The Frisian Church and the Frisian Vikings

One of the themes of my research into viking political cultures is ‘cult’. This is admittedly a well-ploughed field, but it is nonetheless turning up new findings. Often these findings are so corroded as to be difficult or impossible to do anything with. It may be significant that we have references to pagan cult specialists from viking groups active in Ireland, Britain and Rus’; but given that most of these reference are ambiguous or late it may equally well, y’know, not be. Similarly when dealing with Abrahamic faiths, the conversion process in Ireland has been opaque to better scholars than me, and my hope of finding Jewish or Muslim viking groups has borne no fruit. However, I am starting to build up a picture in one of my regions which I think is both real and significant.

Frisia, roughly the northern and western parts of the modern-day Netherlands, had not been Christian for very long, relatively speaking, in the ninth century. The missionary process which had taken place over the eighth century and before had produced a lot of hagiographical literature but was still an ongoing concern in the reigns of Charlemagne and Louis the Pious. New parish churches were still being founded – at north-eastern Frisia, in Oostergo, a church at Leeuwarden was founded as late as 850 – and the latest research indicates that many of them were situated so far away from population centres that reasonably large chunks of the population would not have been able to access them. Major ecclesiastical players included the bishoprics at Münster and Utrecht, and abbeys, particularly that founded at Echternach by Willibrord, a man whose career was largely dedicated to evangelising Frisia.

One might therefore expect fragility to be the order of the day when the vikings showed up. Frisia was target number one for Danish pirates, up to and including the Danish king Godefrid who invaded in 810. Further attacks continued throughout the ninth century and as late as the eleventh. Indeed, recent research into parish formation in Frisia has concluded that the viking period was a time of devastation and administrative collapse: ‘There is no doubt that the temporary reign of the Vikings Rorik and Godfrey – who, between c. 850 and 885, received a large part of West Frisia from the king in fief in order to defend it against other Vikings – led to a dislocation of the ecclesiastical infrastructure during which churches were destroyed and church land was lost.’

Yet on closer inspection, the evidence for this is remarkably exiguous. The authors of the aforementioned study point the curious reader towards Kohl’s volume on Münster in the Germania Sacra series (where material losses are simply asserted without further evidence) and van Vliet’s work on Utrecht, whose conclusions are a lot more cautious than you would work out from the way they’re cited. In fact, it would be prima facie surprising if viking attacks on Frisia did cause severe structural damage. Frisia’s connections with Denmark were very close, not least because geographically speaking they are almost next door to one another. Similarly, pirate raids were a feature of life in the region for a very long time – famously, there are references in Beowulf and other Old English poetry to Danish raids on Frisia in the immediately post-Roman period and we’ve already mentioned raids in the eleventh century. Annalistic evidence gives the impression that the Frisians were unusually good at fighting off pirate raids on their communities: Frisia was clearly not a defeated and demoralised region. By a process of analogy, although individual raids caused damage and trauma, we might well be better served expecting church structures in Frisia to be robust and adaptable rather than delicate and easily broken. (Archaeological evidence from places like Zutphen and Deventer suggests that even when viking raids did massive damage places that were not already moribund for other reasons were able to rebuild quite quickly.)

This is where I come in. One of the questions I’m trying to ask is whether or not viking rulers outside of Scandinavia patronised pre-existing cult structures. Evidence for this generally is not abundant. There are two questions here: first, was there, generally speaking, continuity between the earlier and later ninth centuries? After all, you can’t patronise the Church if the Church doesn’t exist. Second, if there was continuity in Frisia, did viking rulers actually patronise the Church?

In regard to the first question, there is some evidence for discontinuity, largely relating to the bishopric of Utrecht. In 858, King Lothar II issued a diploma for Bishop Hunger saying that because Utrecht itself had been nearly destroyed by the Northmen, he had fled to Sint Odiliënberg. The bishops would not come back full-time to Utrecht until well into the tenth century, and from the end of the ninth century their main centre was actually Deventer. Otherwise, the Vita Adalberti refers to the church at Egmond suffering from Viking attacks, and a twelfth-century letter suggests that Echternach lost most of its property on Walcheren during the viking period in Frisia. This is not a lot of explicit evidence, and some of it – like the Echternach letter – is late enough that references to viking depredations are more likely an ecclesiastical trope than a reflection of a real ninth-century state of affairs. The biggest question-mark hangs over the role of Utrecht. At first sight, the evidence for disruption here seems pretty damning; but there are some hints that not all is as it seems. Hunger of Utrecht was an opponent of Lothar II’s divorce and had strong links to Lothar’s aggressive uncle Louis the German. I suspect, therefore, the move to Sint Odiliënberg might be a kind of very gilded arrest using the vikings as an excuse. Certainly, there are hints in the letters of Hincmar of Rheims that Hunger was back by the 860s. There is a case for taking a more granular approach, distinguishing between the period of Roric’s rule in Frisia (and the decades beforehand) and the significant, but brief, disruption caused by the massive raids around 880. More research is needed here.

