Occupying town plots on the early development of habitation in Norwegian medieval towns

Occupying town plots on the early development of habitation in Norwegian medieval towns

By Petter B. Molaug

Medieval Europe Paris 2007, 4th International Congress of Medieval and Modern Archaeology (2007)

Introduction: The first Norwegian towns came into being during the 11th C, according to the traditional view of Norwegian scholars. This is primarily based on Heimskringla, the Kings’ sagas written by Snorri Sturlasson in the early 13th C (Heimskringla) and on other late narrative written sources. During the last 50 years the results of archaeological investigations have played an increasing role in the debate.

The traditional debate amongst Norwegian scholars has been if the towns were established by the kings, as described in the sagas, or if they developed from earlier habitations, markets or trading places. Today’s view is mostly in favour of Snorri’s version although the dating is modified. The ground where the town was built seems to have been part of a farm or area owned by the king. In Bergen, Oslo, Tønsberg and Trondheim, to mention the four largest and most well-known of the medieval Norwegian towns, there is solid archaeological evidence for farming prior to the urban development.

In all these towns it seems that the ground has been divided into plots as the first act. Such a division of the ground is known from older Scandinavian settlements, such as Kaupang, Ribe, Haithabu and Birka. The tenements are elongated with the short side towards the street or towards the water. Here the width is between 4,5m and 8m. In the 11th C Norwegian towns the width is usually from 8 to 13m. In Trondheim in the most central part the width around 1000 was roughly 8m, whereas the area towards the river Nid had wider plots during the earliest period. These were later divided. In Bergen the plots seems to bee rather regular in the northern part of the area where later the German wharf was established, measuring around 11,5m along the shoreline, wider in a southern part, measuring around 16m. In Oslo the width is more variable, between 11 and 15m in the oldest periods in the 11th C. In Tønsberg there are indications of 8m as a standard width in the oldest period, but high medieval tenements seem to be around twice as wide, and the interpretations are rather uncertain.

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