Brooklyn. Named after the village of Breukelen in the Netherlands. Its original Frisian name was Attingahem. With only a twist of history Brooklyn would have been named Attingahem today, and the Brooklyn Bridge therefore the Attingahem Bridge. The streets of Brooklyn, the set of movies like The Warriors (’79), The French Connection (’71), Once Upon a Time in America (’84) and, of course, Saturday Night Fever (’77). But many more.
The name Breukelen, or Breuckelen, was brought to the New Wold in the first half of the seventeenth century, when Nieuw Amsterdam ‘New Amsterdam’ was founded and now known to the whole world as New York City. Many other names remind of the Dutch immigrants back then, like Flushing (town of Vlissingen), Harlem (town of Haarlem), Staten Island (Staten Eylant), Broadway (Brede Weg), Bowery (bouwerie, meaning farmstead), boss (baas), the small porche called stoop (stoep), eating cookies (koekjes), and so forth. And, we must not forget, Yankee itself. Named after the zillion Dutch guys called Jan and Kees, living in Nieuw Amsterdam. Even the name dollar originates from the Dutch currency name daalder. Then again, daalder originates from the coin struck around the year 1500 in the Joachimsthal ‘Joachim Valley’ in Bohemia, abbreviated to thaler.
The village of Breukelen in the Netherlands today is a quiet and fly village of nearly 11,000 inhabitants, located on the western bank of the River Stichtse Vecht in the center of the country. Mostly wealthy inhabitants, and the opposite of its progeny Bed-Stuy in New York City. A small village but one with a rich history. Not only because the Dutch-American actor Rutger Hauer was born here. No, there is much more.
Already in Roman times, the River Stichtse Vecht was an important route between the River Rhine and Lake Almere, now IJsselmeer ‘Lake IJssel’. By the Early Middle Ages, the Frisians had taken control over the River Stichtse Vecht and the wider area. It was an area called pagus ‘shire’ Niftarlake, also written as Nifterlake or Nifterlaca. Niftar meant ‘along’ and lake/laca meant ‘stream’. The first documented reference of pagus Niftarlake is in the year 723, and the last in 953. From then on, the shire is called by its Latin name luxta Vechtam ‘along the (Stichtse) Vecht’. The component luxta is the same as niftar.
The pagus Niftarlake encompassed the area between the settlement of Amuthon, the current village of Muiden, in the north of the shire, and the settlement of Feht or Fethna in the south, the current town of Vechten. At the settlement of Amuthon, the River Stichtse Vecht flowed into Lake Almere. At the settlement Feht, a name that originates from the Roman fortress Fectio, the River Rhine split into the rivers Stichtse Vecht and (Old) Rhine. Three smaller streams named Aa, Angstel and Het Gein also belonged to the pagus Niftarlake.
At the settlement Amuthon, in the tenth century, ships had to pay a teloneum ‘toll’ by order of the Frankish king. This toll was collected by the Frisian nobleman Count Waldger and his son, Count Radbod, afterward. Count Radbod is not to be confused with the heathen King Radbod, also known by his pet name the Enemy of God. King Radbod was overking of (a part) of Frisia and lived at the end of the seventh and beginning of the eighth centuries. So, a few centuries before Count Radbod walked the earth. Nor should Count Radbod be mixed up with Saint Radbod, who was bishop of Utrecht at the end of the ninth century.
Count Radbod probably died without offspring. After Waldger and Radbod, Hatto was count of pagus Nifterlake. Counts Waldger, Radbod and Hatto were probably not only count of pagus Niftarlake, but also of pagus Teisterbant and of pagus Lek-and-IJssel, as well. In the year 953 Count Hatto somehow forfeits his rights, and Holy Roman Emperor Otto donates pagus Niftarlake to the bishopric of Utrecht.The toll at Amuthon, or control over pagus Niftarlake for that matter, was very lucrative for a long time. It was the ancient gateway of the trade between the great trading hub Dorestat and the wider North Sea, including southern Scandinavia.
So, pagus Niftarlake is of origin Frisian and was ruled by Frisian noblemen like Wursing in the Early Middle Ages. When in the year 719 King Radbod dies of an illness, the Franks seized the opportunity, and took possession of this part of Frisia as well. However, interestingly, pagus Niftarlake keeps being administered by Frisian noble families, although from then on under Frankish control. Only in the already mentioned year of 953, the Frisian ruling class is finally sidelined, by the bishop of Utrecht.
