Hanseatic League

Hanseatic league port
Hanseatic league port

The Hanseatic League, or Hanse, was an association of German merchants, and later of towns, that dominated trade in northern Europe from the 13th through the 15th century. During this time the Hanse comprised around 75 member towns plus around 100 associate towns. The word hanse means an association, but the entity called the Hanse was far more. Its members were middlemen, both geographically and economically.

They controlled trade between the Baltic and North Seas, in part because their ships, called cogs (depicted on the seals of many Hanseatic towns), were much superior to earlier ships. Using this technological advantage German merchants were able to exact economic privileges from rulers along the Baltic and North Seas who came to depend on their trade. But as their economic power grew, they also took a more active military and diplomatic role in shaping the politics of northern Europe.

Eventually the structural weakness of this loosely organized transnational community became apparent, as witnessed by the growing divergence in the interests of the member towns. The Dutch, English, Spanish, and Portuguese merchants, who traded not only throughout Europe, but also throughout the world, had already long eclipsed the Hanse when it finally dissolved in the mid-17th century.

Frisians, Flemings, Scandinavians (Vikings were traders as well as raiders), and the Slavic and Baltic peoples living along the south and east Baltic littoral dominated long-distance trade on the Baltic and North Seas before the arrival of German merchants. The main centers of trade were Haddeby in Schleswig-Holstein, Birka in Sweden, Truso on the Vistula River, and Stettin and Jumne on the Oder River. These trading centers provided the groundwork for the later Hanse.

By the 12th century Visby, on the island of Gotland, had emerged as the main emporium in the Baltic Sea. Its merchants established a trading outpost in the important Rus town of Novgorod, and they were granted extensive privileges by Emperor Lothair II (1125–37) to trade throughout his realm. This emperor’s grandson, Henry the Lion, duke of Saxony (1142–80), was also interested both in developing trade and in pushing the bounds of his lordship farther east.

Along with Albert the Bear, margrave of Brandenburg (1134–70), Henry played an important role in what has come to be known as the Drang nach Osten, or “push to the east.” This involved not only the military conquest and conversion of the Slavic pagans to the east of the Elbe River, but also the colonization of the conquered lands with peasants and burghers from overpopulated western lands.

They were aided in this project by other nobles, including Count Adolf II of Holstein, who in 1143 founded a town, Lübeck, at the confluence of the Trave and Wakenitz Rivers, at almost the narrowest point of the isthmus dividing the Baltic and North Seas.

The native Slavs had long recognized the strategic and economic importance of this site, whose town a few miles downstream (from which Adolf took the name for his own town) had been destroyed in 1138. Henry the Lion complained that the town’s success was causing his own economic projects to fail, as the chronicler Helmold relates.

In 1157 Henry forced Adolf to give him the town, and Henry endowed it with expansive privileges and encouraged foreign merchants to trade there. In 1180 Emperor Frederick I Barbarossa (1152–90) stripped Henry of his possessions for failing to submit to his judgment.

Frederick I confirmed the town’s privileges in 1188, and in 1226 Emperor Frederick II made Lübeck an imperial city, free from the jurisdiction of local lords. This status as the only imperial city east of the Elbe, along with Lübeck’s geographical position, heralded the future greatness of the city that would become the capital of the Hanse, displacing Visby as the center of Baltic trade.

Hanseatic league route map
Hanseatic league route map

Because of the privileges granted to the Gotlanders, German merchants, especially those from Lübeck, were permitted to trade in Visby. These merchants formed an association and were recognized by authorities as “the merchants of the Roman Empire frequenting Gotland.” They elected leaders to speak on their behalf and in time established trading posts, or Kontore, in Novgorod, Bergen, Bruges, and London, four of the most important markets in northern Europe.

During the 13th century dozens of towns were founded beyond the Elbe River according to “German law.” Many of these towns were new settlements, but there were also a large number of preexisting towns, like Gdansk and Kraków in Poland, that were reorganized according to the new social (“Stadtluft macht frei,” or “town air makes you free”) and spatial (a checkerboard pattern of streets around a market square) ideals of their mother cities.

