Let’s start with this: the Oera Linda book is a fake, probably put together as a satire on the Frisian nationalism of the 1870s, orthodox Christians, and the Frisian antiquarians’ zeal to piece together a Great Frisian History that never existed. The joke got out of hand when a prominent Frisian antiquarian took it seriously and had it published as genuine. While by the late 1870s it was generally recognised as a forgery, it was translated into German in 1933, dubbed “the Nordic Bible” and a panel discussion in 1934 inspired Himmler’s Ahnenerbe. It again popped up with the neopagans from the late 1970s onwards, and it’s become a bit of a darling of neo-Nazis too.
As we live in an era in which history is all too easily dismissed as ‘old stuff for the scrapyard,’ we would do well to remember that the study of history is a living thing in itself. Not only do we keep learning about who we are, we also keep placing history in its proper context and finding new angles: a lot of our thinking about history, and indeed history writing, was formed by the 18th and 19th century culture of conquest, empire building and white male supremacy. Only now have we begun to write women back into history, and PoCs and other groups previously omitted. In studying and teaching history, another important role is to fight the misuse and perversion of history, for example by those neo-Nazis.
But let us go back to the earliest mentions of the Oera Linda book in the Dutch papers! The first mention we find is in the Provinciale Overijsselsche en Zwolsche Courant of 16th November, 1871.
The bookseller H. Kuipers in Leeuwarden has sent a prospectus of the much discussed manuscript: Thet Oera Linda Bok, of which dr. J. G. Ottema has taken on the editing and translating. The prospectus states that under this title a collection of writings is offered, of which the first is called: Thet bok thére Adela Folstar and is written by Adela, the wife of Apol Grêvetman ovir the Linda wrda, the second by Apollonia her daughter, the rest by her later descendants Frêthorik en Wiljow, their son Konerêd and grandson Bêden, who all have the family name Oera Linda. The first two pieces, the prospectus says, give the most important messages about the country, the people, the social position and religion of the Frisians in the earliest centuries. The later pieces contain a history of Friso and his successors. The authors mark themselves as contemporaries of the incidents of which they write, or give an attestation of the source of the messages. The whole is a strange addition to the old Frisian letters…
In the prospectus a page has been printed from the writing by Fréthorik Tobinomath Oera Linda about the arrival of Friso in Staveren. The first page, of which the first words are in the original language goes like this: Twa jêr nêi that Gosa moder wrde, kêm er en flâte to thet Flymare en fala. Thet folk hropte ho-n-sêen; which according to the prospectus should be read as: Two years after Gosa became honorary mother, a fleet came to the Flymeer. The people called ‘Houzee!’ They sailed to Staveren, and there they called again. The banners were in top and at night they shot burning arrows in the sky. When day broke, some of them rowed to the harbour. They again called ‘Houzee!’ When they came to land a young man jumped on the shore. In his hands he carried a shield; on which were laid bread and salt. After him came an old man. He said: we come from the far Krekaland, to preserve our customs; now we wish that you are so friendly as to give us enough land to live on. He told us a whole history, which I will narrate in more detail afterwards. The elder didn’t know what to do. They send messengers round, also to myself. I went to them and said: now we have a Mother, we should ask her counsel. (Provinciale Overijsselsche en Zwolsche Courant, 16Nov, 1871)
It goes on like this. You may have noticed that Friso, the founding father of the Frisians according to myths, comes from Krekaland – a hardly disguised Greece, “Griekenland” in Dutch. They have sailed past an island called Kreta, after the shouting (“kreten”) of the inhabitants when they see the ship. This in itself should have been a tip-off for Dr. Ottema that this document was a stinker. Not so. From the same newspaper, on 10th of October 1872, this notice: At H. Kuipers from Leeuwarded rolls off the press: Thet oera linda bok. After a manuscript from the thirteenth century. Edited, translated and published by Dr. J.G. Ottema. Price: Fl 4.
And it was good enough for some! From the Leeuwarder Courant of a week later, a book report. The newspaper only prints part of what apparently was a longer letter.
