Three books (and a comic) reviewed on Frisia: Is history evidence based?

You’d say: “Sure, the study of history is evidence based and involves no politics! For this it’s called a science, is it not? It’s more than telling a story” Truth, which is a slippery concept in this context too, is that every so often politics does surface in history books. Also concerning the history of Frisia. We do, of course, understand any view of any person is liable to bias. Whether that person is a street vendor, a bureaucrat, a parent, a journalist or, indeed, a scholar. Only, is the person transparent about his or her bias? In this post we’ll highlight three recent examples of history books in which (pre-)medieval Frisia, to our humble opinion, is being marginalized needlessly without a transparent or knowable argumentation.

Before setting off to blame others, we must point the finger at ourselves first.

Of course, Frisians writing about Frisia cannot always wash their hands in innocence either. Think of the efforts put into the Bernlef-gate. Where Frisian-based scholars are trying to proof the Old Saxon epic poem Heliand was, in fact, written by the Frisian bard Bernlef (see our post One of history’s enlightening hikes, that of Bernlef). Or, stressing the romanticism and success of the Upstalsboom treaty, whilst it was less than impotent to protect the Frisian independence and freedom. Think of the denial of the fact that modern Frisians -at most- only marginally descend from the Frisii or Fresones of the Late Iron Age. Thanks to the work of especially historian Hans Mol, it’s only since a few years Frisians must admit that high-medieval Frisia wasn’t the much-praised egalitarian society at all. Instead, one with an evident nobility, albeit sui generis (see our post Upstalsboom: why solidarity is not the core of a collective). Yes, probably many more nationalistic myths have yet to be debunked.

History is written by the victors.

Quote used and often accredited to Winston Churchill (1874-1965).

One mitigating circumstance we must mention, however, namely Frisians weren’t the victor. History slowly smashed them to pieces, including their language, spread over several countries and many islands. And the victor will not write the history of the conquered. When he does, it’s only with great reluctance and after many generations. Think of the histories of slavery, or of the Dutch post-colonial war in Indonesia. Hence, the conquered, the victims, and the losers all must write their own history afterward. In doing so, often the conquered must re-conquer pieces of its own legacy from the victor. With that, an opposite bias is almost inevitable. Admittedly, the blog of Frisia Coast Trail is soaked in bias too. Awfully one-sided. Check our post Wa bin ik, wa bist do en wa bin wy? (‘Who am I, who are you and who are we?’), and our press release Consensus Frisia Tribunal in 2020 what we said about it before.

Kees Nieuwenhuijsen: Robrecht de Fries. Graaf van Vlaanderen, held van Holland (2022)

by Uitgeverij Omniboek

This history book is about count Robert I of Flanders. In English language the title is ‘Robert the Frisian. Count of Flanders, hero of Holland’. A book of interest, also for those who want to learn a bit more about medieval Frisia. Robert I lived from 1031/32 until 1093. Robert carried his nickname de Fries ‘the Frisian’ already during his life, and he did so with proud. His epitaph said: comes Flanderensium Robertus Frisius ‘count of Flanders Robert the Frisian’.

In his book, when it’s well underway on page 34, the author explains in an intermezzo the difference between the regions Holland and West Frisia. He notes that the term ‘Holland’ was on the rise in the course of the eleventh century, but only used by the house of the Gerulfings in the year 1101. That year namely, count Floris I named himself Florentius comes de Hollant. The author ends the intermezzo about Holland and West Frisia with the sentence: “In dit boek heb ik ervoor gekozen om het vroegere West-Frisia steeds aan te duiden als Holland, tenzij ik refereer aan bronnen die expliciet Frisia zeggen” (‘In this book I have chosen to always refer to former West Frisia as Holland, unless I refer to sources that explicitly say Frisia’). End of the intermezzo. Basta. No substantial motivation as to why the author made this choice.

The why is first of all relevant because count Robert ruled up to only eight years from when the first count of West Frisia renamed himself ‘count of Holland’ in 1101. So, nearly the full history discussed in the book is about an era when modern Holland was still generally and officially known as (West) Frisia. And, of course, with the signature and seal of count Floris I in the year 1101, the name Frisia wasn’t erased by instant either. So, why use Holland then? Moreover, at the same time the author makes -already!- on page 20 an explicit statement to re-name the statesman Robrecht instead of Robert or Rodbert, as he was named in the old original texts. This time the author does motivate his choice by explaining that from a historic phonological point of view the name Robrecht is historically more accurate. Roger that. Historically more accurate.

To put it differently: going through the motions with the names Robert and Robrecht, but not with the names Frisia and Holland. Because we are unaware of the underlying motivation for using the term Holland, the author or publisher runs the risk of incriminating himself of doing politics. A pity as well, because with his book ‘Strijd om West-Frisia‘ (‘Strife for West Frisia’) published in 2016, Nieuwenhuijsen seemingly made a different and more balanced choice. Just as the book ‘Robrecht de Fries‘, this book covers the history of West Frisia until ca. the year 1100 when Holland was still known as Frisia.

