If you’re coming to Bergen, you have to visit Bryggen. You’ll see ‘Hanseatic League’ everywhere here, but not much information about what it is. The history of the Hanseatic League in Bergen is fascinating. It’s one of my favourite things to talk about.
So, I’ve put together a simplified overview of the Hanseatic League in Bergen. If you want to learn more, there’s ton of information online. There’s also some great books available in the museums.
What is the Hanseatic League?
The Hanseatic League was a commercial co-operation in Europe. The members were merchants from market towns throughout north and central Europe. Most of them lived around the Baltic Sea, where they dominated trade for three centuries.
The word Hanse means ‘convoy’. 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. It was the largest city in Scandinavia until the 17th century, and the largest in Norway until the 19th century.
Bergen became an important trading hub for many reasons. Most importantly, it is in a strategic geographic location. The bay, Vågen, is wide and suited to trading ships. Bergen is roughly halfway between Northern Norway (where the goods came from) and mainland Europe (who wanted the goods). Lastly, Bergen is not far from the Shetland Islands, Faroe Islands and Iceland, who came to Bergen to trade. England is close by, and became Bergen’s first major trading partner.
The Stockfish Trade
Merchants in Bergen traded stockfish from Northern Norway and the islands mentioned above. Stockfish was in demand in Europe because of its longevity and tastiness. Bergen became a good midway point between supply and demand.
They didn’t trade only stockfish. Fish oil, dried herring, sheep and goat skin, cattle hides, butter and whaling and sealing products were also Norwegian exports. Still, stockfish counted for 80-90% of Norwegian exports.
The fishermen from Northern Norway brought stockfish to trade with goods from Europe. Wheat from England was important as it didn’t grow in Northern Norway. Beer, wine and modern equipment was also traded.
With all this going on in Bergen, it’s unsurprising that this got the interest of the Hanseatic League.
The Arrival of the Germans
The first mention of German merchants in Bergen is in 1186. King Sverre, who declared himself king during the Civil War, had taken residence in Bergen. 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. Also, we 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.
The Germans arrive here in large numbers and with large ships. They 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.”King Sverre
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!
Early German Trade
The Germans started coming to Bergen as the Hanseatic League was growing in Europe. The main ‘hub’ for the Hanseatics was Lubeck. The ‘Lubeckers’ started to recognise the popularity of Bergen as a trading town. Moreover, the Lubeckers had advantages over other merchants as they were well connected. Eventually, they took over the English wheat trading. Also, instead of using Bergen merchants as the middle man, they traded directly with the fishermen. The fishermen became dependent on Hanseatic products. They began to seek out only German merchants.
The Hanseatics Move In
The first Hanseatic merchant began to rent accommodation in Bergen in 1259. Shortly after, another German bought the house. By 1300, Bryggen (the wharf) was dominated by German merchants.
Not only German merchants came to Bergen. German craftsmen came to take advantage of the trade business. Shoemakers from Germany were granted a monopoly of shoemaking. 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!).
In 1294, the King of Norway granted merchants from German towns the right to sell freely in Norwegian towns. They were not allowed to sell in rural locations, and could not sail further north than Bergen. Lastly, he declared that Bergen was to be the main place for trade with Northern Norway and the islands. This was good news for 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 is the fourth kontor; the others are Novgorod, Brugge and London.
The royals in Norway didn’t like Bergen becoming a Kontor. They tried to fight against the Kontor having its own laws. The Germans continuously fought back, and it got nasty. For example, in 1311, the Bishop of Bergen said the Germans must pay tax. The Germans refused, boycotted trade, killed the Bishop, 60+ locals, and burned down the monastery. Eventually, they got their way.
The dominance of the Hanseatic League in Bergen settled thanks to the Black Death. The Black Death killed 70% of Bergen’s population. The loss in population saw the trade business shut down. Warehouses were abandoned, and the government and royals lost power. However, Europe still wanted stockfish. The King allowed the Germans to settle in abandoned warehouses along Bryggen.
The authorities tried to govern the Germans, but it became impossible. The Hanseatic League was too powerful and too organised. They also controlled trade, and Norway needed supplies coming in. Against the wishes of the Norwegians, the Hanseatic League chased out Dutch and English merchants. 1,000 Hanseatic merchants lived in Bryggen, which became their own city within Bergen.
Organisation of the Hanseatic League on Bryggen
German merchants owned firms, located inside the tenements (long rows of buildings) on Bryggen. Each tenement had up to 15 firms inside. The Germans owned the building but not the land.
Each firm had storerooms, sleeping quarters, living rooms and workshops. Each tenement had a quay at the front, a crane, a private passage along the tenement, and a kitchen at the back.
The firm had a manager, while the owner lived in Germany. The manager oversaw the capital and used it to pay for the stockfish. The manager kept a small part of the profit. The goal was to save enough money to buy a firm, go back to Germany, and live very comfortably.
The Credit System
The Hanseatic League operated a complicated trade system, often down through credit. The managers oversaw the credit system. They were so meticulous and careful with paperwork. The museum in Bergen has all the paperwork showing every manager and every transaction back to the 16th century.
The German merchants needed to secure a regular flow of stockfish from North Norway. They paid the fishermen (in forms of wheat and goods from Europe) in advance. Money was never used on Bryggen. The fisherman was then tied to the German through this kind of debt. If the fisherman brought less stockfish, they could make up for it the next year.
The fishermen and the firms had a good relationship. They trusted each other, and would work together for many generations. While the Hanseatics were not popular in Bergen, they were popular in Northern Norway.
The Hanseatic League didn’t only rely on Northern Norway. They traded with Iceland, the Faroes, Shetland for goods from the north. In Norway, they traded with ecclesiastical institutions, local magnates and clergymen. Even the Crown ended up working with the Hanseatic League.
Social Life, Law and Order
Governing the Hanseatic League on Bryggen took place in the Merchants House. The building stood in the middle of Bryggen; today it’s where the wooden and brick buildings meet. Six merchants sat on the council, settling 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.
St. Mary’s Church was the Hanseatic parish church. In 1408, the church was formally assigned to the Hanseatics by the Bishop of Bergen. It remained theirs until 1766. The Hanseatic League loved the church. They mention the church in their wills, donated artwork, and were often buried outside the church.
The End of the Hanseatic League in Bergen
The Hanseatic League began to lose its control in Europe from the 15th century onwards. This was 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. Today there is very little evidence of their Hanseatic towns.
The reasons why the Hanseatic League continued to succeed on Bryggen varies. Firstly, Norway was a poor country with few skilled merchants. The Germans were very skilled in the fish trade and had great knowledge of the European markets. They were useful to the Norwegian economy. Importantly, the King didn’t want to shut them down until the Norwegians had the resources and strength to export the fish themselves. Secondly, the North Norwegians fought to keep the Hanseatic League operating. As late as 1680, they were saying that the Hanseatic League ending in Bryggen would be a disaster. To further complicate things, the 16th and 17th centuries saw many wars between Denmark-Norway and Sweden. Whenever war trade became complicated, the cities were closed off. Neutral German merchants could still continue business as usual.
The Office Closes
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 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.
Enjoying the Hanseatic League? When you’re in Bergen, you should do my self-guided walk of Bryggen. Click here to view it.
Read about the Hanseatic League throughout Europe on the fantastic website www.hanse.org.
Wikipedia has a great overview of the Hanseatic League here.
History of the Hanseatic League in Bergen on www.forbes.com