Boss Wursing aka Atte
An important Frisian big man who lived in the River Stichtse Vecht region before it became part of the Frankish Empire in the beginning of the eighth century, was the Frisian nobleman Wursing. His wife was named Adalgard, and his two sons named Thiadgrim and Nothgrim. This besides nine daughters whose names we do not know. Six of these nine daughters died young. Wursing lived around 700 and was a contemporary ánd acquaintance of King Redbad. At some point Wursing, when he was not married for long yet, came into conflict with King Radbod and had to flee with his wife and sought protection at the Frankish court. During this period he was converted to Christianity, and most of his children were born (and died). It was only after the death of King Radbod in 719 that Wursing dare to return to ‘his’ pagus Niftarlake of which the Franks had taken possession in the meantime.
Weisenheimer Wursing was also the grandfather of Saint Ludger. Ludger’s father was Wursing’s son named Thiadgrim. Ludger’s mother was named Liafburg. She was a daughter of a certain Nothrad and Adelburg. Saint Ludger was born in the settlement of Suecsnon, current Oud-Zuilen, more upstream the River Stichtse Vecht. Therefore, also in the pagus Niftarlake. Saint Ludger was not the first within the family to become an influential cleric. Wursing’s brother Hildigrim made it to bishop of Helmstadt in Germany, and to bishop of Châlons in France. Nut for nuttin’ but, the area of the River Stichtse Vecht was an important center of influential families within Frisia, already in the seventh century.
And now why Wursing is relevant for this post. The ninth-century Vita sancti Liudgerii tells that Wursing’s nickname was Ado or Atte. Indeed, he gave the settlement its name: Attingahem, which translates as ‘Atte’s home’.
A stream dug in the bog
In the year 722, a few years after most of Frisia was incorporated into the Frankish kingdom, it was the Anglo-Saxon monk Wynfrith, later known as Saint Boniface, who used the settlement of Attingahem as his base to convert the still heathen Frisians then. He probably founded the parish church there dedicated to Saint Peter. In the year 1705, the location of this church was (probably) located, after several sarcophagi of tuff were excavated. The type of sarcophagi, i.e. without a base, suggests it are early Carolingian coffins. Thus the beginning of the ninth century.
Attingahem changed its name into Breukelen somewhere around 1050, with a range of a century earlier or later. So, bit unclear when, but it did for sure. The settlement Broclede surfaces in the year 1139. Broc or broek means ‘wetland or bog’. Circumneutral bog, to be precise. Lede means ‘(dug) stream’. So, Breukelen means ‘dug-stream-in-circumneutral-bog’. The Brooklynites will be more than thrilled with this sexy translation. Smokin’.
We do not know why Attingahem changed into Breukelen, but many other place names of Frisian origin disappeared as well in the region of the River Stichtse Vecht and wider area. This might have had to do with the de-Frisianization process of western Frisia that had started in the ninth century. Western Frisia was the territory what is now the combined provinces Noord Holland, Zuid Holland, Zeeland and part of province Utrecht. The influence of the bishopric of Utrecht expanded and it got control over pagus Niftarlake in the tenth century. As said, in 953 when Holy Roman Emperor Otto took it away from Count Hatto. But the de-Frisianization also had to do with the large-scale, commercial peat reclamation in the High Middle Ages. The so-called Great Reclamation. The fundamental reshaping of the peat landscape led to a total shift of identity.
Well, imagine the catchy names: The Attingahem Dodgers, the Attingahem Cyclons, Attingahem College, the Attingahem Nets, the movie Attingahem Rules, Attingahem Nine-Nine, and Attingahem Bridge. And, of course, we should not forget that the movie Saturday Night Fever would then be shot in the streets of Attingahem. instead of Brooklyn.
So, the name Brooklyn is, in fact, fugazy. Fuggedabautit!
Suggestions for further reading
- Breugel, van A. & Thoor, van M.T., De geschiedenis van Maarssen in een notendop (2001)
- Buitelaar, A.L.P., De Stichtse ministerialiteit en de ontginningen in de Utrechtse Vechtstreek (1993)
- Henderikx, A.A., Land, water en bewoning. Waterstaats- en nederzettingsgeschiedenis in de Zeeuwse en Hollandse delta in de Middeleeuwen; Het Cartularium van Radbod (2001)
- Hondius, D., Jouwe, N., Stam, D. & Tosch, J., Dutch New York Histories. Connecting African, Native American and Slavery Heritage. Geschiedenissen van Nederlands New York (2017)
- Manten, A.A., Hoe oud is Breukelen? (1986)
- Sierksma, K., In stikje famyljeûndersiik úte de midsieuwen. Ingwierrum en Omkriten. Oarsprongskrite fan de Eardingers (“Liudgeriden”) (2007)
- Tuuk, van der L. & Cruysheer, A., De Utrechtse Vecht. Levensader in de vroege middeleeuwen (2013)
- Tuuk, van der L. & Mijderwijk, L., De Middeleeuwers. Mannen en vrouwen uit de Lage Landen, 450-900 (2020)