This summer, Oxford hosted the third edition of the Old Frisian Summer School. After a successful first edition, which was held in 2019, and an online edition in 2021, the OFSS saw its return to Oxford. The OFSS is a collaboration between the University of Oxford and the University of Groningen in the Netherlands, and is held once every two years in one of these historical university cities. Although this connection might not seem logical right away, both the Bodleian library in Oxford and the University Library in Groningen hold a considerable collection of Old Frisian manuscripts and both universities include departments in the field of Old Germanic and philology. This translates to the background of the participants of the OFSS: some being more advanced within the Old Germanic field, some new to the field, yet all being interested in what Old Frisian has to offer. A total of 35 participants travelled to Oxford, with English, Dutch, Czech, Danish, American and Chinese students (among others) being present. Meanwhile, for the first time, a handful of participants (14) attended the summer school online, following this edition from their homes elsewhere in the world, including Australia and the U.S.
OFSS: The programme
The summer school was structured with a couple of lectures taking place in the mornings and translation seminars in the afternoons. After the summer school was officially opened by organisers dr Johanneke Sytsema (Oxford) and mr. Anne Popkema MA (Groningen), dr Alex Kerkhof (Fryske Akademy, Leeuwarden) started the first of three lectures on Old Frisian grammar and its place within Old Germanic languages. Old Frisian, an Ingveonic or North Sea Germanic language, bears close resemblance to Old English. Old Frisian used to be spoken in large areas along the current Dutch and German coasts, from the river Sincfal in the south to the river Weser in the east. All surviving manuscripts and text fragments originate from the Frisian lands east of the river Vlie and west of the river Weser. This includes nowadays East Frisia in Germany, the Dutch provinces of Groningen and, finally, Fryslân. The oldest manuscripts date back to the 12th century.
The grammar lectures and translation seminars were alternated with lectures focusing on the sociohistorical background. Historian Hilbert Vinkenoog (known for his YouTube channel History with Hilbert) enlightened the audience on the Anglo-Frisian connections and Frisian settlements in early medieval England, explaining how the Frisians might even have had settlements on the Faroe Islands, taking part in a local feud. Local Faroese nursery rhymes still bear Frisian aspects in them! Prof. Andreas Deutsch (Heidelberg) delved into the place of Old Frisian law within the Old Germanic legal landscape, elaborating on the widely recorded Frisian fine registers. These fine registers entail large sets of different crimes and the fines that needed to be paid in order to compensate for these crimes. For example, if one were to cut off his neighbour’s ear, he or she would need to pay the neighbour a certain amount of money. The extensiveness and details of the Old Frisian fine registers makes them truly unique within the Old Germanic legal landscape.
On Wednesday, Dr Rafael Pascual (Oxford) gave a practical introduction into Germanic philology in the Taylorian Library, discussing various view on the Indo-European language tree and on related linguistic theories. Prof. Arjen Versloot (Amsterdam and Groningen) joined the summer school online, highlighting innovative research methods on determining the age of Old Frisian texts in Codex Unia, one example of a typical Old Frisian compilation between Old Frisian texts and manuscripts. Since the texts are mainly legal in nature, on Friday, Prof. Simon Horobin (Oxford) delved deeper into Old English and Old Frisian studies by Franciscus Junius (1591-1677), whose collection of various Old Frisian manuscripts is kept in the Bodleian Library.
The translation workshops increased in difficulty during the week: at the start, texts such as the Ten Commandments were translated, along with grammar assignments to familiarise participants with Old Frisian morphology and syntax. Although translating was the main focus during these seminars, other aspects of working with medieval texts and manuscripts were also highlighted. Making a critical edition out of a diplomatic edition from part of the early printing of the Freeska Londriucht, for example, proved not to be as easy as one would have thought.