In other words: “Robrecht de Fries. Graaf van Vlaanderen, held van Frisia” (‘Robert the Frisian. Count of Flanders, hero of Frisia’) would be the better title. With the extra bonus this book title makes a lot more sense suddenly. Maybe with a smaller audience generating less money, though. Perhaps a case of he that pays the piper calls the tune?

Annemarieke Willemsen & Hanneke Kik (eds.): Dorestad and its Networks. Communities, Contact and Conflict in Early Medieval Europe (2021)

by Sidestone Press

This book is truly interesting and contains many excellent contributions of several respected scholars, national and international. So, a great compliment to the editors. Nevertheless, there’s one thing we noticed concerning the use of the terms ‘Frisia’ and ‘Frisians’.

Dorestat, the central topic of the book, was a town that’s generally considered a mixed Frisian-Frankish enterprise. At first predominantly a trading place of Frisian merchants under the Frisian sphere of influence, but after the death of king Radbod in 719 firmly under the jurisdiction of the Franks. Until the first quarter of the ninth century, Dorestat would stay one of the most important trading towns of north-western Europe. With Frisian merchants still doing most of the transportation. See our post The Batwing Doors of Northwest Europe for more on the history of Dorestat.

The thing we found striking about the book, is that despite the history of Dorestat is evidently part of the history of Frisia (too), author Willemsen doesn’t mention the word ‘Frisia’ at all. We don’t know how she didn’t, but not a syllable. In her contribution ‘Dorestad and its Networks. An Introduction’, she speaks of Vikings, Francia, Frankish, Baltic, Roman, Carolingian, Rhine delta, Dutch Merovingian, Scandinavia, British Isles etc. Not once the term Frisia or Frisian, nor Friesland for that matter. Still, the article is really, really discussing early-medieval Dorestat and its wider region.

In a second contribution ‘Mixed Emotions. The swords of Dorestad’, again author Willemsen doesn’t drop the word Frisia a single time. Willemsen does use, however, Low Countries, Carolingian, Vikings, territory of Dorestad, Frankish, United Kingdom, Scandinavia, Danish, early medieval Netherlands, Northern Netherlands, and Norsemen. Again, no single reference to Frisia, and again the article is really, really all about early-medieval Dorestat. The description ‘Northern Netherlands’ in this context, by the way, feels like talking about the politionele acties ‘police actions’ in the Dutch Indies. Concealing language. What are you hiding? becomes the question.

In a third contribution ‘A new gold ring from Dorestad?’ written by authors Willemsen and Stuart, again no reference to Frisia, Frisians or Friesland. The closest thing is the reference to a golden ring found at Wieuwerd. If you would make the effort to put the book aside, unfold your laptop, and google, Wieuwerd turns out to be a small village in the province of Friesland. Indeed, in former Frisia.

To make sure we weren’t crazy, we checked the other contributions of the book edited by Willemsen and Kik. Scholars Broadley, Dijkstra, Dodt, Cooijmans, Coupland, Hall, IJssennagger-van der Pluijm, Kronz, Peek, and Simon, all do use the terms Frisia, Frisian or Friesland in their articles. Relevant and fair to mention, in the Dutch books ‘Gouden Middeleeuwen. Nederland in de Merovingische wereld 400-700 na Chr (2014)’ and ‘Fibula’s. Vondsten, vormen en mode (2017)’ (co-) written by Willemsen, mention is made of Fries or Friesland.

Maybe the reason for Willemsen not to speak of Frisia and Frisians too much, can be found in her book ‘Gouden Middeleeuwen’. On page 12 the author explains that most Dutch researchers are careful these days to typify archaeological finds as ethnically belonging to a certain tribe. Albeit we’re curious who are ‘most researchers’, of course, this must be done with caution. No doubt about that. On the other hand, we hope her remark is not to be interpreted as that group identity and ethnicity as such didn’t exist. On the contrary, belonging to a greater identity or group must have been key in the Early Middle Ages. Check for example the thorough study Rondom de mondingen van de Rijn & Maas ‘around the river mouths of Rhine and Meuse’ (Dijkstra 2011). And no, Dijkstra isn’t a Frisian.

Lastly, more in general, why is the etiquette ‘Merovingian’ used abundantly in the author’s publications, even to denote Frisia when Frisia was overall outside and free from Merovingian rule? With its own material (sea) culture. When all the five coastal provinces and much of the central river lands of what’s now the Netherlands belonged to Frisia? Instead of the era of the Merovingians, just as well we could speak of the 隋代 ‘era, of the Sui dynasty’ when referring to Frisia during the fifth until the eight centuries. It all somehow doesn’t feel very inclusive.

Lex Heerma van Voss, et al (eds.), Nog meer wereldgeschiedenis van Nederland (2022)

The book Nog meer wereldgeschiedenis van Nederland ‘even more world history of the Netherlands’ is a short chronicle in 700 pages covering 250,000 years of the country’s history. We understand, only 700 pages compels making tough and harsh choices. Let’s look into some of these choices.

