The Great Events by Famous Historians, Vol 6

Author: H. Denicke  | Date: A.D. 1241

Rise of the Hanseatic League

A.D. 1241


Trade trusts, which have attained so large a growth in our day, are not an original product of the present age. The Hanseatic League, or Hansa—the word meaning a society, union—was the first trust of which we have authentic record. It began about A.D. 1140, but the league was not signed until 1241. It was first called into being to protect the property of the German merchants against the piratical Swedes and other Norsemen, but presently became submerged in a combination of certain cities to enlarge and control the trade of each country with which they had commerce. So powerful did the league become that it dominated kings, nobles, and cities by its edicts.

Those free cities which constituted the league had the emperor for their lord, were released from feudal obligations, and passed their own laws, subject only to his approval. The emperors, finding in the strength of the cities a bulwark against the bishops and the princes, constantly extended the municipal rights and privileges. The Hanseatic League at one time nearly monopolized the whole trade of Europe north of Italy.

It was an epoch of associations in which the league arose. The Church was but a society, fighting as an army for its liberty. Each trade had its guild, and none might practise his trade unless he was a member of the particular guild controlling it. The handicrafts were in the same case; and the real or operative freemasonry was instituted, about the same time, for the erection of ecclesiastical and palatial buildings.

Wealth, power, pomp, and pride began to wane in the cities of the league early in the fifteenth century, and the movement was accelerated by the change of ocean routes of trade due to the discovery of America, and the Cape of Good Hope way to India. The final extinction came as late as October, 1888, when the free cities of Hamburg and Bremen, whose right to remain free ports had been ratified in the imperial constitution of 1871, renounced their ancient privileges and became completely merged in the autocratic Fatherland.

With good reason the world’s commerce is today accepted as one of the most imposing and unique phenomena of our time. It is but necessary to consult a statistical handbook in order to obtain a conception of the gigantic figures involved in the exports and imports of the multifarious articles of commerce to and from all countries—figures whose magnitude precludes the possibility of forming an adequate conception of their true significance. No less astonishing are the means employed by traffic today to develop our system of credit and our complex and useful web of communication. One fact, however, should be borne in’ mind: namely, that our commerce is of comparatively modern growth. The two factors chiefly responsible for its development were: (1) The great voyages of discovery which began at the close of the fifteenth century and opened a theretofore unsuspected field of production and consumption; and (2) the utilization of steam, that great triumph of the nineteenth century. Perhaps a brief sketch of that earlier commercial development which immediately preceded our extensive modern commercial network may not be unwelcome to the reader desirous of contrasting the narrower but nevertheless fascinating medieval conditions of the German Hansa with those prevailing in our present mercantile world. Let us inquire how the confederation of the Hansa arose, and, after briefly sketching its external history, review in greater detail its commercial and industrial methods, its art work, domestic life, and constitution.

The development of the German Hansa may be traced to two principal sources: (1) The associations formed by German merchants abroad, and (2) the union established by the Low-German cities at home.

In the days of Charlemagne, Germany’s eastern boundary was extended to the Elbe, and beyond it to Holstein, but it was not until four centuries later, that is, in the reign of Frederick Barbarossa, that the Baltic was reached, the southern borders of which sea, now constituting Mecklenburg, Pomerania, and Prussia, having theretofore been inhabited chiefly by Slavonic and Lithuanian peoples. The credit for this increase of power is due primarily to the Saxon duke Henry the Lion, who, while the Emperor was engaged in maturing and executing mighty plans of world conquest, developed upon this virgin soil an extraordinary colonial activity, transplanting hither German peasants, burghers, and priests, and with them German customs and Christian civilization. In this way there arose about the year A.D. 1200, upon soil wrested from the Slavs, a number of promising towns, foremost among which was Lubeck, a place endowed by Duke Henry with municipal rights especially designed to promote commercial intercourse and affording liberal and far-reaching privileges to the counsellors and burghers. Soon thereafter the rapidly developing neighboring cities of Wismar, Rostock, Stralsund, Greifswald, Anklam, and Stettin, usually called "the Wendish cities," became participants in the constitution thus granted. The territory now grew rapidly. In the course of the thirteenth century, the then pagan country of Prussia and the present Baltic provinces of Russia were conquered by the Teutonic knights and kindred orders and were occupied and settled. The same historical process which took place in Greece, and in more recent times in America, also repeated itself here: the youthful colonial offshoots overcame the narrowing and confining influence of the mother country, yet reacted favorably upon it by virtue of that vivifying influence, due to more rapid and exuberant growth.

In the mean time the other countries contiguous to the North and Baltic seas, that is, Russia, Sweden, Norway, Denmark, and England, had become converted to Christianity. Some of them, indeed, had embraced the Christian creed several centuries prior to this time. The natural consequence was that a lively intercourse was cultivated upon the two seas, especially after the crusades, which enterprises, by opening new avenues of commerce and increasing the knowledge concerning numerous articles of utility, had greatly augmented the demands of the people of the Occident. The extraordinary development of trade on the Baltic, indeed, vividly recalls the ancient commercial activity on the Mediterranean; and the phrase, "a basin fruitful of culture," often applied to the latter region, may with equal justice be applied also to the former. In the beginning, Russians, Danes, and Englishmen participated in the active trade conducted on the northern littoral. Eventually, however, they were displaced by their German rivals. As the northern nations upon their acceptance of Christianity had once before formed their political and social institutions upon German models, so they now, in such cities as Stockholm, Bergen, Copenhagen, and others, became subject to the cultural and, above all, the commercial influence of the German burgher.