While most of the OFSS took place in St. Edmund Hall, which accommodated most of the participants, the participants were also welcomed wholeheartedly in the Taylorian and Weston libraries for lectures, manuscript viewings and tours. In the Weston Library, two Old Frisian manuscripts were viewed (Codex Aysma and Codex Unia), which were originally brought to England in the 17th century by philologist Franciscus Junius. In addition, two copies of the incunabulum Freeska Londriucht also known as ‘Druk’ were also shown. Physically viewing these manuscripts was, perhaps, the highlight of the summer school, as it gave most participants a clearer view and example of what they had previously learned: how are manuscripts written and produced, why certain texts featured in it, how the manuscripts survived, who were their owners, and, most importantly, what exactly do the texts in the manuscript entail? In short, the manuscript viewing brought the content of the Old Frisian Summer School to life.
Old Frisian and Old English cognates
Old Frisian was taught in the context of other Old Germanic languages, especially Old English which with Old Frisian forms the Anglo-Frisian branch of West Germanic. The tables below show some of the similarities. In the verb conjugation, the personal pronouns are very similar and the present tense endings are near-identical (far/faran). The verb ‘to be’ had two stems in Old English. The Old Frisian paradigm shows stems correlating both to OE stems wessan and beon. Learning Old Frisian was an interesting experience for those who already knew some Old English.
Example of the present tense of some key verbs in Old Frisian and Old English
|pronouns OFR/OE||Wessa (to be) OFR||wesan – beon (to be) OE||Fara
(to go) OFR
(to go) OE
|1st singular||ic – ic||bin||eom – beo||fare||fare|
|2nd singular||thu – þu||bist||eart – bist||ferest||færest|
|3rd singular||hi – he||is||is – biþ||fereth||færeþ|
|1st plural||wi – we||sind||sind – beoþ||farath||faraþ|
|2nd plural||ji / jemman – ge/ye||sind||sind – beoþ||farath||faraþ|
|3rd plural||hia – hie||sind||sind – beoþ||farath||faraþ|
Example of some Modern Frisian-English cognate nouns
|Old Frisian||Modern Frisian||Modern English|
|Ku / ko||Ko||Cow|
A mix of academia, culture & leisure
The OFSS did not only provide its participants with the opportunity to delve deeper into this gem among Old Germanic languages, it also allowed for a unique glimpse into Oxford university life for those who had not experienced that before. In addition to the formal programme, tours of the Taylorian & Bodleian & St. Edmund Hall Libraries were hosted, to give participants an insight into the enormous variety of books and knowledge that are held there. Furthermore, a pub quiz on Monday, a Conference Dinner on Wednesday and punting on Saturday were the ‘icing on the cake’ of a week that was not only informative, insightful and fascinating, but also much fun. All kinds of participants, older and younger, with diverse backgrounds, interests and research fields met during this week in Oxford, paving the way for a very vibrant, valuable atmosphere, for interesting conversations and for new networks.
As the past editions of the OFSS have proven to be successful, each with their own programme, content and with their own activities, the 2025 edition is the first one that will be held in Groningen in person. This new décor will make for a totally new experience, as Groningen is in the middle of the area that used to be Old Frisian speaking centuries ago. Manuscripts, both in Groningen and Leeuwarden, will be viewed and historically significant sites such as the Upstalsbam in Aurich (Germany), the Frisian and Groninger terpen (dwelling mounds) and the Frisian eleven cities will be within reach when the OFSS will take place at Groningen.
To get a glimpse of what the OFSS2023 looked like, take a look at the after movie on our Instagram account: https://www.instagram.com/reel/CvClS9FonDw/?igshid=MzRlODBiNWFlZA%3D%3D.
For more information on the 2019 edition of the OFSS, Old Frisian in general, and the connection between the University of Oxford and the University of Groningen, see Dr Johanneke Sytsema’s Taylorian Blog of September 2019 (https://blogs.bodleian.ox.ac.uk/taylorian/2019/09/).
A link to the video about Frisians on the Faroe Islands on the History with Hilbert YouTube channel: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=leUbHnnFoDk
References to the handbooks used in the OFSS
Hofmann, D. & A.T, Popkema (2008) : Altfriesisches Handwörtebuch. Heidelberg: Winter Verlag.
Bremmer, R.H. (2009) Introduction to Old Frisian: history, grammar, reader, glossary. Amsterdam/Philadelphia : John Benjamins.
OFSS Conference assistant,