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Identification. The Frisians are a linguistic and cultural minority of the Netherlands (with some pockets of Frisian speakers living in Germany as well).

Location. The majority of Frisians live in Friesland, a Province in the north of the Netherlands that is bordered on the south by the Zuider Zee (IJsselmeer) and on the east and north by the North Sea. Most of Friesland lies below sea level, subject to storms and flooding through much of the year. The soil is mixed: sand, clay, and peat. The coastal terp region, socalled for the mounds (terpen) built by early inhabitants to raise their dwelling sites above the flood line, is essentially sandy soil. To the east, two ecological zones can be distinguished: the "low middle" area of flat wetlands formed by the silting-in of old riverbeds; and the marshy forest area in the southeast.

Demography. Frisian speakers today number approximately 730,000, with about 400,000 living in Friesland Province, 300,000 living elsewhere in the Netherlands, and the remainder living in Germany, Denmark, and North America.

Linguistic Affiliation. Frisian is a member of the North Sea Branch of the Western Germanic Family of Indo-European languages and bears strong linguistic resemblance to both English and Dutch. Most speakers are bilingual in Dutch. There are three dialects: West, Eastern, and Northern Frisian. Frisian has an official orthography in the Netherlands.

History and Cultural Relations

Frisian mythology holds that an Indian prince, Friso by name, was drafted into the Macedonian army of Alexander the Great, deserted from that army, and sailed north from Greece with his brothers in the fourth century b.c. to eventually make landfall in Friesland. There is archaeological and historical evidence that a proto-Frisian culture developed on the coast between 400 and 200 b.c. and that the construction of terpen was well under way by 200 b.c. By 12 b.c., Roman records tell of Frisians assisting the ships of Roman invasionary forces in the region. The Frisians entered into trade with Rome's Legions, providing them with hides. The alliance with Rome, however, was uneasy, and between a.d. 25 and 70 the Frisians rebelled openly against Roman demands for tribute. The Romans were finally forced to retreat from the region by AD. 70. The years a.d. 700-900 were the time of greatest Frisian influence in the area, because of their extensive involvement in seafaring trade, but Frankish expansion (in the early 800s) soon reduced the territory under Frisian influence. The Franks brought Christianity as well as political control to Friesland, though conversion of the Frisians did not come easy. Between the twelfth and thirteenth century, however, Christendom was securely established, though not without undergoing syncretization with indigenous beliefsa phenomenon common throughout the Germanic territories. By the medieval era, the scattered homesteads of Frisian families began to give way to nucleated village settlements each centered on a small church built on high ground. The inland areas were characterized by smallhold farms, with more extensive landholdings along the coast. However, a classic feudal system never developed in Friesland. Much of Frisian cultural identity today can be directly attributed to the strong and successful tradition of independence maintained throughout the period of Saxon domination during the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, when the slogan "Free and Frisian, without Tax or Excise" was the rallying cry for rebellion against Foreign rule. In 1579, with the Treaty of Utrecht, Friesland became part of "the Seven United Provinces," which included Holland, Zeeland, Groningen, Overijssel, Gelderland, Utrecht, and Friesland, and from which the modern nation of the Netherlands is derived. Within this union, there was provision for a great deal of regional autonomy, which again contributed to the preservation of a distinctly Frisian identity. Of all the united provinces, Holland assumed an ascendancy early on because of its great success in shipping and mercantilism. This ascendancy was partly responsible for the introduction of the highly influential Dutch Calvinist sect in Friesland. In 1795, the French occupied much of Friesland, bringing with it the ideals that informed the French Revolution (liberty, equality, and fraternity) and the Napoleonic Code. But the Frisians never cared for foreign rule, however "enlightened," and threw their support behind William V of Orange-Nassau. In 1813 the kingdom of the Netherlands, Including Friesland, was formed, and prospects for absolute Political autonomy for the province were ended. Early in World War II, the Netherlands was occupied by the Nazis, and Frieslanders were active in the Dutch Resistance, although there were some few who, as in the Netherlands as a whole, collaborated with their occupiers. The tales of heroic Frisian resistance against Nazi occupation provide the newest episodes in their long-standing tradition of independence from foreign rule.


