How Friesland as a ‘mental space’ must always be recreated (from the Middle Ages to Arcadia) | opinion

How did the spatial identity and orientation of Friesland develop and with what values ​​was this ‘space’ filled over the centuries? And how much space do we give ourselves?

Sometime in the seventies, when I sometimes did a ’round the IJsselmeer’ by racing bike, I was stopped halfway through the Afsluitdijk by a couple who asked me: ,,Where is Friesland?”

A baffling question in the yet strongly defined and compelling space of the Afsluitdijk, IJsselmeer and Waddenzee. It was no joke and I was able to show them the way with the tip: keep the high dike to your left, and you’ll be fine.

That incident has always haunted me. How do people experience ‘space’? Do they recognize spatial identities and can they orient themselves in that space? Perhaps also that because of that incident my interest has always focused on the question of what spatial identity Friesland had, or rather, has appropriated it in a fascinating process of identity formation.

We know Friesland as a sharply defined territorial unit to which you can ‘go’. But that very limited space has not always been so defined. In the Middle Ages, the ‘Frisian lands’ stretched along the coast between Vlie and Weser. A large area that developed its own Frisian identity with Frisian freedom, language and law as its characteristics.

But it is crucial that this Friesland did not become a political unit. Medieval Frisian ‘space’ was not primarily territorial, but mainly determined mentally. The space was filled with ideals and values: Frisian and free!

About the writer

Bert Looper studied history in Groningen and was successively municipal archivist of Zutphen and ‘s Hertogenbosch, director of the Central Archive Selection Service of the Ministry of the Interior, director of the Overijssel Historical Center and from 2007 to 2021 director of Tresoar, the Frysk Histoarysk and Letterkundich Sintrum in Leeuwarden

How different it was in the period that followed the conquest of Friesland by Albrecht van Saksen around 1500. The identity package of freedom, language and law disappeared and was replaced by a ‘space’ that was given a strong territorial boundary after 1600: the region of Friesland as part of the Republic of the United Netherlands.


Friesland became a strong political entity, a political ‘space’ with an equally strong external orientation in a period when the Republic was under constant threat from outside. This new Frisian ‘space’ was loaded with the ideals of the Republic and with the culture of an internationally oriented elite in the capacity of the Nassaus and their stadtholder’s court and with the Academy of Franeker. The Frisian space was therefore not ‘Frisian-laden’ as we know it today.

The map of the department of the Ems, the territorial and political division of the Frisian space during the Batavian Republic around 1800, beautifully shows how an area that had lost its Medieval Frisian mental load, rücksichtlos could be split into two new administrative units. The Frisian space was not a mental space, but in the eyes of the revolutionary administrators only an administrative unit.


The ‘recharge’ of the space with Frisian identity features took place in the 19th century, when the Middle Ages were rediscovered and Frisian freedom, language and law once again came into the limelight. The spatial identity of Friesland became increasingly Frisian, but the spatial orientation remained European.

The Halbertsmas from the early 19th century, Douwe Kalma – ‘Fryslân and the wrâld’ – in the early 20th century, as well as the leaders of Frisian culture after the Second World War, saw the Frisian space as a European space.

In January 1946 the first issue of the first volume of the literary magazine was published The Cherne that for years the opinion maker in the Frisian world. None other than writer, journalist and politician Fedde Schurer opened the issue with his now famous article Forbrits the bining † In this, Schurer argued that Frisian literature could only develop into a full-fledged literature if the relationship between literature and the Frisian movement were to be broken. Literature should not serve a political ideal, but should be able to develop freely and artistically on a European level.


In his discussion of the poetry collection New poems of DA Tamminga, Schurer goes one step further and states: ‘But infinitely more important, and this must be clearly stated, than the relationship of present-day Friesland to the Friesland of the past, is the relationship of present-day Friesland to contemporary Europe. . We sink and rise with it.’

In light of the strong European spatial identity and orientation of Friesland from 1800 to 1950, the major festivals of the 21st century, Cultural Capital 2018 and Arcadia could be seen as a continuation and enrichment of that tradition. Friesland competes with Europe and European artists and writers compete with Friesland.

All the more remarkable is the doubt within an important part of the Frisian cultural world about the effects of the European orientation on language and culture. What are we losing? It seems as if two Frisian spaces have arisen, one aimed at internal reinforcement and control, the other at external orientation and change.

What happened?

For the sake of discussion, I would like to posit the proposition that the Frisian spatial identity in the second half of the last century had a strong boundary that offered comfort, but also limited space. Kneppelfreed in particular, the famous language riot in 1951, initiated a process of ‘limitation’ by legislation and regulations and – most crucially – an embrace of Frisian ideals and values ​​by Frisian politics, ratified in the Frisian language endorsed by the provincial government. Manifesto of 1956.

In the decades that followed, everything was aimed at strengthening the core of Frisian, the language: internal orientation, aimed at mastery through legislation, spelling rules, charters and institutes; external orientation, aimed at The Hague, where the recognition of all this had to be achieved.

That may seem a bit negative, but it also marked an enormous flowering period for Frisian culture. Several generations grew up and contributed to this broad emancipation of Frisian in their own familiar space. A community of Frisians arose who had lived through these experiences together, but who also made the Frisian space normative and uninviting for outsiders and newcomers.

Around 2000 this structure showed cracks. Globalization, digitization, multimedia developments and multilingualism set in motion a process that could be characterized as ‘from core to context’.

Loss or gain? Who on YouTube view the images of the famous festival Simmer 2000 does not see the new century, but sees a generation that looks back with nostalgia at that unique but one-time period in which the Frisian space was completely ours.

LF2018, the Cultural Capital, was the festival of the new generation. The year 2018 was not thought from the core but from the context. The message of LF2018 was that we do not have to think and work from a hard, strong, autonomous core to be able to conquer the world. LF2018 argues for an inclusive approach to Frisian identity in a changing European context of multilingualism, multimedia and multiculturalism.


The evaluation of 2018 shows that the creative sector and policy makers believe that the positioning of the Frisian identity in a dynamic European context contributes to the reinforcement of Frisian culture. But the evaluation also shows that a large part of the Frisian population is not really interested in cultural developments or sees the movement ‘from core to context’ as a loss of individuality.

The traditional set of identity features and the new set of LF2018 are clearly next to or even opposite to each other. We seem to be moving in two separate spaces. But why?

The space of the fifties was one-off, unique, inspiring and necessary, but now further. When you cross the Afsluitdijk, you can already see the church tower of Cornwerd from afar, where the great Frisian poet Obe Postma is buried. His tombstone reads ‘poet fan it lân’. Of course Postma wrote poems about and about Friesland, but above all, as Fokke Sierksma said, Postma wrote, ‘recreations of Friesland, an attempt to transfer Friesland in the spirit’.

Friesland as a mental space that has to be recreated again and again, by each generation again. Great to see that happening again.

Last week Bert Looper gave the lecture The history of regional thought: Friesland and the world for Studium Generale in Leeuwarden. This piece ties into that.

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