It is interesting to note the manner in which this extraordinary influence was secured. In later medieval times all classes of the population were compelled to rely upon self-help. In other words, they were compelled to replace the defective or insufficient protection afforded by the State by corporate bodies. Thus the merchants of a Low-German German town, when in search of a common centre of trade, pledged themselves by a solemn oath to a defensive and offensive alliance and mutual furtherance; and wider alliances between the various towns themselves soon followed. Of all these private commercial associations none attained to greater importance than did the Gothland Company, a society of Low-German merchants who visited Gothland, the centre of commercial activity in the Baltic, for trading purposes. Here was the seat of the mighty city of Wisby, which contained such wealth that a Danish king once declared that the swine there ate from silver troughs. Even at the present day the massive ruins of the old city wall and of the eighteen churches which once existed there bear testimony to the former magnitude and grandeur of the city. The Gothland Company flourished chiefly during the thirteenth century and enjoyed all the privileges of a political power; bearing its own seal, policing the seas, and insisting upon strict compliance on the part of all navigators of the Bakic with the marine laws which it had created.

Parallel with this development was the formation of unions between inland towns, caused by the depredations of robber-knights; the menacing increase of power among the nobility; and by commercial motives of all kinds, as, for example, the necessity of preventing banished criminals and debtors from seeking an asylum in neighboring communities. Along the entire region from Esthland to Holland, both of which at that time belonged to the German crown, the municipalities united. In the far-western part of the German empire there was the municipal group of the Netherlands, among which such cities as Amsterdam, Utrecht, and Deventer belonged. Farther inland was the Rhenish-Westphalian group, consisting of Cologne, Dortmund, Munster, and others, which cities, though somewhat distant from the sea, nevertheless occupy a place of honor as pioneers of German marine commerce. Between these two western groups and those in the East there was a wide gap extending as far as the mouths of the Elbe and the Weser. At the entrance to these rivers, however, and along the borders of the Baltic were the great maritime communities, the chief members of the Hanseatic League, including the before-mentioned Wendish group and the cities of Bremen and Hamburg. Yet not these alone, although they were in some respects the most important. Inland, the municipal groups extended so as to embrace Berlin, then very unimportant, Perleberg, etc., in the Mark of Brandenburg, the Saxon cities of Magdeburg, Hanover, Luneburg, Goslar, Hildesheim, Brunswick, and others; in the far-eastern part of the empire the six rapidly growing cities of the Teutonic order, Kulm, Thorn, Dantzic, Elbing, Braunsberg, and Koenigsberg; and finally, in Livonia and Esthonia, Riga, Dorpat, Reval, and Pernau. Noteworthy was the treaty concluded in A.D. 1241, between Hamburg and Lubeck, whereby the former assumed control of the interests in the North Sea and the Elbe, while the latter safeguarded those of the Baltic. This treaty between Hamburg and Lubeck is sometimes regarded as the beginning of the Hanseatic League. It has here been sufficiently demonstrated, however, that the association was the result of a slow and gradual process, enforced by conditions, and that it did not originate in the mind of any particular statesman as a definite plan.

The two groups, the maritime and the inland municipal, had developed independently: it now remained to unite them; and from the union thus effected sprang the great institution of the German Hansa. The private associations, not excepting the Gothland Company, in view of the rapid extension of commerce and the consequent jealousy of foreign competitors, were no longer able to afford sufficient protection to the foreign trade—a condition which did not escape the statesmen of Lubeck, with their marked power of initiative and political sagacity.

Thus it came, during the last decades of the thirteenth century, that the private societies became more and more dependent upon the municipal unions, which, under the leadership of the free and centrally located city of Lubeck, now assumed the energetic guardianship of maritime commerce, by reason of which they were drawn from their hitherto isolated position and gradually became fused into an increasingly compact union.

Already at the close of the thirteenth century the young institution of the Hansa received its initiation in warfare in a conflict with the kingdom of Norway, which country was compelled to purchase peace at the price of new and greater concessions to the league. Soon thereafter, however, the steady progress of the Hansa met with a rebuff. Denmark, at that time the foremost power of the North, had for more than a century endeavored to obtain the supremacy of the Baltic, at the entrance to which it was so advantageously situated. At one time Lubeck was for an entire decade forced into a sort of vassalage to the energetic king Eric Menved of Denmark, although the relations to the sister-cities of the league, which had never been entirely severed, were subsequently restored and confirmed by new treaties. When finally, in A.D. 1361, the Danish king Waldemar Atterdag, inspired by rapacity and revenge, went so far as to fall upon the metropolis of the Baltic, the Swedish city of Wisby, in the midst of peace, and to annex it, thereby inflicting serious losses upon the resident Low-German merchants, Lubeck once more placed herself at the head of the Wendish cities and at the diet of Greifswald decreed war against the ruthless invader. But the expedition proved disastrous, owing chiefly to the tardiness of the kings of Sweden and Norway, who had been drawn into the alliance. Nevertheless, the unfortunate admiral of the Lubeck fleet, Johann Wittenborg, who also enjoyed the rank of burgomaster of the Hanseatic city, was put to the axe in the public market-place of Lubeck in expiation of his failure.

A doubtful peace was now concluded with the Danes, but was soon broken by their renewed plunderings of Hanseatic vessels and the obstacles placed by them upon traffic. Another passage at arms was required. The ensuing conflict was the greatest and most glorious ever fought, not only by the Hansa, but by Germany, upon the sea. In 1367 deputies from the Prussian, Wendish, and Netherlandish cities assembled in the city hall of Cologne and there prepared those memorable articles of Confederation which decreed another war with King Waldemar of Denmark; stipulated the levying of a definite contingent of troops on the part of the contracting cities; provided for a duty on exports to defray the expenses of the campaign; and draughted letters of protest to the Pope, to Emperor Charles IV, and to many of the German princes. That auspicious day marks a turning-point in the history of the Hanseatic League, and was fraught with high importance to the whole German empire. The preliminary history of the Hansa here ends and its brilliant epoch begins. The warships of the cities and their army so thoroughly vanquished Denmark that, after two years of warfare, the Danish royal council and the representatives respectively of the municipalities, the nobility, and the clergy despatched a commission of thirty-two to Stralsund to sign a treaty, ostensibly in the name of their fugitive ruler—a treaty which may justly be said to mark the climax in the development of the power of the burghers of Germany.

