'Freeska Landriucht'

The oldest Frisian book and its unknown printer

Decoration on the front cover of the Freeska landriucht

The Freeska Landriucht (of (Oude) Druk)) is the first book that has been printed in the Frisian language. It is also the only printed work which is known within the Old-Frisian corpus of law texts, of which one copy is housed in Utrecht University Library under call number J oct 1112 rariora. The Freeska Landriucht as an object raises many questions, such as: why was this book made? Who commissioned it? Who was the printer? And where stood his press? How was this book made? Ever since the 18th-century researchers have been fascinated by the Freeska Landriucht and its printer. Despite the many publications about the book, a shroud of mystery surrounds this extraordinary printed work and its context. But there are times when the mist seems to dissolve…

Old-Frisian as a language

When exactly the Old-Frisian started to emerge is a mystery. What we do know is that Frisian, together with English and Saxon, developed from West-Germanic. These three languages together are called the North Sea Germanic. In the period between 500 and 700 the Frisian started to distinguish itself from the English and Saxon language variations.

Old-Frisian sources

Apart from some short Anglo-Frisian runic inscriptions from the early Middle Ages and some loose words in the so-called Lex Frisionum (785-793/794) the written tradition in Frisian starts relatively late, with a translation of some psalm fragments from Latin, on a membrum disiectum from possibly the third quarter of the 12th century. Over a century later the first Old-Frisian law texts emerge, which from now on are to dominate the entire Old-Frisian language period. These texts come from the whole of the former Old-Frisan language area that, from east to west, ran from the Wezer up to the Vlie. Although the coastal strip between Vlie and Oude Rijn used to belonge to that area also, no Old-Frisian texts have been passed down from that area.

16e eeuwse foliëring

The loss of Old-Frisian

The last written Old-Frisian dates back to the middle of the 16th century, after which Dutch (Low German), after the loss of the so-called Frisian freedom (during a long period in the Middle Ages Friesland had no count’s rule, no feudal system and no feudal nobility) and by the increasing influence of the Saxon and Burgundian dukes after 1500, became the written language in Friesland.

Much writing, little printing

Most of the preserved Old-Frisian sources are mainly in the form of approximately 1100 charters and sixteen manuscripts. In addition, there is one incunable known in the Old-Frisian, having nine copies, which is usually called Oude Druk or Druk (‘Old Printed Work’ or ‘Printed Work’), but often also the Freeska Landriucht, based on the legal character of the texts in this incunable. This name is also given to the – anonymous – printer of the Druk, as the Freeska Landriucht-Drukkerij) (FLD). Moreover, on the basis of a typographical analysis by Kruitwagen (1948) the FLD is also thought to be responsible for five Latin incunables (i.e. Bonaventura, Casus longi, Gobius, Statuta and Vernaker; see for a detailed title description of these editions Schouten 2000, 186).

Freeska Landriucht – the oldest Frisian book

Aanwijshand in de Freeska landriucht

Incunables are books printed between the invention of the printing press in 1455 and 1501. They are without a title page and are characterized by manuscript elements such as pen-flourished initials. As said before there is only one printed book known in the Old-Frisian. As to content the Freeska Landriucht fits in so well with the Old-Frisian corpus that it is often mentioned in one breath with the manuscripts.

It is written as well as printed…

The reason to publish the Old-Frisian texts also in printed format could originate from the fact that the Frisian liberty was under pressure at the end of the 15th century. In such a situation it is imaginable that there is a political need to re-emphasize the old rules of law, preferably in a way which guaranteed a large and quickly reproducible circulation. Printing was the best way and a modern way to boot. The Freeska Landriucht by its content as well as by its printed format, can be seen as a vehicle for the Frisian ideology of freedom. In addition there might be a practical reason: modernizing this old legal complex enables late 15th-century lawyers to practice it law better.

