Although the conversion was a slow and cumbersome process, and only succeeded in-depth over the course of the tenth century, Frisia subsequently turned into the richest ecclesiastical area of Europe. Nowhere else were that many monasteries and churches packed together. Although nearly all the monasteries have been dismantled with the arrival of Protestantism, till this very day nowhere in the world you can find as many high-medieval churches clumped together as along the barren coast of former Frisia. This is, in fact, the Wadden Sea coast. From the (former) island of Wieringen to the island of Rømø. Many of these medieval churches have a common feature, namely: a bricked-up little door in the wall facing north. According to folklore these were the doorways of the Vikings.
Much has been fantasized and written about these little, sinister doors over the years. It still is a vivid part of regional folklore. You can find plenty of the so-called Norsemen’s Doors in former Frisia. For example in the churches of Bierum, Buitenpost, Collinghorst, Eggelingen, Fransum, Greetsiel, Groothusen, Heiloo, Heveskes, Hollum, Hoorn (isl. Tersch.), Jellum, Jelsum, Jennelt, Jorwert, Leons, Marsum, Oldeberkoop, Oosterend, Oosterland, Oosterwijtwerd, Oudega, Resterhafe, Siddeburen, Stroe, Tettens, Ulrum, Uplengen-Remels, and Wijnjewoude. This is not at all meant to be a exhaustive list. By the way, astray from the Wadden Sea coast some examples exist also, like in Abcoude, Asselt, Doorn and Sint Laureins.
Doorways of the Norsemen, often no more than five feet high, are locally known as Duvelsdoar, Noardsk doarke, Noarmannepoarte, Noormannendeur, Noormannenpoortje, Normannendör, and Normannentür. In the sagas on the (former) islands of Wieringen and Terschelling, above the Norsemen’s Door a head of respectively a pig and a wild boar was hung. Symbols of pagan Germanic believes. There exist many sagas about these doorways in the provinces Noord Holland, Friesland, Groningen of the Netherlands, and in the regions Ostfriesland and Nordfriesland in Germany. We have freely translated one of those sagas, one from Ostfriesland:
Die Nordmänner (‘The Northmen’)
The Norsemen often came to Frisia with their longships to rob and plunder. They murdered the Frisian King Rorik and made themselves lord of the area under King Godfrid. Also, they imposed a high tax on the population, the so-called Klingschatz ‘clink-tax’.
A tax collector would place a Frisian warrior shield, in the colour red or brown, in one of the wooden longhouses. Then, the collector would place himself twelve lots away from this longhouse. The Frisians now had to throw their tax money at the shield. If the far-off collector did not hear the coin clink, he did not accept the payment. All the money that was thrown at the shield but missed the mark or too soft for the tax collector to be heard, was also taken by him. This way all the wealth was taken by Vikings from the Frisians.
The Frisians were also not allowed to wear any silver or gold jewelry. Instead, they had to wear around their necks a noose made of willow rods, which was used to hang criminals those days. This is how the pride of the Frisians was broken.
To ensure that they would not forget to whom they were subjected to, houses of Frisians were allowed to have only one doorway, and only on the northern side of the house. This door had to be so low that people were forced to bow to the north each time they left their house. To the north, where the heathen Norsemen came from. The same rule was enforced concerning their churches. In addition to the south door, also a low northern exit door had to be made for the same horrid purpose. Of course, the Frisians said to themselves, that each time when they bowed to enter their house or church, they showed their butt to the north.
One day, however, King Godfrid was slain by one of his own warriors. After that the Norsemen returned to their homelands. The Frisians removed the north-facing doors. All that remains today of those dark days, are the bricked-up doors in the walls in the north-facing walls of old churches.
Firstly, this saga illustrates how far-reaching and unfair taxation systems work out for citizens, if not managed properly. The present Dutch government can tell you all about it. Just google the word ‘toeslagenaffaire’ or ‘omtzigtelders‘, and shudder and shiver. Secondly, this saga explains why people in region Ostfriesland are excellent at playing the game of Boßeln or klootschießen. After all, if you missed the red shield, you lost a lot of extra money.
Moreover, the real relevance of the saga is that it contains ancient symbols that can be traced back to the period medieval Frisia shifted allegiance from paganism to christendom. From the sphere of influence of the Norsemen coming from the North, to the sphere of influence of the Franks coming from the south. Imagine, how profound Frisia must have been transformed during the tenth and eleventh centuries. From a barren, heathen coastline often in league with the raiding Danes, and thus forming a serious threat to the Frankish empire, to a thorough Christian buffer filled with religious stone structures as a first line of defense against those same Danes. Clever framing by the Frankish bureaucracy, a millennium ago. The symbols mentioned in this saga and in many others, as well as in many high-medieval law codes and texts, express this sharp, mental contrast.