The treaty not only provided for considerable concessions in matters of navigation and intercourse, but also conceded to the members of the Cologne confederation, comprising about sixty Hansa cities, the right to occupy and to fortify for a period of fifteen years the four chief castles on Skane—Helsingborg, Malmo, Scanov, and Falsterbo—commanding the sound, the most important maritime highway traversed by the Hanseatic vessels.

But the most extraordinary privilege granted by this treats was that making the subsequent election of a king for Denmark subject to the approval of the confederation—thus assigning to the burghers a right such as no king or emperor of that time exercised over a foreign state. The confederates, however, wisely declined to avail themselves of this dangerous prerogative, not only for political reasons, but also because of the clever negotiations of the youthful queen Margaret, the daughter and heir of Waldemar, who, by the union of Kalmar in 1397, became invested with the triple crown of Denmark, Norway, and Sweden. The fact remains, however, that the Hansa for the ensuing century and a half maintained its title as the foremost of maritime and as one of the principal political powers—and that entirely unaided and without the sanction of kaiser or empire.

Let us take a very general survey of this glorious period, concerning which many interesting disclosures have recently been made, and endeavor to obtain, if possible, a glimpse of the activity of these busy cities and of the confederation which they formed.

As to commerce, the first task which the confederation set itself to fulfil was the abolition of that early medieval condition which inclined to regard the stranger in foreign parts as devoid of rights. The efforts of the confederation in this particular resulted in the acquisition of hundreds of privileges, secured either singly or conjointly by the cities. The contents of the treaties are usually the same: (1) Protection of person and goods; (2) abolition of the law which declared forfeit to the feudal lord such goods as, for instance, might happen to fall from a wagon and thereby touch the ground; (3) the abolition of the strand right, which had secured to the owner of the shore land the jetsam and flotsam of wrecked or stranded vessels; (4) the concession of legal procedure to the debtor; (5) liberation from the duel and other forms of the "divine judgment " in legal procedure; (6) the reduction of duties; (7) permission to sell at retail, as for example, cloth and linen by the ell—a privilege previously accorded only to natives. These are but a few of the privileges secured, the most important of which, however, remains to be mentioned. This was the establishment of branches and bureaus in the most frequented commercial centres abroad. On the other hand, the confederation never had the remotest intention of granting similar privileges to the nations from which these concessions had been secured, such as the English, Flemish, Norwegians, Danes, and Russians. On the contrary. In Cologne, for example, foreign merchants were permitted only three times a year and then for a period of three weeks only. Never, perhaps, in history has a monopoly been so rigidly and relentlessly enforced—a monopoly which not only rested upon the nation at home, but which made bold incursions into the sovereignty of foreign states in order to smother their independent trade, or, as in Norway, utterly to stamp it out.

Of the two great avenues of trade, that indicated by the termini Bruges and Novgorod is first deserving of mention. For centuries it was practically used exclusively by merchants of the Hansa, who, moreover, were forbidden to form copartnerships with foreigners, such as Russians and Englishmen. Novgorod, well guarded against pirates and situated in the navigable Voikhov, was at that time in a sense the capital of the much-divided Russian empire. This city, since the day of its founder, Rurik, had been the centre of Russian trade and enjoyed an almost republican independence. From this point diverged the most frequented highways of trade to the Dnieper and the Volga. From Russia the German merchant exported chiefly fine furs, such as beaver, ermine, and sable, and enormous quantities of wax, which today, as formerly, is still obtained in the central wooded parts of the country where apiculture is extensively prosecuted. His imports, on the other hand, consisted of fine products of the loom, articles of wool, linen, and silk; of boots and shoes, usually manufactured at home of Russian leather; and finally, of beer, metal goods, and general merchandise. It is evident, therefore, that the German merchant provided Russia—which country was at that time industrially in a very primitive condition—with all the necessaries required.

Bruges, in Flanders, the western terminus of the before-mentioned highway of commerce, was during the last centuries of the Middle Ages approximately what London is to the world of to-day. It was, beside Venice, the actual world-mart of the Continent, a centre where Italians, Spaniards, Portuguese, Frenchmen, and High- and Low-Germans—a motley throng—congregated to exchange their goods. Thither the Hanseatic merchant transported wood and other forest products; building stones and iron, the latter being still forged in primitive forest smithies; and copper from the rich mines of Falun, the ore from which was usually sold or mortgaged to the Lubeck merchants. From the Baltic countries he imported grain, and from Scandinavia herring and cod—all natural products, in exchange for which he sent to the respective countries his own manufactured goods. In Bruges he represented the entire northern region, both in the giving and the receiving of merchandise, for only through his instrumentality could the gifts of the East, such as oil, wine, spices, silk, and other articles of luxury, which were usually transported through the Alpine passes and thence down the Rhine to Bruges, be distributed among the northern nations. This applies also to the highly prized textiles of Flanders, which in those days were sometimes sold at fabulous prices.

The other stream of Hanseatic trade terminated at London, The German merchant sent thither chiefly French wines and Venetian silks. It was he who attended to this traffic—not the consumer or the producer. In exchange for these commodities he took English wool—the output being already at that time very extensive—transporting it to the mills of Flanders. Such was at that time the commercial relation of Germany to England. If the latter country to-day, by virtue of its incomparably favorable geographical position, has become the first naval and commercial power, it was in an economic sense at that time absolutely dependent upon Germany, which country, after the loss of its political supremacy, outstripped all other nations in the contest for economic supremacy—excepting perhaps the Arabians and the republics of Northern Italy, who controlled the trade in the Orient and the Mediterranean. Naturally the English merchants were jealous and frequently brought complaints before their kings and parliaments; but the latter, despite occasional contentions, ever and again upheld the foreign invader. The reason is not far to seek: like the kings of the north, they could not dispense with the silver chests of the Hanseatic towns and merchants, who on more than one occasion secured their loans by appropriating the products of the tin mines or the duties on wool, or by taking in pawn crown and jewels.

