A brief history of the Hanseatic League

International trade between individual towns and cities has always been a major and generally positive factor in world affairs. An example of this is the Hanseatic League, which dominated commercial activity in Northern Europe for 300 years between the 13th and 15th centuries. It was a powerful trade alliance formed between individual German merchants and guilds in as many as 200 cities and towns surrounding the North and Baltic Seas. The German word ‘Hanse’ loosely translates to the English word ‘guild’, and the aim of this community of merchants was to work together to protect and pursue their shared economic interests.


The Holy Roman Empire

The beginnings of the Hanseatic League must be seen in terms of the prevailing historical and political conditions of the time. It occurred at the height of the Holy Roman Empire – a period before the advent of a single German state, when each city and region had its own rulers and bishops, loosely under the control of the Holy Roman Emperor. In theory, it was the Roman Emperor’s duty to protect all its towns and merchants, but the Holy Roman Emperors of the time were often more preoccupied with crusades to the Holy Land or had their eyes fixed firmly on trade between the Rhineland, Low Countries and England. This left the north German towns and merchants to fend largely for themselves. With the ever-present threat of piracy in the Baltic Sea and surrounding river systems, an alliance and pooling of resources, knowledge and skills was a natural consequence.


The Baltic in the Middle Ages

The political power of the Baltic was very different in the 12th and 13th centuries than today. Poland was a main player in Central Europe, and Denmark was the dominant Scandinavian power. Novgorod and Kiev were more important Russian centres of trade than Moscow, and St. Petersburg did not yet exist. While in Sweden, the (now lost) city of Birka – rather than Stockholm – was commercially significant. The Livonian Federation – on the eastern coast of the Baltic Sea (present day Estonia and Latvia) – was ruled over by the Teutonic Knights from 1237. This region was subject to extensive economic and political expansion by both the Danes and the Germans of the time, and the cities of the Hanseatic League were pivotal in this process.


Cities vs. States

Cities rather than states predominated in the sparsely populated regions of north and northeast Europe, and rivers rather than roads formed important transport routes across the vast, wild terrain. After its capture in 1158 by Henry ‘The Lion’ III, the strategically placed German port of Lübeck became the main base of expansion for the north German regions of Westphalia and Saxony into the Baltic region. As early as 1160, traders from Lübeck established a trading post on the site of the future city of Riga (in present day Latvia), which was founded later, in 1201. Then, in 1241, the cities of Lübeck and Hamburg agreed a common law, later creating a formal alliance to protect their merchants from robbers and pirates. The alliance of these two cities also meant control over the valuable salt trade routes out of the German town of Lüneburg. Another similar alliance of merchants was formed in 1259 between Lübeck, Rostock, Wismar and Stralsund. The league of Hanseatic cities was growing, and by 1265 as many as 100 towns subscribing to the “law of Lübeck” – ‘free’, self-governing imperial towns with their own constitution – had agreed common protection for their goods and merchants.


Foreign Trading Posts

The success of the Hanseatic League was as much about its key trading posts abroad, as in the union and cooperation of its German merchants and cities at home. Hanseatic trading posts, or kontors (literally translated as ‘offices’) began springing up all across the Baltic region and beyond. After Riga, the Hanseatic merchants set up their own trading post at Peterhof, near the busy Russian port of Novgorod (now Veliky Novgorod), which was central to the trade in leather, fur and other natural resources from Russia. Visby, on the Swedish island of Gotland, had long been a key trading post for fish and other northern goods (fish being obligatory to the medieval Christian diet), but became a Hanseatic kontor by the end of the 13th century. Other important foreign trading posts included Reval (now Tallinn in Estonia), Danzig (present-day Gdansk, Poland), Dorpat (later Tartu in Sweden), Bergen in Norway, Bruges in Holland and the London Steelyard in England.


