By Andrew Matheson
What do Bergen, Bruges and London have in common? They all hosted outposts of the German medieval trading confederation known as the Hanseatic league, along with Novgorod in Russia. When our Scandinavian tour reached its last stop in Bergen, we had a fascinating look back at how merchants from the Baltic sea coast had shaped this part of Norway.
In the Middle Ages Norway was as wealthy from exporting dried fish as it is today from exporting oil and gas. The dried fish, called stockfish, came from the north of the country and was traded through Bergen for imported grain, ale and manufactured goods.
The brightly-painted wooden buildings along the waterfront in Bergen, its most famous sight, were once a walled enclave controlled by German merchants and run with considerable autonomy. This was a trading post of the Hanseatic league, known as a kontor. Who were these traders, and how did they come to have such a strong foothold in Bergen?
The Hanseatic league began in the 12th century in Lübeck, on the shores of the Baltic Sea in what is now Germany. Merchants here and in other cities formed guilds (hansa) to trade with each other in the important commodities of the time. The guilds bonded together into a network, the Hanseatic league, which at its peak in the 14th and 15th centuries spread from London in the west to Russia in the east, and from Norway south to France.
Though the league was never an independent power, it was very influential thanks to its autonomy and amazing wealth. This lasted for several centuries, before the league’s unity fractured in the face of stronger nation states and erosion of its trading monopoly. The Hanseatic league was a shadow of its former self by the 17th century, though it did continue formally until German unification in 1862.
For four centuries the Hanseatic league had an outpost, or kontor, in Bergen. German traders set up warehouses along the wharf where they bartered with Norwegian traders. The Germans lived in a closed and strict society, in which young apprentices learnt a skill or trade and progressed up the ranks of the trading hierarchy.
In Bergen we visited the German traders’ warehouses and living quarters, and the nearby assembly rooms where the rules governing this German enclave were made and enforced. Bergen is remarkable because so much remains of this autonomous enclave of foreign traders. It makes for a fascinating visit.