It is evident, therefore, that the greatest source of wealth to the Hansa was this intermediary traffic. Several other important commercial connections will be touched upon later. Casual mention should here be made, however, to the trade with Scotland, Ireland, Brabant, and France, whose annual markets were regularly attended by the Hansa merchants. While the trade of the cities of the league found such wide extension abroad, however, the traffic with their nearest neighbors, the High-Germans, was very weak. Their domestic trade, indeed, was confined chiefly to the plains of Northern Germany, extending southward to Thuringia and eastward to the Oder and the Vistula, where Cracow constituted the last outpost. The great High-German communities along the Main and the Danube pursued different political and economic interests. Being chiefly manufacturing cities, they formed only temporary unions. Dependent rather upon the south of Europe, they were also differentiated from their northern brethren by their coinage, inasmuch as they accepted gold as their standard, whereas the Low-Germans preferred silver money, especially that of Lubeck. Of course each Hanse town formed the nucleus of the local intercourse; and thither came noblemen and peasant to barter the produce of the fields for the merchandise of the city, and to invest, or probably more frequently to borrow, money. Lubeck and Bruges were in those days the money centres of Northern Europe, and their councillors and commercial magnates were the bankers of kings and princes.

The methods of transportation and intercourse at that time were very different from those of to-day. There was no postal service, no insurance, very sparse circulation of bills, and very little of that agency—or commission—business, which relegates to a third party the transportation and management of goods. Trade was very largely a matter of individual enterprise, demanding in a far greater measure than to-day the personal superintendence of the merchant. Usually the latter himself travelled well-armed across sand and sea to distant lands, trusting in God and upon his strong right arm. As master of a vessel he did not fail to interest his crew in the safety of the ship and cargo by allotting to them part of the profits. Indeed, his journey was far more perilous than it is to-day. Upon the public highway he was subject to the attack of the robber barons, who held him prisoner against heavy ransom; and in the innumerable hiding-places of the rock-bound northern coast his course was followed by the watch-boats of pirates. The occupations of highway robbery and piracy were at that time still regarded among wide circles as excusable. Dozens of feudal castles, the retreats of robber barons, were destroyed by the soldiers of the municipalities, and dozens of freebooting vessels were annihilated, the robbers themselves being executed with axe or sword or thrown overboard. The piracy of that age reached its acme in the notorious "Society of Equal Sharers" or "Brotherhood of Victuallers." This consisted of an incongruous aggregation of noble and plebeian blades, who, despite their excessive brutality, nevertheless possessed some genuine knightly characteristics, the hardihood and bravery of the true mariner, and a boundless love of adventure. Formed during the eighth decade of the fourteenth century for the purpose of assisting the King of Sweden against the martial queen Margaret of Denmark, its immediate object at that time was the supplying of victuals to the beleaguered city of Stockholm—whence its name, when, upon the surrender of the city and the establishment of peace, the immediate object of the society had been fulfilled, the attraction of freebooting proved too strong for these wild companions, whose excesses now assumed an increasingly alarming form. For more than a half century they remained the terror of the northern seas. Almost annually the cities were compelled to send out vessels against them, which, however, were not always so successful as the celebrated Bunte Kuh ("Brindled Cow") of Hamburg, which captured the most dangerous of the piratic captains, Claus Stoertebaker and Godeke Michel, with their followers and their fabulous treasures, and brought them to Hamburg. Tradition has it that for three days the public executioner stood ankle-deep in the blood of the condemned. Nevertheless, the seafaring public did not suspect the presence of a robber behind every bush or cliff. After all, an undisturbed voyage was the rule rather than the exception; sensational occurrences, of course, then, as now, playing an important part in the reports of the time.

To these social disorders must be added elemental dangers of all kinds, such as the tides and shallows of the North Sea—the shallow waters contiguous to the coast being chiefly navigated—dangers against which neither compass nor chronometer was then available. Even buoys and lighthouses were comparatively rare or inadequate at a time when nautical knowledge itself was still extremely defective. It was therefore not astonishing that shipwrecks were of daily occurrence and were of course followed by all the evils of that cruel and barbarous "Strand law" which, despite all papal edicts and voluntary treaties, could not be abrogated, but was actually carried out by the Archbishop of Bremen himself.

Notwithstanding all these hinderances, the sea voyage, which, by reason of the dangers attending it, was strictly prohibited during the winter months, was incomparably safer and pleasanter than the journey by land. The traveller by land was strictly confined to the prescribed highway of travel, every deviation from which was regarded as a defraudation of the customs and was punished by confiscation of goods. The inconveniences to which the merchant was subjected in the way of taxes are almost incredible. As the medieval spirit was reflected in the confusion of coinage—nearly every petty count and every city eventually enjoying the privilege of a private mint—so also was the deplorable disunion existing among the German people mirrored in the innumerable road and water taxes. Above Hamburg, along a road about twelve German miles in extent, there were not fewer than nine customs stations. Fortunately the tariff was not complicated, but was levied on the freight of the ship or wagon, or estimated by the bale or box irrespective of value or the quality of the goods under inspection. Upon the presented crucifix the merchant, aided occasionally by his cojurors, solemnly swore to the correctness of his representations concerning the goods carried by him, the oath, as is well known, being very frequently brought into requisition in all judicial and commercial transactions during medieval times.

The Hansa ships were usually round-bellied, high-boarded craft with one mast, and flew the pennant of their home port. They were comparatively broad and built of heavy planks, and could easily be transformed into war vessels by furnishing them with a superstructure known as the castell ("castle") in which catapults and archers could be placed. In size they were probably as large as the trading vessels which cross the Baltic today. That they were skilfully handled is evident from the fact that a contemporaneous report mentions a trip from Ripen in Jutland to Amsterdam as having been successfully made in two days. As regards the laws of navigation, a point especially noteworthy was the talent displayed in organizing fellowship unions. Reference is not here made to the habit of the merchants in sailing in squadrons so much as to the peculiar institutions which regulated the life on board—institutions which have recently been justly designated as the most perfect expression of that executive ability which characterized the close of German medievalism. An account of these institutions dating from the middle of the sixteenth century has fortunately been preserved.