Settlement of Friesland depended upon protecting its lowlying lands from inundation by sea floods. The "Golden Hoop" of dikes that today extends along the whole of the Frisian coast was begun as long ago as a.d. 1000. The earliest Frisian settlements were built on mounds of refuse covered with clay, and drainage windmills were constructed to pump water out of sodden fields. The inland portion of Friesland is still dotted with scattered farming homesteads, although nucleated village settlements became common beginning in the medieval period. A group of villages forms a gemeente, or community, which is similar to, but not identical with, the concept of the Anglo-American county. (The gemeente was originally a cooperative unit, rather than an administrative one.) The classic Frisian homestead is called "head-neck-body"a series of articulated structures in which the family quarters are contained in the smallish "head," connected to the larger "body" (the barn), by a narrower and shorter section (the "neck") that contains the kitchen, milk cellar, and churn room. The living quarters include a parlor, reserved for formal use (e.g., Sunday visits), as well as a larger, plainer room for day-to-day family use. Traditional, but rarely used today, is the "bed-cupboard" that opened off the living area and was precisely what the name suggests: a sort of closet containing a bed. Hearths, and sometimes internal walls as well, were tiled. Barns were traditionally built of wattle and daub, but brick is the more common material today. Thatching for barn roofs remains in use, but house roofs are usually tiled. Barn roofs were traditionally finished off with decorative gables, a practice that is rapidly dying out. In the "heather villages" of old, where the peat workers lived, dwellings (called spitkeat ) were semi-subterranean constructions of turf and planking, covered over with a peaked thatch roof.


Subsistence and Commercial Activities. The Frisian economy centers on agriculture and dairyingthe Frisian dairy breed is famous the world over. Inland farms are smallholds, worked by the families that own them. Even in the coastal regions where larger holdings were once common, farming was done on a smaller, family scale on leased lots. In the forested area, livestock takes precedence, while the open lands have emphasized crop production since the introduction of chemical fertilizer and mechanized traction. The weekly livestock market in Tjouwert is an important Economic as well as social occasion. In the seventeenth century, peat working became an important economic pursuit as well, when demand for cheap fuel increased because of the introduction of industrialization throughout the Netherlands. Although peat is no longer the marketable item it once was, its exploitation had a number of important effects upon Friesland: reduction of arable land, the building of canals throughout the region for the inland shipping of peat, and the expansion of the inland shipping industry itself. The tourist industry is well developed, catering to vacationers from Holland, as well as from the rest of Europe. Frisian towns were and are trade and crafts centers.

Industrial Arts. Frisian industry includes clock making, tile working, building construction, and the production of dairy products. A traditional craft, distinctive to Friesland, is the carving and painting of ulebuorden or "owl boards"barn gables that were once a standard part of barn construction but are no longer so common.

Trade. From very early on in the history of the Frisian People, trade was an important aspect of the economy. The location of Friesland made the Frisians admirably placed for participation in a trading network that extended from Brittany to Scandinavia, and their seafaring skills gave them a great deal of influence within that network. Early Frisian trade goods were furs and hides. Later on, agricultural produce was added. With the introduction of money, which dates back to Roman times, Frisian trade gave place to Commerce. Peat was an important commercial item during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.

Division of Labor. Except for the association of women with the domestic arts, there is no strict division of labor by sex. Both male and female family members participate in the work of the family farm, and in the towns women participate in merchant and craft activities along with the men.

Land Tenure. Land is privately owned, and it can be bought, sold, or leased.


Kin Groups and Descent. Kinship is reckoned bilaterally, with a patrilineal bias.

Kinship Terminology. Frisian kinship terminology is of the Eskimo type. Naming practices prior to the French occupation of the early 1800s consisted of the simple reversal, from one generation to the next, of "first" and "last" names. Thus, the son of Hans Koek would be named Koek Hans, and the grandson would be Hans Koek once again. The French introduced permanent, or patrilineally heritable, family names, and at that time people either registered the names they currently held (often with a suffix), took geographic referents as the family name (the name of their town, for example) , or registered their occupation (Weaver, for instance, or Farmer). A special relation exists between neighbor entailing obligation of mutual assistance, and is marked by a specific term of address ("neighbor-man" or "neighbor-woman") used as a preface to the addressee's surname.

