Bergen and Visby, Gotland, were the two largest towns in medieval Scandinavia. As one of the four Kontore of the Hanse League (London being another), Bergen was part of a wide trading network. Ceramics from more than 50 different production centres all around Europe have been found during the extensive excavations at Bryggen, i.e. “The Wharf”, in Bergen.
Especially East England was an important part of the Bergen trade. The Norwegians exported mainly fish, hides and pelts, timber and boards, and imported amongst other grain and textiles. The Norwegian king sent hunting falcons and even a polar bear to the English king, and in King John for instance, sent mercenaries to the Norwegian king Sverre in 1201, a “gift” that was not so appreciated among common people. The contact has also left many traces in the archaeological record.
In Bergen, more than 330 sheaths and scabbards from the medieval period are found. The number is even larger in London, where I was given the opportunity to study some 450 sheaths and scabbards, approximately half of them situated at LAARC. Almost all the English sheaths have decorated surfaces, the motifs being birds, animals and dragons, floral tendrils and geometric patterns, even heraldic shields. However, the Bergen sheaths show a greater variety; from the rather plain, decorated with silk threads, to openwork fringes and rims. A relatively large group has decorated surfaces, many of them similar to the sheaths at LAARC. An example is an early 13th-century sheath from the Seal House excavation, of a shape well-known in London, but with engraved lattice pattern instead of the more typical plaits. It has several parallels in Bergen.
A second question arises; could this information possibly be of interest to any other than this person living on an island outside Bergen? Well, even now the answer has to be affirmative.
Trade between England and Norway was even more varied than listed in the medieval custom rolls. Several sheaths found in Bergen are probably of English origin. Are they imported goods used by anyone, or was it perhaps part of the dress, showing the origin of the wearer? Did the Norwegian craftsmen imitate the English products? As the Bergen material shows larger variety in form and style, the London material leaves a more uniform impression, despite variety in motifs and decoration. We know that medieval London must have crawled with foreigners, but I found few sheaths in London that I could say were foreign. Were the London guilds so strong that they not only decided which kind of leather that could be used for making sheaths, but also denied foreign sheaths for sale?
This study of sheaths and scabbards will shed light on aspects of daily life for the people of medieval Bergen, and perhaps even for London.