In following the life and times of Lady Isabel Bruce, who became Queen of Norway in 1293, my research took me to the beautiful city of Bergen. The historic trading that occurred at the time suggests that Scotland was very much linked by the North Sea with Norway, Germany and Flanders — modern-day Belgium.
Throughout her life, Isa, as I know her, must have wandered through the markets and along the Bryggen Wharf. There, she would have heard a myriad of accents: from far-off Byzantine and the Baltic; the enterprising German towns such as Lubeck and from even further afield, Scotland and England.
Whilst the Hansa — a famous, German trading conglomerate — operated in many cities around the North Sea including Berwick-upon-Tweed, then a Scottish town, and Aberdeen, their links with Norway had been problematic for generations and it was accepted that they could only operate within quite severe social, economic and political restrictions.
The German merchants were keen to gain trading privileges in Bergen but found the Norse kings extremely wary. Norway’s greatest resource was fish ─ as well as fish oil for lamps ─ which was an essential trade item across the continent. The Catholic Church decreed the eating of fish on Fridays and fish, in its dried form, made a safe and easy export into inland towns and villages far removed from the coast. But Norway needed grain, flour, malt, ale, and wool and, from the 12th century, German merchants imported these goods as well as resins such as tar from the Baltic region. And tar was critical to the ship building industry.
A series of ambivalent negotiations occurred until, in 1294, King Eric ─ Isa’s husband ─ concluded another treaty ceding even more privileges to the Germans but a year later, he tightened the reins and banned unions of foreign merchants. It seems the traders pushed the limits whenever they could, and in 1299, all trading in Norway was restricted to certain towns.
In the early 1300s, relations went from bad to worse, under King Haakon who succeeded his brother, for the Germans were taken to task in Bergen for exceeding their privileges, trading beyond the city limits as well as failing to pay their tithes over many years. Throughout the early 14th century, this conflict simmered until 1332 when hundreds of German merchants were killed in the course of riots in Skania, an area much fought over by Sweden, Norway and Denmark.
By way of contrast, from the 12th century onwards, the kings of England chose to welcome the Hansa to their shores and gave them permission to attend internal trade fairs as well as set up trading posts at many coastal ports such as Hull, Lynn and Yarmouth. The English monarchs also borrowed from German merchants and, in 1339, the crown jewels of England were reportedly pawned to a merchant from Cologne. Over time, the aggressive wars of the Anglo-Norman kings had proved an expensive exercise!
By 1342, King Magnus Eiriksson ─ the grandson of King Haakon ─ ordered the German merchants out of Bergen. Less than a decade later, the Black Plague reached Bryggen Wharf and decimated the town’s population and its royal administration. With the demise of their opposition, the German merchants returned in 1360 and set about organising a powerful Hansa trading base from Bergen.
Some of the Hansa Kontors had their own armies to protect their interests and many conflicts ensued over the following centuries. The history of the Hanseatic League intrigues me, especially seeing the organisation continues to this day, though in a much altered form: you might like to explore this for yourself in greater detail.
Many of these altercations with the German traders would have formed part of the backdrop of commercial life in Bergen. No doubt, Isa ─ who lived on into her eighties amidst the 1350s ─ would have had a keen awareness of these intrigues during her time in Bergen. I wonder what she would have made of it all.
One of the fascinating museums in Bergen is the Hansa Museum which charts the extraordinary history of Norway’s fishing industry from medieval times until the 18th century.
From around 1360, the Hansa merchants acquired the right to purchase goods from the northern regions of Norway, including the Lofoten Islands. In return for fish, they exchanged a year’s supply of grain, flour, malt, wool and fabrics. Fish oil from Lofoten was produced from cod livers which were placed into barrels to ferment and boiled several times. Fish oil was primarily used for lamps. It was not until the 18th century that it was used for medicinal purposes. To get a barrel of livers required about 250 to 400 cod, though the amount of oil varied. Mid18th century, between 6000 and 7000 barrels were delivered annually to Bergen. The barrels also had to be made of oak, otherwise they would leak.
The men, upwards of 2000 middle-class Germans, worked and slept in unheated premises, for fear of fire. Fortunately, their assembly rooms where they ate and spent their leisure time were heated.
.And for the travellers amongst you, here are some views of the exquisite Lofoten Islands.