When discussing the Roman period, pages 56-74, the classic, Romantic but poor image of the Batavians surfaces yet again. As if we hear poet Jan Frederik Helmers (1767-1813) speak again from his grave. Getting tired already?

Moreover, this is done without acknowledging or mentioning for one moment (1) that Frisians (the only people’s tribe name that has survived two millennia) lived next to the Batavians, and the latter disappeared into thin air and are of no more relevance for the Netherlands heritage than, let’s say, the well-known Bructeri, (2) that according recent research (Portable Antiquities of the Netherlands, PAN) Batavian auxiliary troops of the Roman army in the Central Netherlands, in fact, for a large part consisted of Frisians, (3) that Frisian auxiliary troops were deployed in the Roman army; for example as imperial bodyguards or riders in Rome, and as cavalry units and legionnaires along Hadrian’s Wall in Britannia and in Tunisia, and (4) that the Batavian revolt itself was launched by a combined Frisian and Chauci maritime force. They were even considered the bravest of the uprising. And why pay attention to the Batavian revolt and not to the Frisian revolt at Baduhenna a few decennia before?

So, a lot about Batavians and nothing about Frisians. As far as we know, Frisian history is part of the Netherlands history. See also our posts Frisian mercenaries in the Roman Army, It all began with piracy and Pagare il fio for a more complete, richer picture.

To underline our point: in the spring of 2023 a new comic book was published called De Romeinen ‘the Romans’. The first volume (Deel 1) has as title (drumroll…) De Bataafse Opstand ‘the Batavian uprise’. And so, the frame or meme lives on. By the way, published Marc de Lobie initially preferred the Frisian battle at Baduhenna but foundation Erfgoed Gelderland ‘heritage of province Gelderland’ and the municipality of the city of Nijmegen preferred Batavians above Frisians. And, again, he that pays the piper calls the tune.

On page 87, admittedly, for the first time Frisians enter the scene. This is in the year 716. Hence, seven centuries after the Romans and the Greek did start writing about Frisians. 716 is the year when king Radbod of Frisia defeated the Frankish ruler Charles Martel near Cologne in Germany. It’s charmingly described as “a sweet but short victory”. Unfortunately too, the author must make the totally out-of-the-blue remark he has no idea if the Frisians really considered themselves being Frisian, because the Frisians didn’t have a literary culture yet. By doing so, or by speculating so, occasionally subverting Frisian history and identity, whilst contemporary Frankish and Anglo-Saxon sources did speak of Frisia and Frisians. The counter-question is justifiable: Is there any reason to think Frisians didn’t regard themselves as being Frisian? And, please help. What again was the old age and meaning of the town of Vreeswijk in province Utrecht? And why was not the same remark placed when talking about the darling Batavians?

Editor and critical reviewer Heerma van Voss is also author of Michael Pye’s Edge of the World. Een succesvolle, maar mislukte geschiedenis van de Noordzee (‘Michael Pye’s Edge of the World. A successful but wrong history of the North Sea’), written in 2016. So, with this post he is in good company. Pey’s book, by the way, gives Frisians a prominent place in the common history of Northwest Europe.

Note 1 – This post was written on the day Bruno Latour died, the French philosopher who, together with sociologist Steve Woolgar, wrote ‘Laboratory Life: The Social Construction of Scientific Facts (1979)’.

Note 2 – In our post How great was Great Pier? we illustrated that the way Frisian scholars view their national hero Pier Gerlofs Donia (1480-1520), better known as Grutte Pier ‘Great Pier’, is comparable to colouring a children colouring page. In 2022 a movie was released produced by Steven de Jong. It got horrible reviews. In fact, by the time we published this post, everyone had forgotten about it already.

Suggested music

Further reading

  • Berte, K. & Artz, T., De Romeinen. De Bataafse Opstand. Deel 1 (2023)
  • Dijkstra, M., Rondom de mondingen van de Rijn & Maas. Landschap en bewoning tussen de 3e en 9e eeuw in Zuid-Holland, in het bijzonder de Oude Rijnstreek (2011)
  • Heeren, S. & Willemsen, A., Fibula’s. Vondsten, vormen & mode (2017)
  • Heerma van Voss, L., Bouras, N, Hart, ‘t M., Heijden, van der M. & Lucassen, L. (eds.), Nog meer wereldgeschiedenis van Nederland (2022)
  • Nieuwenhuijsen, K., Robrecht de Fries. Graaf van Vlaanderen, held van Holland (2022)
  • Nieuwenhuijsen, K., Strijd om West-Frisia. De ontstaansgeschiedenis van het graafschap Holland: 900-1100 (2016)
  • Pols, M., ‘Geen Asterix in Nederland? Dan maken we zelf maar een stripboek over de Romeinen in Nijmegen‘ (2023)
  • Willemsen, A., Gouden middeleeuwen. Nederland in de Merovingische wereld 400-700 na Chr. (2014)
  • Willemsen, A. & Kik, H. (eds.), Dorestad and its networks. Communities, Contact and Conflict in Early Medieval Europe (2019)

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