Between Sea and Land: Geographical and Literary Marginality in the Conversion of Medieval Frisia
1. Introduction: Rome and Frisia
Emperor Claudius ordered Corbulo to retreat to the west bank of the Rhine (Vandermeulan 1998, p. 2), ending direct Roman interference in Frisian affairs. Tacitus states that the Frisians were resentful of Rome’s claims to lands in their vicinity; the occupation of the Rhine riverbank opposite Cologne in 58 CE by Frisians under Verritus and Malorix, of whom Tacitus says they “exercised over the tribe such kingship as exists in Germany” (Tacitus 1937, pp. 94–95; Potter 1992) demonstrates this. Nero gave the leaders Roman citizenship and ordered them to vacate the land. They refused and the Romans expelled them; another tribe, the Ampsivarii, then occupied the site, which suggests resentment of Roman overlordship was potentially widespread.a wretched race is found, inhabiting either the more elevated spots of land, or else eminences artificially constructed, and of a height to which they know … that the highest tides will never reach. Here they pitch their cabins; and when the waves cover the surrounding country … so many mariners on board ship are they: when … the tide recedes, their condition is that of … shipwrecked men … [Y]et these nations, if this very day they were vanquished by the Roman people, would exclaim against being reduced to slavery!
2. Early Medieval Frisia in Literature and Archaeology
The Danes sent a fleet under their king Chlochilaich and invaded Gaul from the sea. They came ashore, laid waste one of the regions ruled by Theuderic and captured some of the inhabitants. They loaded their ships with what they had stolen and the men they had seized, and then they set sail for home. Their king remained on the shore, waiting until the boats should have gained the open sea, when he had planned to go on board. When Theuderic heard that his land had been invaded by foreigners, he sent his son Theudebert to those parts with a powerful army and all the necessary equipment. The Danish king was killed and the enemy fleet was beaten in a naval battle and all the booty was brought back on shore once more.
3. Missions to the Frisians: Wilfrid and Willibrord
Willibrord and Wulfram were unsuccessful in their attempts to convert Radbod: both explained Christian theological ideas about the afterlife of damned Pagans, to him but the king was unmoved. He did, however, permit both to depart alive.The lots of death never fell upon Willibrord nor … his company, except in the case of one of the party, who thus won the martyr’s crown. The holy man was then summoned before the king and … upbraided for having violated the king’s sanctuary and offered insult to his god. [Willibrord] replied ‘The object of your worship, O King, is not a god but a devil, and he holds you ensnared in rank falsehood in order that he may deliver your soul to eternal fire … Be baptized in the fountain of life and wash away all your sins …’ [Radbod] was astonished and replied: ‘It is clear to me that my threats leave you unmoved and that your words are as uncompromising as your deeds’. However, although he would not believe the preaching of the truth, he sent back Willibrord with all honour to Pippin, King of the Franks.
4. Radbod and Frisia: Politics and Religion
5. The Vita Vulframni: The Missionary and the Sea
As Meens emphasizes, the main issue is the fate of unbaptised ancestors. Meens notes that although the Vita Vulframni foregrounds this issue, other missionary saints had to deal with it too. For example, Meens argues convincingly that the correspondence between Pope Gregory and Boniface regarding “liturgical offerings for the deceased” indicates some were making liturgical offerings for the non-Christian deceased, that is, they were seeking to honour their Pagan ancestors (Meens 2015, p. 583).Furthermore the aforementioned chieftain Rathbod, since he was inspired to receive baptism, inquired of the holy bishop Vulfram, binding him by vows through the name of the Lord, where were the greater number of kings and princes or nobles of the race of the Frisians, namely in that heavenly region, which if he believed and were baptised [Vulfram] promised he would attain, or in that [region] which he was calling infernal punishment. Then blessed Vulfram said, ‘Do not make a mistake, noble prince, the number of his saved is sure in the hands of God. For it is certain that those of your princely predecessors of the race of the Frisians who passed away without the sacrament of baptism received the sentence of eternal punishment; truly whoever from now on believes and is baptised will rejoice with Christ in eternity’. Hearing this the unbelieving chieftain—for he had gone forward to the font—even, as is related, withdrew his foot from the font, saying that he could not lack the society of his princely Frisian predecessors and dwell with a small number of paupers in that heavenly realm; nay rather that he could not easily show agreement to the new words, but that he would rather be going to remain in these [words] to which for a long time he, with the whole race of the Frisians, had paid heed. But the blessed bishop of Christ said. ‘Alas, ah sorrow, I see that you have been tricked by the misleader who deceives humankind! But unless you pursue penitence and believe and are baptised in the name of the holy trinity, you will not enter the gate of the eternal kingdom, but will be punished by the pain of eternal damnation’. When the holy bishop said these things, many of the Frisians believed and were baptised although the aforementioned king persisted in paganism.
