Tryggve Fett, Bergen City Museum

- What kind of chest is this?  – No ordinary chest, that is for sure!

This chest was the most important piece of furniture in a Hanseatic assembly hall, and the hall was the most important room in a Bryggen tenement. The tenements at Bryggen housed several individual trading companies, which dealt in traditional wares such as fish and fish products. The merchant was the man in charge, the gesell (journeyman) was his second in command, and he was in turn served by two drenger (apprentices). An apprentice who has served for a while, was called a skutedreng (ship’s apprentices), as they were charged with handling the fish, while novices where called stuedrenger (house apprentices), as they were mostly concerned with cleaning, cooking and other domestic tasks. Boys began work at Bryggen right after their confirmation, and during the Hanseatic period, they were mostly drawn for Germany. The area of Bryggen was an all-male society, and each trading company housed between 6 and 16 men, who both lived and worked together. It was not unusual for one tenement to contain five such trading companies, and thus there could be well over 50 hungry men in one tenement. Each tenement consisted of a row houses flanked on each side by narrow passageways that led from Bryggen itself and up toward Øvregaten. The trading companies owned their own houses, but the shed and the wooden cargo boom in front of each tenement were co-owned by all the companies in the tenement. The same was true for the fire-proof cooking building and the assembly hall at the back of the tenements, and the cabbage gardens even further back, bordering Øvregaten. All cooking took place in the stone buildings, and meals were taken together in the assembly hall, with each company providing their own food. The assembly hall was used for many other purposes as well. In winter, it was used as a school room for the young boys. On Sundays, it was used as a chapel for prayers. When a dispute had to be resolved, and offenders were to be prosecuted, it served as a courtroom. And, of course, when there was cause for celebration, this was where the party was held. And this is where we encounter the chest. It was placed in the middle of the assembly hall as a kind of long table, with a room hidden beneath the table top. During meals, it served as a buffet on which the different courses were placed. When the school bell had summoned the apprentices to their classes, it was the teacher’s desk. When the church bells had summoned the faithful to prayer, it served as an altar. When sentences were passed and it was time for punishments to be dealt out, it was first the judge’s bench, and then a punishment horse for the unlucky ones who were to be strapped. And when in the end the party took off, it served brilliantly as a bar. I do not know of any modern piece of furniture with the same kind of versatility! The only function it did not serve, or at least it were not used as such, was as a chair – sitting on it was considered a profanation. Around it sat the assembled gentlemen, in their designated seats, with the bauherr at the high end – the merchant who had been elected the temporary head of the tenement. By his side sat the official beer buyer and the firewood buyer. There were also several other offices which had their own set of responsibilities and privileges. The rules were posted on the wall for all to see, as was the list of any offenders, who could expect their due on the annual day of judgement.

This was the very heart of Bergen. This was where it all began, 940 years ago, and these traditions carried on until the mid-19th century. At that point, this form of trade was out of date, but for 800 years, it formed the basis for urban life in Bergen. It is only fitting that we take good care of the chest, as it represents the branch we are all sitting on.

The chest in Schøtstuene. Photo: Jiro Havran, Arto Forlag.