- “Thi Wilde Witsing”: Vikings and Otherness in the Old Frisian Laws
Vikings quite regularly make their appearance in the vernacular laws that were recorded in Frisia during the High Middle Ages. Thus, the Twentieth of the Twenty-four Landlaws stipulates what legal procedure should be followed if a Frisian man, after being fettered and kidnapped by Vikings and then forced to participate in their forays, returns home after many years to his ancestral homestead. Does the erstwhile raider have the right to reclaim his patrimony or must he be sentenced for the atrocities he committed during the time he involuntarily spent with the marauding Norsemen? Scholars have used such references to Vikings in the Frisian laws especially for dating these texts, which are preserved in manuscripts not older than the second half of the thirteenth century. Since the last recorded Viking raids on Frisia took place around the year 1042—at least, so the reasoning goes—these rules must have been drafted before 1100 when memories of plundering Vikings were fresh and could still feed expectations of recidivism.
The year 1042 is based on the testimony of the eleventh-century historiographer Adam of Bremen. In his history of the Hamburg archbishops, Gesta Hammaburgensis ecclesiae pontificum (1070–76), Adam reported a raid by Ascomanni (Norse pirates) up the mouth of the River Weser to as far as the River Lesum, an east tributary to the Weser, just south of Bremen, where they were then defeated.1 Certainly, on their way to the emporium of [End Page 1] Bremen, the Vikings must have passed the Frisian land of Rüstringen, situated on the west bank of the Weser estuary, but Adam does not mention this area explicitly. Nonetheless, the founding father of medieval Frisian legal history, Karl Freiherr von Richthofen (1811–88),2 added the raid of 1042 to his list of Viking incursions into Frisia.3 Presumably upon Richthofen’s unquestioned authority, this interpretation was subsequently taken as fact in the scholarly literature.4 But is dating particular medieval Frisian vernacular laws to the eleventh century on this slender historical evidence justifiable? I argue instead that the Viking presence in various Frisian laws has little to offer when trying to establish a date of origin for a particular law-text. Rather than interpreting such references as a reflection of real-time events, I want to make a case that mention of tyrannizing Norsemen in these law codes should be seen as an essential constituent in a myth of origin, invented to justify the Frisians’ exceptional position within the political constellation of Western Europe in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. In this grand narrative, the role assigned to the Norsemen is basically that of the Other.5 In order to grasp the import of the myth, an understanding of the historical background relating the subjection of the Frisians to the Franks and Danes and their subsequent recovery of independence, as presented in the next two sections, is indispensable. [End Page 2]
2. FRANKS AND VIKINGS
In the often-told history of the Vikings, early medieval Frisia has regularly been paid due attention.6 The Vikings, or Norsemen—both terms are used indiscriminately in the Frisian sources—are part of even the most basic history lessons taught at primary school in the Netherlands, the country that subsumes the most prominent part of medieval Frisia today. Indeed, a recent schoolbook claims that “the Viking period is one of the most exciting in our history.”7 Quite understandably, the Vikings’ pillaging of settlements, both on the Frisian coast and further inland, greatly appealed to the national romantic imagination. Best known are their successive plunderings of the major trading emporium, Dorestad, situated on the Rhine some 80 kms from the North Sea coast, between 834 and 839.8 As reported by the late Carolingian Annals of St Bertin, the Vikings “omnia diripuerunt; homines autem quosdam occiderunt, quosdam captivatos abduxerunt partemque eius igni cremaverunt” (ravaged everything; they killed some of the men, carried others off as captives, and burnt down part of the emporium).9 Pictures of Vikings pillaging and burning down Dorestad decorated many a classroom wall, also mine, perhaps...