To the end where it all began

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 Ribe Å river. A modest river that flows out into the Wadden Sea opposite the islands Fanø and Mandø. It started as a marketplace, and 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. Exactly the opposite what the founders of Ribe had in mind, namely free trade and making money yourself. In this sense 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 north-western Europe. Trade via waterways, either sea or river. Connecting the Anglo-Saxon world, Frisia and the Frankish hinterland with each other. And the trade extended to 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 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 the 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. Besides a welcome reception, Willibrord was not able “to produce any fruit” with this hardened-heart ruler.

Maybe it was 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 people 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 crueller than any wild beast, and he 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.

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, had easy access to all kinds of luxury and status goods, and undoubtedly possessed much wealth. Marketplaces 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 Ribe Å river to expand their network of well-organized trading places (Corsi 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). The original marketplace of this proto-town was set up on the northern banks of the river. Not only provided the landing of Ribe onward maritime connections. One could also ride the king’s highway, onward transportation over land to the north to among others 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 planked street running parallel to the river with regular plots next to it. Resulting in a ribbon-like shape. 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 or any other structure indicating control over the site of worldly or clerical rulers (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). Furthermore, archaeological research proves that the money economy was fully dominated by Frisian merchants. Majority of the coinage found are sceattas ‘pennies’ of the so-called wodan/monster type. These are Frisian coins and measure up 85 percent of all coins found at Ribe. Probably these coins were even minted in Ribe, albeit some scholars think the sceattas were minted in western Frisia (Faveile 2012). With this, also the oldest money produced in Scandinavia, and the spot where for the first time ever money was being used anyway in the cold north (Sindbæk 2016).

artist impressions of Ribe by Flemming Bau

The name Ribe – In the Early Middle Ages the settlement is named Ripa, or in Latin Ripensis. The modern German name for Ribe is Ripen. 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). Some scholars say the word ribe is of Frisian origin (Van der Tuuk 2011). We guess the English verb ‘to rip’ has a similar origin when you rip this whole blogpost theory to tiny pieces.

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 baptised, Harold 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 Vidå creek, 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 bon-fires locally called biikebrenne or pederblus, and the three-aisled farmsteads. 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 ‘artifical dwelling mounds’ as well, namely the terp of Misthusum. See our Manual Making a Terp in 12 Steps for more about these mounds.

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 migrants, they came from these 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 nortern 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 – 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.

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)
  • 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
  • Feveile, C., Ribe: emporia and town in the 8th and 9th century (2012)
  • 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)
  • 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)
  • 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)
  • 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)
  • 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)
  • Zantema, J. (ed), Frysk Wurdboek. Hânwurdboek fan’e Fryske taal (1992)

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