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During the early Middle Ages, several Anglo-Saxons made their way to what is now the Low Countries, as missionaries, pilgrims, mercenaries and refugees. On this blog, I will regularly shed light on places in The Netherlands and Belgium associated with these visitors from early medieval England. This post focuses on the early medieval town Dorestad (present-day Wijk bij Duurstede, The Netherlands), which was visited as well as shunned by various Anglo-Saxons. In particular, this post reports on the exhibition ‘Boniface in Dorestad 716-2016’ in Museum Dorestad (18 June-7 December, 2016).
Dorestad: Flourishing Frisian trade centre that fell prey to Vikings?
Modern-day Wijk bij Duurstede is a relatively small Dutch town south of Utrecht and little recalls the grandeur of this place some thousands years ago, when it was known as ‘Dorestad’. During the early Middle Ages, the docks would have been crawling with international traders, shipping wine, stones and slaves along the important rivers Rhine and Lek. Its inhabitants, first the Frisians and later the Franks, used Dorestad as a trading hub that connected the Rhineland and the North Sea.
Dorestad’s status as a successful merchant town came to an end in the ninth century. Generations of Dutch school children have been told how the Vikings ransacked Dorestad, inspired by a famous educational plate by J.H. Isings (1927; see below). The local museum, Museum Dorestad, notes that this is only part of the story: apart from Viking incursions, Dorestad also had to deal with a declining economy, as well as Frankish rulers who began to favour other trading towns (Tiel and Deventer) for geo-political reasons. You can find a lot more information about medieval Dorestad on this website, which is affiliated with the museum. In the remainder of this post, I will focus on the Anglo-Saxon visitors to Dorestad.
Anglo-Saxons in Dorestad: Scholars, traders and missionaries
- Nam tibi Hadda prior nocte non amplius una
- In Traiect mel compultimque buturque ministrat :
- Utpute non oleum nec vinum Fresia fundit.
- Hinc tua vela leva, fugiens Dorstada relinque:
- Non tibi forte niger Hrotberct parat hospita tecta (Alcuin, Cartula, perge cito, ll. 8-12)
[Because prior Hadda will provide for you no more than one night, in Utrecht, he serves honey, porridge and butter, since Frisia does not produce oil or wine. Hoist your sails away from here, leaving and ignore Dorestad, for the black Hrotberct really will not prepare hospitable houses for you]
In his poem Cartula, perge cito [Little map, move quickly], the Anglo-Saxon scholar Alcuin of York (d. 804) recounts a journey he had made along the river Rhine. The poem is full of interesting, local details, such as his report that, in Utrecht, honey, porridge and butter were served in lieu of oil and wine. Notably, Alcuin told his readers to shun Dorestad, since a particularly nasty and greedy trader Hrotberct lived there.
Despite Alcuin’s advice, Anglo-Saxons regularly visited Dorestad, primarily for trade. This much becomes clear from numismatic evidence. Coins minted in Dorestad, for instance, have been found in England. In 2007, a gold tremissis bearing the inscriptions DORESTATE and RIMOALDUS M was found in North Yorkshire – a seventh-century coin apparently made in Dorestad by a man named Rimwald(us). Similar golden coins from Dorestad, made by one Madelinus, have also been unearthed in England, as well as in Norway and Belgium – attesting to Dorestad’s status as an international trade hub (see overview here). Vice versa, a silver sceat from Kent was found in Dorestad and is now on display in Museum Dorestad. Browsing the Portable Antiquities Scheme website (a great resource, documenting small finds by amateur archaeologists in England and Wales), I was able to identify a version of the exact same coin: found in 2013, in Barnham, Kent (see below). The two coins are so similar they may well have been struck with the same coin die!
Aside from Anglo-Saxon traders, Anglo-Saxon missionaries also visited Dorestad. The greatest of these may have been St. Boniface (d. 754), who first set foot in Dorestad 1300 years ago, in 716. His visit is commemorated this year (2016), with an exhibition in the local museum, Museum Dorestad.
Boniface in Dorestad 716-2016: From bishop-martyr to USB stick
The exhibition, on the top floor of the small museum, consists of one, well-packed room. Along its walls, informative posters relate Boniface’s life story: Born as Wynfreth in the south-west of England (possibly Crediton), he became a monk and would lead various missions to Frisia and Germany. The first of these missions, in 716, brought Wynfreth to Dorestad, but his efforts to convert the pagan Frisians had little success. He returned a few years later and, with great zeal, preached the Gospel, cut down holy oaks and founded various monasteries and churches among the German peoples. His efforts earned him the title of ‘Apostle of the Germans’, as well as his new Roman name ‘Bonifatius’, or Boniface. When Boniface was well in his seventies, he still travelled to Frisia to continue his missionary activities, until, in 754, he was murdered, possibly near Dokkum. The story of his death is well known: ambushed by Frisian robberts, the elderly Boniface iconically shielded his head from the blows with his Gospel-book. Alas! The book was to no avail and Boniface died by the hands of the pagans. A martyr was born and Boniface was soon venerated as a saint. The exhibition in Museum Dorestad is illustrated nicely with altar pieces and plates showing scenes from the life of the Anglo-Saxon saint. A particular highlight of this part of the exhibition was a little star-shaped reliquary with a tiny piece of Boniface-bone inside. I have never been this close to an Anglo-Saxon!
