Emo of Friesland – globetrotter in the 13th century


Carla, Man and Narrator are sitting in a pub in Amsterdam for their evening meal.

“It was good to continue our quest in Amsterdam this afternoon with two sermons in stone. Tonight you wish to give us a brief description of the life story of Emo”, says Man.

“Your prelude to intensities and associations was impressive in brevity and versatility”, says Carla.

“Thank you for this compliment. The life story of Emo of Friesland – priest, theologian, scholar and abbot in the 13th century – shows a nice contrast and a resemblance with the changes during the Reformation in Holland in the 16th century. His life shows at the same time a similarity and a unbridgeable rupture with the pastors, scholars and Protestants after the Reformation.

Emo of Friesland – in Germany known as Emo van Wittewierum and in the Netherlands as Emo van Bloemhof – was born around 1175 AD near Groningen within a family that belonged to the elite of the “Ommelanden” around Groningen. These “Ommelanden” were part of Friesland, but the city of Groningen and the areas west of the city belonged to the Diocese of Utrecht; the land north and east of the city of Groningen belonged to the Diocese of Münster [1]. This separation had started because the areas Christianised by Boniface [2] – in the eighth century AD working from the Diocese of Utrecht – became part of the Diocese of Utrecht. Boniface converted these areas preaching in the old Frisian language instead of Latin. The areas converted by Liudger [3] – the successor of Boniface and the first Bishop of the Diocese of Münster – ordered by Charlemagne, became part of the Diocese of Münster. The separation between the sacral power and profane power was usually virtual at that time.

Emo had attended the school of a Benedictine monastery in the “Ommelanden” where after he had studied church law at the Universities of Paris. In 1190, he was the first foreign student at the University of Oxford. Thereafter he had attended the University of Orléans in France [4]. We can only surmise how he had made the study trips; probably he had travelled overland on foot – whereby he had mostly stayed at clergymen or in monasteries – and part of the trip to England he had travelled by boat. During his studies he had mainly used Medieval Church Latin, supplemented by Medieval English – old Frisian was akin to old English – and flawed French for daily contact with the local population in France.

After his studies, he had been teacher schoolmaster in Northern Groningen around 1200 AD and afterwards pastor in Huizinge.

Kerk in Huizinge[5]

In 1208 AD Emo had entered the convent of his cousin Emo van Romerswerf. This monastery joined in 1209 AD – one hundred years before founded – the order of Premonstratensians [6]. By a donation of the Church of Wierum (Wittewierum) Emo had founded the monastery of Bloemhof. The Bishop of Münster had wished to reverse the donation by this Church – located in the northeastern “Ommelanden”, because the Bishop was concerned about the strong rise of the various monastic orders (Premonstratensians, Cistercians) in Friesland and Groningen with an independent authority of the monastic order outside the worldly sacral power. Emo – with his knowledge of Church law – had defied the decision of the Bishop and in 1211-1212 AD he had travelled by foot to Rome to set the decision of the Bishop for discussion with Pope Innocent III.

In 1213 AD the monastery could officially be founded under the name Hortus Floridus; hereby may be conclude that Pope Innocent III had accepted the donation of the worldly Church of Wierum to the monastery.

Abdijkerk Hortus Floridus Wttewierum[7]

In 1219 AD Emo had witnessed the Saint Marcellus flood that caused 36,000 casualties and resulted in a famine [8]. The monastery is located on a mound, hereby the damage to the monastery had probably been limited; also at that time the rich farmers and the clergy in Northern Groningen knew where to establish their farms and monasteries.

We know the life course of Emo – and herewith a part of the life of the “Ommelanden” in relationship to the world of the 13th century AD – so detailed, because Emo had started with the well preserved “Chronicle of the monastery Bloemhof at Wittewierum [9].

The decline of the influence of the monastic orders in Friesland and Groningen – and also in England – began with the rise of the Reformation in 1521 AD. With this Reformation, the authority, the knowledge and the influence of the monasteries and the Church with its centuries old customs and habits were defied, just like Emo – with his knowledge of Church law as a literate man –had defied the authority of the Bishop of Münster three centuries earlier in order to give his life and work shape in the monastery Bloemhof.

The unbridgeable contrast between the mindset of Emo in the thirteenth century and the conceptual framework during the Reformation in the sixteenth century, is evident from the manner whereby the right is sought on their side during disagreements. In his stubbornness Emo had sought – and probably received – his right in his dispute with the Bishop of Münster by submitting his case to Pope Innocent III. An impression of the scope of the worldly power of Pope Innocent III: he had contested the Cathars; he had excommunicated the English King John of England; he had forced the French King Philip II Augustus to take his wife Ingeborg – from whom he had been divorced – back again; he had succeeded in the deposition of the German Emperor Otto IV [10].

Paus Innocent III[11]

In their stubbornness the Protestants had proclaimed many aberrant religious doctrines during the Reformation, that were also proclaimed by many Catholics. The Protestants were not drawn or pushed in a schism by their different doctrines, but by their stubbornly clinging to these different doctrines. The cause of their separation was the refusal of Protestants to take back their words “unless convinced by the Holy Scripture – that the Protestants had started to study independently within their own faith community – and by pure reason” [12]. Where Emo and the Bishop of Münster had finally accepted the opinion of the Pope and the Catholic Church, the Protestants had followed only the judgement of Holy Scripture and their own pure reason.

