Hansa Towns - Helen Zimmern

B4. The Factory of Bergen.

We have seen how great was the Hansa's power in peace and in war; let us now cast a glance at the basis upon which the whole proud fabric rested. This is to be sought, beyond doubt, in its foreign commerce. How enormous the interest they had, especially in the Baltic trade, how great, indeed almost exclusive, was their empire in that sea, it is difficult to realize. And to retain this empire, to be masters of the mercantile relations between the eastern and western extremities of Europe, they considered no sacrifice too great. This was the keynote of their policy. Their purpose, simple enough in conception, was carried out with a disregard of other claims than their own, and often a violence which made them encounter resistance, and which in the end was largely the cause of their fall.

The political agitations and confusions which disturbed the Scandinavian kingdoms early in the fifteenth century were astutely utilized by the Hanseatics, who, having their settlements at Bergen and Scania, were able to keep out the Dutch and English, then just beginning to attempt a rivalry with them in the northern trade. The Dutch were easily disheartened. Not so the English; and we read of instances in which the Hanseatics and English acted towards one another with a savagery which proves that commercial rivalry can excite hearts as bitterly and furiously as political or religious fanaticism.

No matter at what cost, monopoly the Germans were resolved to have, and they succeeded in forcing the kings of Denmark to place an interdict upon English trading. This prohibition corresponded to another that they had extorted, according to which all merchandize coming from the extreme end of the Norwegian kingdom was obliged to pass through and halt at their station of Bergen. The purpose of the latter regulation was to concentrate all the productions of the country at a single point; thus offering to the Hanseatics the first refusal of goods, and a power of dominating the market.

Indeed nowhere did their imperious and self-seeking policy show itself in a less amiable light than in the dealings of the Hansa with the poor inhabitants of Norway's sterile coasts. The history of their factory at Bergen is from its earliest foundation the history of a relentless despotism, disfigured by violence and breach of faith in treaties. King Haguin had, in 1376, accorded to the German merchants the right to trade freely in all the burghs, villages, and harbours of his kingdom, but it seemed that they themselves preferred to restrict their business to the town of Bergen, which, it is true, combined uncommon advantages. It possessed an excellent harbour, the city was shielded by an amphitheatre of lofty mountains, and though, as regards climate, it could boast no advantages, more rainy days occurring there than at other points of the Norwegian coast, yet it had early been the staple of all Norwegian and Arctic products. Its geographical situation rendered it equally accessible for travellers from the north and south, while its harbour was so deep that even ships of considerable draught could anchor almost in front of the town's houses.

From the earliest times the inhabitants of Bergen had been traders. In 1393 they were grievously pillaged by the Victual Brothers; and ere they could recover from this misfortune, another pirate, Bartholauer Voet (1428), attacked them, just when the English were helping them to recover their commerce. It is pretty evident that his attack was countenanced, if not commanded, by the Hansa. At sight of his ships the inhabitants fled. The crew were thus enabled to land unhindered; they plundered everything, down to the bishop's palace and his library; and they despoiled the Norman vessels which had come there for the summer fishing. They then took their stolen goods to market, returning the following Easter for a second visit. This time the inhabitants were more on their guard, and made a gallant but vain defence. Once more the city was sacked, and the royal and episcopal palace and many private houses were burnt to ashes.

Shorn of its wealth, Bergen was now so weak that the conquerors were able to dictate their own terms. The city, which for five hundred years had been in exclusive possession of the Greenland passage had to renounce all maritime traffic. Further, the citizens saw themselves forced to pawn their land to the Hanseatics, in return for the mere necessaries of life, and as they could rarely redeem these pledges the whole city of Bergen gradually fell into the hands of these opulent traders.

Expelled from their old dwellings in ancient Bergen, which formed the part of the city known as the Bridge, the inhabitants planned to establish themselves on the harbour board that skirted the opposite side of the crescent. But the insatiable greed of the Hanseatics would not suffer them to stay there. The conquerors obtained this also for themselves, so that in the end the entire port was in their power.

Thus, and by means of an ever-increasing population of merchants, clerks, apprentices, sailors, workmen, they exercised a practical suzerainty over the town. Whenever cited to submit themselves to the local authorities they claimed the privilege of foreigners; they refused to pay city taxes, though they held the rights of citizens, while they paid custom duties at a reduction. They openly protected the enemies of the king, felled the forests, introduced themselves arbitrarily into the houses of strangers; in short, committed every offence with impunity. As in London and Novgorod, so in Bergen, the Hanseatic factory formed a state within the state.

The Hanseatics, in their arbitrary actions, repeatedly ran counter to the Hansa's command and how to keep order at Bergen became one of the most difficult problems at "Hansa days." It would seem as if the rude climate had exercised a deleterious influence over these naturally coarse-grained Germans.

As we have said, the whole harbour board was in their hands. The two sides were connected by the so-called Shoemaker's Alley, long the abode of strangers at Bergen, a quarter that became after a time the residence of all boors and doubtful characters, who shrank from no acts of violence, and defended the German monopoly after their own fashion, i.e., by means of fisticuffs and knives. Thus, as an example: the all-important fish market was so situated that the inhabitants of Bergen could reach it only by means of this street. Until the Germans had had the first pick of newly-arrived goods, the inmates of Shoemaker's Alley suffered no one to pass, and woe to those who ventured to disregard this prohibition. So completely broken was the might of these northern people—the descendants of the Normans, that most warlike race, the scourge of ancient Europe.

