Anyone who comes to visit Bergen will stroll through Bryggen, admiring the history of the place. However, when tourists learn that Bryggen was the site of the Hanseatic League, most, especially those not from Europe, will wonder what that even means. But the Hanseatic history in Bergen is fascinating, and I love taking people for Hanseatic walks through the city.
This article is my simplified version of the Hanseatic League in Bergen. If you want to learn more, pick up a book at the Bryggens Museum or Hanseatic Museum gift shop, otherwise browse various Hanseatic sites online.
What is the Hanseatic League?
The Hanseatic League was a commercial co-operation that was made of merchants from market towns throughout northern and central Europe, particularly on the Baltic Sea, where they dominated trade for three centuries.
The word Hanse means ‘convoy’, and this word refers to the groups of merchants who would travel between the Hanseatic towns by land or sea.
The Hanseatic League’s common goal was to dominate trade, protect economic interests, gain diplomatic privileges, and establish trading routes.
Bergen: Scandinavia’s First Commercial Trading Town
Bergen is generally regarded as Scandinavia’s largest commercial hub. In fact, it was the largest city in Scandinavia until the 17th century, and the largest city in Norway until the end of the 19th century.
The reason Bergen became such an important trading hub is due, in part, to its geography. The bay, Vågen, was wide and suited to trading ships. The city was also located roughly halfway between Northern Norway (where the goods came from) and mainland Europe (who wanted the goods), as well as being not too far from the old Viking stomping grounds of the Shetland Islands, the Faroe Islands, and Iceland, as well as England, who was Bergen’s first major trading partner.
The people in Bergen began to trade stockfish, which came from Northern Norway and the islands mentioned above. Stockfish quickly became in demand in Europe because of its longevity (and tastiness – it was a delicacy), so Bergen was a good ‘midway point’ between the supply and the demand. They didn’t just trade stockfish; fish oil, dried herring, sheep and goat skins, hides of cattle, butter, and products of whaling or sealing, were all Norwegian exports as well, but still, stockfish counted for as much as 80% to 90% of Norwegian exports.
When the North Norwegian fisherman brought their stockfish to Bergen, they traded it with what European merchants were bringing from England and Germany. One of the biggest imports was wheat from England, which didn’t grow so well in Northern Norway. They also tended to trade their stockfish for beer, wine, and modern equipment.
By the 12th century, Bergen had become a big hub of the stockfish business. The fish would come in, European merchants would buy it in exchange for goods from the mainland, and the North Norwegians would take the goods back north. It’s unsurprising that this got the interest of the Hanseatic League.
The Arrival of the Germans
Germans in Bergen are first mentioned in 1186 by King Sverre, who had declared himself king during the Civil War and taken residence in Bergen. But that’s another story. Sverre, recognising the Germans, said:
“We want to thank all the Englishmen who had arrived here, bringing with them wheat and honey, flour or cloth. We also want to thank those men who have brought linen or flax, wax or cauldrons. We would also like to mention those who have come from the Orkneys, Shetlands, Faroes, or Iceland – all those who have brought to this country.
But as to the Germans, who arrived here in large numbers and with large ships, and intend to take away butter and cod to the detriment of the country, and bring in return wine that people go in for buying – their trade has brought much evil and nothing good.”
It’s clear Sverre wasn’t thrilled with the Germans, and who can blame him. After all, the introduction of wine in Bergen had caused excessive drinking, which then caused fights – some even killing people!
It was around time that the Hanseatic League was gaining traction in Europe, particularly in its major hub in Lubeck. The ‘Lubeckers’ started to recognise the popularity of Bergen and travel there to trade, and they had clear advantages over the other foreign merchants in Bergen because of their connections to other market towns. Eventually, they took over the English in terms of wheat trading. Also, instead of using Bergen merchants as the middle man, they traded directly with the North Norwegian fishermen, and as the fishermen became depended on the Hanseatic products, the fishermen sought out the Germans instead of other foreign traders.
The interest in the Hanseatic League had been planted.
The Hanseatics Move In
Originally, the Germans would only come to Bergen to conduct their business and then leave again. But it all changed in 1259, when a German started to rent accommodation around the harbour. Shortly after, another German bought a house (Magnus the Lawmender’s Urban Law of 1275 had placed foreigners in the same league as locals, allowing for his).
By the year 1300, the area around Bryggen was dominated by German merchants, who were renting accommodation around the harbour. But it wasn’t just German merchants; German craftsmen also came to Bergen to take advantage of the trade business – German shoemakers where actually granted a monopoly of shoemaking in the town. Other craftsmen who came to Bergen included goldsmiths, furriers, tailors, cutters, bakers, and barbers (Fun fact: The German Hanseatics brought the cinnamon and the skills that perfect Bergen’s famous and unique cinnamon bun!).
