A Theelacht. What a great idea!

Halfway the ninth century, Vikings had established more or less permanent presence in Frisia in the former pagus ‘district’ called Nordendi, also named Norditi. By the year 884, the Frisians were fed up with it. They forged swords and axes, raised an army and drove the Norsemen out. For good. It took exactly 10,377 lives on the side of the Vikings. This crisis with the Vikings provided the Frisians also with a great idea. The new land that became available, was managed in an innovative way. In fact, the Frisians founded 1,100 year ago the first farmers co-operative of Europe called the Theelacht. Moreover, this co-op still exists, and has served as an example for co-ops around the globe.

The Battle of Norditi

There are two principal sources that tell us about the Battle of Norditi, also called the Normannenslacht ‘slaughter of Norsemen’, or the Battle at Hilgenriederbucht (Hilgenrieder Bay). These sources are the contemporary Annales fuldenses, and the Gesta hammaburgensis ecclesiae pontificum ‘deeds of bishops of the Hamburg church’. The Gesta is written around 1075 by the chronicler magister Adam of Bremen. What other sources Adam of Bremen disposed of, besides the Annales fuldenses, is unknown. According to magister Adam himself, it was the contemporary abbot Bovo I of the mighty Abbey of Corvey in Höxter, Germany, who wrote a report on the battle. Alas, this medieval report has been lost. From the Gesta we may conclude that magister Adam still had this report at his disposal when he wrote the Gesta. Thus, explaining why the Gesta of magister Adam has more details to offer than the anonymous creator of the Annales fuldenses earlier.

Based on the Annales fuldenses, most scholars agree today that the actual date of the battle between the Vikings and the Frisians is indeed the year 884. However, you might still come across other dates as well, like 880 (popular on Wikipedia), 882 and 888. One of these, the year 880, is unleashed into the world by the great Frisian academic Ubbo Emmius (born in Greetsiel, region Ostfriesland) in his impressive Rerum frisicarum historia written in the year 1616, seven centuries after the events at Norditi. We will not take this flaw of Ubbo Emmius too seriously, and for our part the University of Groningen in the Netherlands may continue being excessively proud of him. Those readers who are surprised; indeed Groningen has a university.

Let’s quote the Gesta:

Gesta hammaburgenis ecclesiae pontificum; book 1: chapter 41

In view of what we have said about the persecution which then raged far and wide against the churches, it seems not improper to touch upon a great miracle manifested to the Frisians through the merits of Saint Rimbert. I do not know why the author of his Gesta passed over this wonder, but Brovo, the abbot of Corvey, in writing of what happened in his times did not keep silence. He wrote:

“When in recent times a distressing irruption of barbarians raged savagely in nearly every kingdom of the Franks, it happened also that by the judgement of God they were routed in a certain Frisian district. Situated in a remote region and close to the great sea, it is called Norditi. This district, then, they undertook to destroy. The venerable bishop Rimbert was there at that time and, encouraged and prepared by his exhortations and instructions, the Christians joined battle with the enemy and laid low 10,377 of them, over and above the many who were slain crossing the streams as they sought safety in flight.”

These facts Brovo recorded in writing. By reason of this miraculous occurrence the merits of Saint Rimbert are most highly regarded among the Frisians to this day, and his name is cherished with a certain singular affection by the people, so much so that even the hill on which the saint prayed while the battle was in progress is noted for its perpetually green turf.

It was archbishop Rimbert of Bremen, originally from the town of Turholt (Torhout), Belgium who helped to lead the Frisians to victory. The Gesta speaks of a hill where Rimbert prayed to his god. Also, it says the hill is evergreen (since). The exact spot where the battle took place is unknown, but it must have been near the modern town of Norden, region Ostfriesland. Some suggest Vikings had settled at the trading village of Nesse, by then located on the shores of the Wadden Sea still. But this is speculation, as no archaeological evidence has been found (yet) to support this theory.

The area liberated back then, possibly is the area of Norden together with parts of Harlingerland, Brokmerland and of Wangerland. The casualties on Viking side are quite impressive. Even for Frisians. The Gesta is written two centuries after the battle. This implies we must be a bit cautious whether all facts presented are accurate. So, it may not have been 10,377 slain Vikings at all. Maybe just 10,376, or as high as 10,378. The Gesta suggests that Vikings not only were killed by the swords, arrows, fists and spears of their opponents, but that, in fact, many of them drowned in streams during their retreat. Let’s pretend you did not read this, and still think they were all killed on the battlefield by the strong hands of Frisians.