As more merchants from these new towns became involved in trade, they became wary of the other merchants’ leadership of the Kontore, and they wanted towns to take over the leadership of the Hanse. During the late 13th century a transformation took place—this association of merchants became an urban league.

The Hanse was not the first urban league. Others emerged in the empire during the 13th century, as imperial power declined and towns looked to each other for protection from predatory lords, pirates, and other threats. But these other leagues proved ephemeral, dissolving after the immediate threat had passed.

With Lübeck at its head, the Hanse continued to display its economic and military might throughout the 13th and 14th centuries. It forced the surrounding rulers, including the kings of Norway, Denmark, England, and France, to grant the Hanse ever more extensive privileges, allowing them to monopolize trade between the Baltic and North Seas.

In 1356 the first Hansetag, or general assembly of all the Hanseatic towns, was held in Lübeck. The Danish king Valdemar IV had been jeopardizing their trade routes by conquering lands throughout the Baltic, including Visby. The Hanse resolved to put an end to this. In 1362 they financed a fleet to oppose the king through the imposition of a toll on merchandise, called the Pfundzoll.

This venture, however, ended in defeat for the Hanse, and its leader was executed in the Lübeck town square for his failure. In 1367 a new Hansetag convened, this time in Cologne, because the Hanse needed the help of the Dutch in defeating the Danes. This “Cologne Confederation” of the Hanse, the Dutch, and Sweden sacked Copenhagen and forced Denmark to accept the Peace of Stralsund in 1370.

The confederation won the right to occupy all Danish fortresses guarding access between the Baltic and North Seas for 15 years as well as the right to choose the next king. In 1388 the Hanse authorized an embargo of England, Flanders, and Rus and won privileges in all three lands, taking control of the Kontore in these lands. These however would prove to be pyrrhic victories.

The late 14th century marked the apogee of the Hanse’s power. It monopolized trade between the Baltic and North Seas and had imposed its will on lands in which it traded through a combination of military and economic measures. Yet even at the height of its power, it was the beginning of the decline of the Hanse.

Many inland towns and some coastal towns did not take part in the “Cologne Confederation.” It was expensive to send representatives there, and the goals of individual towns were not always in line with those of the general assembly. The interests of the eastern towns and the western towns as well as those of the coastal towns and the inland towns continued to diverge.

Next because the Hansetag met so infrequently, the Lübeck town council functioned as the de facto head of the Hanse. When a revolt broke out in 1408 against its rule by the Lübeck burghers, it demonstrated not only the institutional weaknesses of the Hanse, but also the fact that frictions existed between the town councils and the burghers they were representing. In an organization as amorphous as the Hanse, there existed the problem of “freeriding,” that is, merchants from towns who did not belong to the Hanse trying to claim its privileges.

In addition to this internal fragmentation, the Hanse also faced external challenges. The rulers of Hanse lands sought to develop their sovereignty by limiting the Hanse’s privileges or forcing towns to withdraw from the league. In 1442 the margrave of Brandenburg forced Berlin-Cölln’s withdrawal. Also English, Dutch, and south German merchants began to take a larger share of the northern European trade.

The Hanse continued to decline throughout the 16th century, and in the first half of the 17th century the Thirty Years’ War (1618–48) decimated central Europe to an extent not seen since the Black Death. Two decades after the Peace of Westphalia (1648), argued by many political theorists to be the origin of the modern state system, the association convened its last Hansetag.

The extent of the Hanse’s economic and political power has led some historians and political theorists to draw comparisons to the European Community, forerunner of the European Union. These scholars suggest that because a transnational polity like the Hanse presented serious challenges to the emerging territorially sovereign states of the late Middle Ages, useful examples might be found for the future of the sovereign state in a world in which transnational organizations are once again challenging its supremacy.

Hanseatic league building
Hanseatic league building

For nearly four centuries the Hanse was a major economic, political, and social factor in the formation of Europe—it facilitated the exchange not just of commodities, but also of people and ideas. Dozens of preserved medieval marketplaces in towns around the Baltic littoral, from Tallinn, Estonia, to Gdansk, Poland, to Lübeck, Germany, bear witness to the greatness of the Hanse during its heyday.