They can be grouped as follows in a manipulative mind map:
- north, heathen
- klipskelde tax, Vikings
- wooden collar, unfree (necks)
- darkness, death
- Devil, King Radbod
- south, christen
- huslotha tax, Franks
- golden collar, free (necks)
- lightness, life
- Christ, Charlemagne
De saga Die Nordmänner from region Ostfriesland is part of the collective memory of the Frisians, that once they were under the direct rule of the Danes. In many medieval legal texts, written in Old Frisian language, much consideration is given to the history how Frisians were free, became un-free, and became free again. And how, eventually, they were free to chose their own law. Roughly the storyline is that the Frisians were the direct descendants of Sem, son of Noach and the first king, and lived in a land called Fresia in Asia. Read also our blog post We’ll drive our ships to new land. From Asia they migrated to Europe where they were enslaved by the Northern King (i.e. the Vikings). Then God send Saint Willibrord to help the Frisians to free themselves from the North. Later, again, the Frisians came under the heel of the North. This time, after Frisian warriors had helped to liberate the eternal and holy city of Rome from the heathens, they received their freedom for a second time. This occasion they got it from Charlemagne himself. The Frisians would remain free as long as they would help to defend the Holy Roman Empire against the heathens (i.e. the Danes and the Saracenes).
North and South
dat elffherten wapen Radbodi wapen is west, de een tijran ouer de fresen is west, de oeck niet lange darna worde wth gedreuen, want de fresen holten halsbanden mosten dragen vnd hoere doeren na den noerden hebben, so leerden dat se buckende, als nigende vor radbodo, wth den huse gingenGozewinus Acker Stratingh (1804-1876)
the eleven hearts emblem has been Radbod’s coat of arms, who was tyrant over the Frisians, who also not long after had been driven out, because the Frisians had to bear wooden collars and to have their doors facing north, so they learned that they went bend, as to bow for Radbod, out of their homes
The folklore concerning the Norsemen’s Doors can without any doubt be assigned to the realm of fiction. The many so-called Romanesque hall-churches in Frisia have been built more or less a century after the reign of the Norsemen and the Viking raids. Above, the time when the Vikings were active in Frisia, until the end of the tenth century, Frisians were by and large still heathen. Sagas concerning the Norsemen’s Doors only started to appear in fifteenth- and sixteenth-centuries chronicles. Of course, they might have been a older than that.
It is a typical design of the north along the Wadden Sea coast: Romanesque hall-churches that have two doorways opposed to each other. One in the south-facing wall, and one in the north-facing wall. This concept, however, might be of Anglo-Saxon origin.
The real story behind these doors is probably that they were entrances for women. From the start, these doors were not high. Gradually, with a steadily raising ground level of the adjacent graveyard, the doors became even lower. Later, when the doors were no longer in use, they were bricked up. The north entrance is at the shadow-side. Thus, the colder, windier, and darker side. The northern part of the graveyard was also the part where criminals were buried. Not for nothing high-medieval Frisian law used the metaphor ‘the north-facing tree’ for the gallows if someone was to be hanged after a crime. The late-medieval Emsinger Recht (‘law of Ems’) also metaphorically speaks of taking a criminal ‘to the north’ when he was sentenced to death.
en vrrede and hi wrreth lond and liude and hi fart inur Saxenna merka and hi uthlath thene haga helm and thene rada skeld and thene sareda riddere and hi binna Fresena merkum man sleith and burga barnd, sa ach ma hine north inna thet lef to ferane and theron te sansaneEmsinger Recht
a traitor to the land and he betrays land and people and goes into the border region of the Saxons and gets from there the high helmet and the red shield and the armed knight and he goes into the land of the Frisians and kills men and burns strongholds, then he should be taken northward to the sea and be thrown in the sea
In short, the northern door was an appropriate church entrance for women, who were according to the Bible carrying the original sin after all. After service, they would leave through the door in the southern wall, stepped into the light and into the warmth of the sun. Reborn after prayer, chant, and the uplifting teachings of the priest. Others have a slightly different explanation and think the northern doorway was used by all churchgoers to enter the church. Men, women, and children alike.
Besides the north entrance, these Romanesque churches regularly have small windows placed in the northern wall too. Unclear exactly what the purpose was of these tiny windows. Perhaps for lepers or for people suffering from other contagious deceases. We can think of one such an infectious desease today and would offer it as a solution to a former island in the Zuiderzee and their church assemblies. Anyway, its nickname in the Netherlands is leproazefinster ‘leper window’.
The northern door is also where the baptismal font was placed. When someone was baptized, the door was left open so the Devil could flee during the purifying ritual. Furthermore, through the northern door the dead were carried into the church and the procession left through the southern door. That way not only the soul of the deceased traveled from the darkness into the light, but also the Devil was tricked in the process. It would be waiting outside the northern doorway in vain for the deceased to come out to take its soul to Hell. Instead, they sneaked out through the southern door. Quickly buried the corpse in consecrated ground on the south side of the church, and the soul would be protected till judgement’s day.
Death and Taxes
The shift from the Klingschatz (‘clink-tax’) or klipskelde taxation imposed by the Vikings, to the huslotha taxation imposed by the Franks, was also symbolic for the Frisians as to where their new allegiance lay. The huslotha, by the way, was basically a taxation on property. The system to raise the klipskelde was quite awkward to say the least, as you might have read in the saga Der Nordmänner above.