I may have enjoyed the second part of the exhibition even more than the first. This part dealt with the Nachleben of Boniface – his afterlife. After the Middle Ages, people generally seem to have forgotten about Boniface (apart from some local cults), even though he was the patron saint of brewers, tailors, bookshop keepers, traders and vile makers! However, the Anglo-Saxon saint made a comeback at the end of the nineteenth century. Specifically, German nationalism adopted Boniface as the ‘Apostle of the Germans’; monuments and events in honour of Boniface also celebrated German nationhood. More recently, the Anglo-Saxon saint was adopted for more commercial means. The exhibition showed a Boniface cigar box, Boniface delftware plates, Boniface mints and even a Boniface USB stick! Naturally, the patron saint of brewers also has his own brand of beers: Boniface beer! (Note: Boniface wasn’t the only Anglo-Saxon missionary to be celebrated in beer, see this blog)
The attention for this commercial side to Boniface in the Dorestad Museum exhibition need not surprise us: apparently, the inhabitants of Wijk bij Duurstede have inherited some of the mercantile interests of their early medieval predecessors!
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During the early Middle Ages, several Anglo-Saxons made their way to what is now the Low Countries, as missionaries, pilgrims, mercenaries and refugees. On this blog, I will regularly shed light on places in The Netherlands and Belgium associated with these visitors from early medieval England. This post focuses on the Anglo-Saxon saint Adalbert of Egmond (Feast day: 25 June) and the site where he had once been buried: Adelbertusakker, Egmond.
Adalbert of Egmond (d. c.740)
According to our earliest source about Adalbert of Egmond, the tenth-century Vita Sancti Adelberti, Adalbert was born in Northumbria and came to Frisia as one of the companions of the missionary St. Willibrord (d. 739). Adalbert concentrated his efforts in preaching the Gospel to the area around present-day Egmond, North-Holland. He was beloved by the locals, who erected a little wooden chapel in his honour at the site of his grave. Soon after his death in c.740, miracles started to take place: a widow who had prayed to the saint received her daily bread with the incoming tide; marauding Vikings who had their eyes set on Egmond were deceived by miraculously appearing mists; and a man who stole some cheese offered to Adalbert ate both the cheese and his fingers. (You can read the Vita Sancti Adalberti here)
In the tenth century, Adalbert visited the nun Wilfsit three times in a dream and told her that his bones should be exhumed and translated to her nunnery in Hallem (present-day Egmond-Binnen). Wilfsit contacted Count Dirk I of Holland (d. 939), who had the church demolished and Adalbert’s bones dug up. As they did so, water welled up along with the saintly bones and a well was established on the site. Ever since, this well has been a holy place and has been visited by various pilgrims, among whom the blind Anglo-Saxon Folmar, whose sight was restored by drinking water from the well of Adalbertus. A thousand years later, water can still be drunk from the well…
Upon entering the Adelbertusakker (Google Maps location here), you are greeted by three life-size wooden carvings: Dirk Schuit (a man who lived there in the 19th century), Count Dirk II of Holland and St Adalbert. Walking a little further up field, you’ll find trees, benches to sit on, a shrine devoted to St Adalbert and, on the ground, the outlines of where from 1152 to 1573 a stone church had stood. The centrepiece of the field, however, is Adalbert’s well, which is still fully functional.
Pug and Beer: The latest miracle of Adalbert
Water from the well can still be drunk and, according to some, it has retained its medieval miraculous powers. In the 18th century, in particular, water from the well was used to heal cows and other livestock. Needless to say, my pug Breca had her fill as well (and she is still in good health today!).
Interestingly, a nearby abbey (named after Saint Adalbert; I will devote another blog to this in the future) uses water from the well to brew its own beer. The beer is entitled ‘Sancti Adalberti Miraculum Novum’: the latest miracle of Saint Adalbert.
If you liked this post, why not follow this blog for regular updates and/or read the following blogs about other Anglo-Saxons in the low countries?
- Anglo-Saxons in the Low Countries: Boniface in Dorestad
- Anglo-Saxons in the Low Countries: Ælfthryth of Wessex in Ghent
- ‘The last king of medieval Frisia’: Redbad and the Anglo-Saxon missionaries
According to an early medieval ‘book of monsters’, the bones of the sixth-century, gigantic king Hygelac were shown to travelers on an island in the Rhine, where this river flowed into the sea. Recent excavations in Oegstgeest (South Holland) and the finding of the unique silver Oegstgeest bowl have brought to light international activities in the Rhine estuary in the early medieval period. Could these excavations hold a clue to the location of the bones of Hygelac, who is also mentioned in the Old English poem Beowulf?
