The Hanseatic merchant traders lived and worked at Bryggen in Bergen for hundreds of years. They were German merchants who traded dried fish and other wares. They established their foothold in the city in about 1350 and dominated trade here right up to the mid 1700s.
But who were they? Why did they come to Bergen? And what was their life like?
What was a Hansa?
The word Hanseatic comes from the German Hansa or Hanse, a term used for an association of itinerant merchants in Northern Europe. In the early Middle Ages these merchants travelled from place to place with their wares. These were uneasy times, so they formed defensive associations to protect themselves against piracy and robbery. These merchant groups were called Hansa, and members of the group were known as Hansas.
The Hanseatic League
The Hansa merchant- groups grew up in north German commercial towns and cities. In order to secure their position and promote their trading interests these towns began to co-operate, and during the course of the 13th century these merchant guilds developed into what we know as the Hanseatic League.
The various cities had different rules and regulations. The Hanseatic League was therefore unable to legislate a common set of laws for all their trading stations, and they were dependent on the willingness of the cities to adopt a common legislature. The cities that were members of the League called themselves Hanseatic cities, and the merchants were called Hansas.
The Hanseatic League had four Kontors (Offices) in cities that were not members of the League. All Kontors had a permanent German settlement. One of them was in Bergen (c.1360-1761); the others were in Novgorod, London and Brugge (Bruges). Thus Bergen was never a Hanseatic city.
The Kontor on the Wharf
Bergen was an important trading centre as early as the 12th century. Merchants came from many countries to sell and buy goods and wares, first and foremost stockfish (dried and salted fish).
Merchants from Germany came to Bergen in increasingly large numbers and after a while started to overwinter there. They rented accommodation and warehouses there and lived alongside the local population. Eventually they bought properties and warehouses in the Wharf area.
The Hansas established themselves at a time when Norwegian society was severely weakened after the Black Death. Large areas of the country were dependent on corn imports from the Baltic region, and this trade was firmly in the hands of the Hansa merchants.
These merchants had the best preconditions for trading Norwegian stockfish in Europe. The Hansas on the Wharf bartered stockfish and cod liver oil from fishermen who twice a year sailed down the coast from northern Norway to Bergen, where they exchanged their wares for corn, ale, cloth, iron and small quantities of other useful goods.
At first the Hansa merchants rented properties in Bergen. But in time, when new houses were built, especially after fires, they began to buy their own houses. Eventually they all owned their homes, but rented the land on which they were built.
The Hansas lived in a closed society, subject to strict internal discipline. Young boys would be sent as apprentices from Germany to the Kontor in Bergen to learn a skill or a trade. If they did well they would advance to be responsible for the training of young apprentices and be the expert foreman in the trade house. Above him would be the merchant himself who would do the accounts for the owner of the trade house, the principal. The principal himself did not normally reside in Bergen, but in Germany.
The Kontor is disbanded
The Hansa merchants completely dominated all trade in Northern Europe for several hundred years. But eventually the Hanseatic League was split up by internal divisions and disappeared completely in the 17th century. During the course of the 17th and 18th centuries many of their buildings came into Norwegian hands. The Norwegian authorities had become more powerful and the local merchants and tradesmen in Bergen were able to compete with the German Kontor. Some of the Hanseaatic tradesmen took up citizenship in Bergen and became true citizens of Bergen.
In time most of the trade houses on the Wharf became wholly Norwegian, and in 1754 the Norwegian Kontor was established. It was run on roughly the same lines as The German Kontor had been.
The last Hansa Day in 1669 is generally regarded as the end of the Hanseatic League, though the Kontor in Bergen continued with the trading of stockfish as before. It should also be said that the Hansas did not uproot and leave Bergen; they established their Norwegian Kontor on the Wharf, where it remained until the Norwegian Parliament disbanded it in 1867, almost exactly 500 years after the German Kontor was formed