Bergen Stories and Tips

Medieval and Hanseatic Bergen

Bryggen Photo, Bergen, Norway

Håkon's Hall and Rosenkrantz Tower

Håkon's Hall was erected on the orders of King Håkon Håkonsson between 1247 and 1261. Its ceremonial "Stone Hall" was first used for the wedding and coronation of Håkon’s son, Magnus Lagabøte (the Lawmender), a powerful ruler who, as his name suggests, developed Norway’s first legal code. Unlike most medieval monarchs, whose courts consisted of groups of courtiers who moved between castles throughout their realms, Magnus largely held court at and around the Hall. Even more unusual, much of the business of the court, both written and oral, was conducted in vernacular Norwegian rather than Latin.

The Hall slipped into disuse with the translation of political power to Oslo, which fell into disrepair in the 17th century, although it was later refitted to serve as Bergen’s storehouse. It was restored during the Norwegian national revival of the late 19th century and used for ceremonial purposes in the early 20th century, as it is today. It had to be restored yet again; however, a German munitions boat exploded in the harbor in 1944, sparing Bryggen but blowing off the Hall’s roof and destroying the similar houses on the other side of the harbor.

Rosenkrantz Tower was erected in 1520 on the orders of Erik Rosenkrantz, the governor of nearby Bergen Castle, around a preexisting medieval structure that included a dungeon, which can still be visited. It consequently commands the finest view over Bergen’s harbor of any building on the waterfront. Its interior plays host to temporary exhibitions and contains several restored rooms. Håkon's Hall and Rosenkrantz Tower run hourly in the summer, provided there is interest – I was fortunate to have one all to myself!

Bryggen, a UNESCO-listed site, is Bergen’s historic wharf, though its famous, three-centuries-old wooden buildings belie the full extent of its history. Excavations have indicated that there were commercial buildings in this area as early as the late 11th century, some of which are visible inside the Bryggens Museum, which also offers displays on the medieval history of the area, making it an excellent introduction to an historical tour of Bergen. The nearby Mariakirke dates from the first half of the 12th century and is considered one of the finest Romanesque churches in Norway although the equally renowned baroque interior decorations were executed in the 17th century.

Bryggen and the waterfront originally stood approximately 140 meters further inland than they do today – successive expansions have pushed the harbor ever forward. The distinctive parallel rows of storehouses, known as tenements, first developed in the 13th century, though they contain 61 wooden buildings constructed after a fire that ravaged Bergen in 1702. The tenements contained both commercial and living quarters for the city’s merchants and are extremely enjoyable to walk around, although their interiors are today given over to tourist restaurants and souvenir shops.

Hanseatic Bergen
Byrggen owes its present self-contained form to the Hanseatic League, which established a (trading office) on the site in 1360. The League, an association of German merchant cities that was more economic than political, sought to capitalize on the trade between Northern Norway, which supplied the European continent with stockfish (dried fish) and received grain (and later various luxuries) in return. Since fish (but not meat) could be consumed on Fridays and during periods of fasting in Catholic Europe, the trade was particularly lucrative for the League, a self-governing group of German merchants that had branches throughout Northern Europe. Bergen was the last of its offices to disband, in 1754, and today is the only preserved kontor to be found anywhere.

The excellent Hanseatic Museum, located in an old tenement at the edge of Bryggen, is best seen on one of the hourly English-language guided tours, though you’ll probably want to take time afterwards to examine its exhibitions in more depth. Its three floors include exhibitions detailing the history of the League, the stockfish trade (including an explanation of how the fish were packed), and everyday life within the kontor. Reconstructed apprentices’ and masters’ rooms illustrate the relatively austere life that the merchants – all of whom were German and unmarried – lived. They lived as a society apart and were strictly forbidden from fraternizing with locals, particularly women. The Schøtstuene, at the opposite corner of Bryggen, is a preserved social hall where members of an individual trading house would take their meals and meet, and can be entered with the same ticket as the Hanseatic Museum.

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