Latið meg ei á Frísaland fordervast! ‘Do no let me perish in Friesland!’ A cry-out of a Faroese young woman when she was being kidnapped by Frisian pirates in the Middle Ages. The question of this blog post is not about how on earth it was possible that the people of the Faroe Islands had such a bad image of Friesland. Instead, we will review the old Faroese sagas about the Frisians.
Faroese oral accounts tells about encounters with Frisian pirates. Accounts that were codified at the end of the eighteenth century. Especially of a Frisian settlement on the south-end of the archipelago. These are folk songs or poems called the Frísa kvæđi ‘Frisian poem’ or Frísarnir ‘Frisians’ and the children’s rhyme called Frísaspæl ‘Frisian game’ or Frísa vísa ‘the Frisian tune’. In this blog post we combined the different sagas and legends into one story, which might, who knows, roughly be the history of the Frisians in relation to the Faroes.
From the beginning of the eighth century onward, the Franks conquered much of Frisia. The Frisians were heathen and therefore the Franks also put a lot of effort in trying to convert the people. Some Frisians could not live with foreign domination and wanted to stay loyal to their ancient pagan believes. So, many set off to sea. At sea they lived from piracy by raiding merchant ships. If we are to believe the stories, these pirates were real gentlemen because the crew of the merchant ships was never done any physical harm.
One of the fleets of these pirates, who harbored a fierce hatred towards Christianity, made landfall at Suðuroy ‘south island’. That was not long after Grímur Kamban had settled, the first Norwegian settler at the Faroe Islands, and who was Christianized by the papar, i.e. Irish hermit monks around 825. The rest of the islands was inhabited by Norsemen who already were converted to Christianity, when the Frisians arrived. Therefore, the Frisians did not feel the urge to integrate with the other islanders and formed their own, isolated community. Neither did they desire the Faroese women. No explanation is given for this, and apparently they brought their own women. Any other explanation would be a little awkward. The settlement, consisting of only thirteen houses, was located on the mountain Akraberg (see cover photo of this blog post) and was defended with a bulwark. Here, the Frisians lived off fishing, farming, and off piracy. They had two, lean (pirate) ships. Ships that were locally known for their maneuverability. Each ship had place for twelve rowers. The ships were moored at the settlement of Sunnbøur, current Sumbo. The Frisians, after a while, did trade with the Faroese, but the islanders were not allowed to enter the Frisian village.
The new settlers for long gave no food for more oral accounts, until Bishop Erlendur wanted to build a genuine, stone cathedral dedicated to Saint Magnus, in the village of Kirkjubøur at the southern tip of island Streymoy, around the year 1300. Such ambitions have a price tag, and thus taxes were raised. The Faroese people south of Hórisgøta, i.e. the islands Sydstreymoy, Sandoy, Skúvoy en Suðuroy, revolted against the northerners. A civil war broke out. A first battle took place at Mannafellsdal, a valley north of the village Kaldbaksbotnur on Streymoy. The southerners lost the battle. So much blood was spoiled that till this day the grass is colored red. Also, you can still see many hills which are the graves of the men who died. North of the valley stands the brynjumanna borð ‘the table of the brynmen, the fountain men’. This big stone received its name after the northerners celebrated their victory at this spot.
The Saint Magnus is, by the way, also a saint very popular with the Frisians. Magnus was even transformed into a leader of the Frisians during the battle for Rome in the early-ninth century. Magnus Forteman chose, and received from Charlemagne, the freedom privileges. Check out our blog post Magnus’ Choice. The Origins of the Frisian Freedom.
But the revolt was not over, and bishop Erlendur launched a second punitive expedition a year later. The second battle took place at the inlet Kollefjord, a bit more north of Kaldbaksbotnur. This time the southerners had asked the heathen Frisians for help. The help of bondin í Akrabyrgi ‘the farmer of the Akra mountain’ and his seven sons. Some say his name was Hergeir. The Frisians were known for their stature and strength (read also our blog post The Giants of Twilight Land). Why the Frisians took part this time and not the first time, is not told. Maybe they were handsomely rewarded. If so, it would support the Frisians at Akraberg were still a pirate-like colony to be feared in battle. But to involve them on your side, you of course needed to have a trade-off.