Marriage and Family

Marriage. Weddings were once very elaborate celebrations, and were traditionally performed by a priest. Today, however, civil weddings are as common as church ones. Marriages also used to be finalized when the bride and groom were still quite youngin their middle teens, or shortly after concluding elementary school. Today, however, the average age at marriage is higher, partly reflecting an increased interest in higher education prior to "settling down." Sex prior to Marriage is relatively common, though a certain amount of discretion is expected of the parties involved, and "homing," or living together out of wedlock, has a long tradition despite the disapproval of the church. Divorce is as common in Friesland as in the rest of the Netherlands.

Domestic Unit. Although the "ideal typical" Frisian Family configuration is the nuclear family, single-parent families, independent spinster or bachelor households, and any of the variety of other household arrangements to be found in the Netherlandsand, indeed, European society as a wholehave their counterparts in Friesland.

Inheritance. Heritable property is passed on at the discretion of its owner, although there is a distinct bias that favors a son inheriting from his father.

Socialization. In the face-to-face community of the Frisian village, socialization is not the specific province of any one person or institution. Parents are the primary care givers and socializers of the very young, but once a child is old enough to be out and about in the village, other villagers and the child's own peers contribute much to his or her socialization as well. The school and the church are the two principal socializing institutions outside the family, and the public school provides formal instruction in the Frisian language. The much larger Christian school provides instruction only in Dutch, however. Friesland has no university of its own.

Sociopolitical Organization

Social Organization. There is a basic distinction between rural and town-based Frisians, with greater status accorded to the town dwellers. Communalism, necessitated by the demands of the environment (i.e., the need to build and maintain the extensive system of canals, dikes, and drainage ditches), is reinforced by the concept of buorreplicht (Neighbor's duty) a part of Frisian folk law that appears in the Lex Frisionum of Charlemagnewhich requires that neighbors provide assistance to one another when the occasion demands it. By extension, neighbors are expected to attend one another's life-cycle events (weddings, funerals, etc). Neighbor relations, rather than kinship ties, are the principal Vehicle for the formation of larger cooperative groups in Frisian society.

Political Organization. Modern Frisian political organization derives from the thirty gemeenten, or countylike communities, and the "Eleven"the Frisian cities established as independent of county governance during medieval times. Decisions requiring action or imposing obligations on the Frisian people as a whole are made by forty-one appointed representatives (one for each county and one for each of the cities). The highest-ranking official in Friesland is also appointedthat is the queen's commissioner, who acts as a liaison between the province and the federal government.

Social Control. Frisian folk law was laid down in written form as part of Charlemagne's Lex Frisionum in a.d. 801-802, and it provides the formal means for the adjudication and mediation of conflicts within Frisian society. Informal mechanisms of social control are those common to many village communities: gossip, joking, ridicule, and other expressions of public disapproval for an individual's social transgressions.

Conflict. Friesland is but one province within the larger national entity of the Netherlands, and thus it does not have autonomy in relating to other nation-states. While enjoying a great deal of provincial autonomy within the Netherlands, it is subject to the national government's policy decisions Concerning foreign relations, alliances, and disputes.

Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs. Christianity came early to Friesland with the dominion of the Franks in the eighth and ninth centuries, but it did not succeed in completely eradicating Indigenous tradition. Pre-Christian beliefs, called byleauwe, are derived from the larger Germanic folk tradition, and they retain some currency especially in rural areas and the forested region. These folk beliefs, modifying and being modified by the newer Christian faith, now consist of an interwoven tapestry of folktales and superstitions regarding supernatural beings such as devils, spooks, and ghosts; "white ladies" who lived underground and kidnapped travelers in the night; a more beneficent category of female spirits who provided help to travelers in distress; and elves, witches, wizards, and trolls. Belief in oracles and predictive visions were common in the relatively recent past. Predominantly, Frisians are Protestant: 85 percent are members of the Calvinist Dutch Reformed or Reformed churches, with another 5 percent being Mennonites.