Battle of Norditi
Vikings at the shoreline getting ready for the charge of the Frisians – Battle at Norditi, Ostfriesland

Myths and sagas in province Friesland have been documented in the first half of the twentieth century. One of these concerns the Battle of Norditi too. It is clearly inspired by the Gesta but has some bonus ‘facts’. It goes as follows:

The Miracle at NordenAfter the death of Charlemagne, the Norsemen raided repeatedly Frisia and their ruthless warbands marched through the Frisian districts. Under the reign of Charles the Fat, a fleet of Viking ships landed at Heksenkolk (translates more or less as ‘bewitched water’) of Nordwidi (Norden) in East Frisia, Ostfriesland. From here, their bands rampaged through Frisia, murdering and burning down villages until the Frisians got in their way. Archbishop Rimbert of Bremen had gone to the camp of the Frisians to assist them.

When the Frisians were ready for battle, the archbishop ascended a hill to pray. He knelt on a stone and prayed to the Almighty. To receive his assistance in the fight against the heathens. Humbly he asked for a sign of victory. When the archbishop rose, he saw that the curve of his knees had been eroded into the stone, and in this the bishop understood the divine sign. He spoke enthusiastically to the Frisians. The Frisians, strengthened by the miracle in faith of victory, were so overpowering in their charge that it made the Norsemen flight.

The enemy left 10,377 dead men on the battlefield. Many of them were killed during flight over the river. The stone on which Archbishop Rimbert knelt, was kept in the Ludger Church (i.e. Ludgeri Kirche) in Norden for a long time. On the hill where Rimbert received his prayer, the trees and grass always remained green.

Note – Saint Ludger, by the way, is a Frisian born at the modern village of Oud-Zuilen in the Netherlands. See our post to learn more about him.

Where the hill must have been, is unclear too. Be advised that what Frisians call a hill, might not be more than an elevation of a few meters, if you are lucky, in the landscape. But, maybe it was a thing or þing (more about the Germanic thing assemblies, in our post The Thing is…). Why else was there a stone atop this hill? The same with the ‘streams’. The Battle of Norditi is generally situated near the Hilgenrieder Bay. This bay was located west of the village Nesse. Did the Vikings drown in this shallow bay? The bay is now gone, after it silted up and was reclaimed in the Middle Ages.

The stone Rimbert prayed on with his knees, known as the Warzenstein ‘Warts’ stone’, can still be seen at the old graveyard of the town of Norden. The water collected in the holes of the stone is said to be medicinal. Go there when it rains, which should not be too difficult. Others say, the original stone is buried somewhere below the Ludger Church. What is more interesting, is that the Warzenstein is a cup-mark stone, also called a Näpfchenstein in German or napjessteen in Dutch. Similar stones can be found in the village of Holwierde in province Groningen, a stone called Duivelsteen ‘devil’s stone’, and also on the graveyard of the village of Rinsumageest in province Friesland. The use of these stones probably dates back to pagan times and practices. According to tradition, these cup marks were used for offering to elves, and the scrapings were being used as medicine. The fact Rimbert preferred to put his knees on a stone instead of on the soft clay of Frisia, might indicate the stone already had a tradition of magic. What other possible reason could he have for putting his knees on a rock?

The Moon BattleNot far from the town of Norden lies the village of Manslagt, near the Ley Bay in Ostfriesland. Local legend tells that the name Manslagt derives from a great battle with the Vikings. Back then during the Viking Age, the area of Manslagt was an island. It was surrounded by two sea lochs. When the inhabitants saw the longships they fled from their island to the villages of Pilsum, Groothusen and Visquard to ask for help. During the night in the moonlight they entered at the island. Many Vikings were slaughtered and others fled. This victory became known as the Moon Battle, or in local speech Maanslagt. And that is how the village of Manslagt got its name.