Despite the fact that the Urban Law of 1275 hadn’t excluded the new Germans, the Hanseatics in Lubeck wanted the Germans in Bergen to have special privileges (after all, this was one of the goals of the Hanseatic League). Over the following two decades, they were able to gain certain privileges and protection.
In 1294, King Eirik Magnusson granted the merchants from German towns (i.e the Hanseatics) the right to sell freely in Norwegian towns, but not beyond the towns. They couldn’t sell in rural locations, and they couldn’t sail further north than Bergen. Also, the King declared, Bergen was to be the staple for trade with Northern Norway and the other islands, including Iceland.
So, Bergen was the location for the stockfish business. This was good news to the Hanseatic League.
The Hanseatics Establish Themselves
During the start of the 14th century, the Germans became a little bit more organised. They established their area around Bryggen as an official Hanseatic Kontor (office). Bergen had become the fourth and youngest overseas Kontor of the Hanseatic League – their others were in Novgorod (Russia), Brugge (Belgium), and London (United Kingdom).
This new organisation scared the royals in Norway. They continuously tried to fight the Bergen Kontor to stop it forming an association, their own rules, or their own laws, but the Germans constantly fought this. For example, in 1311, the Bishop of Bergen said that the Germans at Bryggen needed to pay a tithe (10% of annual earnings paid as a tax to support the church). The Germans refused and boycotted trade until they got their way. Oh, and then they killed the Bishop of Bergen, 60+ locals, and burned down the Munkeliv Monastery. Understandably, the Norwegians were not thrilled with this new presence.
The way the Germans were able to secure their dominance over Bergen was thanks to one of the biggest travesties in Bergen’s history: The Black Death. Arriving on a ship from England, the Black Death killed 70% of Bergen’s population, mostly the locals. The loss in population saw trading business shut down, warehouses become abandoned, and the government and royals losing their control and power. But this didn’t change the fact that Europe wanted stockfish, so the Germans moved into the empty warehouses along Bryggen, and continued business as usual.
The monarch and the authorities tried to govern the Germans, but the Germans had become so strong that it was impossible to organise them – after all, about 100 men guarded the castle at Bergenhus, and there were at least 1,000 Germans at Bryggen. Against the wishes of the Norwegians, the Germans chased the Dutch and English merchants out of Bryggen, established their own court systems, and made Bryggen their own German city within the Norwegian city.
And so, Bryggen was 100% a Hanseatic Kontor.
The Height of the Hanseatic League
The Germans at Bryggen each had their own firm, which was in one of the long tenements (gård) on Bryggen – each tenement was divided into up to 15 firms. The Germans never owned the land the buildings were on – they paid ground rent to the Norwegian owners.
Each firm had storerooms, sleeping quarters, living rooms and workshops. Each gård shared a quay at the front, a crane for unloading and loading goods off boats, the private passage along the gård (the same alleys you can walk down today), and a common kitchen and common room at the back (called a schøtsue).
Each firm was run by a manager; the owner of the business lived back in Germany. The manager oversaw the capital that was given to the firm by a merchant from Germany, and that was used to pay for the stockfish. The manager would keep a small part of the profit, and their goal was to always save enough money to buy a business and return home to Germany for a very cozy upper middle class life.
The Germans operated with a very meticulous and complicated system of trade, often down through a credit system. This was overseen by the managers, and they were so careful with their paperwork and business that we have all the paperwork and can trace back every single manager and every single transaction back to the 16th century. Basically, the German managers needed to secure a regular flow of stockfish from the North Norwegians. to do this, they paid the fisherman (again, in forms of wheat and other goods from Europe – money was never used here) in advance. Each firm had a group of clients (fisherman), who were tied to the firm through this kind of debt. If the fishermen brought less stockfish than ordered, they were able to make up for it the following year. The fishermen and the firms had very good relationships because of this trusted debt, and the same groups would work together for many generations. The Hanseatics were of little benefit to the people in Bergen, but, as you can see, they were of enormous benefit to the North Norwegians.
But the Germans didn’t just trade with the North Norwegians; their records show that they traded with people from the islands (Iceland, Faroes, Shetland), ecclesiastical institutions, local magnates, and clergymen. They even traded with the Crown, represented by the captain of the royal castle in Bergen – you can just imagine a captain showing up at Bryggen with a pile of stockfish, in need of some beer!