As soon as the vessel was upon the high sea the crew, which consisted of the captain and the "ship’s children," pledged itself strictly to obey orders and equitably to divide any booty eventually secured. A court of sheriffs was then organized, consisting of a judge, four sheriffs, a sergeant-at-arms, a secretary, an executioner, and several other officials. Thereupon came the proclamation of the maritime law upon which the eventual judgment of the court was based. The tenor of this law was as follows: It is forbidden to swear in God’s name; to mention the devil; to sleep after the hour for prayer; to handle lights; to destroy or waste food; to meddle with the duties of the drawer of liquor; to play at dice or cards after sunset; and to vex the cook or, annoy the crew under penalty of a monetary fine. The following are some of the penalties inflicted for various offences: Whoever sleeps while on guard or creates a disturbance between decks shall be drawn under the keel of the vessel; whoever attempts to draw weapons on board, be they long or short, shall have the respective weapon run through his hand into the mast, so that he will have to draw the weapon through his own hand again if he would free himself; whoever accuses another unjustly shall pay the double fine prescribed for the offence charged; and no one shall endeavor to take revenge upon the executioners. Upon the completion of the voyage the court resigned, after dispensing a general amnesty and partaking of bread and salt in company with the rest of the crew. Upon landing, the monetary fines which had been collected from delinquents on board were presented to the lord of the strand for benevolent distribution.

On arriving at the end of his journey the merchant was confronted by new difficulties. It not infrequently happened that the master of the port visited by him had, within the time elapsed since the departure of the vessel from home, fallen into strife with the respective Hanse town whose ensign the vessel bore. As newspapers and despatches were at that time unknown, it is not difficult to conjecture the difficulties with which a merchant had to contend. Moreover, he required an exact knowledge of local conditions and of the legal rights accorded him, which were different in each city and always inferior to those of the native inhabitants. Today, as a rule, a foreigner, wherever he may be, enjoys the full benefits of the place he happens to visit, equally with the resident citizen. It was not so m the days of the Hansa, and hence the constant endeavor of the league to obtain firmly established offices or bureaus abroad. At an early date such a bureau existed in London under the name of the Stahlhof, another at Novgorod under the name of the St. Petershof, and still others at smaller towns in England and the Netherlands—each having its peculiar privileges, customs, and mercantile usages, but all possessing in common the invaluable right of settling any difficulty affecting the members of the league according to their own native code. In London the representative of the league was compelled to become an English citizen, and the entire bureau thus became naturalized, as it were. The same was true of the Hanse bureau at Bruges, a city in which after all, in view of the powerful competition prevailing there, a pronounced monopoly was certain to be curbed to some extent. Here the league merely possessed warerooms, while their agents lived privately among the burghers. The right of holding court in the Carmelite monastery was conceded to them; and there, too, they administered their affairs. In Novgorod, however, the conditions were entirely different. In view of the uncivilized condition and the national prejudices of the Russians, the greatest care had to be exercised in all intercourse with the natives in order that the existence ()f the entire Hanseatic colony might not be endangered. Consequently, this intercourse was regulated with great circumspection and in all detail both by the diet of the Hanseatic League and by the chiefs of the bureau.

It was, however, in Bergen, Norway, that northernmost station of the Hansa, that the most interesting conditions prevailed. Here, that is, in Norway, the German merchant, by means of money or arms, gradually drove all competitors, including Englishmen, from the field, and in 1350 succeeded in establishing in the most favorably situated and liveliest city of the land, Bergen, the last of his numerous bureaus—a bureau which maintained itself, though in somewhat deteriorated form, until the eighteenth century. This station, created at a late period of Hanseatic expansion, bears testimony to the colonial genius of the German merchants of the league and affords a glimpse into their business methods. It may therefore be deserving of a more detailed consideration.

Twenty-one farms or granges, belonging to as many Hanse towns, dotted the shore. Each of these, surrounded by trees and lawns, covered considerable space and included spacious granaries and dwellings, most of which served also as warehouses. Each grange had its dock, where ships could conveniently land and discharge their goods. The entire space thus occupied by the Hanses was enclosed by a wall, beyond which and running parallel with it was the so-called "Schustergasse"—a street occupied by German artisans, who, though permanently settled here, nevertheless remained closely in touch with their German brethren of the bureau. Every bureau had its Schutting—a spacious, windowless room which depended for light and air upon a hole in the roof, which likewise served as a vent for the smoke issuing from the hearth. It was in this room that the agents of the Hansa merchants assembled to debate on judicial or mercantile affairs. During the long winter evenings the families of the agents, as the assistants and apprentices of the resident factors were pleasantly termed, congregated here, each group at its own particular rough-hewn, wooden table, to indulge in strong drink and pleasant gossip. When the interests of the entire colony were to be discussed, the Ælterleute ("seniors") from every grange would meet in the Schutting belonging to Bremen and called Zum Mantel. This assemblage was called the "Council of Eighteen," the representative of Lubeck enjoying the greatest distinction and wielding the greatest influence among them by reason of the hegemony exercised by his native town. When matters of particular importance arose, or in case of a serious dispute, the affair at issue was usually referred to the Bergenfahrercollegium ("the town council"), or more frequently to the general convention of the Hansa at Lubeck.

