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

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

Once in the seventies, where I sometimes rode a ’round IJsselmeer’ on a racing bike, I was stopped halfway through Afsluitdijk by a couple who asked me: “Where is Friesland?”

A confusing question in the still strongly defined and convincing 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 will do well.

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 because, because of that incident, my interest has always focused on the question of what spatial identity Friesland had, or rather, has acquired it in a fascinating process of identity formation.

We know Friesland as a sharply defined territorial unit that you can ‘go’ to. But the 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 characteristics.

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

About the author

Bert Looper studied history in Groningen and was successively municipal archivist in Zutphen and’s Hertogenbosch, director of the central archive selection service in the Ministry of the Interior, director of Overijssel’s historic center and from 2007 to 2021 director of Tresoar, Frisian Historical and Literary Center in Leeuwarden

How different it was in the period following Albrecht van Saxen’s conquest of Friesland around 1500. The identity package of freedom, language and law disappeared and was replaced by a ‘space’ that gained a strong territorial boundary after 1600: the region of Friesland as a part of the Republic of the 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 filled with the ideals of the republic and with the culture of an internationally oriented elite in the capacity of Nassau and their stadholderhof and with the Franeker Academy. The Frisian space was therefore not ‘Frisian-charged’ as we know it today.

The map of the department of Ems, the territorial and political division of the Frisian space under the Batavian Republic around 1800, beautifully shows how an area that had lost its medieval Frisian mental load, ruthless could be divided 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 ‘recharging’ 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 again came into the spotlight. Friesland’s spatial identity became more and more Frisian, but the spatial orientation remained European.

The Halbertsmas from the early 19th century, Douwe Kalma – ‘Friesland and the world’ – in the early 20th century, as well as the leaders of Frisian culture after World War II, 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 opinion maker in the Frisian world. None other than the author, journalist and politician Fedde Schurer opened the case with his now famous article Bursts the binding † In it, 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 at European level.


In his discussion of the collection of poems New poems by DA Tamminga Schurer goes a step further and states: ‘But infinitely more important, and it must be said clearly, than the present Friesland’s relationship to the Friesland of the past, is the present Friesland’s relationship to the present. Europe .. We sink and get up with it ».

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

All the more remarkable are the doubts 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 emerged, one directed towards inner reinforcement and control, the other towards outer orientation and change.

What happened?

For the sake of discussion, I would like to make the claim that the Frisian spatial identity in the last half of the last century had a strong boundary that offered comfort but also limited space. In particular, Kneppelfreed, the famous language uprising of 1951, embarked on a process of ‘restricting’ legislation and rules and – most importantly – an embrace of Frisian ideals and values ​​of Frisian politics, ratified in the Frisian language approved by the 1956 provincial government Manifesto.

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

It may seem a little negative, but it also marked a huge flowering period for the Frisian culture. Several generations grew up contributing to this broad liberation of Frisian in their own familiar space. A community of Frisians emerged 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, digitalisation, multimedia development and multilingualism set in motion a process that could be characterized as ‘from core to context’.

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

LF2018, the Capital of Culture, was the new generation festival. The year 2018 was not thought from the core, but from the context. The message of LF2018 was that we must not think and work from a hard, strong, autonomous core in order 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 strengthening the 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 exactly opposite each other. It seems that we are moving in two separate spaces. But why?

The space of the fifties was unique, unique, inspiring and necessary, but now longer. When you cross the Afsluitdijk, you can already see in the distance the church tower in Cornwerd, where the great Frisian poet Obe Postma is buried. On his tombstone is written ‘poet of the land’. Of course, Postma wrote poems about and about Friesland, but above all, as Fokke Sierksma said, Postma wrote, ‘re-creations of Friesland, an attempt to transfer Friesland in spirit’.

Friesland as a mental space that must be recreated again and again, by each generation again. Nice to see it happen again.

Last week, Bert Looper gave the lecture The history of regional thought: Friesland and the world for Studium Generale in Leeuwarden. This piece is related to it.

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