To the end where it all began: ribbon Ribe

Let’s go to the omega, the end of the Frisia Coast Trail. To Ribe in southern Jutland, Denmark. The oldest town of Scandinavia. A town located on the banks of the river Ribe Å. A modest river that flows out into the Wadden Sea opposite the islands Fanø and Mandø. It started as a seasonal marketplace. Year-round settlement began around the year 700. Everything in a peaceful time still. Only with the raid on island Lindisfarne in Northumberland in 793, the Norsemen would launch the Age of the Vikings (Näsman 2000). Exactly the opposite what the founders of Ribe had in mind, namely: free trade and making lots of money for yourself. In this respect the Vikings did not honour the true spirit of their oldest town. But who were its founders?

From around mid-seventeenth century, supra-regional trade started the flourish in the northwestern Europe. Trade via the hwæl-weġ ‘waterway’ (an Old English kenning which literally translates as ‘whale-way/road’), either sea or river. Connecting the Anglo-Saxon world, Frisia and the Frankish hinterland with each other. And the trade extended into southern Scandinavia and the Baltic Sea too. Silver pennies as the new currency was introduced by the Franks and the Frisians, soon followed by the Anglo-Saxons, to facilitate the liberal trade. Frisia was ideally located, along the southern North Sea coast with access to the major rivers Scheldt, Rhine, Meuse and Ems. Frisian merchants indisputably became the freighters of the Early Middle Ages.

First mention in written sources of Ribe is in the Vita Willibrordi archiepiscopi Traiectensis ‘Life of Willibrord archbishop of Utrecht’, written by clergyman Alcuin of York in the late eighth century. In the year 696, pope Sergius I consecrated Willibrord as archbishop of the Frisians, and he is commonly known as Apostle to the Frisians. Being mindful of the idea noblesse oblige, Willibrord started to missionize the Frisians. He visited their heathen king Radbod. A man nicknamed the Enemy of God, or described as homo omni fera crudelior et omni lapide durior, meaning ‘a human being more savage than any wild beast and harder than any stone’. Besides a welcome reception at his citadel, Willibrord was not able ‘to produce any fruit’ with this hardened-heart ruler.

Maybe it was king Radbod who suggested to Willibrord to give it a try with his colleague and fellow-king Ongendus, the ruler of southern Jutland. Southern Jutland bordered the most northern part of the Frisian cultural area, known today as Kreis Nordfriesland. From the eight century onward, this area was being populated by Frisians mainly from East Frisia and the river Elbe region. Willibrord must have visited south-western Jutland between 690 and 714 (Corsi 2020). Again, Willibrord got a warm welcome at the royal hall but did not accomplish anything with king Ongendus either. He left Ongendus’ realm and set sail for Fositesland. A rocky island between the lands of the Frisians and the Danes where the first gathered to worship their idol Fosite.

King Ongendus – Ongendus is also known as Agantyr. Many stories are being told about him. For one thing, Ongendus was crueler than any wild beast, and he (too) was harder than stone. He furthermore possessed the magical sword named Tyrfing. Once released from its scabbard, this sword needed to kill. Similar to the Indonesian Mataram keris ‘snake sword’ named Pusaka. A sword with secret powers. Once a keris has killed, it keeps killing too. Lastly, king Ongendus supposedly built much of the Danevirke, the massive earthwork or defensive wall in the south of Denmark.

According to Frisian sagas, the sword of king Radbod also had a name, namely: Asbran (Wiersma 1937). The name means ‘he who rules over all people’. After Radbod’s death the sword was thrown into the sea.

The picture that emerges from the above is, that in the course of the seventh century Frisians were getting noticed in the wider region. Both by Frankish rulers as well as Anglo-Saxon missionaries. Frisian individuals controlled the maritime trade, made lots of money for themselves, had easy access to all kinds of luxury and status goods, and undoubtedly possessed much wealth. Marketplaces, first seasonal and later also permanent, of typical Frisian model emerged everywhere (Baug, et al 2019). Examples are Scriginges healh ‘Kaupang’, Æt Hæþum or Of Hæðum ‘Hedeby’, Sigtuna (i.e. at Stora Gatan St., Van der Tuuk 2011), Staraja Ladoga (Tesch 2013), and, indeed, Ribe. The layout of the town of York also showed similarities with that of the great emporium Dorestat and of Ribe (Grogan 2020). Of early-medieval York we know from written sources a Frisian quarter of merchants existed. The settlements Dorestat, Emden (i.e. Pelzerstraße; Van der Tuuk 2011), Hamburg (Bani-Sadr 2016), Medemblik, and Stavoren are being considered typical Frisian trade settlements of origin.