Ceremonies. Many traditional ceremonial occasionssuch as the start of Lent (Mardi Gras) and Palm Sundayhave become exclusively religious observances, with little community celebration. Easter, however, remains a major community celebration, marked by special family meals, egg-hunt competitions, and the like. Queen's Day, a national observance, is celebrated on 30 April with parades and festivals. St. Martin's Day, once associated with the church and the spirits of the deceased, is now a children's holiday. As is true throughout the Netherlands, the holiday of Saint Nicholas (Sinterklaes ) is celebrated on 5 December. It marks the arrival of Saint Nicholas and his assistant, Black Peter, who travel to the Netherlands in a boat from Spain and bring sweets for the children of the village. Presents are exchanged between friends and family members on this day as well. Christmas, however, is strictly a church observance.

Arts. Traditional Frisian folk arts include tile making, elaborate embroidery, and the ulebuorden, the ornately decorated gables that once graced the traditional Frisian barns and have now become purely aesthetic productions. Friesland has a long tradition of excellence in the literary and visual arts as well.

Death and Afterlife. Frisian attitudes toward death are characterized by a markedly practical acceptance of its inevitability. The obligation of performing funerary tasks once fell to the neighbors of the deceased as one of the obligations of buorreplicht, but more recently they have been assumed by burial associations. The deceased traditionally was wrapped in a white shroud but is now more commonly dressed in everyday clothing. The body is carried to the cemetery in a horse-drawn hearse, followed by the family and neighbors of the deceased in a procession on foot. Although beliefs in the afterlife are largely consistent with Christian teachings, some elements of Frisian funerary practice reflect non- or pre-Christian influences. For example, the funeral procession, according to tradition, ought to follow a winding path in order to disorient the spirit of the dead person and thus frustrate its efforts to return to the home it knew in life. Similarly, the coffin is carried around the cemetery three times before being brought in for interment.


Kalma, J. J. (1977). Friesland toen en nu. The Hague: Boekencentrum.

Mahmood, Cynthia Keppley (1989). Frisian and Free: Study of an Ethnic Minority of the Netherlands. Prospect Heights, Ill.: Waveland Press.

Van der Plank, P. H. (1985). "Ethnicité dans une province périphérique: La Frise." Recherches Sociologiques 15:129-141.

Wittermans, Tamme (1967). "The Frisians: An Ethnic Group in the Netherlands." Sociology and Social Research 52:88-100.


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LOCATION: The Netherlands


LANGUAGE: Dutch; Frisian; English; French; German

RELIGION: Protestant; Mennonite


The Frisians live in Friesland, one of the Netherlands' northern provinces. They value their independence as a unique ethnic group. Friesland is the only province of the Netherlands to retain its own language. Like the other low-lying parts of the Netherlands, Friesland struggles to protect its land from flooding. It owes its existence to dikes (artificially constructed mounds of earth) extending the length of the coastline, and to windmillsthe most famous of Dutch symbolsthat drain the land.

Under the Treaty of Utrecht, in 1579, Friesland joined with the six other northern provinces, including Holland, to form the "Seven United Provinces," the forerunner of the modern Netherlands. Friesland maintained a high degree of regional autonomy (independence) within the union. Friesland became part of the Kingdom of the Netherlands established at the Congress of Vienna in 1814.


Friesland is one of the northernmost provinces of the Netherlands. It is bounded on the west, southwest, and north by water, and on the east and south by other provinces. It has an area of 1,297 square miles (3,357 square kilometers), most of it below sea level. This land was reclaimed from the sea about 2,000 years ago. There is a continuing struggle against storms and flooding. In addition to the waters of its long coastline, Friesland has some thirty inland lakes. Friesland's population is approximately 600,000 people. Most Frisians live their entire lives in Friesland, but some have migrated to other parts of the Netherlands as well as to Germany, Denmark, and North America.


Dutch is the official language in Friesland, as in the rest of the Netherlands. About half of Friesland's 600,000 residents speak both Dutch and Frisian. Frisian is a Germanic language similar to both Dutch and English. Most Frisian speakers use the language at home, and speak Dutch in the workplace and other public settings. It is also common to combine the two languages into a hybrid (mixture) called "town Frisian." Many Netherlandersincluding Frisiansspeak (or at least understand) English, French, and German, all taught in the secondary schools. The fishing village of Hindelopen is unusual in that it has its own dialect. With a population of 900, it is believed to be the smallest town in the world to publish its own dictionary.