The expenses of maintaining the colony, in view of the almost monastic simplicity of life prevailing there and the large membership, were naturally small. In its zenith it probably numbered about three thousand persons, who were subjected to strict laws—as strict, indeed, as those of any camp or monastery. No woman was permitted within the colony, and no person was permitted out of doors after sundown, unless, indeed, he wished to run the gauntlet of the fierce watchdogs which guarded the reservations of the settlers. The members and employe’s of the Hansa who resided here were not permitted to marry Norwegian women, in order that their special rights and privileges might not be endangered through intermixture with the natives. How considerable were these special rights the reader may determine from the fact that, during the weekly markets, the members of the Hansa bureaus had the streets barricaded by powerful fellows who permitted no one to interfere with the valuable privilege of priority conceded to the Hanses in the matter of barter. Naturally enough the purchasing price of goods was arbitrarily set by the latter under these conditions, while the fixing of the selling price, in the absence of all competition, was a matter of course.

That the exercise of such pressure sometimes disturbed the serenity of the Norwegian can readily be conjectured, especially when it is considered that the average Northman is by no means indisposed to have a little brush with his neighbor now and then. But in such an event the Germans usually gave tit for tat, and that with a vengeance. On one occasion they killed a bishop in the presence of the king; at various other times they burned monasteries over the heads of the inmates; and frequently they sheltered criminals, or demolished entire dwellings in order to obtain kindling wood speedily and conveniently.

Only by means of concord among themselves and strict exclusiveness could the Hanses for centuries maintain their position upon that inhospitable and thinly peopled shore. The novice, who usually entered the service of the Hansa at the age of twelve, was compelled to serve an apprenticeship of seven years, during which his duties consisted also in cooking, cleaning, and washing for and in waiting upon the older clerks. Thereafter he advanced to the position of journeyman, his inauguration being attended by festive, highly suggestive, and, to the be’ holder, amusing ceremonies. These ceremonies began with a great drinking bout arranged at the youth’s expense. The next feature of the programme was entitled Das Staupenspiel im Paradies ("the Walloping in Paradise"), a procedure to which every apprentice was exposed annually and to which on this occasion he bade a final farewell. This part of the ceremony consisted in setting apart a space enclosed within birch boughs, on entering which the blindfolded and scantily attired youth who was to be initiated into the order of journeymen was thoroughly trounced by "angels of paradise" in the form of lusty companions who were usually unsparing of the rod. A festive procession through the streets followed. It was led by two fantastically attired youngsters who impersonated a Norwegian peasant and his wife, and whose duty it was to play tricks upon the sightseers and to amuse them. After a baptism in the sea the unfortunate youth who figured as the hero of this festival was subjected to a procedure akin to that of roasting a herring in the flue; and it is singular enough that the records show only one case of death by suffocation consequent upon this ordeal. Good days, however, now followed upon evil ones, and the youthful novitiate was feted and entertained by his companions and made to forget the sufferings and hardships of his initiation. Many other pastimes were indulged in by the members of the bureaus, which, however, cannot be touched upon here. Suffice it to say that they were characterized by the humor and roughness of the age. Despite repeated attempts of the Hansa and of the several cities to put an end to these sports, they nevertheless continued to be practised for centuries, upon the rather plausible plea that they served as a wholesome training for the mercantile youth. Never before or since, however, has the pedagogy of the rod found so thorough going an application as here.

One of the busiest centres of Hanseatic activity remains to be touched upon: namely, the small tongue of land near Skanor and Falsterbo, and constituting an appendage of the larger peninsula of Skane or Schonen. The once prosperous stretch of beach here referred to is now a desert tract of sand, the furrows and ruins on which are the only relics of the busy commercial life once prevailing. After the herring had during the tenth and eleventh centuries visited the Pomeranian coast in great shoals, it changed its course to the above-mentioned region of the Sound. The Hanses were not slow to avail themselves of this circumstance. They succeeded in securing a practical ownership of this most valuable district of Denmark; thereby demonstrating how incredibly incompetent the princes of the land were at that time as regards the utilization of their natural resources. These princes actually granted to several German cities, and, moreover, to each individually, the right to establish reservations here—the so-called Vitten—consisting of fenced enclosures on the coast, within which were erected vendors’ and fish-booths, dwellings, and even churches, all under the administration of special governors appointed by the Germans. From this point the herring grounds were readily accessible. The fishing lasted from July until October; and during this time merchants, fishermen, and coopers resorted here by thousands to fish as well as’ to salt, smoke, pack, and load the produce of the net. In connection with this industry there were held in the immediate vicinity much-frequented annual markets, the distributing centres for home consumption. At the beginning of the fifteenth century the capricious fish suddenly took another direction, visiting the coast of Holland, to the people of which he thenceforth became as lucrative a source of revenue as he had been to the Hanses. It has been said that Amsterdam with all its wealth is built upon herrings; and a similar statement could once be applied with equal justice to the Hansa cities of the Baltic.

Concerning the characteristic methods of conducting trade it may be well here to add that during the distant period here under consideration a so-called commission business could scarcely be said to exist; and this is true also of speculation in the narrower sense. While buying and selling on time were not infrequent, especially in the grain market, the transactions were upon an infinitely smaller scale than as conducted at present, when, as the saying goes, "goods is sold a dozen times before it is actually available." The unsound methods at present in vogue, based as they are upon fluctuations in price, were then scarcely known. "Goods in exchange for goods or its equivalent in money" was the motto of the Hanseatic merchant, who, however, was by no means always entirely guiltless of fraudulent operations. Often enough the lowermost layers of herring in the keg consisted of spoiled goods, and not infrequently a bale of linen had to be returned from station to station to the place whence it was sent in order that it might be reexamined as to quantity and quality. In these transactions the crafty dealer usually preferred to take advantage of the proverbial simplicity of the Norwegian.

The scope of the Hansa trade was greater than one would imagine. It was greater, for example, than that of the maritime towns of Germany for the period immediately preceding the era of steam navigation, i.e., about 1830. The fish trade was at that early period far more brisk, partly because the herring then visited the shores of the Baltic, and partly because the church laws relative to abstinence from meat during the fasts were rigidly observed by all the states of Christian Europe. A few figures will serve vividly to illustrate this change: In 1855, 3,700 kegs of herring were imported by way of Lubeck, as against 33,000 kegs for the period 500 years previous; and in the year of war, 1369, despite the embargo with Denmark, a great consumer, the exports of herring from thirty Hanseatic ports yielded a sum of 130,000,000 marks, 40,000,000 of which fell to the share of Hamburg, then a much smaller city than Lubeck.