On the other hand, what we have in the way of archival material from the major churches does suggest administrative, and occasionally actual, continuity. For a region supposedly devastated by Scandinavian attacks, we have estate surveys surviving from almost all the major players in the region (Münster and Echternach being the biggest exceptions) from c. 900 and all of them indicate some continuation of Church infrastructure. A list of the goods possessed by the see of Utrecht, dating from c. 900, says little explicitly about continuity, but it does say that the church it owned on the island of Texel had kept going until the reign of Bishop Odilbald (so after the time of Roric and Hunger, up to about the time of those devastating 880s attacks I mentioned earlier). Estate surveys from Prüm and Werden indicate that their goods in the region included functioning churches and responsive officials – some of the material in the Werden Urbar came directly from local representatives of the abbey.

I’d also like to make special mention of the Vita Adalberti. This source, written around the end of the tenth century, goes into surprising detail about Egmond’s existence before it was turned into a monastic foundation by the Counts of Frisia. It does say that Egmond was damaged by viking raids – but it also says that it was restored afterwards. Interestingly, it also says it was patronised not only by Christians but by pagans.

Egmond Abbey in the seventeenth century (source)

This brings us to the second question: if some, and probably most, Church infrastructure was battered but not destroyed by viking attacks, did the viking rulers of Frisia patronise churches? To start with, let’s look at the religious backgrounds of these rulers. The longest-reigning ruler, Roric of Dorestad, only became a Christian in c.860, having ruled in the area for well over a decade beforehand. However, his predecessor Harald Klak and successor Guthfrith were baptised before being given any land in Frisia. (We can debate the ‘sincerity’ of this conversion if you like; but it’s asinine question, and in any case the example of Rollo – whose own conversion was ambiguous enough he was remembered in some quarters as having ordered human sacrifices on his deathbed – shows that even if one wasn’t necessarily a die-hard zealot it was still politic to patronise the Church.) Formal profession of Christianity, though, is only part of the story. We have several stories of unbaptised people patronising churches across Europe during the ninth century – as we’ve seen with the Vita Adalberti. It’s well-known that the Christian God could be assimilated into polytheistic cult practise. Famously, King Raedwald of East Anglia had a Christian altar set up in his personal temple alongside non-Christian shrines. What this means is that people whom a Christian cleric might not perceive as Christians could very well patronise churches, both out of political calculation and also quite sincerely as a religious person.

So, with that out of the way, is there any evidence that they actually did patronise the Church? Some. We’ve already covered pagan patronage of Egmond, but the Vita Adalberti also specifically mentions that Roric of Dorestad specifically restored it. I’m inclined to take this report seriously: Roric had no descendants to care about his memory, and power in the area was in the hands of a quite different group of people. The simplest reason for this story to be here is that the community at Egmond actually did remember Roric restoring their church. There is another piece of evidence that Roric patronised church-building, more contemporary but more gnomic. A poem from Sedulius Scotus refers to an alter being dedicated by Bishop Ratbald in the time of King Roric. Roric is evidently our man; Bishop Ratbald is completely unknown. It’s also not clear where this altar was. Roric did have a brief career as king in Denmark, so it’s not completely outside the realms of possibility that this altar was in Scandinavia. However, I find it less likely that Sedulius would commemorate this in a poem than an altar within the Frankish kingdom. The dating by Roric’s reign, further, suggests that a) it was in an area under his control, therefore Frisia; and b) that he patronised it in some fashion.

As far as explicit evidence goes, that’s it. It’s not a lot, but it’s more than is usually brought to the table. Those who argue for extensive disruption caused by viking attacks would likely argue (like the eleventh-century reformer Mayeul of Cluny) that Northmen were breakers not builders of churches. However, I suspect it’s probably more likely to be that Frisia did not possess any major monasteries. Records of monastic landholding represent a disproportionate amount of what we know about Carolingian-era patronage of the Church, and the much smaller churches of Frisia did not preserve their archives into the modern period (if they ever had them). Roric’s power-base in Frisia lay in Dorestad and Kennemerland (around Haarlem). Dorestad’s churches have vanished in the modern day, and there were no significant abbeys in Kennemerland to patronise. For this reason, I think this is absence of evidence rather than evidence of absence. Viking leaders in Frisia probably did patronise the Church, albeit on a limited scale, and certainly in ways which don’t show up very clearly in our evidence because of the nature of the churches that were the subjects of such generosity.