Jekts and Inter-Norweigian Trade in the Post-Medieval Period

Jekts and Inter-Norweigian Trade in the Post-Medieval Period

Between 1450 and 1850, the Nordland Jekt was the primary means of transportation along the Norwegian coast for both people and cargo.  The Jekts, which were generally 100 feet long with a 30 foot beam, could carry 35-100 tons of cargo amidships. The bow was high and blunt and a small deckhouse occupied the stern. One or two square sails were hung from a single mast amidships. Awkward to handle and requiring large crews, some Jekt owner’s replaced the square sails with the more manageable for and aft rig by the 19th century.  In the late Medieval period, the northernmost of the two Bergen harbors would be filled with over 1,000 Jekts and other small craft between May and September (Bent 2012).

Because the expense involved in owning such a large craft was generally too great for any single family, the inhabitants of a village would often be jointly responsible for the cost and upkeep of a single vessel.  The skipper would take personal responsibility for the delivery of the cargo while the mate would manage navigation.  Knowledge of the intricate coastline was handed down orally through seafaring families, and few charts existed.  Sailors relied primarily on natural landmarks, though a book of navigation titled Opskrift paa Coursen og Havene fra Senjen til Bergen was published in the early 19th century that became a standard reference for Jekt pilots.  Though the summer sun allowed for sailors to operate the Jekts around the clock and make long voyages in record time, the short days of winter greatly increased travel time.  No one dared to operate upon the sea in the dark due to the complex and dangerous nature of the coastline.  A journey that could take four days in the summer – such as the 550 mile trip from Saltdal to Bergen – could take four to five weeks in the winter (Bent 2012).

By the end of the 17th century, the Norwegian government, understanding the importance of a well developed national trade network, began encouraging trade by establishing refuge ports and trading centers at a number of villages along the coast.  A law required that the villages have a gjestgiveri, which provided inexpensive meals and accommodation for travelers.  One of the primary appeals of the gjestgiveri was its ability to obtain a liquor license and sell spirits to the weary travelers.  Fortunately, the majority of the villages were located one day’s sail apart and included such towns as Selsøyvik, Støtt, Kvaløy, Bjorn, Grundset, and Sel.  Traders visiting Bergen often stayed in the lofts above the warehouses owned by the merchants they traded with, or in the bondestovene.  Cooking on board the jekts was forbidden by law due to a fear of widespread fire in the harbor (Bent 2012).