It is natural, in the light of these commercial conditions, that industry, and handicraft also, must have greatly flourished. In those days there were twice as many bakers in Lubeck as at present. The coopers, also, in view of the great demand for herring kegs, were in high repute, and scarcely less so the brewers, who at that time greatly excelled their South German competitors. The beer of Hamburg or Rostock was never absent from a northern feast. Nearly all the cities from Livonia to the mouth of the Weser were surrounded by gardens of hops, and Hamburg especially owed its rapid rise during the fourteenth century chiefly to its brewers, at times five hundred or more in number, one hundred and twenty-six of whom supplied the market of Amsterdam alone. Not only representatives of the higher industrial arts, such as goldsmiths, metal workers, picture carvers, paternoster makers, and altar makers, but shoemakers and other handicraftsmen were to be found in the Fat North, which, at that time, was still somewhat deficient in these matters. There is report of a worthy shoemaker, who, after sojourning in Russia, repaired to Stockholm, where he entered the service of a knight, and thence to Santiago di Compostela, where he wrought for pilgrims.

All these trades were divided into guilds and sequestered in certain streets or localities; and it was long before they were permitted to participate in the city government, which rested solely in the hands of the great landlords and merchant princes. In the fourteenth century, however, following the example of the South German communities, the "Rebellious Guilds" arose also in the Hanse towns and inaugurated that far-reaching democratic movement akin to the war of the classes in ancient Rome. The guilds demanded a seat and a voice in the municipal councils, and made the payment of their quota dependent upon this concession. Most of the Northern cities experienced bloody insurrections at this time, and the hangman was very busy. Now the victory was with the patricians, and anon with the plebeians; and the contest was continually renewed with changing fortune. After holding aloof for some time the Hanseatic League finally took part in this purely internal affair of the several cities, and always in favor of the patrician party; in this way assuming a function originally foreign to its purpose.

The movement was a perfectly natural and justifiable one. Though originally subject to service and tribute on the part of bishop, cloister, or prince, the condition of the tradesman changed with the establishment of the principle that long unchallenged residence in a city insured personal freedom to the individual—a privilege which in those days of marked class discrimination was shared only by the burgher and the monk. Among the two last-mentioned classes even the low-born individual could rise by his own efforts: here neither prejudice nor privilege interfered with the free exercise of native talent. Many a poor apprentice in the bureau of Bergen eventually became the progenitor of a long race of distinguished merchants; and some of these families are flourishing in Europe to-day. It is but natural that the handicraftsman, once released from his bonds, should have desired to share these privileges, more particularly as the old aristocratic regime constantly became more assertive and presumptuous. It is necessary also to consider that the former social position of the artisan should not be measured by present standards; for the difference in the educational status of the classes was not nearly so pronounced then as now, and the workman, moreover, was characterized by a spirit often as chivalrous as that of the commercial magnate. There is a well-authenticated case of a shoemaker challenging another member of his craft to a duel—which, by the way, had a fatal termination—without exciting either serious comment or ridicule.

History teaches that where commerce and industry flourish, art also secures its triumphs. The glorious Gothic cathedrals of the Hanseatic cities bear eloquent testimony to this truth. "The Northlander who entered the Trave or the Vistula and beheld the multitude of soaring church spires must have felt as did once the German pilgrim to Rome," says a modern investigator. The principal representative and patron of this art culture, here as elsewhere during the Middle Ages, was the Church. But the splendid town halls as well as the few private mansions preserved, with their step-like aggregation of gables, afford convincing evidence alike of the solid appreciation of art as of the love of splendor which characterized that distant generation. Certain it is that they greatly surpassed us in the domain of Gothic architecture. Owing to the strict adherence to the Catholic dogma a scientific development in the modern sense was, of course, impossible in those days; and, although most of the parish churches had their schools also, these were commonly designed chiefly for the sons of patricians, whose schooling usually embraced a little Latin and some reading, writing, and singing. Not infrequently the only scholar in the place was the town clerk, the forerunner of our present recorder.

The robust, healthy German of that day, yielding to a tendency which has characterized our people from immemorial times, preferred the more to surrender himself to a life of solid comfort and good cheer. The Middle Age was one which inclined to favor the enjoyment of life. It is but necessary to consider the variegated costumes, rich in color, whose ultimate extravagances necessitated special dress regulations, as well as the tournaments, the numerous archer festivals, and the frequent masquerades, to realize that the people of that day appreciated the good things of life. On the occasion of baptisms, weddings, and other domestic events, great feasts were frequently arranged in the house of the guilds or even in the town hall; and many princely visitors were here also entertained at the expense of the municipal budget. The administration of the cellarage of the municipal council was also then considered a far more respectable post than now. All these facts attest the prosperity of the Hanseatic towns. Fortunes of one hundred thousand marks were by no means exceptional, and were often invested in neighboring knightly estates (feofs), thereby sometimes securing to the owner an eventual admission to the ranks of the nobility. At one time—i.e., after the great Hanseatic war—the city of Lubeck owned the entire dukedom of Lauenburg.

The constitution of these municipalities provided for a council consisting of from twelve to twenty-four members who, though elected for life, alternated in terms of office ranging from two to three years. These members had the privilege of appointing their successors from among the eligible families of the Hanse town. The heads of the council consisted of from two to four burgomasters, who presided at the meetings. The position of member of the council was a purely honorary one. The duties comprised the administration of municipal affairs; of military and judicial affairs; of the archives; the exercise of police supervision over the market, the marine service, and the guilds; and, most important of all, the administration of the finances. They fixed the taxes, for which frequently no receipt was given or demanded; the money on such occasions being deposited unnoticed in a box set apart for the purpose—a proof that the payment of taxes at that time was regarded as a point of honor by the burgher and without suspicion by the magistrate.