Concerning Ribe, it is plausible that around the year 700 Frisian merchants approached king Ongendus to set up a market area on the banks of the river Ribe Å to expand their network of well-organized trading places (Corsi 2020). Ribe belonged to a local elite who were resident in the area south of Ribe, and some kind of arrangement must have been made between the merchants and the local big men at Dankirke close to current Ribe (Søvsø 2020). Landing place Ribe was the youngest and most northern addition to the Frisian network along North Sea coasts (Faveile 2012). As said earlier, archaeological research has proven that year-round settlement at Ribe was the case from around the year 700 (Croix 2015, Søvsø 2020). The original marketplace of this proto-town was set up on the northern banks of the river. Only later would the settlement expand to the southern banks.

Not only provided the landing of Ribe onward maritime connections dominated by the Frisians, one could also travel more inland east, following the river Ribe Å. Important too was that Ribe was the location of the river crossing of the Droveway. In the Early Middle Ages there probably was a bridge already. The Droveway ran in the West Jutlandic coastal zone parallel to the North Sea and existed already in the Stone Age (Søvsø 2020). Therefore, Ribe was a strategic spot where maritime transport and transport overland met. From Ribe there was also easy access to Hærvejen or the King’s Highway. So, from Ribe you could ride the King’s Highway (Morrison 1967). Onward transportation over land to the north to, among other, Århus and to the east, notably to Hedeby (Sindbæk 2007).

Frisian city planning

These marketplaces had a specific layout, which is considered typical Frisian (Baug, et al 2019). A two-metres-wide planked street running parallel to the river with regular plots next to it. Resulting in a ribbon-like shape. A river lane settlement, also called an Uferparallelle Einstraßenanlage. The plots of land were between six to eight metres wide and about twenty to thirty metres deep. The parcels were separated by small, shallow ditches and wattle fencing. Furthermore, no presence of a central market square, nor any other structure indicating control over the site of worldly or clerical rulers, for that matter (Van der Tuuk 2011, Tesch 2013, Rösch 2013, Bani-Sadr 2016, Corsi 2020). On the plots presence of so-called sunken pit houses (also: sunken featured buildings, SFB) or Grubenhäuser has been established, which were basically artisan manufacturing huts. An estimated seventy to hundred trading houses were located in the marketplace area.

Walking the planked street between the narrow, deep plots was like walking on the spine of a fish bone; see image above and take away head and fins.

Archaeological research also revealed that early, locally made earthen artifacts show a strong connection with Frisia (Thoeming 2018). Quite a lot of eighth-century sweet water wells have been excavated. In total five. These were made with the use of wine barrels of which most originate from the Rhine lands around Mainz. This practice of reusing barrels for wells is identical to what was the practice at Dorestat.

Furthermore, archaeological research proved that the money economy was fully dominated by Frisian merchants. Majority of the Ribemønten ‘Ribe coinage’ found are sceattas ‘pennies’. These are Frisian coins and measure up 85 percent of all coins found at Ribe. About 220 sceattas have been found. At first different types of sceattas were being used, but from around 725 only the Frisian wodan/monster type sceattas appear. Likely these coins were minted in Ribe between 725 and 800 (Søvsø 2020), albeit some scholars think also these sceattas were even being minted in western Frisia (Faveile 2012). With this, Ribe is also where the oldest money was produced in Scandinavia, and the spot where for the first time ever money was being used anyway in the barter culture of the cold north (Sindbæk 2016).

artist impressions of Ribe by Flemming Bau

The name Ribe – Some say the word Ribe is of Frisian origin (Van der Tuuk 2011). In the Early Middle Ages, the settlement is named Ripa, or in Latin Ripensis. The former Dutch name for Ribe was Rijpen. The modern German name for Ribe is still Ripen. The word ripa is Old Danish for ‘strip’ or ‘stripe’ (Hansleigh Wedgwood 1865) and in Latin language it means ‘river bank’ (Gammeltoft 2011). In modern Mid-Frisian language ripe or ryp means a ‘narrow plot of land’. The Frisian expression is ‘ripen en stripen’ indicating narrow and irregular(!) plots of land’(Zantema 1992).

