Norway – The old town of Bergen

Direction—Northwest. Surroundings—The market-place is now off over our left shoulder. The harbor waters are just out of range at our left. The steep side of the Floifjeld rises only a few minutes’ walk from here, at our right.

Those masts at the left show how near are the harbor waters. The tall roof at the right of the masts is that of the same thirteenth century stone building, which we saw from the market-place. They call it the Valkendorf Tower—sometimes the Rosenkrantz Tower. The high gable cut in steps, which shows above the end of the street, is another of Bergen’s historic places, the King’s Hall ; we shall see that bet-ter by and by when we go over to the south side of the harbor (Position 52). Both buildings date back to the thirteenth century, but have been carefully re-stored.

Those flags, blowing in the wind that sweeps up from the harbor, emphasize proudly the fact the Norsemen themselves are masters here. It was not always so. These old wooden warehouses were once the local habitation of one of the most curious and powerful of all the great “Trusts” of the Middle Ages. The famous Hanseatic League of Continental trading towns began about 1241, simply as an association for protection against highwaymen and pirates, and developed gradually into what would now be de-scribed as a gigantic “syndicate” of rich municipalities engaged in trade. About the middle of the fifteenth century certain German members of the Hanseatic League were allowed to establish offices here and carry on an export trade in fish; that was during the period when Norway was ruled by a non-resident Danish king, and the Norwegians themselves were given little consideration if their claims had to be balanced against those of powerful foreigners. By one means and another the Germans managed to get greater and greater privileges from the Danish government, until after a while they were actually permitted to monopolize the foreign fish trade of north-ern and western Norway, driving out of business not only their English, Scottish and Dutch competitors, but even the Norwegians themselves ! The vast capital and enormous political power of the League stood behind them, and shrewd Germans made the most of their unjust opportunity, amassing princely fortunes for certain natives of Bremen, Lubeck and other “Hansa” towns over on the Continent.

These wooden buildings were all occupied two hundred years ago by agents and clerks of merchants in the great League. They stand on the site of similar buildings occupied in the same way since the middle of the fifteenth century, but destroyed by accidental fires. On the ground floor of each building were great store-rooms, where cured fish accumulated, awaiting shipment. On the next floor the manager or superintendent had his office, counting-room and private apartments ; on the upper floors lived the bookkeepers and correspondence-clerks, common laborers and servants. The employes were obliged to live on the premises, and were at all times under their managers’ authority; a dull time they must have had in most cases. Not a man was allowed to find a wife or sweet-heart among the Bergen girls, for fear his interest would become divided and the German capitalists make less money. Serious courtship and light-minded flirtation were alike forbidden ; the semi-monastic discipline of these establishments would not permit any woman to enter the men’s apartments, even as a servant, and the beds had to be made up by reaching in clumsily from an outside room through a small window in the partition wall beside each bunk !

According to old accounts, the German clerks must have been a very uncouth and boisterous lot, and the Bergen girls were probably quite as well off without them. They used to play all sorts of rough-and-tumble practical jokes on each other, and they practised for years a hideously brutal system of hazing, applicable to each new member of an office staff. Such doings are described in considerable detail in the chapter on Bergen in Zimmern’s The Hansa Towns, a book well worth reading in connection with a visit here.

Of course, there must have been some who took satisfaction in reading and study after the long hours of work; but the well-grounded dread of fire caused another rule strictly forbidding fires and lights in the main buildings. When a midwinter evening begins about 2 P. M. such a regulation is no small hardship ; however, the managers built small, separate structures in the garden space behind each house, where men could smoke, play cards, read and talk in comparative comfort. Those “common-rooms,” as they were called, are now mostly destroyed by accident or the wear-and-tear of time.

Christopher Valkendorf, whose name is borne by the old stone tower beyond, kept up a gallant struggle in Norway’s behalf against the crushing burden of this German trade-monopoly, and through his efforts the situation became less intolerable in the latter part of the sixteenth century. It was not, however, until 1764 that the very last of the old German offices here was sold out to a native of Norway. Now, of course, Norwegians are making fortunes for themselves, ship-ping fish to all quarters of Europe, especially keeping up a large and profitable trade with the Catholic countries on the Mediterranean, where religious obligations necessitate the wide use of fish for food.

Bergen is one of the few places in Norway where there are enough resident Catholics to support a church; the Catholic people here are mostly sailors and workmen with families. The Catholic church is in the new (southern) part of the town, away over be-hind us and off at the left. It is only sixty years since the Government allowed churches other than those of the State (Lutheran) faith to be built at all. Ever since the Reformation, Norway has been rigidly in-tolerant of other forms of religion, and even now any Dissenter (that means anybody who is not a Lutheran) suffers definite social and professional disabilities, being ineligible to government office, large or small.

Take one more look at the city map and find our fifty-second standpoint in a sort of broad cross-avenue or oblong “square” in the peninsula district of the town about opposite the middle of the harbor. The various open spaces which seem disproportionately numerous, are left on purpose, as a safeguard against the spread of fires. Notice how the red lines reach across the harbor, including several buildings inside the line of some old fortification.