During the 12th and 13th centuries, Bergen was Norway’s capital and easily the country’s most important city. By the 13th century, the city states of Germany allied themselves into trading leagues, most significantly the Hanseatic League with its centre in Lübeck. At its zenith, the league had over 150 member cities and was northern Europe’s most powerful economic entity; the sheltered harbour of Bryggen drew the Hanseatic League’s traders in droves. They established their first office here around 1360, transforming Bryggen into one of the league’s four major headquarters abroad, with up to 2000 mostly German resident traders who imported grain and exported dried fish, among other products.
For over 400 years, Bryggen was dominated by a tight-knit community of German merchants who weren’t permitted to mix with, marry or have families with local Norwegians. By the 15th century, competition from Dutch and English shipping companies, internal disputes and, especially, the Black Death (which wiped out 70% of Bergen’s population) ensured the Hanseatic League’s decline, (although Hamburg, Bremen and Lübeck are still called Hanseatic cities and Hamburg and Bremen retain city-state status).
By the early 17th century Bergen was nonetheless the trading hub of Scandinavia and Norway’s most populous city with 15, 000 people. During the 17th and 18th centuries, many Hanseatic traders opted to take Norwegian nationality and join the local community. Bryggen continued as an important maritime trading centre until 1899, when the Hanseatic League’s Bergen offices finally closed.