes its name to the river Hunze, flowing out in the Wadden Sea at the present-day village of Pieterburen. Pagus Fivelingo, east of Hunsingo, owes its name to the river Fivel that flowed via the present-day village Westeremden to the river Ems.
Much of the coastal brim of Frisia consisted of vast salt marshes. Clay soils that were flooded by the sea regularly. An area that was intersected with numerous meandering sea creeks, estuaries, countless inlets, bays and small rivers carrying sweet water from peaty inlands to the sea. The land was regularly flooded since big dikes did not exist yet around 800. The construction of more ‘heavy’ dikes would take almost another two centuries. Thus, imagine flat, wet, treeless grasslands filled with mainly white sheep and small brown cows.
For protection against the sea and the collection of sweet water, people build terps. Terps, although the term wierde would be more appropriate for province Groningen, are artificial settlement mounds, and already existed for nearly a millennium in the area. Read our Manual Making a Terp in 12 Steps to learn more. Werfhem was one of the bigger terps of the region and, together with Wyscwyrd, situated on a salt-marsh ridge. Only on top of these settlement mounds, some trees and bushes could grow, like hazel, elder and willow. Also, some crops and herbs were grown, like hulled barley, gold-of-pleasure, flax, hemp, field mustard and celery, and even emmer wheat. These were grown on the higher parts of the salt marsh and on the slopes of terps. Rye was probably cultivated on higher sandy salt-marsh ridges
So, when Bernlef saw the trees of Werfhem, know that trees were actually very scarce in this salty environment, and it likely must have been one of these species. In the villages, many big (war) dogs, some hogs and chickens walked around, to make the picture more complete. Dogs had a special place in Frisian society. Read our post How to bury your mother-in-law and be amazed of all the different Frisian dog types and their roles.
We assume the walk took place during summer, or just before or after. Only this time of year weather would permit travelling through this wet sea area. Avoiding the storms and floods in late autumn, winter and early spring. Frisians were sea traders as well, with a strong supra-regional trading network covering most of northwestern Europe. If it was indeed summer when Bernlef and Ludger had their walk, these Frisian free-traders must have been away, because that was the sailing season. So, near the terps there must have been landing platforms for boats, although the bigger ships were at sea in southern Scandinavia or East England making a profit. Perhaps explaining why the woman called Meinsuit introduced Bernelf to Ludger. Her husband was simply away at sea.
Maybe Ludger and Bernlef also saw men and families preparing their ships to leave for what is now Nordfriesland, just south of the Danish-German border. It was a period colonists from Frisia (re)populated the islands of Amrum, Föhr, Sylt, Utholm, Westerhever and of Everschop. Find more information about the phases and origins of the colonization of Nordfriesland in our post Beacons of Nordfriesland. The thing that receives little attention of scholars is that this migration to the north took place amidst the turbulent Viking Age, and toward and very close to the heartland of the Danes. How can this be explained?
More inland behind the salt-marsh area, were immense peat areas, like everywhere else in Frisia. Archaeological research shows that already in the ninth century commercial and systematic extraction of sea salt from peat soil had started. Salt was mined from region Westfriesland, around the present-day town of Medemblik in province Noord Holland, to the estuary of the river Jade in region Ostfriesland. This activity has had a profound impact on the coastal landscape, even as we know it today. The land inland shrunk and declined, becoming very vulnerable for the grasp of the waterwolf. Around the year 800, the sea washed away a lot of land at the mouth of the river Lauwers, not far from where Bernlef lived. Significantly accelerating enlargement of the inland sea. A process that already had started in the seventh century. Probably the continuous mining of salt in this region contributed to this increasing loss of land.
The great flood in the winter of 838 on Saint Stephan’s Day, would fundamentally reshape much of the land of Frisia. According to the ninth-century Annals of Saint Bertin, a very specific 2,437 people drowned during this flood. However, this new tragedy was yet to come when Ludger and Bernlef had their peaceful walk and talk.
We enjoyed telling you this remarkable continuum in history of Bernlefs and blind bards. Enjoyed telling you a new tale about tale-makers. A story also, of two Frisians who made a pact to convert their fellow countrymen, in the midst of the storm of war and bloodshed that was going on. We placed their stroll of reflection between the heathen harp player and the monk within a natural ànd social environment that was truly vertigo.
Look at it this walk any way you like, because many different angles are possible. Sing your own tale! At the very least, we hope this post gives you a sense of place when re-hiking the hike of these two historic gents as part of the Frisia Coast Trail.
If you are anxious to learn more about bishop and Saint Ludger, and the different faces that can be attributed to him, read our post Liudger, the first Frisian apostle. Ludger was in a way an anomaly during the conversion of the Frisians, since they were mainly Ango-Saxon missionaries who, as explained above, were doing the job of converting Frisians. It was the Anglo-Saxon monk Ecgberht of Ripon from the monastery of Rath Melsigi in Ireland, who was the primary driving force behind this conversion.