[Illustration] from The Hansa Towns by Helen Zimmern


The side of the harbour known as the Bridge—the Bridge of the lice the natives called it in derision—was the actual factory of the Hansa. It consisted of so-called gardens, of which nine belonged to the community of St. Martin and thirteen to that of St. Mary. Each garden was isolated, and formed a separate factory, bearing its own crest and name, such as "The Cloak," the "Court of Bremen," etc. The common crest of the Bridge was odd enough, presenting half of the German imperial eagle, against a crowned cod-fish. Each garden was connected with the sea by a drawbridge, so that vessels could anchor in front. The ground-floor consisted of workshops and warehouses: in the first were the bedrooms of the resident merchants, above were the kitchens. Behind the house were mighty cellars, and above these again the "Schutting," a large windowless space used as a council chamber. Opening thence was the kitchen garden.

Every "garden" was inhabited by at least ten "families," each of whom had a husband as chief superintendent and magistrate, to keep order among the younger members and apprentices. As a rule the "family" came from the same Hansa town. The faults of the very young were punished by flogging, those of the apprentices by fines or imprisonment. In the summer the heterogeneous "families" dined alone, in the sad winter time they all met in the "Schutting," but ate at separate tables. At a fixed hour every one had to rise and go to bed.

Superintending the entire factory was a grand council, composed of two aldermen, eighteen members, and a secretary, who had to be a doctor of laws. When conflicts arose between the different members of a family, or between residents and travellers, the matter was referred to the aldermen for decision. Grave cases were sent up to the Hanseatic diet. The aldermen had further to watch over trade, taxes, and all that regarded the business transactions of the colony.

In its time of greatest prosperity the factory at Bergen counted about three thousand souls, all vowed to celibacy, which was imposed on them under most severe penalties. The fear was that union with the native women might lead to the divulging of Hanseatic secrets, or induce the men to settle permanently in this spot, and so become denaturalized. Members of the Hansa were strictly forbidden to spend a night outside the factory. Armed watchmen and savage dogs exercised a rigid guard.

These residents were usually agents for merchants in the Baltic cities. After ten years' sojourn, they were obliged to return to their native town to give place to new arrivals, who then had to go through the various gradations of rank, beginning as office boy, and ending, if luck favoured, as alderman. It was a sort of hierarchic organization, of which the rules were most rigidly enforced. Entrance dues for vessels, fines, and money penances defrayed the general expenses of the factory; each town paid for the board, wages, and arming of its representatives. Not all members of the Hansa, however, were permitted to trade with Bergen, the conditions being purposely made onerous and expensive.

In the same restrictive spirit, and to hinder a great influx of men to the factory, a series of probationary ordeals was planned, through which every new-comer had to pass. By rendering these tests difficult and repulsive they hoped to deter from Bergen the sons of opulent families, for whom the advantages to be gained there would be counterbalanced by the perils of initiation. These "games," as with grim humour they were termed, were entirely in keeping with the grotesque spirit of the age, and analogies are to be found, though less gross, in the religious orders and the institutions of chivalry. The mildest of them resembled in some respects the practices common to British sailors in crossing the line. It is scarcely strange, that in the frigid, rigid north, among a population naturally rough, far from home, friends, and the more refining influences of life, a prey to deadly ennui, imagination should have taken a fierce and coarse turn.

[Illustration] from The Hansa Towns by Helen Zimmern


We cannot sully our pages by detailing the thirteen different "games" or modes of martyrdom that were in use at Bergen. Our more civilized age could not tolerate the recital. In those days they attracted a crowd of eager spectators, who applauded the more vociferously the more cruel and barbarous the tortures. The most popular were those practices known as the smoke, water, and flogging games; mad, cruel pranks, calculated to cause a freshman to lose health and reason. Truly Dantesque hell tortures were these initiations into Hansa mysteries. Merely to indicate their nature we will mention that for the smoke game the victim was pulled up the big chimney of the Schutting while there burnt beneath him the most filthy materials, sending up a nauseous stench and choking wreaths of smoke. While in this position he was asked a number of questions, to which he was forced, under yet more terrible penalties, to reply. If he survived this torture he was taken out into the yard and plied under the pump with six tons of water.

The "water" game that took place at Whitsuntide consisted in first treating the probationer to food, and then taking him out to sea in a boat. Here he was stripped, thrown into the ocean, ducked three times, made to swallow much sea-water, and thereafter mercilessly flogged by all the inmates of the boats. The third chief game was no less dangerous to life and limb. It took place a few days after, and was a rude perversion of the May games. The victims had first to go out into the woods to gather the branches with which later they were to be birched. Returned to the factory, rough horse-play pranks were practised upon them. Then followed an ample dinner, which was succeeded by mock combats, and ended in the victims being led into the so-called Paradise, where twenty-four disguised men whipped them till they drew blood, while outside this black hole another party made hellish music with pipes, drums, and triangles to deafen the screams of the tortured. The "game" was considered ended when the shrieks of the victims were sufficiently loud to overtone the pandemonic music.

When all the ordeals were ended a herald, who also occupied the role of fool, announced in a loud voice that the games were over, adding the fervent wish that the noble practice of ordeals might never be abandoned, and that for the honour and prosperity of the Hansa commerce and the Hanseatic factory they might ever be held in veneration.

Only those who survived and sustained these rites were admitted into the corporation at Bergen and could rise to the highest grades, with the prospect of assisting as spectators at the games in which before they had themselves played a part. Not till 1671 were these barbarous practices, which every year increased in ferocity, suppressed by order of Christian V. of Denmark, and only, of course, after the Hansa had sunk from its pristine power.