The composition of the quires of the Freeska Landriucht

The Freeska Landriucht consists of eleven quires, and six of the nine copies contain a bifolium with a Prologue and a Register prior to the first quire. Each quire has its own signature, consisting of a small letter and a Roman numeral (ai, aii, aiii, aiv (also iiii), bi, etc.) 
The first nine quires have the letters a to i, the quires 10 and 11 the letters l and m respectively. The j and the k are missing, because the j was usually not used as printing letter. That the k is missing is therefore the more remarkable, strengthened by the fact that it coincides with a caesura in the text: with section i ends the part that is called the Freeska Landriucht, on leaf li starts the part which is called the Rudolfsboek (Rudolph’s book) (Popkema 2003, 172). There may also be another explanation: not using the k as quire signature could point to a Roman printing tradition (Haebler 1925, 52). The lacking of the k evokes the following question: could the prototype or the template of the Freeska Landriucht have consisted of more than one manuscript or is something else the matter?

Latin glosses in an Old-Frisian book

Verschillende glossen in de Freeska landriucht

In many copies of the Freeska Landriucht, the Old-Frisian text has Latin glosses which refer to the Roman canon law. This might also be a kind of modernization, to give the archaic Old-Frisian texts a modern or (still) legitimate character by linking them to the “learned” canon and Roman law (Gildemacher 2015, 9, 10). The glosses may originate from manuscript tradition, as they also partly occur at the beginning of the Codex Roorda (which was probably abruptly finished with the publication of the Freeska Landriucht). This very probably means that the commission to print the Freeska Landriucht comes from the Northern Netherlands. There is also a copy of the Freeska Landriucht in which the script of the glosses has been identified as coming from Hemma Odda zin, town writer of Leeuwarden in the periods 1486-1493 and 1501-1508 (Vries 1981, footnote 26). Oebele Vries suggests that Odda zin might be the auctor intellectualis of the Freeska Landriucht (Vries 2003).

Riddles and speculation around the Freeska Landriucht printing office

The printer of the Freeska Landriucht is shrouded in mystery, something that has kept researchers intrigued since the 18th century. By now, over a hundred publications on the printer of the Freeska Landriucht have appeared, mostly filled with speculations and controversies. The dating of the Freeska Landriucht (Van Thienen 1999), based on watermarks, has by now been widely accepted. It was apparently produced somewhere in the years 1484-1486, which has led to the assumption that the printer of the Freeska Landriucht was active in the period between 1483-1487, see also the watermark database for incunables of the Koninklijke Bibliotheek (Royal Library) in The Hague (search term: Freeska Landriucht).


The main question concerning the Freeska Landriucht printer is its location. In several publications at least 14 locations have been connected to the firm. Seven in Friesland, five in the rest of the Netherlands, one in Belgium and one in Germany. Remarkable is that all editions of the Freeska Landriucht, apart from the Statuta, seem to have been printed after manuscripts, so not after, what Kruitwagen calls, sleur-nadrukken (lit. drag / tow reprints), in other words books that had been brought to the market before, as is usual with incunables (Kruitwagen 1948, 62). So it could be that one or more manuscripts have served as originals for an Freeska Landriucht edition. If such manuscripts might be discovered or recognized as such, it might reveal the secret of the origin of the printer of the Freeska Landriucht.

Research into the Freeska Landriucht printer

In solving the mystery around the location of the Freeska Landriucht printer the main focus has been on the technique of printing and other palaeo-typical aspects, watermarks and linguistic characteristics of the text. Furthermore, the Freeska Landriucht has been researched from philological, text-critical and legal history aspects; a new edition which includes these aspects is at the moment being prepared at the Fryske Akademy. However, up till now little attention is given to palaeographical and codicological aspects. Despite all the research into the Freeska Landriucht printer direct references to the Freeska Landriucht printer in contemporary sources and archives have not been found yet or recognized as such.


