THE BRITISH LIBRARY

European studies blog

05 January 2017

Gysbert Japicx: founder of Frisian literature

Among the big literary figures we commemorated in 2016, Gysbert Japicx certainly deserves a mention. After all, he is credited with putting Frisian on the map as a literary language. Old Frisian was among the languages that formed the English language and was widely used in official, business and cultural contexts. By the mid-16th century Frisian was mainly used in popular songs. Anything more scholarly was written in Latin, French or Dutch.

Then, along comes Gysbert Japicx, schoolmaster, canon and poet.


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Gysbert Japicx, by his uncle Matthijs Harings (1637), from Hulde oan Gysbert Japicx (Assen, 1966) British Library Ac.966

Japicx was born into a middle-class family in the Frisian city of Bolsward in 1603 and died there in 1666. His father was Jacob Holckema, a cabinet maker, who held several public offices in town, up to burgomaster. The family name Holckema was not used very much and Gysbert only used his patronymic Japiks, or Japix, or Japicx.


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Map of Bolsward. From Tonneel van de Heerlykheit Friesland ...(1718). Maps C.9.e.3(44)

Gysbert was educated at the Latin school to become a school teacher, a profession he carried out all his life. Like his father he was active in the church, mainly as cantor. In 1602 he married Sijke Salves Rolwagen, daughter of a notary, with whom he had five children. Four of them died during epidemics of the plague, in 1656 and ten years later, during which turned out to be the last plague epidemic to occur in the Low Countries. This last outbreak took another child, his wife and himself. Only his oldest son Salves survived.

Japicx showed an interest in literature from an early age. He wrote poetry in Dutch, possibly Latin and his first work in Frisian dates from 1639. It is not certain why Gysbert started writing poetry in Frisian, but in any case this was well received. The fact that he put great emphasis on draughtsmanship must have played a part in this. He had great skill in applying the form of ‘inventio’, the art of making variations on a theme or work. Japicx’ work mainly consists of translations and (humorous) adaptations. He adapted works by classical poets, but also by contemporaries of his, Constantijn Huygens and Joost van den Vondel

He also wrote his own poetry; on topics ranging from religion, to love, to the lives of common people. Japicx concentrated on virtuosity and scholarly poetry and it is through these efforts that he turned Frisian into a scholarly and cultured language. Indeed, his virtuosity was so great, that very few Frisian poets have managed to equal him, even up to this day.

One of his most famous works is Friessche Tjerke, a humorous wedding poem. This was published by Claude Fonteyne, in Leeuwarden, in 1640 and is the only title to be published during Japicx’ lifetime.  The Library holds a facsimile of the 1640 edition, published in Germany in 1929.

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Gisbert Japicx, ‘FriesscheTjerne’ A facsimile of the edition of 1640 from Drei friesische Hochzeitsgedichte aus dem 17. Jahrhundert. Mit einer Einleitung herausgegeben von J. Haantjes und G. G. Kloeke (Hamburg, 1929)] Ac.9822/4

Friessche Tsjerne cemented Japicx’ name, both in the Netherlands as well as abroad.

The English linguist Franciscus Junius came to Bolsward, in order to learn Frisian from Japicx. Junius copied several of Japicx’ texts, which are still kept in the Bodleian Library (Bodleian MS. Junius 122 (22, 30)).

Frisian scholar J.H. Halbertsma extensively researched Japicx’ most famous poem and Junius’ texts in his Letterkundige Naoogst (Deventer, 1840;  816.b.36)

In 1668, two years after Japicx’ untimely death, Samuel Haringhouk published Friesche Rymlerye, the complete works of Gysbert Japicx. Japicx and Haringhouk had started on the editing of the works, when the plague took Japicx. There are three parts: Love poems , Dialogues and occasional poetry, and Psalms and other religious works.

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Gysbert Japicx, Friesche Rymlarye (Bolsward, 1668). 11557.h.27

In 1681 the historian Simon Abbes Gabbema edited a new edition, in two volumes, containing a collection of letters and translations of three French texts. (BL 839.f.22).


The commemorations of Gysbert Japicx may have closed with the passing of 2016, but Gysbert Japicx continues to be remembered in the literary prize for the best Frisian literary work, named in his honour.

One only needs to look at this video on YouTube to realise that Gysbert Japicx continues to inspire authors, poets and songwriters.

Marja Kingma. Curator Germanic Collections, Low Countries.

References:

It wurk fan Gysbert Japix [bezorgd door] Philippus Breuker. (Ljouwert, 1989). YA.1991.a.4753

Gysbert Japicx: the Oxford text of four poems . Edited with a complete glossary by Alistair Campbell. (Bolsward, 1948). 11529.e.30.

A more detailed biography and bibliography of Japicx (in Dutch) can be found here