In province Noord Holland lies the village of De Rijp, and in province Friesland the village Dronryp. The etymology of rijp or ryp is strip of land, rim, or (river-)bank or riverside. In provinces Groningen and Drenthe the words rîpe and riep mean footpath of cobble stones, or denote the cobble stones alongside the pavement. The oldest attestation of the word rijp/rip in the Netherlands is in the toponym Keddingrip somewhere in district Westergo in province Friesland, meaning ‘rim or banks belonging to a person named Kedde’ (Van Berkel & Samplonius 2018).

Instead of making a distinction between river bank or riverside versus stripe or strip of land (Søvsø 2020), maybe ribe or ripe is both and there is not much difference between the two explanations.

Then there is the six rapes of Sussex, which was a territorial division unique to this former kingdom. Traditionally, the word rape is said to stem from the Old Norse hreppr meaning ‘a share or an estate held in absolute ownership’, albeit Sussex lay outside the Danelaw. The rapes ran north-south and seen from above they do look like strips of land, which fits with the ‘Frisian’ definition (Hilder 2022).

Sussex rapes 1832

We guess the English verb ‘to rip’ has a similar origin when you rip this whole blogpost theory to tiny pieces. And, lastly, the Dutch still love their chocolade reep ‘chocolate bar’.

Around the year 850, king Horik II of Denmark gave archbishop Ansgar permission to build a wooden church on the southern banks of the river. Ansgar, whose life is described by Rimbert from Bremen in his Vita Anskarii ‘Life of Ansgar’ written around 870, was archbishop of Hamburg-Bremen and known as Apostle of the North. Approval to build a church was not much more than a token of tolerance towards Christianity because it took more than a century before the first Viking king was baptized; Harrold Bluetooth. Bluetooth was persuaded after the ordeal of a foreign priest named Poppo. After Poppo held a glowing-hot, iron bar in his bare hands without any sign of burning them, Bluetooth was convinced. In the year 948, Ribe became even the episcopal see. The wooden church was replaced by a stone church in the early twelfth century. Today, it is the beautiful Vor Frue Maria Domkirke ‘Our Lady Mary Cathedral’, or simply the Ribe Cathedral. The oldest church of Scandinavia.

Southwestern Jutland is a complex cultural landscape. A crossroad of gateways and of spheres of influences, like the Franks, the Saxons, the Slaves and the Danes. And, it was heavily influenced by Frisian culture too, during the Early Middle Ages (Faveile 2012). The Frisian area of Nordfriesland reached more or less to the creek Vidå, or in North Frisian language Widuu meaning ‘widow’. The creek is the present-day border between Denmark and Germany.

North Frisian language used to be spoken in the salt-marsh area of southwest Jutland up to the village of Højer, only about ten kilometres into Denmark. However, other typical Frisian influences can be found even further north into Denmark to this day, like canal and dike construction, typical Frisian gable mansards above front doors, roof thatching techniques, the tradition of spring bonfires locally called biikebrenne or pederblus, and the three-aisled farmstead types. Some of these specific Frisian features can be found all the way to the modern town of Skærbæk just south of Ribe (Rasmussen 1973, Knottnerus 2008). That is close to the northernmost terp ‘artificial dwelling mounds’ as well, namely the terp of Misthusum. See our Manual Making a Terp in 12 Steps for more about these mounds which are yet another Frisian cultural feature in this area south of Ribe.

Research into the early-medieval burial practices at Ribe (like inhumation, cremation, urns, gifts, position and orientation of the body N-E or S-W etc) shows a diversity of practices that is in line with that of the coast of Frisia along the Wadden Sea. The strongest parallels in burial practices are found with the areas of Nordfriesland and Ostfriesland. Strontium isotope analyses indicates most people were raised near Ribe. However, with isotope analyses no distinction could be made between individuals originating from Frisia, and the Elbe region, and those originating from southern Jutland. Anyway it means, that if the market site Ribe attracted immigrants, they came from these nearby areas (Croix, et al 2020).

End & Start

The finish of the long-distance Frisia Coast Trail at Ribe marks the end of the Frisian cultural landscape and the beginning of Scandinavia. Ribe is located just outside Frisian territory, but was it was a familiar landscape for Frisians. Close to the Wadden Sea and bordering the tidal marshlands. And the area just south of Ribe has been influenced by Frisians over many centuries. Ribe itself was start up by merchants from Frisia. The oldest city, the oldest church and the oldest money mint of Scandinavia. To expand their early-medieval commercial network with the northern world. A free trade that was primarily peacefully.

