22 July 2015

Research: Norway 3 - Bergen & the Hanseatic League

Our cruise ship wasn't all six course dinners and gentle strolls round the deck admiring the awesome scenery. Part of the on-board entertainment included lectures. Geoffrey Farrell, ex Oxbridge, was our affable and informative speaker, and it was in no small part due to one of his talks that when the ship berthed in Bergen more than a few passengers looked at the Bryggen with different eyes as they headed for the Hanseatic Museum.

'Bryggen' means wharf. Out of sight to the right is the quayside.

The Bryggen is now a UNESCO heritage site, but the gable-end warehouses have been through several rebuilds, mostly due to devastating fires, since organised trading was established in the 11th century.
 
Little wonder fires took their toll.
The area soon became known as the Tyskebryggen - the German Wharf - when guilds of foreign merchants, financially backed by their market towns, began to take over the buildings. Eventually they made Bergen their centre in Norway, a kontor of their Hansa. 

The Hanseatic League, as we know it, was a set of formidable trading alliances, with either kontors or agent-warehouses in most major ports around the Baltic and North Seas. There were several on the east coast of England.

I found it interesting to realise that Hull, the embarkation port of our cruise ship in the UK, had been, and is now for historical purposes, a Hanseatic Port. In the mediaeval period its main export was wool from the religious houses in the region, and then cloth. I can't help but feel that when the town gained its charter in 1299 to become King Edward I's Kingston-upon-Hull, it was with half an eye to a cut of the Hanseatic revenues it would bring to the crown.

Bergen's Hanseatic Museum at the end of the Bryggen has recreated a merchant's combined warehouse and rooms, which included living quarters for eight apprentices (both servants and the shifters), the journeyman (who kept them in order) and the merchant himself.

Life was spartan. We couldn't take photos in the museum, but follow this LINK for a view of the sleeping quarters for the apprentices - two to a bunk - the sliding doors used to keep the rats from cuddling up. The merchants also had Assembly Rooms which, alas, we couldn't visit, but the linked article makes "interesting" reading.

Detail of one of the older merchant warehouses. I'm sure the bin isn't original.

Past wooded islands carrying red-painted summerhouses, and rocky skerries carrying odd-shaped lighthouses, Bergen is a wonderful city to sail into and a fascinating place to visit - from its funicular railway carrying passengers up the mountain for fantastic views of the port, to the smell of the Fish Market on the quay, to a visit of Edvard Grieg's house.

But will I use the warehouses of the Bryggen in future fiction? Maybe not directly in their place or time period, but aspects of the buldings, the shadows cast in the alleys, the close proximity of the lapping water, and the incidence of destructive fires, will all now filter into my subconscious ready to be inked on the page. 

With thanks Cruise & Maritime Voyages for embarking from Hull, and to the crew and staff of the Azores for a splendid holiday. As the saying goes I'll be back! In a week we leave for Orkney and Faroe. Expect more research posts.

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