Roman and Mediaeval History, Illlustrated Travel Journals, Mediaeval Literature, Geology

  Happy New Year

I wish everyone a Happy New Year!

The Burning Bush

This is a modern sculpture displayed in the Romanesque church (dating to 1170) of the St.Vitus monastery in Drübeck / Harz. It represents the burning bush from which God spoke to Moses.

  Merry Christmas!

I wish everyone a happy and blessed Christmas.

There's no snow here, so we'll have to do with some snow photos I took out of the train from Oslo to Bergen last spring. There was still plenty of the white fun on the mountains.

Holiday houses between Gol and Geilo

Part of the white fluff with skiing tracks is actually a lake; the huts are situated at its shore. Whle the fjords moslty stay free of ice thanks to the Gulf Stream, the lakes in the inland freeze well enough to make for safe passage.

More holiday huts near Finse

Those huts are mostly not mere summer houses, but have electricity and other amenities so they can also be used in winter. Huts are more common than hotels though there are some in the skiing areas like the mountains around Finse.

Mountains near Dovre

This one was taken on the way from Trondheim to Oslo, on the highest point of the route, the land around Dovre. Two weeks after I took the way from Oslo to Bergen, spring started getting a bit more serious about its job even in the mountains, but there was still a lot of snow left this high.

  The Hansa League - An Introduction

In spring 2004, I undertook a journey to some German Hansa Towns at the Baltic Sea coast: Lübeck, Wismar, Rostock, and Stralsund. I revisited most of the places in 2015. The material - including some of the photos I took during the Baltic Sea cruise in 2012 - should be enough for a series of posts about the Hansa League. Here is the first part.

Wismar, one of the cobblestone ways beside a canal, with St. Nikolai Church in the background
(scan of an old photo from 2004)

All the towns are situated close to the coast of the Baltic Sea: Lübeck a few miles inland where the Wakenitz confluences into the Trave river, Wismar at a bay, Rostock at a firth, and Stralsund dircetly at the coast opposite the island of Rügen. In former times, the towns were additionally protected by a system of channels - these can still be seen in Lübeck and Stralsund - and walls. The combination of sea harbours and landward protections was one of the facts that made these towns some of the most wealthy and powerful places during the Middle Ages.

The same goes for places like Bergen (in a fjord), Riga (at the Daugava river some miles inland) or Tallinn (in a bay). The one place that doesn't really follow the pattern is Visby on Gotland.

Bergen, detail of the German Hansa quarter

The word Hansa (German Hanse) is very old; it appears already in Wulfila's 5th century Gothic bible translation where it means something like "a group of armed men". In the 12th/13th centuries it is used to name a group of merchants in a foreign country or the tax they have to pay.

The rise of the Hansa in the sense it is used in historiography today to describe the vast net of towns in northern Europe which were connected by mutual protection agreements and trade laws, took place during the second half of the 12th century, the same time as the process of town development and the role of towns changed.

Towns have played an important role in many cultures, from Babylon to Aegypt, Ancient Greece and the Roman Imperium as well as in the cultures of the Maya and Inka. But except for the Greek polis and Republican Rome, those towns were governed by kings and the society structure was hierarchical.

Bergen, the German Hansa quarter Tyske Bryggen

In the feudal system of the Middle Ages, towns did not stand on their own, but in vassalty to a king, prince or bishop. Nor did they - except in Italy - own any land. But in the 11th century, there was a development to gain more independency, especially the right of self-administration. A citizen government developed with guilds and elected councils under the leadership of the merchants who were the most important social group. The right to actively participate in town government was restrictied to people with possessions in the town, because it was assumed that only those who had something to lose would care to protect it (which ruled out fe. journeymen and harbour workers).

But the rights of self-administration (including a special city law), defense (town walls) and market had to be granted by the feudal overlord. Many of the lords were interested in towns on their land, though, because a rich town meant tax income for them as well.

The increase of long distance trade went hand in hand with a growing number of towns. Around 1000 AD there were about 150 towns in Germany, two hundred years later it were about thousand, many of them new foundations. Lübeck was to become one of the most flourishing and important among them.

Lübeck, merchant houses along one of the canals

Lübeck was founded in 1159 by Heinrich 'the Lion' Duke of Saxony after an older settlement had burned down. Duke Heinrich wanted a harbour to the Baltic Sea, and thus gave the merchants who settled in Lübeck many rights and privileges (low taxes, trade monopols). We don't know much about the details of the founding, but it seems probable that the ground was given to a group of settlers who then distributed it among the newcomers. Heinrich also transfered the Bishop's Seat from Oldenburg to Lübeck.

