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Hanseatic League

Highpoint c. 1350 to 1500

Mark Peterson

In the first half of the fourteenth century, the Hanseatic League took part in an ever increasing trade in a variety of goods across northern Europe. Member towns worked to increase the important exchange of Flemish cloth for the furs and lumber of the East. The new towns of Prussia also handled a developing export in grain at a time when the rest of Europe suffered diminishing harvests. Hanseatic merchants controlled the sale of much of the herring and cod of Scandinavia which found a growing market throughout Europe at the time and Germans helped develop the copper and iron mines of central Sweden.

The Black Death that struck the region around 1350 caused a major disaster. It killed off as much as forty percent of the population in northern Germany, one of the hardest hit areas of Europe. This caused an immediate period of complete disruption. The long-term results of the plague are a bit more difficult to determine, however. Production and shipment of all goods apparently dropped, but the epidemic put wealth into a smaller number of hands. Northern Europe had a smaller market than in the first half of the century but more variety and a greater amount of relative luxury since townspeople could now afford more with their wages. The period also brought greater competition among international merchants eager to participate in long-distance trade. The Hanseatic League responded with a much more rigid organization and a willingness to engage in hostilities in defense of its privileges. For the most part the league would be able to maintain a strong position in the region, but it did this by responding agressively to a number of pressures. In the third quarter of the century, the Hanseatic League grew to the pinnacle of its power and influence internationally. The next century would be a time of defending the organization against different forces that would eventually begin to weaken it.

Around 1350, the Hanseatic Kontor at Bruges sought restitution from the city and the count of Flanders. Merchants of the Hanseatic League argued that the losses they suffered because of the Hundred Years War went against an earlier promise of safe conduct. Lübeck, worried that they would be affected, called for the member towns of the league to send delegates to a diet in the city to discuss the case in 1356. This diet would be the first of many, which would meet with varying regularity for the next several centuries. They did not quite settle the matter but Lübeck did effectively subordinate the Kontor to the authority of the greater body of Hanseatic towns. The same would be done to the other Kontors over next two decades.

The Hansa would finally succeed in getting concessions from Flanders in 1360 after two years of careful negotiation and a famine in the Low Countries. The towns faced a greater opponent in Waldemar IV the king of Denmark. In 1360, he claimed the island of Gotland and sacked the town of Visby. Lübeck raised forces to attack Denmark but was soundly defeated in 1362. Four years later, the Hanseatic Diet got the support of several Dutch towns, northern princes, and the Grand Master of the Teutonic Knights. Meeting in Cologne the next year, this group formed the Confederation of Cologne. After successfully raising forces and defeating the Danish king, they signed the Peace of Stralsund in 1370. This gave the confederation control of the mouth of the Baltic for fifteen years and a say in Waldemar's successor. Once the terms of the treaty were completed, however, regional tensions divided the confederation and the German towns returned to the more loose association of the Hanseatic League.

The league faced increased hostility towards the end of the century. Merchants in England, Russia, and Flanders resented the many concessions granted the Hanseatics and their control of the Baltic market. Frequent calls for costly indemnities by the Hansa did nothing to help relations. The league placed simultaneous embargoes on all three regions in 1388. With this show of strength, it managed to confirm old privileges and avoid open warfare. The difficulty of these victories made clear, however, the internal divisions of interest growing between the Prussian towns and the older commercial cities. Eastern merchants built up a grain trade with England and Holland, which often involved sailing directly through the Sound and avoiding the Wendish towns. At the same time, the towns of Saxony and further west, such as Cologne, tended to seek separate relations with England and Flanders and to avoid the conflicts of the Baltic, where competition with the Dutch, increased pirate attacks, and guild rebellions threatened trade connections. Faced all of these difficulties and divisions, only the dangerous conflicts with powerful princes kept the towns participating in Hanseatic decisions and diplomacy for the protection of old trading arrangements throughout the fifteenth century.

The greatest commercial threat came from the gradual unification of much of the Low Countries under the Duke of Burgundy and the increased competition from Dutch traders. The Hansa could no longer force Bruges to action with the threat of moving their Kontor to another city, since the league now had its quarrels with the lord of Flanders. Continuing conflicts forced them to impose several blockades against the Low Countries in the first half of the century without the participation of Cologne. After moving the Kontor to Utrecht for several years, the Hansa again established offices in Bruges in 1457. The decades of conflict had caused many merchants to move on, however, and the embargoes ended up benefiting Dutch competitors as the city of Antwerp rose in importance as a merchant center. The new Hanseatic Kontor in Bruges would have a diminishing importance in the following years.

Eric of Pomerania began hostilities against the Hanseatic League after becoming the king of united Scandinavia in 1412. He sought to diminish the influence of German merchants in the North and pursued his claim to Schleswig. In 1426, Eric imposed a toll on all ships going through the Sound. The Wendish towns reacted quickly, drawing the rest of the league into a nine year blockade that was ultimately successful in gaining trading privileges and exemption from the toll. The Scandinavians had turned to the Dutch for supplies during the conflict, however, and ignored the Hanseatic monopoly to support Dutch and native merchants shortly after signing the agreement.

English kings found it beneficial to favor Hanseatic traders in exchange for support against the French throughout the troublesome fifteenth century, but English merchants and the Parliament resented Haneatic privileges and German control of trade to Norway and Prussia. In 1468, the English Privy Council ordered the arrest of all Hanseatic merchants in the country because of the league's role in a conflict with Denmark. Cologne quickly disassociated itself from the other German towns to continue trading in London. After two years of discussion, the Hansa began a four year war of piracy. Negotiations finally led to the Peace of Utrecht, which granted the Hanseatic League new concessions and humiliated an isolated Cologne. For the next century, the league would benefit from its regained commercial position in England and maintain the unity of the Hansa in that country.

The Hanseatic League had much greater difficulties in Novgorod at the end of the century. Moscow conquered the city in 1478 and the grand duke sought to encourage Russian merchants against the German allies of the Teutonic Knights. In 1494, the tsar arrested the Hanseatic merchants and closed the Peterhof. It would not be reopened for twenty years. By that time trade with Russia had shifted to other routes, most notably through the Livonian towns, which did not maintain free markets with other Hanseatic cities.

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.

Comments to: Mark Peterson

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