Women’s oldest profession? Evidence from twelfth century Bergen, Norway

Moleiro banner

Women’s oldest profession? Evidence from twelfth century Bergen, Norway

By Gitte Hansen

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

Introduction: I am going to present a micro level study; A close up on activities at town plots in Bergen in twelfth century western Norway providing substance to our insight in the everyday life of ordinary people – the first generations of townspeople in this newly established town. The background for the present paper is a comprehensive study of the emergence of Bergen as a town. Interesting patterns in the distribution of artefacts showed up, and a puzzling one was the pattern formed by sausage pins, ordinary cooking tools and debris from workshops occupied by travelling artisans. Bergen is located on the south west coast of Norway.

During the Middle Ages Bergen appeared as the most important town in Norway. From the end of the thirteenth century it was known as the country’s largest trade centre and from the end of the twelfth century it was the ecclesiastic centre of western Norway. The story of the beginning of Bergen as a town is a somewhat untraditional one. The town was founded by a king probably about 1020/30. The archaeological sources show that plots were laid out and that some of these plots were taken into use after the foundation. In the next generations to come further royal investments were made in the town project; more areas were regulated and included in the townscape, streets were laid out and institutions such as churches and monasteries were founded. On the town plots where the ordinary townspeople were supposed to live development was, however, slow and activities sparse for the first 80 – 100 years after the initial foundation.




Archaeological, environmental and a sparse written material provide sources to the first years of Bergen’s history as a town. I have analysed patterns in the distribution of artefacts and structures from 46 sites dating to between c 800 and c 1170. The sources were analysed within 5 chronological horizons. Horizon 1 (c. 9800 – 1020/30) was studied as a back curtain for the emergence of the town. From horizon 2 (1020/30 – c. 1070) and on the material was analysed with the town plot as the lowest analytic unit (for a full account of the methodological approach see Hansen 2005, 42-50). For the oldest “urban horizons” (horizons 2 and 3) the sources are scarce, reflecting not only that activity was low, but also a methodologically unsatisfying source situation as goes the context for artefacts. In horizon 4 (1100 – 1120’s) activities were picking up and from a methodological point of view the source situation is better. Still one cannot perform quantitative analyses across the plots and make conclusions based on the lack of certain groups of finds on the single plots, which is what I am going to do in the present study. Thus my focus here is going to be on the period covered by my horizon 5 that is the period between the 1120’s and c 1170.

Click here to read/download this article (PDF file)

Sharan Newman