Friesland has a large body of folklore that has survived from pre-Christian times. Popular tales and superstitions feature a variety of devils, ghosts, witches, elves, wizards, and trolls. There are also female spirits who either help or harm travelers. According to a popular folk belief, funeral processions should follow a winding path to confuse the spirit of the deceased so it will not be able to return and haunt the living. For the same reason, the coffin is traditionally carted around the cemetery three times before being buried.

"The Seven Wishes" is a traditional Frisian folktale. The story is set in a time when the land was populated by Little People, including an old fisherman named Jan and his wife, Tryn. One day Jan caught a magic silver fish that promised him seven wishes, on condition that he choose wisely. The humble fisherman's only desire was for a new boat because his old one was about to fall apart. However, his wife got carried away by greed, demanding a new house, furnishings, servants, and other luxuries. Finally, she demanded absolute power, and the fish took away everything it had given them. The old woman learned her lesson. The couple realized that what truly mattered to each of them was the other, and they contentedly returned to their modest existence.


Protestantism is the majority religion in Friesland. About 85 percent of Frisians belong to one of two Calvinist churchesthe Dutch Reformed Church, or the Reformed Church. Five percent of Frisians are Mennonites. Some Frisians still hold certain pre-Christian beliefs (called byleauwe ). These date back to the period before the introduction of Christianity to Friesland by the Franks (a Germanic tribe) in the eighth and ninth centuries ad.


Frisians observe the Dutch legal holidays: New Year's Day (January 1), the Queen's birthday (April 30), Memorial Day (May 4), National Liberation Day (May 5), and Christmas (December 2526). They also observe other standard holidays of the Christian calendar, including Good Friday, Holy Saturday, Easter Monday, Ascension, and Whitmonday. Easter is considered an especially important holiday. It is observed with a special dinner and an Easter egg hunt similar to those in the United States. The Queen's birthday is another important occasion, marked by flag displays and parades. On this day girls wear orange ribbons in their hair in honor of the royal family, the House of Orange. Frisians, like other Dutch people, observe Christmas by attending church services. In the Netherlands, the gift-giving that people in other countries associate with Christmas takes place on December 6. This day is devoted to St. Nicholas (Sinterklaes, the Dutch equivalent of Santa Claus). According to tradition, St. Nicholas and his helper, called Black Peter, sail to the Netherlands from Spain to give children candy and other gifts.


Frisians live in a modern, industrialized, Christian country. Hence, many of the rites of passage that young people undergo are religious rituals. These include baptism, first communion, confirmation, and marriage. In addition, many families mark a student's progress through the education system with graduation parties.


The shared perpetual struggle against the sea has given Frisians a strong sense of community. This is expressed in the concept of buorreplicht (neighbor's duty). Helping one's neighbors in times of trouble was so necessary to survival that it was actually a formal law under emperor Charlemagne (742814) in the Middle Ages (AD 768814). The sense of communal responsibility has survived as a tradition. Relations with one's neighbors have even more importance than kinship (family ties) in holding Frisian communities together. Like their neighbors in the northern province of Groningen, Frisians tend to be seen as unsophisticated by Netherlanders living in the southern part of the country.


The traditional old-fashioned Frisian farm house consists of modest-sized living quarters. These are connected to a barn by a narrow section containing a kitchen, milk cellar, and butter-churning area. The living quarters are generally divided into an all-purpose family room and a formal parlor where visitors are received. Tile roofs have largely replaced the older thatched roofs.


The nuclear familycalled the gezin plays a central role in Dutch life. However, there has been an increase in the number of unmarried couples living together since 1950. This trend, known as "homing," is as common in Friesland as in other regions. The divorce rate for Frisians is also similar to that elsewhere in the Netherlands, as is the growing number of single-parent families. Instead of the elaborate church weddings of the past, many Frisians today have a civil (nonreligious) wedding. The average age at marriage has risen. More young people are choosing to complete their higher education before starting a family.