One of the research groups that is currently investigating the Freeska Landriucht and in particular its printer is Pastei. On the basis of text comparison and codicological research to the production of the Freeska Landriucht printing office, this research group aims at mapping the printings of the Freeska Landriucht. In addition, Pastei tries to trace the location of the printing office of the Freeska Landriucht, based on research into manuscript elements in the Freeska Landriucht and in combination with archival research. The members of Pastei are Herre de Vries, book restorer; Anne Tjerk Popkema, expert in Old Frisian, translator and language researcher; Wytze Fopma, book binder and printer and Riemer Janssen, expert in Old Germanic and auxiliary scholar. You can contact Pastei through their website.

The copy in the convolute UU J oct 1112 rariora

Notatietekens in de Freeska landriucht

The incunable of the Freeska Landriucht in the collection of Utrecht University Library is part of a convolute, containing a prologue and an index (two folia, no foliation, without signature) , the Freeska Landriucht (88 folia with 16th-century foliation I-LXXXVII and quire signatures a i – a iiii t/m i i – i iiii, l i t/m m iiii) and the Statuta provincialia et synodalia Trajectensia (46 folia with 20th-century foliation LXXXIX – CXXXIV). Joosting says that the convolute is bound in a 17th-century leather stamp book binding with gilded motives (Joosting 1915, XIII), but the cover looks more like a 18th-century cover, and judging by the rocaille stamps which form the central motive on the cover it may even date back to the second half of the 18th century (friendly comment by Herre de Vries, book restorer). The incunable comes from the collection of the Utrecht lawyer Willem Jan Royaards van den Ham and was put up for auction at the Utrecht auctioneering firm Beijer in 1899, a year after Royaard’s death.


The authoritative Universal Short Title Catalogue however does not mention that copies of the Freeska Landriucht and of the Statuta provincialia et synodalia Trajectensia are housed in Utrecht. In addition, according to this database containing all published books in Europe from the invention of the printing press up to the end of the 16th century, the books of the printer of the Freeska Landriucht were printed during the year 1500 whereas, as mentioned earlier, its production must have taken place between 1483-1487 according to the watermark research by Van Thienen (1999).

Other (digitised) copies

There are more copies of the Freeska Landriucht apart from the one in Utrecht. The other eight are in Leeuwarden (3 copies), The Hague, London, Oxford (2 copies) and Paris. Up till now the Utrecht copy is the third one that can be consulted online. Earlier, one of the Leeuwarden copies which are housed in the Fries Historisch en Letterkundig Centrum Tresoar was digitised. This copy can be consulted here. A third digitised copy is in the Koninklijke Bibliotheek in The Hague and can be downloaded here.

Its contents

As said earlier we find texts on law in the Freeska Landriucht , such as the pan-Frisian 17 Keuren en 24 Landrechten, but also texts which only apply to the area west of the Lauwers river, such as the Oude Skeltariucht and Jongere Skeltariucht.

Manuscript elements in UU J oct 1112 rariora

Stekelbaarsje in de Freeska landriucht

The Freeska Landriucht in UU J oct 1112 rariora has contemporary or 16th-century marginal glosses which were partly lost in cutting the folia when they were being bound. For the larger part the glosses refer to the contents of the text ‒ similar glosses can be found in a number of other copies of the Freeska Landriucht ‒ and seem to have been written by at least three hands. Possibly one of these hands belongs to someone from the Southern Netherlands, due to the typical manner of writing of the long s and f, with their fairly heavy broad shaft and ending in a thin tail which runs on under the line, betraying a “lettre bourguignonne”, a 15th-century style of writing originating from France which also became popular in the Southern Netherlands.

Sometimes a simple decoration in the margin or notation signs in the form of sticklebacks (?), small pointing hands (with little hearts) or three dots can be found, with or without a twisting line. Ownership characteristics have not been found. In many cases the initials are lacking, even though space has been reserved for them, taking into account the striking fact that there is only one representative or cue initial in the entire book, something we see in nearly all copies of the Freeska Landriucht. The initials that have been put in however, look in some cases contemporary, in others from a later date. All initials belong to the lombarde type, the lowest in rank.


Riemer Janssen, June 2015

Deelregister van de Freeska landriucht