Conflicts of Interest
The relevant sections are Beowulf 1202-14a, 2354a-66, 2501-08a, and 2910b-21.
Marco Mostert notes “the Frisian language seems to have been spoken by only some of those we encounter as ‘Frisians’ in the (early) medieval sources … next to nothing is known of the language spoken by the ‘Frisians’ mentioned in Roman sources”, p. 450.
Robert Bartlett’s Raleigh Lecture on History, “Reflections on Paganism and Christianity in Medieval Europe”, Proceedings of the British Academy, 101 (1998), 55–76 opines that “To seek to understand native paganism from missionary literature is a little like attempting to form a picture of twentieth-century British socialism from the speeches of Margaret Thatcher. A hostile, sometimes highly ideological and tactically inspired viewpoint is the one we have to deal with”, p. 56.
The Latin text is Eddius Stephanus, Vita Wilfridi, in Monumenta Germaniae Historica: Scriptorum Rerum Merovingicarum, Bruno Krusch and Wilhelm Levison (eds), Tom. 6 (Hannover: MGH SRM, 1913), pp. 163–263.
The Latin text is Alcuin, Vita Willibrordi, in Monumenta Germaniae Historica: Scriptorum Rerum Merovingicarum, Bruno Krusch and Wilhelm Levison (eds), Tom. 7 (Hannover: MGH SRM, 1919), pp. 81–144.
The translation of Jonas of Fontenelle’s Vita Vulframni that accompanies this article is by Andrew Gollan. The Latin text is Jonas of Fontenelle, Vita Vulframni, in Monumenta Germaniae Historica: Scriptorum Rerum Merovingicarum, Bruno Krusch and Wilhelm Levison (eds), Tom. 5 (Hannover: MGH SRM, 1910), pp. 657–73.
It is worth noting that Ian Wood, “The Pagans and the Other: Varying Presentations in the Early Middle Ages”, Networks and Neighbours, vol. 1, No. 1 (2013), at https://nnthejournal.org (accessed on 31 March 2021) states that the Vita Wulframni [sic] is anonymous (despite the author identifying himself as Jonas of Fontenelle in the opening lines), and repeats the same brief summary he has made in a number of publications, that is, that the text is unreliable, though he admits the desire of Radbod to be with his kin after death is a credible motivation.
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Cusack, C.M. Between Sea and Land: Geographical and Literary Marginality in the Conversion of Medieval Frisia. Religions 2021, 12, 580. https://doi.org/10.3390/rel12080580
Cusack CM. Between Sea and Land: Geographical and Literary Marginality in the Conversion of Medieval Frisia. Religions. 2021; 12(8):580. https://doi.org/10.3390/rel12080580Chicago/Turabian Style
Cusack, Carole M. 2021. "Between Sea and Land: Geographical and Literary Marginality in the Conversion of Medieval Frisia" Religions 12, no. 8: 580. https://doi.org/10.3390/rel12080580