“The reason I am late for class? Well, there was a strange cat in our barn this morning, and I stepped in its poop. Therefore, I first had to clean my shoes before I could go to school. That’s the reason. Really!” A similar pretext was made in the year 1040, by a bunch of Frisians who said they had sailed to the North Pole, saw world’s end, and escaped many great dangers. It is a story of bribe and prejudice.
Below the English translation of this thousand year old lie recorded by magister Adam of Bremen (originally the town of Bremen was called Bremum) in his Gesta Hammaburgensis ecclesiae pontificum ‘Deeds of bishops of the Hamburg church’ written in ca. 1075. Magister Adam came from the Margravate of Meissen. He was a chronicler connected to the church of Bremen. Why this context is important, will become clear after reading this post.
But also a warning before reading: this text is not suitable for underage because of violent scenes.
Archbishop Adalbert of blessed memory likewise told us that in the days of his predecessor [this is Alebrand, see below] certain noble men of Frisia spread sail to the north for the purpose of ranging through the sea, because the inhabitants claimed that by a direct course toward the north from the mouth of the River Weser one meets with no land but only that sea called the Libersee.
The partners pledged themselves under oath to look into this novel claim and, with a joyful call to the oarsmen, set out from the Frisian coast. Then, leaving on the one side Denmark, on the other Britain, they came to Orkney. And when they had left these islands to their left, while they had Norway on their right, the navigators landed after a long passage on icy Iceland. And as they furrowed the seas from that place toward the farthest northern pole, after they saw behind them all the islands spoken about above [namely Vinland -i.e. Newfoundland- and Greenland], they commended their way and venture to Almighty God and the holy confessor Willehad.
Of a sudden they fell into that numbing ocean’s dark mist which could hardly be penetrated with the eyes. And, behold, the current of the fluctuating ocean whirled back to its mysterious fountainhead and with most furious impetuosity drew the unhappy sailors, who in their despair now thought only of death, on to chaos; this they say is the abysmal chasm; that deep in which report has it all the back flow of the sea, which to decrease, is absorbed and in turn re-vomited, as the mounting fluctuation is usually described. As the partners were imploring the mercy of God to receive their souls, the backward thrust of the sea carried away some of their ships, but its forward ejection threw the rest far behind the others. Freed thus by the timely help of God from the instant peril they had had before their eyes, they seconded the flood by rowing with all their might.
No sooner had the mariners escaped the peril of darkness and the land of frost than unexpectedly came upon an island fortified like a town by very high cliffs which encircled it. When they disembarked there to explore the place, they found men lurking in underground hollows at midday. Before the entrances lay a countless number of vessels of gold and of metals of a kind considered rare and precious by mortals. When they had taken as much of the treasure as they could carry away, the happy oarsmen returned quickly to their ships. Of a sudden they saw coming behind them amazingly tall men, whom our people call Cyclops. Before them ran dogs exceeding the usual size of these quadrupeds, who in their attack seized one of the comrades, and in a twinkling tore him to pieces before their eyes. The rest, however, took to the ships and escaped the peril. The giants, as they said, followed them, with vociferation, almost out to the high sea.
Attended by such good fortune, the Frisians came back to Bremum [Bremen] where they told Archbishop Alebrand everything as it had happened, and made offerings to the blessed Christ and His holy confessor Willehad for their safe return.
Would, nowadays, a schoolteacher believe such a story for being late for class? “I sailed to the Arctic and back, saw the end of the world, escaped from a maelstrom, found a lot of valuables and precious things just laying around on a treasure island, fled from Cyclops and huge dogs, bút I made it back alive from terra incognita; rowing. That’s why I’m late, ma’am.” No, of course she would not. These Frisians were clearly ordinary pirates, raiding with their ship, who knows called the Merrimac, the North Sea. It was a made-up story explaining to the ecclesiastical authorities all the booty they were carrying.
The Code – These eleventh-century pirates sailed already under oath, as became clear from this medieval text. In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, pirates and buccaneers before embarking had to sign the code of the ship. It were the ship’s articles how to behave, the penalties on misbehavior and how the loot was divided; the so-called pirate codes. Besides signing the code, they had to swear an oath of allegiance too. Hence, an old pirate tradition dating to 1000 at least.
But Archbishop Alebrand, apparently, díd believe the story. That is, after the Frisians had made offerings to Christ and Saint Willehad. That means some of the booty was given to the church. Maybe Alebrand’s judgement was clouded, and he wanted to believe they had not been pirating. A man of a pragmatic nature.
And the lie even grew bigger. Adam of Bremen recorded this story, which he must have heard from Alebrand, for true in his above cited Gesta. What was magister Adam’s motive to record such a lie? Or, did he really believe the miraculous story? If the latter is the case, what does that say about the rest of his voluminous and much appreciated work? Or, were these so-called euphemistic ‘ranging trips’ still going on when magister Adam wrote down his stuff, decennia later. Were these pirates still offering a percentage of their loot and prizes to Christ and Saint Willehad? Was his judgement therefore clouded as well?
Puritans and pirates
The Frisian and internationally renowned writer Simon Vestdijk from the port town Harlingen at the Wadden Sea, and one of the most significant writers of Dutch literature ever, wrote in 1945 the novel ‘Puriteinen en piraten‘ (‘Puritans and pirates’). It is the story of the ship the Merrimac, built in Boston in 1718. At first, it is unclear for what purpose the ship was built by it sponsors. Later, its purpose as a pirate ship became clear. The sponsors were Puritans who secretly wanted to make a mundane fortune. We cannot help to see parallels between Vestdijk’s book and this high-medieval story: the faithful in league with pirates for booty. Moreover, a story of pirates operating from the mouth of the River Weser at the Wadden Sea, a sea at which Vestdijk lived too.
Note 1 – This region, the southern coasts of the North Sea, has a very, very old pirating tradition. It dates back to the period of the Great Wandering of People. Check out our blog post It all began with piracy to learn how a true pirate culture developed along these shores in Roman times.
Note 2 – The bright side of that the whole expedition to the Arctic was a lie, is that another Frisian sailor, Willem Barentsz from the Wadden Sea island Terschelling, still can claim to be the first Frisian to have wintered in the Arctic, i.e. at todays Novaya Zemlya, Russia in the year 1596. And soon after, when the Frisians were at the whaling in the northern ice seas, many more stayed the winter in the Arctic, like on Greenland, Spitsbergen and Jan Mayen island. Read our post Happy Hunting Grounds of the Arctic to find more information about this piece of history.
Suggestion for further reading:
- Barrie, J.M., Peter Pan (1904)
- Bremen, of A., History of the Archbishops of Hamburg-Bremen. Translated with an introduction & notes by Francis J. Tschan. With a new introduction & selected bibliography by Timothy Reuter (2002)
- Defoe, D., A General History of the Robberies and Murders of the most notorious Pyrates (1724)
- Inspiring Elise (blog)
- Kurowski, F., Die Friesen. Das Volk am Meer (2019)
- Meier, D., Seefahrer, Händler und Piraten im Mittelalter (2004)
- Simpson-Housley, P., The Arctic: Enigmas and Myths (1996)
- Stevenson, R.L., Treasure Island (1883)
- Toorn-Piebenga, G.A., Friese ontdekkingsreizigers in de elfde eeuw (1986)
- Vestdijk, S., Puriteinen en piraten (1945)