Published online by Cambridge University Press: 11 June 2021
LITERACY CAME RATHER late to Frisia, a narrow stretch of land no deeper than some 25 kilometres and running along the coast of the North Sea between the estuaries of the Rhine and the Weser. Although the Frisians had been converted to Christianity from the late seventh century to the end of the ninth, very few centres of learning, if any at all, had come about in the centuries immediately following their conversion, due to various circumstances. First of all, the missionaries who evangelised amongst the Frisians had their bases far away from the coast: Willibrord's home abbey was in Echternach (Luxembourg), Boniface worked from Fulda (Hessen), Liudger resided in Werden (Ruhr area), while also from Corvey abbey on the lower Weser anonymous monks had worked in the Frisian lands. As a result, when newly converted pious Frisians wanted to donate land in honour of God and for the benefit of their souls, they did so to these monasteries rather than seeing to it that such pious communities were founded within the confines of Frisia itself to which they could relate.
A second factor frustrating the foundation of centres of Christian literacy was the arrival of the Vikings. Shortly after Charlemagne had completed the conquest of Frisia and its incorporation into his empire, the coastal districts started to become a target for increasingly frequent Scandinavian raids. These plundering activities were only temporarily brought to a halt when Charlemagne's grandson Hlothar appointed the Dane Rorik as count of Frisia in 850. For more than twenty-five years successive Danes ruled the Low Countries not unlike a kind of Normandy or Danelaw, but eventually they failed to settle permanently and establish a duchy or county there. Only around 950 did the coast see a nunnery in the dunes of Egmond (about 30 km north-west of Amsterdam), founded at the invitation of Count Dirk I, by Benedictines of the abbey of St Bavo in Ghent and hence oriented more to the south than to the north.
A third factor thwarting the rise of literacy was the ecclesiastical administration. Frisia never received its own bishopric, but the Frisian lands subsisted under the successors of whichever missionary had been responsible for their conversion. Hence, the Frisian lands became divided between four different bishoprics: Utrecht (Willibrord), Münster (Liudger), Paderborn (successor to Corvey abbey) and Bremen (Willehad), all of them situated outside Frisia.