In the Netherlands the Protestants were drawn or pushed by their stubborn clinging to different religious doctrines in a rebellion with King Philip II, who was an equal to the Protestants in stubbornness and piety  [13], who certainly had as many issues with the Catholic Church, which had fought with and against the Pope of Rome [14] as befits a worldly king in those days, but who had eventually accepted the Catholic doctrines and practices.

Partly due to the different internal positions in religious affairs and under the influence of the “pure reason” – whereby in Holland commercialism is never lost sight of –, the Protestants in Holland had decided to a marriage of convenience between Church and State [15]. From this marriage of convenience between Church and State, the Dutch Republic [16] had arisen as first republic in world history. Tomorrow more about the start of the Reformation at our visit to the Old Church of Amsterdam”, says Narrator.

“During your description of the life of Emo and your explanation of the gap between the mindset of Emo for settling issues in comparison with the reference framework of the Protestants over three centuries later, I was reminded of a passage that I had read in the bookstore “Au Bout du Monde” at the Singel this afternoon. Freely rendered:

Yunmen [17] – a Chinese Zen master from the 10th century AD – asked his students: “Each and every person embodies the radiant light. If you try to see it, it is totally invisible. What is each and every person’s radiant light?”

No one of the assembly answered.

Yunmen answered for them: “The monks hall, the church, the kitchen, and the monastery gate”

Yunmen klooster in China[18]

As commentary tot his Buddhist question was written: “It is not Yunmen’s personal answer, everyone’s light makes this answer” and “All humanity embodies the radiant light” and “Know that the radiant light that each and every person embodies, is each and every person that is actualised” and “Even if the church, the kitchen and the monastery gate are the ancestors of Buddha, they cannot avoid being each and every person[19]. From the point of view of Indra’s Net, it is an easy question, but in everyday life it is difficult to accept the light in the eyes of each and every person”, says Man.

“In times of rebellion against (supposed?) injustice – in society or in religious questions – a situation that previously was experienced as perfectly normal, is now seen as a unacceptable injustice. During the Waning of the Middle Ages, Holland had lived according the rhythm of the Catholic Church, but with the rise of book-printing – whereby literate people started to study independently – mindlessly following old customs and faith according to the habits of the then Catholic Church did not fit any longer. The radiant light had changed during the Reformation. Did the radiant light change because humanity had changed during the Reformation? Is the radiant light so all-encompassing that it can also contain any injustice? I think the latter, but for me it is hard to accept”, says Carla.

“Is the radiant light – just like the Gods – tied to the law of cause and effect, or can the radiant light surpass partly or entirely from this law? Perhaps both. Shall we have another beer before we ask for the bill?”, says Narrator.

“I like a Belgian Tripel Trappist beer because this beer filters the light so beautiful”, says Man.

“For me a Gulpener Pilsner as a reminder of the light of my uninhibited youth”, says Carla.

“I will buy these beers from the the proceeds of the musical performance at Centraal Station this afternoon”, says Narrator.


[1] Source: Boer, Dick E.H. de, Emo’s reis – Een historisch culturele ontdekkingsreis door Europa in 1212, Leeuwarden: Uitgeverij Noordboek, 2011, p. 11

[2] See: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Saint_Boniface

[3] See: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ludger

[4] See: http://www.ox.ac.uk/about_the_university/introducing_oxford/a_brief_history_of_the_university/index.html and http://de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Emo_von_Wittewierum and http://nl.wikipedia.org/wiki/Emo_van_Bloemhof

[5] Photo of the contemporary St. Jans-church from the 13th century on the place where the previous Church had stood where Emo of Friesland had been parish priest in the twelfth century. Source image: http://nl.wikipedia.org/wiki/Huizinge

[6] see also: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Premonstratensians

[7] Photo of the former abbey of the monastery Hortus Floridus in Wittewierum around 1600. Source image: http://de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Emo_von_Wittewierum

[8]  See also: http://de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Liste_der_Sturmfluten_an_der_Nordsee, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Storm_tides_of_the_North_Sea and http://de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Erste_Marcellusflut

[9] This record can be read via the following hyperlink: http://www.dmgh.de/de/fs1/object/display/bsb00000886_00464.html

[10] Source: http://nl.wikipedia.org/wiki/Paus_Innocentius_III

[11] Source image: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pope_Innocent_III

[12] Source: Fernández – Armesto, Felipe & Wilson, Derek, Reformatie – Christendom en de wereld 1500 – 2000, Amsterdam: Uitgeverij Anthos, 1997, p. 108.

[13] See also: Fernández – Armesto, Felipe & Wilson, Derek, Reformatie – Christendom en de wereld 1500 – 2000, Amsterdam: Uitgeverij Anthos, 1997, p. 98 and Noordzij, Huib, Handboek van de Reformatie – De Nederlandse kerkhervorming in de 16e en de 17e eeuw. Utrecht: Uitgeverij Kok, 2012, p. 18 – 19

[14] See also: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Philip_II_of_Spain

[15] See also: Noordzij, Huib, Handboek van de Reformatie – De Nederlandse kerkhervorming in de 16e en de 17e eeuw. Utrecht: Uitgeverij Kok, 2012, p. 414

[16] See also: http://nl.wikipedia.org/wiki/Republiek_der_Zeven_Verenigde_Nederlanden and http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dutch_Republic

[17] See also: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Yunmen_Wenyan

[18] The contemporary Yunmen monastery in China. Source image: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Yunmen_Wenyan

[19] Source: Tanahashi, Kazuaki ed., Treasury of the true dharma eye – Zen Master Dogen’s Shobo Genzo. Boston: Shambhala, 2012, p. 419 – 420

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