How important a flourishing merchant town was for the empire is shown by the fact that Barbarossa granted Lübeck imperial immediacy at a time when the town still sided with Duke Heinrich in his feud with the emperor. Imperial immediacy (Reichsunmittelbarkeit) meant that Lübeck had feudal obligations only towards the emperor and his successors (taxes mostly, and the fact that death sentences needed confirmation by the emperor), and thus was able to enter into negotiations and contracts with other feudal lords or other free towns, and to maintain an army / fleet. It had the same powers and privileges a prince would have had.

The town hall in Stralsund with its representative Gothic gable (entirely constructed of bricks)

Wares traded across the Baltic Sea at the time Lübeck rose to power were fish (very important with 130 fasting days a year), and Lübeck's access to the saltworks in Lüneburg played a role in that because salt was needed to conserve the fish - if it wasn't prepared as stockfish. Another important good was wax for candles. The largest church in Stralsund, St.Nicholas, had 53 altars and on each of them candles burned day and night. Consider that larger towns all over Germany, France, Italy, Flanders and England had at least three or four churches with more than a score of altars, and you can imagine the vast amount of wax needed. This part of the trade broke down after the Reformation.

The German coastal towns also traded salt, amber and beer (since the quality of the water was not for drinking, beer played an important role).Other goods were corn, furs from Russia, timber from Scandinavia and from Sweden also ore, wool from England, cloth and wine from Flanders; and by the inland markets of Nuremberg and Augsburg came luxury goods that were transported via the Mediterranean Sea and the Alpes.

Wismar, the Old Harbour (the large oversea harbour is outside town today)

One reason for the increase of trade on the Baltic and North Sea was a new type of ship, the cog (Kogge). These were seaworthy ships carrying up to 100 tons. Old paintings show that most of them had more than one sail, and the Holstentor Museum in Lübeck displays a painting of a sea battle where most of those cogs had canons. Up till the Thirty Years War, the Fleet of Lübeck alone was bigger than the one of England (hehe), and when several Hansa towns joined their fleets, they were a power to reckown with.

Of course, many cogs have sunk in the Baltic Sea during the 300 years they were in use. The Baltic Sea is quite flat and has a low salt concentration of 1,5% compared to other seas and oceans with 3-4%, therefore that nasty shipworm which eats wood doesn't thrive there, and some of the wrecks could be salvaged in good shape. They have served as models for several sucessful attempts to rebuild cogs.

Visby, the head of the Gotland Corperation

The predecessor of the Hansa League was the Gotland Corperation. Gotland is an island east of southern Sweden, and by this position predestined to play an important role in the Baltic Sea trade since the time of the Vikings who already traveled to Novgorod and Lake Ladoga, and from there the river systems of Russia down to Kiev and the Black Sea. In the 12th century, the Russian rivers were no longer open to the people from Gotland, but they still had a main office in Novgorod and their merchants were granted special rights.

The Gotland merchants jealously protected their trading routes, but in 1161, Duke Heinrich of Saxony managed to establish peace treaty in which German merchants held the same rights on the Gotland markets as the Gotland merchants in Germany, esp. Lübeck. With the foundation of the universi mercatores Imperii Romani Gotlandiam frequentantes (Union of the Merchants from the Roman Empire Who Travel to Gotland) the Hansa was born. Soon the Germans built an office in Visby on Gotland and in the following centuries outmaneouvred the Gotland merchants from their important positions.

In the beginning, Russia was the most important trade partner, but the German / Gotland merchants soon developed trade on a regular basis with the other Scandiavian countries (where the German kontor, the office in Bergen, was the most important one), later also with England and Flanders, thus exploring the North Sea as well.

Roskilde Cathedral (as representative for the Gothic brick churches in most Hansa towns)

In the wake of securing the eastern routes, German merchants had great influence on the conquest of the heathen tribes living in Latvia, Livland and Prussia (Lithuania); they became almost a rival of the Teutonic Knights. After the conquest followed colonialization, the building of towns like Riga, Danzig (Gdansk) and Reval (Tallinn). In what is now Mecklenburg-Vorpommern - the land of the Slavic tribes of the Obodrites and Vendes which Duke Heinrich of Saxony conquered - the colonialization process was much stronger since it also involved permanent settlement outside the towns so that towards the end of the 13th century, the land became German.

Most towns were planned by the citizens of Lübeck, and also the founding members / merchants hailed from there. Usually, the place that was chosen already had a settlement; the merchants then would build their houses and a church near it, and soon thereafter the two kernels would be united by a palisade or stone wall. Rights of Town and additional privileges were granted by the owner of the land.