Beneath the manager was the foreman, who was in charge of controlling the young boys, the Jungens, who did most of the work. The oldest Jungens took care of loading and unloading boats and warehouses, as well as general warehouse work, whereas the young apprentice Jungens cleaned and served the food. The apprentices were normally peasant boys from Germany who had family members in the Hanseatic League, and while in Bergen they received free school, practical Hanseatic trading, and were given the opportunity to work their way up.
Hanseatic Life in Bergen
There was never fewer than 1,000 German men in permanent residence at Bryggen. These men were able-bodied and trained in arms, and they constituted a very considerable military force – which explains why the powers at Bergenhus were never able to prevent them from governing themselves.
When it came to the governing, this was done in a building in the centre of Bryggen called the Merchants House. Six resident merchants were elected to sit on the council, and they’d settle any local legal matters in cooperation with the council in Lubeck. If someone wanted to appeal, they’d have to go to the Hanseatic Court in Lubeck.
The Hanseatic parish church was St Mary’s Church. In 1408 it was formally assigned to the Hanseatics by the bishop of Bergen, and it remained in their possession until 1766. The church was often mentioned in the wills of German merchants, and today the artwork is all donated by Germans, and all the graves outside are wealthy German merchants.
There are stories of conflict between the Germans and the Norwegians. In 1523 the Germans took advantage of the unstable political and military situation caused by the dispute over the Danish-Norwegian Crown. They forced their way into Bergen’s town hall and seized the documents that restricted their economic activities. Then, in the middle of the night, they attacked the homes of some of the other merchants, mainly the Scottish ones, capturing members of their households, savaged others, and plundered their goods. But it’s not all bad blood between the Germans and the Norwegians – in the Merchants House was a wine cellar, and documents talk of Germans and Norwegians meeting there to have a drink. Additionally, the Germans tended to fund buildings around Bergen, such as churches and hospitals. Scandinavia’s oldest elementary school – Christi Krybbe (next to the Fløibanen) – was built on land owned by the Hanseatics.
The End of the Hanseatic League in Bergen
The Hanseatic League began to lose its control in Europe from the 15th century onwards, mostly due to the rise in nation states (countries), and their increased control of legislature, courts, and trade.
The other three Hanseatic Kontor – Novgorod, Brugge and London – closed their offices in 1494, 1485, and 1598 respectively, and today there is very little evidence of their Hanseatic towns.
In Bergen, however, the Kontor continued to play an important economic role. With the end of the Hanseatic League, the Bergen Kontor continued business as usual, not just for a few decades, but for 156 after the London Kontor closed its doors. The reasons why the Bergen Kontor stayed open varies, but generally it has a lot to do with the state of Norway at the time. Norway was a poor country with very few skilled merchants, whereas these Germans were highly skilled in fish trade and had great knowledge of the European markets, so they were useful to Norway’s economy. The King didn’t want to shut them down until the Norwegians had acquired sufficient resources and strength to export fish themselves and supply grain to West and North Norway. The North Norwegians fought to keep the Bergen Kontor operating, saying as late as 1680 that if the Kontor closed it would be a disaster for the fishermen. To further complicate things, the 16th and 17th centuries were difficult for Denmark-Norway and Sweden, as the two countries were often engaged in war. Whenever there was war trade became complicated, but the neutral Germans were able to enter ports as usual.
Eventually, though, the Kontor did come to an end. On the 10th of August 1630, one of the German firm owners deserted the Kontor and registered himself as a Bergen merchant. Bryggen was no longer 100% German.
By 1702, there were 19 Norwegian firms compared to 34 German firms, and in 1754 the German Kontor was disbanded and a new trading organisation was formed – the Norwegian Kontor. In 1766, the very last German firm passed into Norwegian hands.
But it wasn’t the end of the German presence in Bergen. Trade with the Northern fishermen remained, and business was still conducted in the German language. The Norwegian merchants were even offered free German classes so they could understand their accounts and attend St. Mary’s Church. While Bryggen became more Norwegian throughout the 1800s, the German presence remained until the Norwegian Kontor closed its doors in 1899. But you can still see the German presence today – the street name is Tyskebryggen (The German Wharf).
Today, the buildings at Bryggen form the only Hanseatic Kontor remaining in Europe. Despite the fact that the Germans were often controlling, brutal, demanding, and isolated themselves, there’s no denying that the Germans provided Norwegians – especially those in the north – with access to food and good they would otherwise struggle to get. So, to counter King Sverre’s opinion that the German trade brought much evil and nothing good, it’s clear to see that the Hanseatic trade was an overall positive part of Norwegian history.