Like other Dutch people, the Frisians wear modern Western-style clothing for both casual and formal occasions. One difference, however, is their preference for wooden shoes. They wear the modern variety, made of lightweight poplar (a kind of wood) and generally painted black with leather trim.


Frisians prefer wholesome, simply prepared food, often cooked in butter. Dietary staples include seafood and dairy products, including the world-famous Dutch cheeses like gouda and edam. Desserts are often served with whipped cream, and popular beverages include tea, coffee, and beer. The Frisians eat a typical Dutch breakfast of sliced bread, meat, and cheese. Lunch generally consists of bread with jam and butter, cold meat, and buttermilk. A large dinner, served at about 6:00 pm, typically includes soup and a main dish containing meat and vegetables. French fries (patat frites) typically served with mayonnaise or ketchupare popular snacks, as are waffles smothered in whipped cream or caramel sauce.


As in the rest of the Netherlands, students in Friesland must attend school from the ages of six to sixteen. The Frisian language is taught in the public schools, but not in the Christian private schools. At the age of twelve, all Dutch students take an exam that qualifies them for either a general, a pre-university, or a vocational school. At the age of sixteen, they take school certificate exams in a variety of subjects. There are no universities in Friesland, but higher education is offered at eight Dutch universities and five technical institutes.


Friesland has enjoyed relative autonomy (self-rule) for much of its history. This has given its people a strong sense of ethnic and cultural identity, reinforced by the preservation of their language, folklore, and folk art.

The town of Franeker houses the world's oldest planetarium, built in the 1770s by Eise Eisenga in his own home. Eisenga's model accurately demonstrates the movement of the planets (except for Uranus, which had not been discovered yet). It has needed only minor adjustments since it was built over 200 years ago.


The economy of Friesland is based primarily on agriculture. Many Frisians living in inland areas work on small family farms, raising crops or dairy cattle. The dairy products, construction, and tourist industries are also important employers.


Popular sports in Friesland include cycling, sailing, canoeing, and ice skating. Friesland is also home to the famous Elfstedentocht skating race, held once every five or six years, when it is cold enough for all the region's canals to freeze over. As many as 20,000 people skate a 125-mile (200-kilo-meter) course over the frozen canals connecting Friesland's eleven towns. Another traditional sport popular in Friesland is fierljeppen, pole-vaulting across the canals in the warmer months.


Frisians enjoy spending much of their leisure time outdoors. Favorite activities include camping, hiking, and a variety of sports. One pastime unique to Friesland is wadlopen ("mudwalking") across the salt flats and mud of the shallow Waddenzee at low tide. This unusual activity provides vigorous exercise as well as an opportunity for birdwatching. Wadlopen is often undertaken in organized group outings. Socializing at the weekly livestock market in Tjouwert serves as informal recreation for many Frisians.


Frisian craftspeople are renowned for their tile work, pottery, and embroidery. Friesland is also noted for the unique folk art that goes into the creation of ûlebuorden (owl boards). These are elaborately decorated barn gables that include carved swans. They have holes through which owls can fly in and out of the barn. Once a functional creation, ûlebuorden are now considered decorative artifacts.


Frisians experience many of the social problems found in all modern, industrialized countries, such as increasing drug use among young people and rising incidence of crime.


Catling, Christopher, ed. The Netherlands. Insight Guides. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1991.

Gall, Timothy, and Susan Gall, ed. Worldmark Encyclopedia of the Nations. Detroit: Gale Research, 1995.

Gratton, Nancy E. "Frisians." Encyclopedia of World Cultures. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1992.

Mahmood, Cynthia Keppley. Frisian and Free: Study of an Ethnic Minority of the Netherlands. Prospect Heights, Ill.: Waveland Press, 1989.

Spicer, Dorothy Gladys. The Owl's Nest: Folktales from Friesland. New York: Coward-McCann, 1968.

Van Stegeren, Theo. The Land and People of the Netherlands. New York: HarperCollins, 1991.


Embassy of the Netherlands, Washington, D.C. [Online] Available, 1998.

Netherlands Board of Tourism. [Online] Available, 1998.

World Travel Guide. [Online] Available, 1998.

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