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The Runes of Bergen: Voices from the Middle Ages

The Runes of Bergen: Voices from the Middle Ages

By Aslak Liestol

Minnesota History, Vol. 40, No. 2 (1966)

Abstract: In July 1955, a disastrous fire swept through a section of the waterfront in Bergen, Norway, destroying nearly half of the ancient district known as “Bryggen.” This area is at the heart of the city and has a history reaching far back into the Hanseatic period of the late Middle Ages, when Bergen was one of the most important trading centers and seaports of western Europe. Following the fire, archaeological exploration was begun on the site, and the work of excavation has been carried on ever since, bringing to light many unexpected and important finds. Among the most interesting are some five hundred runic inscriptions — the largest collection ever found.

This discovery has not only yielded insight into the history of Bergen and the life of the Middle Ages, but has resulted in a broader knowledge of runic writing and its various uses than was heretofore possible.

Introduction: When Crusaders bound for the Holy Land gathered in the North before joining Richard Coeur de Lion on the Third Crusade, one of them gave this firsthand description — in Latin — of the city of Bergen:

Its eminent power and wealth make Bergen the most famed city of the realm. Its ornament is a royal castle, its glory the relics of holy virgins: Saint Sunniva is enshrined in the cathedral. The city is populous, with convents and monasteries. Stockfish they call skrei, and its quantities defy description. Ships and people from all parts foregather here in great numbers: from Iceland, Greenland, England, Germany, Denmark, Sweden, Gotland, and other lands too numerous to mention. There is plenty of wine and honey, of wheat and fine stuffs, also much silver and other goods for sale. And trade of all kinds is passing brisk. 

But in all cities of this realm the vice of constant drunkenness is deep-rooted and often leads to breaches of order. Sometimes even serious men are by it tempted to behave in the worst way, and crimes are held of no more account than jests and sport.

In 1191 Bergen was a metropolis of the North and capital of Norway, which in the Middle Ages included the Isle of Man, the Hebrides, Orkney, Shetland, the Faeroes, Iceland, and Greenland. The brisk western and southern trade of the Viking age had started this success story, for Bergen lay on that long, sheltered sea route among the islands of the coast, “the way to the North,” which gave Norway its name.

Click here to read this article from the Minnesota Historical Society

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