The general character of the municipal life of the Hanse towns in those days has been well compared by a modern writer to a family household. The workman regarded himself within his circle as an official of the city—a fact shown by the use of the word Aemter ("offices") to designate the guilds. Hence the strong municipal patriotism which animated these burghers and which compensates in some degree for the absence of that great political enthusiasm which is derived from the consciousness of a united country. A quaint genre picture of the time, preserved at Bremen, represents a native of the latter city and another from Lubeck sitting together in a tavern and disputing as to the comparative merits of their respective towns. The controversy reaches its climax by one of the disputants declaring stolidly that he too might "master such words" and taking a long and mighty draught.

The separate towns, usually upon a request of the Lubeck council, would send their deputies to confer jointly upon matters affecting the league, these conferences or diets usually being held in some Wendish city. On no occasion, however, were all the towns of the league represented at these conferences. Their constitution was absolutely free from all theoretical or rigid forms or ordinances. Whoever found that his interests were especially affected by the subject under discussion sent representatives to the diet of the league, and these usually discharged their duties faithfully, without shirking the long and arduous trip even during the winter season. The conferences held in this way were probably wider in their scope than those of any other power of the time. Usually, however, not political, but commercial, matters were discussed. There was no common treasury. Whenever money was required an export duty was levied, with which absolute compliance was demanded. An infraction of the laws of the league was punishable by a fine, and in extreme cases by exclusion from the Hansa—a sentence necessarily involving the commercial isolation and eventual bankruptcy of the delinquent city. Bremen, it is true, once withstood the consequences of the Hanseatic ban for more than fifty years, but this was before the extraordinary extension of Hanseatic power consequent upon the Danish war. From all this it appears that the constitution of the Hansa was a very slack but elastic one, which easily adapted itself to the exigencies of the moment. A charter of a Hanseatic constitution has never existed—proof in itself of the desire to afford as much latitude as possible in the construction of the laws. Theory is regarded as valueless; immediate facts and interests are all in all. The supremacy of Lubeck, for example, was never formally recognized by the other cities of the league.

Thus did the Hansa flourish until the close of the Middle Ages. With the discovery of America and of the passage to India trade was diverted into new channels; it became transoceanic and, not without some culpability on the part of the Hanses themselves, fell into the hands of the now more favorably situated countries of Western Europe—Spain, Portugal, France, the Netherlands, and, finally, England. Equally detrimental to the Hansa was the political transformation wrought at this time, especially as regards the rapidly growing power of the princes, who, with all the influence at their command, sought to abrogate all special privileges and to foster a levelling process in order that they alone might be exalted. One city after another sank into utter dependence upon the sovereign rulers of the respective provinces, who, in their turn, began to take an interest in economic affairs, thus contributing to widen the breach between these respective cities and the league. It was under these circumstances that Gustavus Vasa declared of the Hansa that "Its teeth were falling out, like those of an old woman." The Hollanders, especially, had long been converted from allies into formidable rivals. The most important and decisive factor of this decadence, however, was the victorious opposition to the Hanseatic monopoly now brought to bear by the hitherto commercially oppressed nations, England and Russia, who simply closed the doors of the bureaus and abrogated the privileges of the German merchants of the league. The condition of the Hansa was akin to that of a healthy, vigorous tree, set in poor soil and deriving its sustenance from the weakness of the home rulers and the primitive or defective economic conditions of foreign countries. As soon as these negative medieval conditions were swept away by he storms of the Reformation the tree gradually but surely fell into decay. With this later stage there is associated the historic tragedy of Jurgen Wullenwever, that genial and daring democratic innovator, who, in an endeavor to conquer Denmark in order to restore the prestige of the Hansa, was betrayed by his patrician fellow-burghers and hanged.

The Hansa, though in a stage of increasing decrepitude, now lingered on until the final crash came in 1630, when all the members dissolved their allegiance to the league. Only the three Hanse towns of Hamburg, Bremen, and Lubeck renewed the compact, which, however, to-day is purely nominal. The Hansa had fulfilled its great historic mission. It had impressed the stamp of German culture upon the North; given German commerce the supremacy over that of all other nations; protected the northern and eastern boundaries of the empire at a time when the imperial power was impotent and the State disrupted; and maintained and extended the prestige of the German flag in the northern seas. Said a great German writer: "When all on land was steeped in particularism, the Hansa, our people upon the sea, alone remained faithful to the German spirit and to German tradition."

1Translated by Joseph Sohn.


Related Resources

None available for this document.

Download Options

Title: The Great Events by Famous Historians, Vol 6

Select an option:

*Note: A download may not start for up to 60 seconds.

Email Options

Title: The Great Events by Famous Historians, Vol 6

Select an option:

Email addres:

*Note: It may take up to 60 seconds for for the email to be generated.

Chicago: H. Denicke, "Rise of the Hanseatic League," The Great Events by Famous Historians, Vol 6 in The Great Events by Famous Historians. Lincoln Memorial University Edition, ed. Rossiter Johnson (Harrogate, TN: The National Alunmi, 1926), Original Sources, accessed May 31, 2023,

MLA: Denicke, H. "Rise of the Hanseatic League." The Great Events by Famous Historians, Vol 6, in The Great Events by Famous Historians. Lincoln Memorial University Edition, edited by Rossiter Johnson, Harrogate, TN, The National Alunmi, 1926, Original Sources. 31 May. 2023.

Harvard: Denicke, H, 'Rise of the Hanseatic League' in The Great Events by Famous Historians, Vol 6. cited in 1926, The Great Events by Famous Historians. Lincoln Memorial University Edition, ed. , The National Alunmi, Harrogate, TN. Original Sources, retrieved 31 May 2023, from