The proto-town Ribe together with other early trading towns like Hedeby, Kaupang and Birka, were a defining factor for the emergence of the Viking culture and society in Scandinavia (Brink 2018). However, not long after, the Danes and other Scandinavians would initiate a whole different way of making a fortune. Indeed, there was danger on the edge of town (Morrison 1967).

tidal marshlands (end & start) of the Wadden Sea near Ribe

Note 1 – If interested in the landscape and culture at the start of the Frisia Coast Trail, check our post A Frontier known as Watery Mess: the Coast of Flanders.

Note 2 – The Danish word Å in river Ribe Å means ‘small river’ and is comparable with, for example, the Drentse Aa in province Drenthe, the Dokkumer Ee in province Friesland, or the (Amsterdam) IJ in province Noord Holland. All these guttural sounds are (former) small rivers in the Netherlands. For more common origin words consult our post 10 words to travel 1,500 years and miles across the Frisian shores.

Suggested music

Further reading

  • Bani-Sadr, N., A Study of the Evidence for the Viking Age Harbour at Ribe, Denmark (2016)
  • Baug, I., Skre, D., Heldal, T. & Jansen, Ø.J., The Beginning of the Viking Age in the West (2019)
  • Berkel, van G. & Samplonius, K., Nederlandse plaatsnamen verklaard. Reeks Nederlandse plaatsnamen deel 12 (2018)
  • Brink, S., Viking Scandinavians back home and abroad in Europe: and the special case of Björn and Hásteinn (2018)
  • Christianson, J.R., Denmark: Planting the Seed (1999)
  • Corsi, M.R.D., Urbanization in Viking Age and Medieval Denmark. From Landing Place to Town (2020)
  • Croix, S., Permanency in Early Medieval Emporia: Reassessing Ribe (2015)
  • Croix, S., Frei K.M., Sindbæk S.M. & Søvsø M., Individual geographic mobility in a Viking-Age emporium – Burial practices and strontium isotope analyses of Ribe’s earliest inhabitants (2020)
  • Ermak Travel Guide, Ribe (website)
  • Feveile, C., Ribe: emporia and town in the 8th and 9th century (2012)
  • Feveile, C. & Jensen, S., Ribe in the 8th and 9th Century. A Contribution to the Archaeological Chronology of North Western Europe (2000)
  • Gammeltoft, P., Ribe (2011)
  • Grogan, D., Urban Spaces, Places, and Identity in Early Medieval Britain (2020)
  • Hensleigh Wedgwood, M.A., Dictionary of English Etymology (1865)
  • Hilder, M., Anglo-Saxon History and Language (website)
  • Johnson, B., Economy and State-Formation in Early Viking-Age Denmark (2011)
  • Knottnerus, O., De vergeten Friezen. Mislukt pamflet van Benny Siewertsen over een boeiend thema (2008)
  • Lund, J. & Sindbæk, S.M., Crossing the Maelstrom: New Departures in Viking Archaeology (2021)
  • Medieval Histories, News about Ribe, an Early Medieval Emporium from the 8th Century (2018)
  • Näsman, U., Raids, Migrations, and Kingdoms. The Danish Case (2000)
  • Rasmussen, A.H., Frisiske kulturelementer En introduktion og foreløbig oversigt (1973)
  • Rösch, F., The Schleswig waterfront – a place of major significance for the emergence of the town? (2013)
  • Sawyer, B. & Sawyer, P., Medieval Scandinavia; from Conversion to Reformation – c. 800-1500 (1992)
  • Sindbæk, S.M., Northern Emporium – The Archaeology of Network Urbanism in Viking Age Ribe (2016)
  • Sindbæk, S.M., The small world of the Vikings: Networks in early medieval communication and exchange (2007)
  • Søvsø, M., Ribe 700-1050. From Emporium to Civitas in Southern Scandinavia (2020)
  • Stanney, A., Pre-Viking Connections; Characterising the Maritime Communities of the North Sea World, c.600AD – 850AD (2022)
  • Tesch, S., Sigtuna: royal site and Christian town and the regional perspective, c. 980-1100 (2013)
  • Thoeming, A., Around the Barbarian Sea: Settlements and Outcomes in the Early Medieval Cities (2018)
  • Tuuk, van der, L., De eerste Gouden Eeuw. Handel en scheepvaart in de vroege middeleeuwen (2011)
  • Wiersma, J.P., Friesche Mythen en Sagen (1937)
  • Zantema, J. (ed), Frysk Wurdboek. Hânwurdboek fan’e Fryske taal (1992)

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