David Ditchburn

Ships, Guns and Bibles in the North Sea and the Baltic States, c.1350-c.1700 (2000)

Bremen and Hamburg were the eyes through which medieval Saxony viewed the North Sea. The two cities were not only the joint centres of a metropolitan archbishopric whose jurisdiction originally stretched across Scandinavia as well as northern Germany; they were also great commercial centres. Hamburg was to play a leading role in that amorphous federation of merchants and towns, the Hansa, which came to dominate the later medieval trade of the Baltic and North Sea worlds.

Initially, however, commercial pre-eminence lay with the more westerly of the two towns. Indeed, as early as the eleventh century, the chronicler Adam of Bremen claimed that the merchants of the whole world congregated in Bremen. Although such a comment was laced more with local pride than statistical rigour, the city did develop into a bustling port, internationally famous from the thirteenth century for its manufacture of beer, with a population of perhaps 15,000 on the eve of the Black Death.

By the thirteenth century Bremen’s commercial connections extended southwards, towards England and the Netherlands, and northwards, into the Scandinavian world, as well as into the city’s Saxon hinterland. Whether or not they extended westwards, to Scotland, is less certain.
In offering a geographical description of the northern world, Adam had revealed only the vaguest of knowledge regarding Scotland and the Scots. Other than noting that a Scottish bishop had attended the Third Lateran Council, a fourteenth-century Bremen chronicler could also offer little detail regarding Scotland, and such information that was in his possession is more likely to have been acquired in Rome than Ross.

Scottish chronicles, meanwhile, are stonily silent about Bremen. Such indifference probably reflected a lack of contact, including commercial interaction, between Scotland and Bremen. Certainly by the later thirteenth century, from when evidence of Hanseatic activities in Scotland first dates, Bremen merchants played little discernible part in Scottish trade.
Only from the fifteenth century does concrete evidence of their commercial activity in Scotland survive and even then, compared to the trading activities of other Hanseatic merchants in Scotland, the role of Bremen merchants in Scottish trade seems to have been of a comparatively small scale and irregular nature.

This is not surprising. Bremen produced little which Scottish merchants could not obtain elsewhere and, despite the fame of its breweries, it was the rival beers of Hamburg and Stralsund that seem to have supplied the Scottish market with what, in any case, remained something of a luxury product for most Scots.
By the same token, there was only a limited market in Bremen for Scottish exports. Demand for wool, Scotland’s chief export throughout the middle ages, was restricted since Bremen was not a town renowned for its cloth production. Instead, its cloth imports were more readily furnished from England and the Low Countries.

Although, given medieval religious customs and dietary conventions, there was a prodigious demand for fish in both Bremen itself and in neighbouring Westphalian towns, such as Osnabruck and Herford, this was met largely from Scandinavian sources, among which Shetland, at least until its annexation by the Scottish crown in 1469, ought to be included. Bremen and Scotland were not, then, close trading partners in the middle ages.
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