The Frisians are a Germanic ethnic group indigenous to the coastal parts of the Netherlands and northwestern Germany.
They inhabit an area known as Frisia and are concentrated in the Dutch provinces of Friesland and Groningen and, in Germany, East Frisia and North Frisia (which was a part of Denmark until 1864).
The Frisian languages are still spoken by more than 500,000 people; West Frisian is officially recognized in the Netherlands (in Friesland), and North Frisian and Saterland Frisian are recognized as regional languages in Germany.
The ancient Frisii enter recorded history in the Roman account of Drusus’s 12 BC war against the Rhine Germans and the Chauci. They occasionally appear in the accounts of Roman wars against the Germanic tribes of the region, up to and including the Revolt of the Batavi around 70 AD. Frisian mercenaries were hired to assist the Roman invasion of Britain in the capacity of cavalry. They are not mentioned again until c. 296, when they were deported into Roman territory as laeti (i.e., Roman-era serfs; see Binchester Roman Fort and Cuneus Frisionum). The discovery of a type of earthenware unique to 4th century Frisia, called terp Tritzum, shows that an unknown number of them were resettled in Flanders and Kent, probably as laeti under Roman coercion.
From the 3rd through the 5th centuries Frisia suffered marine transgressions that made most of the land uninhabitable, aggravated by a change to a cooler and wetter climate. Whatever population may have remained dropped dramatically, and the coastal lands remained largely unpopulated for the next two centuries. When conditions improved, Frisia received an influx of new settlers, mostly Angles and Saxons. These people would eventually be referred to as ‘Frisians’, though they were not necessarily descended from the ancient Frisii. It is these ‘new Frisians’ who are largely the ancestors of the medieval and modern Frisians.
By the end of the 6th century, Frisian territory had expanded westward to the North Sea coast and, in the 7th century, southward down to Dorestad. This farthest extent of Frisian territory is sometimes referred to as Frisia Magna. Early Frisia was ruled by a High King, with the earliest reference to a ‘Frisian King’ being dated 678.
In the early 8th century the Frisian nobles came into increasing conflict with the Franks to their south, resulting in a series of wars in which the Frankish Empire eventually subjugated Frisia in 734. These wars benefited attempts by Anglo-Irish missionaries (which had begun with Saint Boniface) to convert the Frisian populace to Christianity, in which Saint Willibrord largely succeeded.
Some time after the death of Charlemagne, the Frisian territories were in theory under the control of the Count of Holland, but in practice the Hollandic counts, starting with Count Arnulf in 993, were unable to assert themselves as the sovereign lords of Frisia. The resulting stalemate resulted in a period of time called the ‘Frisian freedom’, a period in which feudalism and serfdom (as well as central or judicial administration) did not exist, and in which the Frisian lands only owed their allegiance to the Holy Roman Emperor.
During the 13th century, however, the counts of Holland became increasingly powerful and, starting in 1272, sought to reassert themselves as rightful lords of the Frisian lands in a series of wars, which (with a series of lengthy interruptions) ended in 1422 with the Hollandic conquest of Western Frisia and with the establishment of a more powerful noble class in Central and Eastern Frisia.
In 1524, Frisia became part of the Seventeen Provinces and in 1568 joined the Dutch revolt against Philip II, king of Spain, heir of the Burgundian territories; Central Frisia has remained a part of the Netherlands ever since. The eastern periphery of Frisia would become part of various German states (later Germany) and Denmark. An old tradition existed in the region of exploitation of peatlands.
As both the Anglo-Saxons of England and the early Frisians were formed from largely identical tribal confederacies, their respective languages were very similar. Old Frisian is the most closely related language to Old English and the modern Frisian dialects are in turn the closest related languages to contemporary English, together forming the linguistic category of Anglo-Frisian.
The Frisian language group itself is divided into three mutually unintelligible languages:
- West Frisian, spoken in the Dutch province of Friesland
- Saterland Frisian, spoken in the German municipality of Saterland just south of East Frisia
- North Frisian, spoken in the German region of North Frisia (within the Kreis of Nordfriesland) on the west coast of Jutland.
Of these three languages both Saterland Frisian (2,000 speakers) and North Frisian (10,000 speakers) are endangered. West Frisian is spoken by around 354,000 native speakers and is not threatened.
Today there exists a tripartite division of the Frisians, into North Frisians, East Frisians and West Frisians, caused by Frisia’s constant loss of territory in the Middle Ages. The West Frisians, in general, do not necessarily see themselves as part of a larger group of Frisians, and, according to a 1970 poll, identify themselves more with the Dutch than with the East or North Frisians. Therefore, the term ‘Frisian’, when applied to the speakers of all three Frisian languages, is a linguistic, ethnic and/or cultural concept, not a political one.
- Greg Woolf, “Cruptorix and his kind. Talking ethnicity on the middle ground”, Ton Derks, Nico Roymans (ed.), Ethnic Constructs in Antiquity: The Role of Power and Tradition (Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2009) (Amsterdam Archaeological Studies, 13), 207-218.
- Jos Bazelmans, “The early-medieval use of ethnic names from classical antiquity. The case of the Frisians”, in Ton Derks, Nico Roymans (ed.), Ethnic Constructs in Antiquity: The Role of Power and Tradition (Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2009) (Amsterdam Archaeological Studies, 13), 321-329.