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The Early-Medieval emporium of Dorestad was located in the south-east of the province of Utrecht in the Netherlands close to the modern day town of Wijk bij Duurstede. The township was established at the base of a Roman fortress in the 7th Century and was situated near the northernmost Northern branch of the Rhine which splits into the Lek and the Kromme Rijn.
The settlement was included in the North-eastern shipping routes due to its proximity to the fork in the Rhine, with access to Germany (via the Lek) and to England, the North of France, the Northern Netherlands, the North of Germany, and Scandinavia (via the Kromme Rijn). Initially, the Franks and the Frisians fought for control of the territory. However, the Franks quickly gained control of the Frisian Coast.
Dorestad flourished between the 7th Century and the middle of the 9th Century. The settlement was well known for minting coins under the control of several Frankish rulers. It is generally believed that the township reached its peak around the 820s – 830s and declined considerably thereafter. It is thought that the decline occurred due to Viking invasions as well as a decline in the economy. By the 9th Century, it seems that the need for international trade was waning as regional trade gained importance. The majority of the information known about the emporium comes from a combination of historical documents, archaeological finds and numismatic evidence.
In order to find out more about the settlement and its prominence in the early Middle Ages the site was excavated. Some excavations took place in the middle of the nineteenth century and the finds from them are now in the National Museum and the British Museum. The most important findings were discovered during an excavation that took place between 1967 and 1977. About 30 hectare were exposed during the excavation and much was learned about the physical parameters of the settlement. It was discovered Dorestad was situated one mile north of Wijk bij Duurstede and was approximately 3 square kilometers in size. This is considered a large settlement for the time period.
It is believed that the settlement was separated into three districts: a harbour (“Lower town”), a trading center located on the left bank (“Upper town”), and an agricultural area located further inland. Upper and lower town were connected by a single road which acted as the ‘backbone’ of the town. The remnants of this road can still be seen today.
Only the "lower town" was excavated by archaeologists as much of Dorestad was eroded away by the river bend. When the harbour was excavated the remains of wooden causeways which would have allowed for ease when unloading goods were discovered. These findings correlate to the development of trade on the Rhine. It is believed that wine from the vineyards South of Mainz was one of the most prominent products traded in Dorestad. Old wine barrels have been excavated in Dorestad. It is also thought that glassware and lava querns for grinding corn were also transported to Dorestad for trading. The existence of these imports allowed Dorestad’s economy to grow substantially.
While the "upper town" was never excavated, the soil of the site has been examined and tested positive for phosphates that confirm its existence. Some Carolingian artefacts have been found over the years in the trading center; however, the majority of items discovered date back to the Roman fortress that was established prior to the 7th Century. This may be because the residents of Dorestad used the tufa blocks from the Roman fortress as building material. It is thought that the royal administrators were situated in the Upper Town.
The Christian church was granted a piece of land in both the Upper and Lower Town. Next to the agricultural sector remains of a building were found as well as many graves. It is assumed that this area comprised the Lower church.
The conception of the Upper and Lower township is supported not only by archaeological evidence, but a poem was discovered by the English clergyman Alcuin, written at the end of the 8th Century, referring to the town as ‘Dorstata’ which is a pluralization of the name.
- Hinc tua vela leva, fugiens Dorstada relinque:
- Non tibi forte niger Hrotberct parat hospita tecta,
- Nec amat ecce tuum carmen mercator avarus.
- Hoist your sails, flee and leave behind the (towns of) Dorestad:
- You do not have the fortune of a hospitable roof offered by Black Hrotberct,
- Nor does the greedy merchant love your poem.
The Rise and Fall of Dorestad
In the 7th Century, it was clear that Dorestad had the potential to become a major port. It was the meeting point for traders at the time. As a result, the Franks and the Frisians fought over control of the township. The Franks won out at the end of the 7th Century and closely monitored the growth of Dorestad. This led to Dorestad's economic expansion via international trade and the establishment of a mint in the Upper town. It is assumed that there was a toll as well as harbour fees collected by the King’s representatives at Dorestad. Over time, many coins have been discovered in the Dorestad area supporting the idea of rapid growth and control of the harbour as well as the presence of a mint. Many of the coins that have been discovered bear resemblance to other Frankish coins of the period. This numismatic evidence supports the victory of the Franks over the Frisians.
It seems that this and the expansion of Dorestad, Lower Town in particular, lasted until the early 9th Century at which point the strength of the international trade of luxury items was weakened by the rise of regional trade. This shift in the character of trade occurred as more and more trading towns popped up in the region. At this time, the Franks seemed to be networking with Byzantium and the Muslim world. As the trade increased across the board, the Franks required more trading settlements in order to support the Economy.
As a result, the Franks slowly lost interest in the town and granted the Church of Utrecht responsibility over a sizeable portion of Dorestad. By expanding the power of the Church the local elite were weakened providing substantial security for the Frankish Empire.
By the 830s, under the control of Louis the Pious, the expansion of the harbour had halted altogether, although coins continued to be minted for some time. At this time, a division occurred in the Frankish Empire and Louis the Pious was removed from the throne by his son. However, Lothair I was unable to protect Dorestad and the other Frankish territories from economic turmoil. As a result, Louis the Pious quickly took back Dorestad and exiled his son to Italy. At this time, two things occurred in Dorestad that led to its eventual downfall. The first was that the Franks lost even more interest in Dorestad and as a result even more control was transferred to the Church. The second, Lothair I was stirring up trouble for the Frankish Empire by encouraging Viking raids on the Frisian coast whilst he was exiled. Between 834 and 839, there were extensive raids. Although Dorestad was only raided once in 834, it seems that the town never fully recovered afterwards.
In order to protect the Frisian coastline, the Frankish kings enlisted the help of the Danes and appointed Haraldr ‘junior’ and his brother Hroerekr to protect the emporium. Eventually in 840, the threat of the Vikings receded as a truce was reached. The Frankish Empire no longer needed the help of the Danes and began to look for ways in which to dispose of them. This created conflict between the Franks and the Danes as Hroerekr established a gang of men that attacked the coast. In 846, Dorestad and two other settlements were plundered. While Frankish defense was organized, it did not stop the Danes from capturing Dorestad and a large portion of the Frisian Coast in 850. The Franks allowed Hroerekr to take control of the land as long as he protected the coast from Viking invasions. During this time, the coast was battered by Viking attacks, although it seems that Dorestad was left relatively unscathed. The Danish rulers held court on the coast for quite some time despite the fact that they were not well liked by the people they ruled.
Under Danish control, Dorestad became less significant. Trading had slowed in the port to the point where it was almost non-existent. The mint was shut down when Hroerekr took control of the lands. As the settlement no longer held much economic or cultural significance, the populace of Dorestad thinned and the place became a dimly remembered part of history.
- Luit van der Tuuk (2005). "Danes in Dorestad. Gjaller Norsemen in the Low Countries". Archived from the original on 2 May 2014. Retrieved 29 October 2013.
- British Museum Collection
- The Early-Medieval harbour of Dorestad. N.p., n.d. Web. 1 Nov. 2013.
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- Van Der Tuuk, Lute. Dorestad Revealed. N.p., 2010. Web. 1 Nov. 2013.
- McCormick, Michael. Origins of The European Economy. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001. 610-12. Print.