This is Part II of my series on the Hanseatic League in Bergen, Norway. Part I is here.

The Hanseatic League was an interesting phenomenon in medieval history. Although it was not a country, it often acted as one–it had its own laws and judges, a navy, a set of economic rules and practices, and something of a unified culture, based upon the language and customs of northern Germany. Cities that were members of the League generally remained politically independent, remaining outside the orbit of whatever king or political power controlled the territory around them. This is certainly true of Bergen. Political control of Norway was consolidating in Oslo, but Bergen, whose trade in stockfish was controlled as a monopoly by the Hanseatic League, was not really a part of the country ruled by the Norwegian kings.

The nerve center of the League in Bergen was the waterfront where they had established their offices. This became known as Bryggen and pieces of it remain in existence today. Here the Hansa lived, worked, bought, sold and traded. Bryggen was constructed on the sites of the original wooden docks from the earlier Middle Ages. The amount of stockfish that poured in and out of this quarter during these centuries was staggering.

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The Hansa (and their Norwegian successors) conducted their business in waterfront offices of the Kontor, like this well-appointed merchant’s office preserved at the Hanseatic Museum.

Living in Bergen in the 15th, 16th and early 17th centuries must have been an interesting mix of resentment and opportunity. If you were a Norwegian fisherman, you could do pretty well for yourself catching fish, turning them into stockfish and selling them to League merchants,. But if you got on the wrong side of the League for whatever reason, your life in the town was probably finished. If they wouldn’t deal with you, you might as well move someplace else. Furthermore, the Hansa’s habits of living in their own wooden-walled city, speaking a different language and living under their own laws, must have made them seem aloof and arrogant. This was probably not unlike the “town and gown” controversies of university towns in England in the Middle Ages.

Two things, definitely interrelated, started to darken the Hanseatic League’s horizon in the 1500s: the rise of nation-states, and the Italian Renaissance. The latter sparked a revolution in economics and business, with modern market economies based on coin currencies beginning to take hold in Europe. Countries, especially the Dutch–always troublesome to the Hansa–were replacing guilds and trade confederations. The Protestant Reformation also hurt its fortunes. The Hanseatic League was ahead of its time in the high Middle Ages, but by the Age of Discovery it was getting a little long in the tooth. Kontors began closing. Antwerp’s shut its doors in 1593, and the one in London was out of business five years later. The city-states that formed the League had begun to put their own political and economic interests ahead of those of the League.

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Dinner looks as if it is still about to be served in this dining room in the old Kontor. What’s on the menu? Stockfish, of course!

Bergen’s turn came in 1630. That was the year the monopoly of the Hanseatic League over Bergen’s stockfish trade ended. The Kontor ceased to be under the jurisdiction of the League, but instead reverted to Norwegian hands. Nevertheless, the offices and warehouses on Bryggen remained open and as booming as ever. Many ethnic Germans continued to live and work there, but at last the stockfish empire was in Norwegian hands (although Norway, not an independent country until 1905, was largely a puppet state of Denmark).

The post-Hanseatic period is the one most vividly portrayed in the surviving buildings I visited last week. The Hanseatic Museum, one of the buildings in Bryggen, contains a suite of rooms that have been restored to what they looked like in the 17th and early 18th centuries. Here are the small clerk’s offices where transactions were recorded, wooden cubbyholes with sliding doors (resembling sleeping berths on trains) where workers slept, and even a game room where the kontor employees spent their leisure time. The walls of the offices are decorated with paintings of sailing ships, white-wigged nobles and successful merchants. The walls of the dormitories and corridors are still adorned with fading remnants of the colorful patterns that were painted all over the complex. The floors of the offices are literally polished smooth, worn by centuries of shoes. A downstairs room is filled with stockfish and the various barrels and loading tools that were used to package and ship them, as had been done here for hundreds of years.

Despite numerous fires–the most serious in 1702–Bryggen continued operating much as it had under the Hansa. Finally, in 1754, the Kontor was closed. Although stockfish was still Norway’s most important export, the development of the new market economy, fueled by coined money and the implements of modern capitalism, had eclipsed the medieval Kontor system of doing business. The old buildings of Bryggen began to be used for other things. Similar things happened in other cities; Lübeck, the center of the Hanseatic League, also has a waterfront of A-shaped warehouses and Kontor buildings; like Bergen’s, Lübeck’s ancient waterfront was also eventually made a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

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Stevedores and apprentices who worked at the Kontor on the Bergen waterfront slept in cubbyhole bunks like these. Some of the doors are still adorned with centuries-old graffiti.

Walking through these old buildings and seeing with my own eyes the history that remains there, I was amazed at the long traditions that these places represented, and intrigued that virtually the whole thing rested for 500 years on a single commodity: those strange, stiff, board-like dried-up fish.

So how do you eat stockfish, exactly? The instruction “just add water” is a little misleading. Basically a stockfish must be soaked in water for at least 20 hours, re-moistening the flesh. Then you have to remove the bones as you would any other fish. Once you’ve done that, the sky’s the limit as far as recipes are concerned. Here is a recipe I found for “Norwegian stockfish the Burrida way,” whatever that means:

  • Scrape the Norwegian Stockfish, but do not remove the skin. Let it drain well.
  • Remove bones and cut into pieces. Cut the tripe into strips.
  • Heat a half cup of oil in a terra-cotta sauce pan and sauté the chopped onion, garlic, carrot, celery and parsley. Salt to taste.
  • Add the anchovies that were washed and deboned, then mashed with a fork.
  • When ingredients are lightly browned, add the pieces of Norwegian Stockfish, tripe, fresh boiled and sliced mushrooms, pine nuts (half whole and the other half crushed), crushed tomatoes, basil, salt, pepper and a dash of ginger.
  • Add some broth (or milk) and cook, covered, for one and a half hours over low heat.

I think I’d rather have Thanksgiving turkey…but that will be tomorrow!

All photos in this article are by me and copyright (C) 2014 by Sean Munger, all rights reserved.