Philippe Dollinger, Die Hanse. 3rd edition, Stuttgart 1981


  From the 'Mediaeval Fun' Files

This charming litte wood carving is a detail from the choir stalls in Roskilde Cathedral in Danmark. They date to 1420 and show scenes from the Creation to the Last Judgement. This particular one is the scene of Cain slaying Abel, his interview with God ('And the Lord said unto Cain, Where is Abel thy brother? And he said, I know not: Am I my brother's keeper?') and God cursing Cain.

The weapon Cain uses is so very Scandinavian. *grin*

Roskilde Cathedral, detail from the choir stalls

Yes, it's a stockfish. You gotta love how Cain is not only killing his brother with a dried cod, but also drags the thing after him when he sulks off.

Of course, stockfish isn't hard enough to kill someone with, but the scene shows how important the stockfish trade was in the Middle Ages, esp. during the high time of the Hansa League. Fish was food allowed during times of fasting, and drying the fish in the air was one of the easiest methods of preservation. Stockfish will keep for several years.

Even today you can see stockfish racks (hjell) on the Lofote Islands and the coasts of northern Norway. Some of it is used in Norway itself, but most of the stockfish is sold to Italy, Croatia, and Africa.

Stockfish racks on the Lofote Islands, with rorbuer in the foreground

Rorbuer are former fisherman's huts. A lot of them have today been re-equipped as comfortable self catering holiday cabins.

Stockfish season starts in February. The cod is beheaded and cleaned off its intestines, then hanged up on the racks in pairs by the tailfins. The snow will protect if from insects, and the average temparature, slighlty above zero °C, is the best for drying cod. During the next three months the salty air will ferment and dry the fish which is going to lose 70% of its water, but keeps its amount of calcium, iron, and vitamine B.

One of the reasons stockfish is no longer so popular in Scandinavian cuisine is the fact that it has to be watered for a week in a cool room, and the water has to be changed daily. That's more work than most people are willing to put into the preparation of their dinner today.

Some stockfish in the Hansa Museum in Bergen

The bundle of stockfish is real, btw, and the room was filled with a distinct odour - not unpleasant, but strongly ... maritime.

Export of stockfish (to England) can be traced as far back as 875. Stockfish was Norway's most important export article already in the 11th century. King Håkon IV Håkonarson (1217-1263; the one who died shortly after the Battle of Largs) then gave the town of Bergen the exclusive right of trade to the north, that is, all trade from the towns and villages north of Bergen, including the Lofote Islands, had to go via Bergen; the fishermen could not sell their wares directly. Bergen would remain the trade centre of Norway for the next 800 years. The king and the church would get a fair amount of taxes, thought the kept quarreling about who was going to get how much.

I'll get back to the role of Bergen and the Hansa League sometime. The list of blogposts-yet-to-be-written is growing faster than I can work it off. ;)

  Along the Coast of Norway, Part 1

A cloud and snow post to go with the weather; the first rain after five weeks here, and the first autumn gales. There may even be snow later this week.

Light in a land of water and mountains

Traveling along the coast of Norway in early spring can give you some of the most beautiful light effects when the sun fights with the clouds, sometimes losing to a blue-grey twilight.

Afternoon voyage between Ålesund and Molde

Sometimes winning and tinting the sea an incredible blue where only a slight haze betrayed the rain that had fallen a few minutes earlier.

Mountain opposite Ålesund harbour

And sometimes ... well it just managed to poke a ray through the clouds, and light would sparkle on the water.

Baldur looking down?

Though this was taken at plain daylight, the contrast of the light and the dark clouds makes it look more ominous and nightly.

Coastal mountains

Sometimes there is a hint of what the land may look like in sunshine, a fleeting trace of warmer, richer colours dormant in the shades of grey.

One of the many lighthouses

Thus far south and warmed by the gulf stream, the snow had already melted except for the highest peaks. Further north, the snow remained and would remain far into spring.

On board of the Richard With

The landscape gliding past, and a photo motive around every turn.

Between Bergen and Ålesund; taken in the late morning

In such moments, the light is the only important thing, reducing the mountains to grey shadows and black silhouettes.

Miscellaneous musings of an aspiring Historical Fiction author. Illustrated essays on Roman, Dark Age and Mediaeval history, Mediaeval literature, and Geology. Some poetry translations and writing stuff. And lots of photos of old castles, cathedrals, Roman remains, and beautiful landscapes from Germany, the UK, Scandinavia, and the Baltic States.

All texts (except comments by guests) and photos (if no other copyright is noted) on this blog are copyright of Gabriele Campbell.

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Location: Germany

I'm a writer of Historical Fiction living in Germany. I got a MA in Literature, Scandinavian Studies, Linguistics and History, I'm interested in Archaeology and everything Roman and Mediaeval, an avid reader, opera enthusiast, traveller with a liking for foreign languages and odd rocks, and photographer.