A Book of Monsters
Hermaphrodites, dragons, centaurs, pygmies, elephants and a whole lot more. Around the year 700, an anonymous Englishman wrote the Liber monstorum de diversis generibus [The book of monsters of all sorts] and provided an overview of the ‘freaks of nature’ that he had heard and read about. A ninth-century manuscript of the text is currently held in the University Library in Leiden (VLO 60). In this overview of monsters, the author describes Hygelac, a gigantic king of the Geats (a people that lived in southern Sweden):
There are also monsters of an incredible size, such as King Hygelac, who ruled the Geats and was murdered by the Franks; from the age of twelve, no horse could carry him. His bones are preserved on an island in the river Rhine, where it flows into the sea, and they are shown to travelers from afar as a marvel.
Apparently, an Englishman around the year 700 had heard a of an island in the Rhine estuary, where travelers would come from faraway and where they would be shown the gigantic bones of Hygelac. Could this be Oegstgeest? And who was this King Hygelac?
Oegstgeest: An island in the Rhine?
Present-day Oegstgeest certainly does not look like an island, but the medieval situation was wholly different. The name Oegstgeest derives from the personal name Osger and the Middle Dutch word ‘geest’, a term denoting a raised area of sandy soil. In the Middle Ages, Oegstgeest would have been more elevated than the surrounding landscape, which consisted mainly of water (the Rhine and various waterways) and marshland. As such, medieval Oegstgeest may very well be considered an island in the Rhine, which then still had its main estuary in nearby Katwijk (on the medieval history of Oegstgeest, see Lugt 2009).
Recent excavations in Oegstgeest uncovered not only the unique silver bowl, but also imported pottery and wine barrels. Together with a previous find of an Anglo-Saxon belt buckle in nearby Rijnsburg, these finds are indications of international activity in the Rhine estuary in the early medieval period. These archaeological discoveries might now be linked to the text of the Liber monstrorum and the island in the Rhine estuary where, according to the English author, “travelers from afar” were shown the bones of Hygelac.
Who was Hygelac?
Although the Liber monstrorum is the only text to comment on Hygelac’s size, his death around the year 525 AD is described in three early medieval texts. The historian Gregory of Tours (ca. 538-594) wrote that Hygelac died in a naval battle, as he returned from a raid to the north of Gaul. The anonymous Liber Historiae Francorum, written two hundred years later, gives a similar story, but places Hygelac’s raid in the area inhabited by the “Att-oarii”, a people that possibly lived near Nijmegen (Storms 1970).
Hygelac is also mentioned in Beowulf, a long poem in Old English (the language spoken in early medieval England). The poet reports that Hygelac took on the combined forces of Franks, Frisians and “Hetware” (the “Att-oarii” of the Liber Historiae Francorum) and that he died in Frisia:
faran flotherge on Fresna land,
þær hyne Hetware hilde gehnægdon,
elne geeodon mid ofermægene,
þæt se byrnwiga bugan sceolde,
feoll on feðan; nalles frætwe geaf
ealdor dugoðe. (Beowulf, ll. 2914b-2920a)
[Hygelac came sailing with a naval army to Frisia, where the “Hetware” assailed him in battle. They acted with courage and superior force, so that the byrnie-warrior had to bow down, he fell in the battle; this leader did not at all give treasures to his warriors.]
In the early Middle Ages, ‘Frisia’ was larger than present-day Friesland and it extended along the North Sea coast, from North-Western Germany south to well beyond the Rhine estuary.
Where did Hygelac die?
Concerning the location of Hygelac’s death, the early medieval sources are not in agreement: to the north of Gaul, near Nijmegen or in Frisia? Gregory of Tours’ naval battle, the mentioning of the Frisians in Beowulf and the text of the Liber monstrorum all seem to indicate a location at least close to the North Sea.
Hygelac’s bones have never been found. In the fifties, a scholar suggested that the bones may have been kept on the island Goeree Overflakkee (Magoun 1953). Given the recent archeological excavations in Oegstgeest and the evidence outlined above, Oegstgeest within the Rhine estuary appears a more likely option. Due to the scarcity of sources for the early Middle Ages, the best we can do is speculate, but I would not be surprised if the archeologists in Oegstgeest should stumble upon some gigantic bones in the ground!
This is a slightly edited version of a blog previously posted on the Leiden University website. If you liked this blog post, why not follow this blog for regular updates and/or continue reading the following posts on Beowulf:
- “A conspicuous specimen of Anglosaxon poetry”: A student summary of Beowulf from 1880
- Beowulf vs the Dragon: A Student Doodle Edition
- The Freoðuwebbe and the Freswael: A Comic Strip Reconstruction of the Finnsburg Fragment and Episode
Works referred to:
- Lugt, F. (2009), Het Goed van Oegstgeest: De Middeleeuwen in Oegstgeest, Poelgeest, Kerkwerve, Rijnsburg en Nieuw-Rhijngeest. Leiden: Ginkgo.
- Magoun, F., Jr. (1953), ‘The Geography of Hygelac’s Raid on the Lands of the West Frisians and the Hætt-ware, ca. 530 AD’, English Studies 34.
- Storms, G. (1970), ‘The Significance of Hygelac’s Raid’, Nottingham Mediaeval Studies 14,3-26.