Finally the manuscript, that last year caused so much ruction amongst men of letters, has been published. Then I’ve always said: we can and must not judge before the whole work has been printed and read by us. And what impression has reading it left us with? Such a thing could one not invent; like this could someone from our century, from the us known practitioners of the Frisian language, not have composed it. The new, and so far unknown and so mathematically formed writing system; – the peculiar spelling of the old-Frisian, older and better than that of the old Frisian laws; – the style and appearance of myths and legends, as pieces from different, from older times remained writings from different people in different times; but especially the contents, the thoughts, the characteristic expressions and original images, – this all contradicts the possibility that it could be an invention from our own time. (…)
It is a miracle book which, however you look at it, praise it or doubt it, will remain a mystery, while for its provenance the honesty of the owner, who won’t sell it for any money, is guaranteed. For him it is an heirloom from his father and forefathers, and he still lives in the area which was the stage of most of what happened: because this is remarkable too, that it contains so many details about the area between the province of Noord-Holland and the islands and Staveren, and mentions countries, forests and places of which we know so little, because they have been swallowed by the South Sea in the 12th and 13th century. Though – read the book yourself and write to me what you think. Your friend, F. (Leeuwarder Courant, 18 Oct 1872)
In 1873 academics were still stroking their learned chins. The Frisian Society for History, Antiquities and Language had their 135th meeting on the 27th of August. Twenty members and two guests heard a lecture from Dr. A.T. Reitsma, a historical-critical investigation of Thet Oera Linda bok. He encapsulated its authenticity in three questions: 1. Was the manuscript really written in 1256 by Hiddo Oera Linda? 2. Is it a copy of another manuscript by Liko Oera Linda, from 803? 3. Are the pieces in that manuscript from the times and hands of the writers whose names they bear, and composed between 558 and mid-1st century before Christ?
Regarding the 1st question we argue for authenticity; aside from the way in which the manuscript has come to the family Over de Linden, a) the language in which it was written, similar to that of the oldest old-Frisian documents, b) the completely original script, differing from the later Roman script, and c) the writing tools that were used. Regarding the 2nd question; a remarkable gap which happened because of turning two pages at the same time proves that it is not an original but a copy. Also, the preface by Liko completely corresponds with the era of Charlemagne, in which it was written, and explains why the manuscript from that time on could no longer be counted as part of the national literature, but only has been saved as a relic in one family. Regarding the 3rd question; the relationship between the various pieces show that Adela has started in 558 with writing down the curious tales from antiquity, and that this work was continued by her offspring in the family of Oera Linda, maybe until the time of Liko, though the last part of the manuscript has been lost. In this manner, each writer is a witness to the authenticity of the previous writings.
Regarding the internal proof of authenticity, the speaker pointed out firstly the general level of culture in which Frya’s people according to these writings lived in the 6th century before Christ, which is not inconsistent with, but with keeping in mind the singularity of this people, completely in correspondence with the cultural situations of other older people. Secondly, that the manner of history writing was in its infancy, not showing any artistry, and can be compared with the histories of the Greek logographs from before Herodotus. On basis of these internal and external facts the speaker concluded that the manuscript was authentic.
Of course, the ‘evidence’ trotted out could well have been foreseen by the composers of the fake manuscript: for centuries, stories have been told in the form of diaries, and ‘here a page is missing’ is one of the tricks a writer has up their sleeve to give their story a veneer of authenticity. The (likely) main author of the book, François Haverschmidt, was a preacher who had published a collection of poetry in his student days, under a punning title translating as Sobs and Grim Smiles. He did so under the pseudonym of Piet Paaltjens, a student who, according to the collection’s preface, disappeared under mysterious circumstances in Leiden “on the 9th October 1853”. We see the same sort of mystification as used in the Oera Linda bok. In the collection, Haverschmidt fights his own lingering depression by ridiculing sentimentalism, and so it is a rare example of cynical romanticism. As a theology student, Haverschmidt lived above an undertaker, which lead to the following lines: When I see the mourner walk / my heart beats in joy / because I think how soon / I shall go out to pray.
Haverschmidt, with help, wrote the book as an elaborate parody. As a result, scientists in 19th century Frisia found themselves the horses put behind the wagon, and confirmation bias was a significant factor: they wanted the documents to be real, and found the reasons why it was real; it conformed to their idea of what the Frisian history should be. The Oera Linda joke backfiring shows us why we need to be critical about history as we are being taught and told it, and consider: “How much of this is true? Is this interpretation of the evidence correct?” and, “What has been left out of the history books?”