East meets West

Even before the north German towns and merchants began mastering the Baltic seas and surrounding areas, merchants from the south and west of Germany had acquired trading privileges in Flanders and England. In fact, merchants from Cologne and other towns in the Rhineland had enjoyed special royal protection in London since the 10th century. Then, during the 12th century two key charters of privileges was granted to the Hanse of Cologne merchants in London – one in 1157 by Henry II, followed by another in 1194 from Richard I in return for financial aid. After the northern Hanseatic town agreed on common legislation to protect their merchants in 1265, they began to force their way into the west, entering areas that had been the exclusive domain of the Rhineland merchants. By the end of the 13th century, the merchants of Lübeck and Hamburg had joined their former rivals to form common Hanses in London and Brugge, as well as joint trading posts across the Baltic region, from Novgorod to Bergen; sharing key ports, from Bremen to Reval. The Hanseatic League was now at its height!


Goods Traded

The Hanseatic League controlled much of the trade across northern Europe from the 13th to the 15th centuries. This was due to its strong navy and strategic position on the Baltic and North Seas, as well as the powerful alliance between its merchants. Trade included manufactured goods from the economically advanced west, with its constant demand for raw materials. Such materials and natural produce included grain, timber for ship-building (a major industry in Lübeck and England, and much in demand, especially with the rise of the Royal Navy), hemp for making sails and ropes, potash for fertiliser, wax for candles, coal to fire the furnaces of industry, resin, charcoal, tar and honey, not forgetting amber for jewellery, and furs, skins and hides for shoes, coats and leather products. Interestingly, Novgorod came to prominence because of the grey squirrel fur trade, which was much in demand as a trimming on cloaks. All of these valuable goods could be sourced from the remote areas to the south and east of the Baltic (modern day Russia and Poland) and were shipped via the Hanseatic ports to the industrial west. England was known for its wool trade during this period, particularly the areas around East Anglia. Packhorses laden with rolls of woollen cloth were sent to London and thence eastwards by ship to the Slavs. The Dutch were masters of producing quality finished cloth and linens, which were also traded across Europe and the Baltic via Hanseatic merchants. Swedish copper and iron were traded westward, while Swedish herring and North Atlantic cod was in high demand throughout the Christianised world. Germany, of course, happened to produce the salt to preserve such fish and meats during the era. Colonial contacts in Asia and the Mediterranean meant that luxuries such as fruits, spices, silks, brocades and carpets were all traded westwards, too. Silver was also becoming increasingly important with the advent of coinage. The list is endless, and all were carried in Hanseatic ships, via Hanseatic ports, controlled by Hanseatic merchants.


The Workings of the League

The Hanseatic League is a quite unique and extraordinary story of free trade and enterprise between individuals and towns rather than states. Some have called it a federation or society, but it is best described as an alliance of many towns and cities that worked together to pursue their own commercial interests in a secure and profitable manner. It lacked the legal elements of a federation – having no pact or statues, no obligations (towns could send a member to its assemblies if they chose to), no over-riding council or elected chairman, no joint property or communal cash box, no seal of its own, no official location (although Lübeck is frequently quotes as such, and was certainly key in its formation). It had no official founding date or charter, although the founding of Lübeck in 1158 is often cited. Any decisions were made by the representatives of the towns who attended the regular Hanseatic assemblies and any deals were sealed between individual tradesmen and towns, rather than the League. All this meant that it could not legally be called a federation under Roman Law.


The League always stressed the solidarity of its members and can probably best be described nowadays as a community of German towns and merchants whose decisions reflected those of its members and who participated in Hanseatic privileges abroad, such as having their own warehouses and stores, language, freedom and customs. The origins of the league can be traced back to a mutual protection of its merchants and secure passage of goods in dangerous, pirate-patrolled waters and bandit-populated landscapes. These aims remained important throughout and, to this end, the League worked to provide more lighthouses and marker buoys, as well as trained pilots to guide ships safely into ports.


There were different degrees of attachment: it has been stated that there were 72 core Hanseatic towns, plus a wider circle of smaller towns, varying in number anywhere up to a total of 200 in its heyday. However, no definitive list of Hanseatic towns has ever been found and corroborated, mainly because member towns and merchants were in constant flux and smaller towns could be represented at assemblies by representatives from nearby larger towns. The only stipulation was that all Hanseatic League members spoke German. Having said that, the League had warehouses, factories and trading posts all over Europe and beyond that were run in cooperation with local populations. In reality, it was the Hanseatic trading posts who decided who belonged and who they wanted to do business with at any one time, depending on the prevailing demands of the market.