Interestingly, another similar practice can be found in medieval Frisian law texts. It can be found in the late eighth-century Lex Frisionum ‘law of the Frisians’ and the Leges Barbarorum. The latter is a collection of several Latin law codes between the fifth and ninth centuries. These laws also contain the practice of throwing stuff at a warrior shield to make it clink. This time it is part of a procedure to settle disputes after a fight, to determine the weregeld ‘blood money’ to be paid by the offender and his/her kin to the victim and his/her kin. In this case, by throwing the bone splinters from the victim’s body to a red or brown shield. If the bone splinters were big enough to clink loud enough to be heard by a man who stood twelve steps away from the shield, then these splinters were fit for setting the compensation.
Find out more about the institute of the weregeld and how compensation (extensively) was regulated in medieval Frisia in our blog post: You killed a man? That’ll be 1 weregeld, please.
Thit is thiv sivgunde liodkest, thet alle Frisa an fria stole besitte and hebbe fria spreka and fri ondwarde; thet urief us thi kinig Kerl, til hiv thet wi Frisa suther nigi and clipskelde urtege and wrthe tha suthera kininge hanzoch and heroch alles riuchtes tinzes and tegotha, and huslotha urgulde bi asiga dome and bi lioda londriuchte, al with thet wi er north herdon Redbate tha unfrethmonne, al thet Frisona wasRüstringer Recht
This is the seventh statue, that all Frisians possess a free chair and have free speech [i.e. accusation] and free answer [i.e. defense]; that privilege was granted by Charlemagne, so that we Frisians would turn to the south and refuse to pay taxes in clinking money and would be subordinate and loyal to the southern [i.e. the Franks] king in all levy and tithe, and pay house tax according to the decision of the asega [i.e. law expert] and the people’s land law, all because we once belonged to the north [i.e. the Danes] to Radbod, the quarrelsome, all who were Frisian
Another part of the sagas is that the people of Frisia were obliged by the Norsemen to wear a noose made of willow rods around their necks. A sign of not being free. A sign of being a slave. With their shift of allegiance to the Franks, the necks of the Frisians were freed from these wooden collars. From then on, they were called ‘free-necks’ and allowed to wear golden collars and all other jewelry again. This freedom was given to them by Charlemagne, and for this reason he fulfills a central role in the legends and sagas of the Frisians, from province Friesland to Kreis Nordfriesland. Read our blog post: Magnus’ Choice. The Origins of the Frisian Freedom.
Note 1 – If you would like to sleep in one of those old churches, know that is possible for a hiker. A great initiative, we think. In province Friesland quite a few are available as refugio. Check the websites Jabikspaad (‘Jabik path’) and Santiago aan het Wad (‘Santiago at the Wadden Sea’). At the day of writing you can stay the night in the following churches: Blesum, Boksum, Britsum, Foudgum, Hiaure, Jorwert, Nijland, Peins, Swichum, Sybrandahûs, Terband, Wânswert and Zurich.
The refugio’s are open from March until September. You need to ring 24 hours in advance and it will cost you 15 euro. You need to have either:
- Pilgrim pass of the Nederlands Genootschap van Sint Jabob;
- Stamp card or route book of the Jabikspaad (‘Jabik path’);
- Route book of the Sint Odulphuspad (‘Saint Odulphus path’);
- Route book of the Bonifatius Kloosterpad (‘Saint Boniface Monastery path’);
- Route book of the Claercamppad (‘Claercamp path’), or be;
- Donor of the Âlde Fryske Tsjerken foundation.
Note 2 – If you really want to know what happened to Vikings in Frisia, read our blog post Frisia, a Viking graveyard. Hope the title is not too much of a spoiler.
Note 3 – Featured image is the village of Groothusen, Ostfriesland. Its church has a Norsemen’s door too.
- Bos-van der Heide, H.S.E., Het Rudolfsboek (1937)
- Hillinga, H., De funktie van de Noormannenpoortjes. Waarheden en onwaarheden over Noormannenpoorten (2012)
- Hillinga, H., Noormannenpoorten en houten halsbanden. Waarheden en onwaarheden over Noormannenpoorten en houten halsbanden (2010)
- In Pago Wirense, Legends and Folklore on Wieringen (website)
- IJssennagger, N.L., Central because Liminal. Frisia in a Viking Age North Sea World (2017)
- Karstkarel, P., Alle Middeleeuwse Kerken. Van Harlingen tot Wilhelmshaven (2007)
- Meder, T., Wilda witzinges flod (2020)
- Molen, van der S.J., Oorsprong en geschiedenis van de Friezen (1981)
- Siefkes, W., Ostfriesische Sagen und sagenhafte Geschichten (1963)
- Smit, N., In het noorden huisde de duivel: het verhaal achter de noormannenpoortjes (website)
- Tuuk, van der L., Vikingen. Noormannen in de Lage Landen (2015)
- Wiersma, J.P., Friesche Mythen en Sagen (1973)
- Ybema, J., Middeleeuws Oudfries recht komt digitaal opnieuw tot leven (2020)