The late Middle Ages were a period of marked economic decline in Norway. The population had been decimated by the plague and other epidemics during the fourteenth century. Many farms in the marginal areas were deserted, and incomes shrank. Some historians claim that a worsening of the climate and the grip of the Hanseatic League on Norwegian economy were the cause of the downward trend. Others believe that a steady impoverishment of the soil contributed to the deterioration.
The economic depression had political ramifications. Denmark gained increasing importance as the major Nordic land. Danish and German noblemen were appointed to the highest official offices. Lands and episcopal residences passed into foreign hands. The Norwegian nobility dwindled away. The Norwegian people’s capacity for national self-assertion was gradually sapped.
From 1450 the union with Denmark was established by treaty – a treaty supposedly designed to ensure the power of the Norwegian Council of the Realm when a monarch was being selected, though this stipulation was never respected. The treaty was also to serve as a guarantee of the equality of the two realms. This was the theory; practice proved otherwise.
In 1536 Norway ceased to be an independent kingdom. This came about at a national assembly in Copenhagen, where King Christian III pledged to the Danish noblemen that Norway was henceforth to be subservient to the Danish Crown, like any other Danish possession. Norway's Council of the Realm was disbanded, and the Norwegian church lost its autonomy. From that point, Danish noblemen were free to take over positions as officers of the law in Norway, and could earn their incomes from Norway too.
This close political link with Denmark drew Norway unavoidably into the wars that Denmark waged with Sweden and the Baltic Sea powers. It led the Danish king to surrender Norwegian territory to Sweden; Jämtland and Herjedalen in 1645, Båhuslän and the fief of Trondheim in 1658. The latter, however, was returned to Norway two years later.
An assembly of the States General at Copenhagen in 1660 proclaimed Fredrik III as heir to the throne and assigned to him the task of giving the kingdoms a new constitution. In this way the two kingdoms were subject to an absolute monarchy, a factor which affected Norway's position throughout the remaining period of the union of the two lands. Although Norway was governed from Copenhagen, the monarch was often in no position to rule. The real power lay in the hands of the state officials. By and large Norway profited from this, as some state officials began to comprehend Norwegian standpoints. On issues relating to Norway in particular, the views of the high-ranking Norwegian officials were often respected.
A policy was formulated during this period of absolute rule whereby Denmark and Norway were to be treated as a single economic unit. Thus, Denmark was accorded sole rights to the sales of grain in southeast Norway (1737), while a corresponding monopoly on sales of iron from Norway was introduced in Denmark. Through the introduction of town trading privileges in 1662, all trade in timber was concentrated in the towns, where the inhabitants were granted exclusive rights to purchase timber from the farmers and the sawmill owners. The intention was to create a wealthy middle class in the town – a goal that was achieved.
The middle class that emerged in the wake of economic development bore the seeds of a burgeoning national awareness, which became especially discernible in the 1700s. Although this was partly due to the strong economic growth of this social class, the decisive factor was more likely a growing resistance to the rulers' efforts to make Copenhagen the economic hub of the two lands. The Norwegian traders could not compete with the mighty trading houses of the Danish capital.
In the late 1700s most imports were shipped through Copenhagen. The timber retailers of southeast Norway submitted a unified demand for a national Norwegian bank, and at the same time supported the demands of senior officials for a Norwegian university. These demands were denied, as the government feared any move that might enhance Norway’s autonomy, and thus impair the strength of the union. The concept of a Norwegian university and national bank gradually came to symbolize the growing national consciousness.
The trend accelerated during the Napoleonic Wars of 1807 -1814. Denmark/Norway were allied with France, and the resulting blockade isolated Norway both from Denmark and from the market. Shipping and timber exports came to a halt, and the land was ravaged by famine. As Norway could no longer be administered from Copenhagen, a government commission of senior officials was appointed to carry out this task. King Frederik VI acquiesced to demands for a national university, which was consequently established in 1811. All these events formed the backdrop for what was to take place in 1814.