The example of kicking out the Vikings from Ostfriesland, or East Frisia, in 884 was quickly followed in West Frisia, i.e. the territory west of the former river Vlie. West Frisia then, was under control of the Viking warlord Godfrid the Sea-King. In 885, Godfrid was murdered at Herispich, and his army present defeated by Frisian and Saxon contingents. A few years later in 889, the Frisian noblemen Gerulf received West Frisia in fief of king Arnulf of Carinthia. Read our post The Abbey of Egmond and the Rise of the Gerulfings to learn more details about this history of intrigue and treason. Archbishop Rimbert obtained market, mint and toll rights for the city of Bremen in 888. And, guess what? Rimbert got these rights from king Arnulf of Carinthia as well. Or, were the Battle of Norditi (884) and the assassination of Godfrid the Sea-King (885) one big, black-adderian scheme of king Arnulf with the Frisians? You scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours.

With the Battle of Leuven in the year 891, king Arnulf also kicks out the Vikings in West Flanders, after which margrave Baldwin II may retake his county. The coast of Flanders was, in fact, part of Frisia and inhabited by Frisians (check our post A Frontier known as watery mess: the coast of Flanders). Whether or not a big scheme of the Franks with the Frisians, according to the Gesta the Vikings subsequently turned into angry white men. Humiliated and provoked as they were, they ransacked the known world, notably England and Scotland. Another anecdote is that around the year 896, the daughter of the English king Alfred the Great marries margrave Baldwin II, and around the same time king Alfred has Frisians from Flanders to help him built and man his new navy. Everything to defend Wessex against the Vikings. Read our post They want you as a new recruit to learn more about this maritime cooperation between the English and the Frisians.

And sorry to say, what the Frisians were very capable of, took the Anglo-Saxons a bit longer. Vikings invaded England in 865 and established the Danelaw. It took the Anglo-Saxons until 1066 with the Battle of Stamford Bridge (only ca. 8,000 casualties) to get rid of the Vikings. Not realizing that while busy fighting at Stamford, they had left the backdoor open, through which yet another Norsemen came in with an army. Already that same year, namely William the Conqueror. Back at square one.

By the way, according to legend the Frisians east of the river Ems, were given the so-called ‘freedom privileges’ by king Charles the Fat. Privileges which meant they were not subordinate to any other lord than the Holy Roman Emperor himself. With their battle cry “Lewer doot as Slav”, the Frisians charged at the Vikings who must have been standing with their back against the muddy waters. The Vikings fled to their ships. But in-vain. Their ships were damaged, their rudders broken, and their sails set on fire. Apparently, the whole operation had been carefully planned by the Frisians. With the tide coming in, the Vikings were adrift at sea. Defenseless against wind, waves and water. Nobody made it home alive, all according to the freedom sagas.

This is all together a whole different freedom legend from the one that existed among their fellow Frisians living more to the west. More about that freedom privilege in our post Magnus’ Choice. The Origins of the Frisian Freedom.

Co-op the Theelacht

After archbishop Rimbert and the Frisians jointly had exorcised the pagans from their lands, the question was what to do with it. It was, as said, the area of the Hilgenrieder Bay. A bay that silted up, and offered good possibilities to reclaim it from the sea and to be turned into fertile land. The Frisians rubbed their noses to the left, to the right and up, and exclaimed: “that’s it, we’ve got it!” They decided to govern these news lands in a co-operative, and to make good money out of it. With that they, without knowing it probably, founded the first farmers co-operative of Europe. Its name: Theelacht. We think even of the first of the world, but stand corrected if we have exaggerated this.

The Theelacht is the legal entity that owns the so-called Theel lands. The first regulations, the theelrecht ‘theel law’ was formulated in 1583. The regulation was recently revised in 1759, under the name Jus Theelachticum Redivivum. A book of 200 pages, and it stands to this day.

The theel-lands are a set of fixed, immovable lands belonging to the Theelacht and can be leased. These are eight theel-lands, called bezirke in German language. These are: Linteler Theel, Gaster Theel, Trimser Theel, Ekeler Theel, Osthover Theel, Neugroder Theel, Hover Theel and Eber Theel. At the end of the nineteenth century, the size of these lands amounted for around 4,650 morgen (i.e. the Hannover morgen, a unit of measurement), which equals around 1,200 hectares today. A theelachter is a member of the Theelacht descending from the founding families of the Theelacht.

