As B and I have been planning this adventure, we’ve routinely referred to it as the Baltic Bike Trip. However, we’re only riding around the southern Baltic and that name also ignores the hefty part we did in the Netherlands, Germany, and Denmark. As we’ve passed through many different historical cities, we’ve realized, however, that this is more the Hanseatic Bike Trip than the Baltic Bike Trip.
The Hanseatic League, officially established in 1358, was a German-controlled network of merchants, based out of Lübeck. The Hanseatic League dominated the shipping channels of northern Europe before the rise to power of nation states. The league’s presence in cities was solely for economic interests; the merchants kept to themselves and were governed by German law. In this way the league kept its distance from the locals while maintaining German principles and dominating trade in the region. The league kept armed forces in many of its cities to protect its own interests.
The list of cities connected to the Hanseatic League through which we have ridden just keeps getting longer: Groningen, Bremen, Hamburg, Lübeck (the capital of the Hanseatic League), Rostock, Bergen, and Oslo. And we will continue on to yet another when we finish in Gdansk. There is a certain style of architecture that connects these cities to the Hanseatic League. Brick was preferred at the time, and the redder the brick, the more expensive it was, so many builders paid extra for the reddest brick they could find as a way to showcase their wealth and the success of the league. Bright red brick buildings were pervasive in Lübeck.
The presence of the Hanseatic League in Bergen, where we have just spent three days, contributed to making this an international city. Bergen was the largest city in Norway for many years, due in large part to the Hanseatic League and their success in spreading Norway’s rich fish stocks to the rest of northern Europe. Fishermen from the Lofoten Islands in northern Norway sailed boats overflowing with fish south to Bergen on a voyage that took anywhere from 10 to 30 days. In Bergen, the already-gutted fish were unloaded and put into barrels. A press was then used to squeeze the oil out of the fish – cod liver oil was used for lamps until perhaps the end of the 18th century when people discovered its health benefits. The fish were then taken out of the barrels and tied in pairs by the tail to be dried over racks in the sun. No salt was used to preserve the fish. Fish were alternatively dried in spirals. The dried fish was referred to as stockfish and it was Bergen’s most lucrative export.
At the end of the summer and into the early fall, merchants brought stockfish south. Grain, oil, cloth, and metals came north in exchange. At the peak of the trade, Bergen’s harbor was so full of boats that it was said one could walk clear across the bay stepping from ship to ship.
I had the chance to see photographs of the overflowing harbor and to learn more about the stockfish trade and the Hanseatic League at the Hanseatic Museum in Bergen today. The museum is housed in an old wooden building in Bryggen, the oldest and arguably most picturesque part of Bergen, though the whole city is quite stunning. Bryggen was the territory of the Hanseatic League and there was a wall around it to prevent the German traders, who were required to remain celibate, from mixing with the local population. I overheard a tour guide explaining today that this forced celibacy was due to the Hanseatic League’s fear that if their men married local women, they could become Norwegian citizens according to local law at the time, which would have enabled them to set up trading companies to rival the league.