The interest of the Anglo-Saxons in Frisia was because of the old kinship between the Frisians and the Anglo-Saxons, at least according to the Northumbrian Venerable Bede (672-735). Of all the missionaries from the British Isles we mention Adalbert, Engelmund, Jerome, Lebuinus (also known as Liafwin, and patron of the town of Deventer), Suitbert of Kaiserswerth (also written as Swithberht), Werenfrith (also written as Werenfridus), Wigbert, Wihtbert, Wilfrith of York, Willehad, Willibrord from Northumbria, Wulfram of Sens, and Wynfreth or Wynfrith from Crediton (also known as Boniface). But there were many, many more (Van Eijnatten, 2006).
The hike of Bernlef and Saint Ludger
Cum euangelizandi gratia in Fresia ad quandam villam nomine Helewyret pervenisset, matrona quaedam Meinsuit nomine excepit illum in domum suam. Et ecce illo discumbente cum discipulis suis, oblatus est ei caecus vocabulo Bernlef, qui a vicinis suis valde diligebatur, eo quod esset affabilis et antiquorum actus regumque certamina bene noverat psallendo promere. Sed per triennium continua caecitate ita depressus est, ut nullum sibi lumen vel extreme visionis remaneret. Quem dum vultu hilari est intuitus, interrogat, si penitentiam a se vellet accipere, acceptaque ab eo huius rei sponsione iussit, ut die crastina veniret ad se. Crastina vero die equitanti viro Dei obvius factus est idem caecus; accepto ergo Dei famulus per frenum eius caballo, duxit eum a turba seorsum et confitenti peccata sua penitentiam indixit. Deinde signum sanctae crucis oculis eius inposuit et tenens manum suam coram eo interrogavit. si aliquid videret. Ipse vero cum magno gaudio dixit, se manum illius posse videre. At ille: ‘Age, inquit, omnipotenti Deo gratias.’ Sermocinantibus quoque eis de fide catholica de variisque utilitatibus animae, pervenerunt ad villam nomine Werfhem et interrogavit eum, si ipsam potuisset agnoscere. Ille vero statim proprio vocabulo nominavit eam et arbores et queque eius aedificia se bene posse conspicere professus est; ait autem illi: “Omnipotenti Deo age gratias, qui te inluminavit’. Cumque venissent ad villam Wyscwyrd nomine, ubi oratorium erat constructum, fecit eum secum orare et Deo gratias agere constrinxitque eum sacramento, ut ante diem obitus sui nulli causum huiuscemodi inluminationis indicaret. Complevit ille viri Dei praecepta et per dies aliquos caecitatem simulando ducatu alieno utebatur, sed post obitum eius, qualiter fuerit inluminatus, asseruit.
When preaching grace of Frisia [Ludger] arrived at a village called Helewyret to preach there, a lady named Meinsuit welcomed him into her house. And behold while he was sitting at the table, he was introduced to a blind man named Bernlef, who was very popular with his fellow villagers, because he was kind and he was good with the singing and with the harp about the deeds of the ancestors and the military achievements of kings. He had been suffering from blindness for three years, so he had no light in his eyes and had to miss even the smallest vision. While he [Ludger] looked at him kindly; he [Bernlef] asked him if he could hear his confession. He said so and asked him [Bernlef] to come to him the next day. That next day the blind man met the man of God who sat on a horse. The servant of God took his horse by the bridle, led him [Bernlef] away from his retinue. He confessed his sins and was given penitence. Then the sign of the cross on his eyes was made and held his hand up close. him was asked if he saw anything. He replied with great joy that he could see his hand. Then he [Ludger] said: “Come, thank the almighty God.” And while they were talking about the Christian faith, they arrived at a village called Werfhem and [Ludger] asked him if he could see it. Immediately he called it by the right name, and stated that he could see the trees and all buildings well. Then he [Ludger] told him: “Thank the almighty God, who has given you the light.” And when they arrived at the village of Wyscwyrd, where a chapel was built, he let him [Bernlef] pray with him and thank God. He made him [Bernlef] promise that he would not tell anyone he was unlighted before Ludger’s departure; he fulfilled this mission of the man of God. He faked blindness for a few days and was led by someone. After his departure, he explained how he was enlightened.
Note – The oldest attestations of the terp of Helewyret, modern Helwerd in province Groningen are Heleuuwyrð, Heileguurð and Helaguurð. Most probable explanation is that it means hailaga werd, thus ‘holy terp’ (Van Berkel & Samplonius 2018). In Land Wursten the saga of Die hillige Wurt was being told. According to the saga the current place name Ihlienworth means heilige Wurt ‘holy terp’ too. At Ihlienwurth it was Saint Willehad who built the first church to convert the heathen Frisians of Land Wursten; the Wurstfriesen.
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