The Frisians arrived at Kollefjord with two Viking ships, disembarked and led the charge at the northerners. The army of the bishop lost many men and fled to Kirkjubøur. Here the armies came to a standstill. This, because the Christian southerners did not dare to enter Kirkjubøur. Afraid of being cursed by God and the Pope. However, the heathen Frisian farmer and his sons did not care, and chased the bishop all the way to the cathedral that was under construction, and where Erlendur had taken refuge on top of a wall. The farmer of Akraberg and his sons were in no hurry and did not sacrilege the place. Instead, they surrounded the cathedral’s wall and waited for three days and three nights. By then the bishop was exhausted due to severe thirst and hunger, and fell of the wall. The farmer killed the bishop, which must have been a piece of cake. After that, there was peace on the Faroes. The construction of the Saint Magnus Cathedral was never finished, and the ruins of it are still there as a witness of people who become overambitious.
In the years 1349 and 1350, the Black Death haunted the Faroe Islands. Many were killed and most of the Frisian colony as well. Only a few Frisians at Akraberg survived. They left the place and settled at Sumbo, Hargar and Laðangarður near Froðbøur, where they became Christian and mingled with the locals. That was the end of the Frisian pirate colony. The people of Sumbo, however, claim to be descendants of these Frisians.
Besides this saga, there is the Frísa vísa. It is a children’s rhyme and game wherein a young woman is about to be kidnapped by rude Frisian pirates, and who want to take her back to Friesland. The girl and here family make one team, and the Frisian pirates make the other one. The game is to try to ransom the girl with singing verses. It starts with the father who refuses to ransom his daughter, then the mother, then her brother and so forth. Up to the game when the team gives in. If they do, then it is her fiancé who rescues her.
A variant of the same rhyme, also with Frisian pirates, exists at Iceland. Apparently, pirates were associated with Vikings and Scandinavians by non-Scandinavians, whilst Scandinavians themselves associated Vikings and pirates with Frisians.
Frísar lögdu sínar árar í sjó,
so vildu teir frá landi ró;
jomfrúin græt og hendur sló:
“Lati meg ei á Frísaland fordervast!
Bía, bía min, Frísar!
meg mann fair loysa;
eg trúgvi so gott til fair mín,
hann loysir meg vi borgum sínum,
hann letur meg ei á Frísaland fordervast.”
“Eg havi ikki borgar uttan tvá,
hvörga kann eg lata fyri teg gá;
forvist mást tú á Frísaland fordervast.”The Frisians laid their oars in sea,
they wanted row away from the land;
the maid cried and wrung her hands in despair:
“Do not let me perish in Friesland!
Wait, wait, Frisians!
my father will ransom me;
I believe him so good,
he will ransom me with his castles,
he will not let me parish in Friesland”
“I have no castles except two,
neither of them I can give up;
indeed you may perish in Friesland”
Note 1: We modified the sagas a bit, especially on the timeline. The first choice we made, was that there are stories that date back the arrival of the Frisian pirates to the Early Middle Ages and others that say the Frisian pirates arrived in the eleventh century. We chose the first period, since that fits indeed the time of Frankish expansion and Christianization. The other choice we made, is the time the struggle with the bishop took place. The saga namely says that -historically correct- in 1350 the Black Death decimated (also) the Frisians, and only one very strong and tall farmer and two (or seven or eight) sons survived. Soon after that, the whole incident with bishop Erlendur took place, according to the saga. This can not be correct, since bishop Erlendur lived around 1300, which is also the date of the partly completed Magnus Cathedral. So, we turned it around. First the bishop thing and then the plague thing. It would also explain why the settlement ended.
Furthermore, there is the legend that a certain bloke named Hergeir burned down the house of bishop Erlendur. Except that it illustrates Erlendur was really not popular at the Faroes, we have found too little information to place this person in the story. We simply suggest he might have been the Frisian farmer annex pirate.
Note 2: Pirates and Frisians have a centuries-long history. Read our blog post It all began with piracy to get an idea.
Note 3: Besides the Faroe Islands, also in Switzerland exist origin legends that the people there descend from Frisians. For more about this Swiss-Frisian DNA, check our blog post Make way for the dead.
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Featured image: Akraberg by faroephoto.com