Trade often trends to monopoly and that was as true in medieval times as today. Northern Germans merchants from the Baltic coast joined forces in the 13th to the 17th centuries to capture trade throughout northern Europe, and one of their greatest hubs was at Bergen in Norway.
The Hanseatic League, an early trading monopoly
The German mercantile settlement flourished in Bergen from the 12th century and well into the 18th century. Remarkably, more-so than any other place, Bergen today still physically retains enough of that settlement to allow visitors to see and feel daily life for the German traders of that period.
The secret of success that the Hansa merchants created is simple: control what your customers need and control what they sell. North Germany, primarily that part called Pomerania, grew great quantities of grain and Norway had something that Pomerania needed: fish. The league of Hansa merchants shipped grains to Norway and set up trading post in places like Bergen where they cornered the market on dried fish, primarily cod. In effect they controlled both the market in grain and in dried fish throughout northern Europe.
The Bryggen, home of a medieval monopoly
One of the biggest and most powerful of these Hansa colonies was in Bergen, where they owned and controlled the north side of the harbor. There they built combined warehouse factories and sleeping quarters, with young German men serving as workmen and laborers for as many as six years at a stretch. It was a celibate society with long work days and Sabbaths of stern religious lecturing.
While periodic fires have ravaged Bergen, and amazing number of the original merchants’ 17th and 18th century buildings have survived intact. They sit on the north side of Bergen harbor in a row under the gaze of the stone defensive Rosenkrantz Tower. Six of the original buildings remain, crowded together, with dark an narrow passages separating them and providing access to the buildings behind.
Walking rooms that were home to the Hansa 400 years ago
Many of the rooms today are used by craftsmen and artists to show and sell their work. Others, are used as restaurants, such as the Enjorningen Restaurant on the second floor of one ancient storehouse, or the Bryggen Tracteursted restaurant, in a building that was a 16th-century kitchen and lecture hall.
In the alleyways, walls lean toward or away from, one another at sharp angles, large rough-cut beams hold up floors of hewn boards; bridging passages and staircases run overhead. Just walking through the passages and shops is a lesson in medieval construction techniques. In a series of small rooms in one of these buildings, up a narrow set of wooden stairs, you can visit the Theta Rooms, used by young resistance men as a radio station during the World War II occupation of Norway by Nazi troops.
More ways to experience medieval Bergen
The Hanseatic Museum, just up the street from the Bryggen is the best place to get a real feeling for the life of these merchants. Whole rooms salvaged from older buildings have been installed and are open to the public. You’ll find accounting rooms, offices and lodgings for the leaders and rooms where the working men slept in tiny cubby holes, sometimes several to a bed. Look for intricate painting on the walls and examples from other buildings. There is a real sense here of the tight, damp, unlighted spaces these 14th-century men worked in. Because of the danger of fire, which had destroyed many older buildings, these quarters were unheated in winter.
Behind the Bryggen, the Schøtsteune Museum (part of the Hanseatic Museum) preserves and exhibits the buildings that were built separate from the storehouse-offices for reasons of fire. These were the kitchens, eating rooms, teaching/religious gathering places, courtrooms and even party rooms. Saved from destruction by a 19th-century preservationist, they have been reassembled to complete the living cycle of Hansa merchants and workers. For a look at some of the earliest Bryggen, go to the Bryggen Museum which houses not only exhibitions but in-situ excavations of early bryggen and artifacts uncovered here.
There are many delightful ways to enjoy Bergen. A comfortable city to walk in, its streets and parks are meant for walking with hiking trails galore on its mountain, the Floyen. It's also a city where restaurants are an adventure in dining. In short, it's a great palce to spend time having fun.