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Hanseatic League

Development up to 1350

Mark Peterson

Just as the Mediterranean carried the majority of the trade of southern Europe, the North and Baltic Seas were the main focus of northern trade in the early middle ages. The numerous river systems flowing into these seas and the late development of any meaningful road network in the North meant that sea transport was vital to any long distance commerce. Scandinavians controlled much of region's trade for many centuries from the rivers of Russia to the North Atlantic with their swift longboats. Frisian traders had a prominent role south of the English Channel handling the goods of Christian Europe.

By the early twelfth century, England had become an important source of wool for the weaving cities of the Low Countries. Men from Flanders actively pursued trade in London and merchants from the growing towns of Bremen and Cologne soon joined them. Both of these German towns, at the ends of important river systems, handled a wide array of goods from northern Europe. Bringing many important items from the continent, the merchants of Bremen and Cologne gained a strong position in England. In 1157 Henry II granted the citizens of Cologne special trading protections and privileges. Urban, professional traders from the towns of northern Germany began to effectively compete against the more rural Frisians and Scandinavians, by this time, even taking their goods to Norway and Denmark.

In 1159, Henry the Lion of Saxony firmly established the city of Lübeck on the western shore of the Baltic for the express purpose of becoming involved in maritime trade. This meant that the city had to face the strong competition from the sailors of the island of Gotland. By 1161, Henry was able to work out an oath of peace and joint trading privileges between the two groups. This gave the merchants of Lübeck access to the island's central location in the Baltic Sea and they quickly became involved in the Scandinavians' trips to Novgorod for Russian furs, the most lucrative business of the North. The German merchants living on Gotland formed a sworn association in which they pledged obedience to their elected aldermen and mutual aid to members. They also worked to promote trade. Most importantly, the merchants of the German Empire trading on Gotland, as they were called, were able to gain recognition as trading partners by the Russian princes of Novgorod. By 1205, they had their own Kontor in Novgorod, the Peterhof.

With Lübeck anchoring a new route across the Danish peninsula to Hamburg, German merchants were able to develop a flourishing trade in the goods of western Europe, including salt and cloth, for Russia's furs and forest products. The beginning of the thirteenth century also witnessed crusades by the Danish king and later the Teutonic Knights against the Slavic people south of the Baltic Sea. They established unstable territories where much of the population had been forced to convert to Christianity. To control the landscape, local lords found it profitable to encourage settlement by peasants from the overpopulated regions of Germany. These immigrants brought a higher degree of agricultural sophistication which meant greater profits for their lords. These remarkable migrations brought varying degrees of Germanic presence in the populations of the region and were accompanied by numerous town foundations by local lords, both German and Slav. They sought even greater incomes be establishing commercial settlements with special rights and taxes. More than any other group, the German merchants already involved in coastal trade settled these new towns creating a chain of trading centers all along the southern coast as far as the Russian territory within fifty years. These traders had a natural tendency to share concerns and worked together to promote their commercial interests.

They continued to band together when abroad and often worked to gain special privileges for the group. In 1252, the countess of Flanders granted all German merchants, especially those who frequented Gotland, reductions of local customs and their own weighing house. The Germans from the Baltic region received similar rights in England in 1237. By 1282, the Easterners finally ended their rivalry with Cologne when all became recognized as merchants of the German Hansa. This union of interests, completely focused on the commercial concerns of overseas traders, created a loose association of allied merchants from a great number of towns spread out across northern Germany and interested in trade throughout Europe. With the experience in shipping and new ship designs that had developed in the Baltic region, Hanseatic merchants dominated trade to England and Scandinavia by the end of the thirteenth century.

While the merchants worked together to increase trade, many of the towns of northern Germany became increasingly independent of local lords, during the thirteenth century, when the emperor had very little interest in the region. International merchants played important political roles within these commercial towns and gained control of local councils. Naturally, the interests of the towns came to coincide with this developing oligarchy of maritime traders. In 1241, Lübeck and Hamburg signed a treaty to maintain the road between the two cities that went from the Baltic to the North Seas and to keep it clear of bandits. Later treaties with the other Wendish towns of Kiel, Wismar, and Rostock and the general agreement of the Pomeranian towns created the central axis of the Hanseatic League. The league as a whole, however, would remain a very loose association of different regional town leagues acting in concert for commercial reasons only. When the Danish king threatened the independence of the Wendish towns, they received little aid from the league and had to suffer his overlordship for almost twenty years before the king's death in 1319 reduced that country's political power.

Administration and membership remained loose for decades. This minimized internal rivalries and kept costs down. It also lessened the hostility of princes. The Hanseatic League worked more to promote trade connections and maintain their foreign privileges than anything else. For many decades, its strongest weapon consisted of various methods of trade disruption. Embargoes proved very successful against Bruges and Norway in the 1280s when local hostilities threatened Hanseatic privileges. And the fluid nature of league helped gain support for these actions. Any town that wanted to benefit from Hanseatic privileges merely had to support its policies. Many towns never bothered to send representatives to any meetings but they still enjoyed membership. The Hanseatic League also resisted several requests from princes for an authoritative list of member towns. Only the towns denied the benefits of membership, such as Bremen after the city refused to honor an embargo, were ever clearly identified by the Hanseatic League. Lübeck remained the recognized head of the group because of her commercial importance. This haphazard organization continued to effectively promote trade for the members of the Hanseatic League until the second half of the fourteenth century.

Copyright (C) 1998, Mark Peterson. This file may be copied on the condition that the entire contents,including the header and this copyright notice, remain intact.

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