Theel lands (little red square), East Frisia, by Ubbo Emmius, 1616

The shareholders of the Theelacht were primarily hereditary, and only they are qualified to vote. These are called the arfburen ‘heir neighbour/member’. The hereditary theel-lands are inherited by the youngest son. Furthermore, if two families with each a theel-land unite through marriage, it is regulated that an arfbur can only have one theel land. No accumulation of land, therefore. Shareholders can also buy themselves in, the so-called koopburen ‘buy neighbour/member’. They, however, have no voting right.

Each theel-land has its own theelbuchtheel book’. In spring and autumn, the shareholders meet in the illustrious theelkammertheel room’. It is located at the ground floor of the old Rathhause ‘town hall’ of Norden. Here board members sit at the fire, smoke a stone pipe, have a good local craft beer, review the theel books, determine the height of the yearly ground canons and, finally, decide on paying the shareholders.

The word theel stems possibly from the word diel (in Mid-Frisian language), or deel (in Dutch language), or Teil (in German language) meaning ‘lot’ or ‘part’. For example, compare the name of nature park De Deelen in province Friesland, where deel originates from the times these peatlands were commercially exploited in deelen, in parts, lots or plots. The word acht is of Old-Frisian origin, and has its origin in ‘wakefulness’ of a partnership of people. So, the Theelacht means something like ‘the wakeful part’. These partnerships could be of a more informal and of a more formal status. The still existing Deichacht Norden and Sielacht (in Old-Frisian known as silfestene, sil meaning sluice, and festene meaning authority) are the partnerships invested with power that have an official role in maintaining the proper functioning of dikes and waterways.

The Theelacht was pretty successful. It had significant assets at the end of the nineteenth century. These have been lost during the first decennia of the twentieth century due to hyperinflation and the money reforms of the ‘20s and, of course, during the Second World War. Currently, only two of the eight bizerke are still being administered by a theelachter. The other theel-lands are in possession of non-theelachters. Of course, the Theelacht as such continues to have control over these lands if the owner wants to sell it. In that case the Theelacht has the preferent option to buy the land. Therefore, in practice the whole process of ownership transfer goes in close consultation with the Theelacht.

At present, the Theelacht has about 450 hectares left of the 1,200 they still had around the year 1900. That is just enough for the maintenance of the theelkammer and basic expenditures. Perhaps the local craft beer and tobacco too.

Theelkammer, Rathaus, Norden

In sum, the Theelacht is still there. However, it has become more a of club than the thriving economic co-operation it once was. And, that is excellent! Giving the good example of unwinding and stepping out of the rush and tempo of modern life.

Further reading

  • Bremen, of A., History of the Archbishops of Bremen-Hamburg. Translated with an introduction & notes by Francis J. Tschan. With a new introduction & selected bibliography by Tomothy Reuter (2002)
  • Delahaye, A., De ware kijk op. Deel II. Het eerste Millennium. Mythen van de Lage Landen (1999)
  • Emmius, U., Rerum frisicarum historia (1616)
  • Folkerts, R., Die Theelacht zu Norden. Ein seit 1100 Jahren auf genossenschaftlicher Basis geführter Familienverband (1986)
  • Lewis, S.M., Rodulf and Ubba. In search of a Frisian-Danish Viking (2018)
  • Rau, S. (ed), Quellen zur karolingischen Reichsgeschichte III (1960)
  • Rieken, B., Nordsee ist Mordsee. Sturmfluten und ihre Bedeutung für die Mentalitätsgeschichte der Friesen (2005)
  • Schuyf, J., Heidense heiligdommen. Zichtbare sporen van een verloren verleden (2019)
  • Siefkes, W., Ostfriesische Sagen und sagenhafte Geschichten (1963)
  • Tuuk, van der L., Gjallar. Noormannen in de Lage Landen (website)
  • Wiersma, J.P., Friesche mythen en sagen (1937)

Note: There is one minority report of a notoriously controversial historian about where the Battle of Norditi between the Frisians and the Norsemen took place, namely at Northout near Nielles lès Ardennes in Belgium or at Northout near Bayenghem lès Eperlecques in France (Delahaye, 1999). We are not convinced that only a very vague resemblance of the place name with Norditi is enough, and besides, no preference is given between the two Northouts. And, archbishop Rimbert was working at Bremen and Hamburg, and not in Belgium or France. Rest assured we did not include this note to provoke the Ostfriesen (again). We would not dare to.

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