On the emergence of the Theelacht
A short introduction
English by John Edwards
There is no doubt my following words recount the truth. And the truth? The truth has ben handed down in writing since 1585. Before this, the story was passed on in families by word of mouth. For around 700 years. The origin of the Norden Theelacht has been determined as being in the year 884.
And this is how it came about:
The Frisians at this time had for years been suffering under the Normans. They descended from what is now Denmark and Norway, the Danish Vikings. The Frisians called them „Norsemen“ – those from the North. It was not only the coastal regions that were ravaged by the invading hoards. They penetrated well into the land interior via the rivers. To Cologne, for example. At the outset, they arrived as traders and dealers. Then the picture changed. Troops of warriors swarmed in onto the coast on fast ships. From here they advanced further inland after first establishing a secure base. Whoever dared to stand up to the invading forces was mercilessly slaughtered. Whatever was not offered to them voluntarily was simply taken from the people anyway. The Normans butchered the people, humiliated the womenfolk and set fire to everything. Whoever defied the Normans was forced to wear a wreath of willow branches, by which they could be hanged at any time from the nearest tree. Hostages were dealt with severely. Thielmar von Merseburg recalls that the Normans in Stade in 994 hacked off the hands of all captives and cut off ears and noses. People at the coast passed down these terrible events by word of mouth for centuries afterwards. The Normans always appeared suddenly, stole whatever they needed and moved on. Not only did they invade Friesland, but the whole of western Europe, up to the British Isles. In 845 they destroyed Hamburg, in 880 their fleet sailed upstream on the Elbe River, waged war against the Saxons and defeated them.
At this stage in time, East Frisia had already long been part of the Reich of the Franks. Because of the Norman presence it was only necessary for the Frisians to build their armies within their own areas. It was of great importance that the Normans be warded off at the coast. No Frisian was allowed to leave his house vacant for longer than when the next tide was due, since the Normans were only able to reach the coast from the open North Sea via the tidal flats of the Wadden area. Christendom too had spread to the East Frisian region. The western part was under the control of the Münster Diocese, the eastern and northern part to the Bremen Diocese. A small section in the south was controlled by the Osnabrück Diocese. The area around Norden, which hitherto had belonged to Münster, was taken over by the Bremen Diocese as the Leybucht penetrated into Norden. Rembertus was the incumbent bishop here in 865. From time to time he had to hold send court in the churches of his bishopric. And so it came to pass that he was in Norden in 884. For the people of the Norderland, the territory around the town of Norden, this was a good opportunity to come together on court days. They were able to receive advice, to elect their leaders and prepare for a war that was to bring them freedom. They told the bishop of their dire needs, and he instilled in them the courage to rid themselves of the Normans. The bishop knelt down on the foundling where the court took place. He prayed with ebullience. His fervour was a clear indication to the people of the sincerity of his prayer. His knees buried themselves deep into the hard stone. It was a sign from God. Today, one can still see the stone in the Old Cemetery in Norden and note the indentations from his knees. The water that gathered in the hollows is said to heal warts. The Frisians combated the Normans with ferocious courage and bravery (autumn 884?). The Normans far outnumbered them, but they still had no chance against their fight for freedom.
Although the men from the Norderland had nothing other than scythes, flails and other agricultural tools as weapons, their anger and their bravery successfully secured them their wish for freedom. With their slogan „Lever dood as Slaav“ (better be dead than a slave) they pitched into battle with their enemy. Some of the Normans escaped on their ships, but the furious Frisians overtook and killed them. The number of Normans dead reached 10,377. All this took place in the Hilgenrieder Bucht, the Bay of Hilgenried, 12 kilometres from Norden. The ownership of the oldest bay today with a dyke embankment has been given over to the men of the Norderland for their right deserves. The area is referred to as the ‚Theellande‘. The battles took place one after the other at various sections around the Bay. For this reason the victor was rewarded with the ‚Theels‘ in which he himself had fought. This was the origin of the ‚Erbbauernrecht‘, the farmers‘ inherited rights to their respective ‚Theele‘. It was common property of the Theelacht, the revenues from which resulted from its later leasing. Throughout the ages, these revenues have been paid out at the spring and autumn disbursement to the legitimated farmers. In the spring, seven days before Good Friday, revenues from the Linteler, the Gaster, the Eber and the Hover Theels are paid out. The autumn disbursement from the Ekeler, the Neugroder, the Osthover and the Trimser Theels takes place on the Wednesday and on the Friday in the week before, or two weeks before Christmas. According to ancient Frisian Law in respect of the Erbbauer, the youngest son is entitled to the inheritance. In the meantime, there are nowadays Kaufbauern, whose families have, over the centuries, purchased shares from the families of the Erbbauern. These shares are not subject to Erbbauernrecht – the inherited rights to the title deeds of the respective Theel – but are governed by civil law. The Kaufbauern enjoy only few rights within the Theelacht. They have neither the right to vote nor to stand for election. I mentioned at the beginning that I would without doubt tell the truth about the emergence of the Theelacht. However, the truth is that there is no truth. The emergence of the Theelacht dissolves into a fog of lore and legend. We know from oral folktales that it has often been embellished and glorified.
But a degree of truth must be there. This is agreed by scholars who have researched and made records of the Theelacht. Even if there are differing interpretations, all return to the Normans on our coast. I see no reason to doubt this version. Even without solid evidence, the history of the Theelacht is an interesting and intriguing story, which one loves to hear and pass on.
By Dr. Hans-Hermann Briese