Dorestad, crossroads of the north

Dorestad was the largest of what are (and were then) called emporia. An emporium was founded by a king or high ruler with the express purpose of facilitating the trade and production of high-status goods. Emporia were always located on large rivers or harbors, in order to enable wares from the interior to be exported, and provide an exceptional port for merchandise to come from abroad. They were very much working class towns, and in general the nobility and the religious avoided making the towns centers of non-economic activity.

Dorestad was located at the junction of the Rhine and Lek rivers, in what is today the Netherlands, and what was then called Frisia. In addition to the obvious advantages that a port on the Rhine provided, there was an old Roman fortress near the site that probably contributed some feeling of security. One disadvantage of Dorestad was that it was located very close to the undefined but fiercely contested border between Frisia and Austrasia. As a result the town changed rulers fairly frequently after its founding in the early seventh century.

The Frisians were minting a large number of coins at Dorestad in the middle of the seventh century. The Franks had once controlled the area, and Pippin, the mayor of the palace, decided to move against the Frisians once the time was ripe, sometime around 695. “Pippin and that pagan Radbod, duke of the Frisians, went to war and had a battle at the stronghold of Duurstede. Pippin, the victor, returned with much spoil and booty, while Duke Radbod fled the field…”1.Chronicle of Fredegar, Continuations, ch.6, p.86. Dominion over the emporia was financially rewarding. “Control of the emporium at Durstede brought with it access to the lucrative taxes and tolls collected there.”2.Bachrach, Early Carolingian Warfare, p.13. The customs duty has been estimated at 10% of the value of all the goods at the site,3.Stephane Lebecq, Routes of change: production and distribution in the west, pp.75-76, in Transformation of the Roman World. which would be considerable. Dorestad became a big town.

The town changed hands a couple of times in the early eighth century. Radbod recaptured it from the Franks sometime before 716, and then Charles Martel grabbed it for good in 717. Radbod died soon after.4.Bachrach, Early Carolingian Warfare, pp.20-21. The town prospered and grew for the next 120 years, until it was viewed as a fat, ripe plum by the Northmen. In 834 they struck. “Meanwhile a fleet of Danes came to Frisia and laid waste a part of it. From there, they came by way of Utrecht to the emporium called Dorestad and destroyed everything. They slaughtered some people, took others away captive, and burned the surrounding region.”5.Annals of St. Bertin, year 834, p.30. Evidently “destroyed everything” was a bit of hyperbole, because the same source records the Vikings raiding Dorestad every year for the next four years. The wording for 837 is odd, “The Northmen at this time fell on Frisia with their usual surprise attack.”6.Ibid, p.37.

Dorestad was indeed a prize worth the risk. At its greatest extent the harbor and town covered about 150 acres, with a population of several thousand. The basic form was a series of long wharves jutting into the Rhine, topped with wooden walkways that extended back onto the shore. Longhouses, for storage, industry, and living, lined the walkways. You can see from this illustration that the wharves extended a considerable distance along the river. Over the decades this branch of the Rhine shifted, as river deltas often do, and the wharves were extended to maintain contact with the water. No obvious town center has been found, and although there was at least one small church, Dorestad was never a bishopric. The business of Dorestad was business.

[I]nhabitants included peasants, but also a wide range of artisans: wood-workers (including for houses, streets, and ships), boneworkers, weavers, leatherworkers, and smiths. It is unclear whether such artisanal production was primarily intended for fellow residents or was exported; what is clear, however, is that although this activity was substantial, it was dwarfed by the large quantities of imports on the site. Eighty per cent of the ceramics were imports, mostly from the Rhineland… There were also basalt querns from the Eifel, wine in barrels from the middle Rhine (the barrels were reused as wells), glass, metalwork, weapons, and amber (some of which was worked on site).7.Wickham, Framing the Early Middle Ages, pp.683-684.

Trade was extensive. “From the mid-seventh until the later eighth century the North Sea basic was largely isolated from the Mediterranean world.”8.Hodges, Dark Age Economics, p.39. Because of this isolation from the traditional (classical) trade of the Mare Nostrum, northern Europe developed their own trading patterns. “From northern Europe came amber, furs, honey, soapstone vessels, and beeswax. From the Rhineland to the south and west came glassware, grindstones hewn from basalt, ornate metal jewelry, pottery, and wine. Textiles came from the lands around the mouth of the Rhine.”9.Wells, Barbarians to Angels, p.129. And what did the lands over the seas provide? “…the Franks must have been importing something from England and Denmark, but this was not, probably, manufactured goods. Slaves, fish, and raw materials such as amber and maybe wool and metal are the best bets…”10.Wickham, Framing the Early Middle Ages, p.687.

You can begin to get a picture of the workmanlike nature of Dorestad. It was not a religious center, nor a political one. Plenty of forges and workshops, lots of activity, but no real ceremony. Just traders, artisans, and sailors. Lots of sailors, and lots of ships. During later campaigns against the Frisians, it was important to Charles to control “the emporium of Durstede, where many scores of not hundreds of ships of the type Charles needed likely could have been found at any time during the sailing season.”11.Bachrach, Early Carolingian Warfare, p.252.

If towns like Poitiers were the spiritual heart of the realm, and Aachen the political center, Dorestad was one of the economic hubs of the empire. And if it was anything like port cities the world over, probably one of the most fun places to visit as well.

Footnotes   [ + ]

1. Chronicle of Fredegar, Continuations, ch.6, p.86.
2. Bachrach, Early Carolingian Warfare, p.13.
3. Stephane Lebecq, Routes of change: production and distribution in the west, pp.75-76, in Transformation of the Roman World.
4. Bachrach, Early Carolingian Warfare, pp.20-21.
5. Annals of St. Bertin, year 834, p.30.
6. Ibid, p.37.
7. Wickham, Framing the Early Middle Ages, pp.683-684.
8. Hodges, Dark Age Economics, p.39.
9. Wells, Barbarians to Angels, p.129.
10. Wickham, Framing the Early Middle Ages, p.687.
11. Bachrach, Early Carolingian Warfare, p.252.

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