A medieval European union: why the Hanseatic League still matters

Until the rise of nationalism brought it down, the Hanseatic League was one of the most successful trading blocs in history – a union of towns and merchants’ guilds that dominated northern European trade in the medieval period. The League’s innovative methods included information-sharing and sophisticated payment mechanisms. And if that didn’t work? Well, it could always turn to brute force. By Chris Bowlby

Drawing depicting crew of German traders at work aboard a Hanseatic League, aka German Hanse, aka Hansa 16th-century cargo vessel.  (Photo by Mansell/Mansell/The LIFE Picture Collection via Getty Images/Getty Images)

The early 15th century was a bad time to be a Russian squirrel. As many as half a million animal skins – mainly belonging to the bushy-tailed rodent – were transported every year from Russian towns like Novgorod. They were packed into special barrels and loaded onto ships in huge consignments – as many as a hundred thousand at a time – before being ferried across the Baltic’s pirate-infested waters to German port cities. The poor animals would then be turned into fashionable garments and trims for western Europe’s increasingly affluent consumers. They were even used as an alternative currency.

Advertisement

It was a lucrative business for the merchants at its centre, families like the Wittenborgs of Lübeck, whose trading tentacles stretched from England to Russia. The Wittenborgs would take cloth from, say, Flanders and luxury goods from the Mediterranean, then transport them to eastern markets. In return, they would pick up furs, timber, corn, wax for candles, and fish – especially cod and herring – which they salted and sold on, or devoured themselves. “The Germans are enormous eaters,” one Venetian traveller was said to have commented – and their feasts were famously lavish.

This painting by Hans Holbein the Younger is thought to depict Hanseatic merchant Hermann von Wedigh III, London, 1532. The English capital was home to a major Hanseatic base, the 'Steelyard'. (Photo by AKG)
This painting by Hans Holbein the Younger is thought to depict Hanseatic merchant Hermann von Wedigh III, London, 1532. The English capital was home to a major Hanseatic base, the ‘Steelyard’. (Photo by AKG)

But this money-spinning operation was not just about enterprising individuals. Lübeck, and families like the Wittenborgs, lay at the centre of an extraordinary medieval trading network. The Hansa, as that network was known, sought to dominate east-west trade in and around the Baltic from the 12th to the 17th centuries. And it largely succeeded: at the height of its power, up to 200 towns and cities were part of this extended network.

The scramble for trade

The Hansa’s ways of doing business – including innovative payments mechanisms such as offering borrowers lines of credit – seem in many ways remarkably modern. And although its influence waned from the 15th century, its memory is still cherished in northern Europe today – not only in the proudly ‘Hanseatic’ towns of Germany but as far afield as London and King’s Lynn.

The cause of the Hansa’s emergence in the mid-12th century was the rise of the Baltic as a powerful trading hub, one that provided new goods for Europe’s expanding, urbanising and ever more demanding population. Such demand created opportunities, but it also sparked tensions, as rival merchants jostled to secure a stake of these lucrative new markets.

In 1161, as rivalries grew and occasionally escalated into violence, merchants in the Gotland city of Visby decided to collaborate in a trading network designed to further and protect their interests. The great Baltic trading island of Gotland off today’s Swedish coast had built on older Viking networks to grow wealthy on trade with the east, as can be seen in Visby’s beautifully preserved medieval centre today. Others now wanted a piece of the action.

It was usual to see helmet, armour and sword hanging up above stores of codfish, bales of herrings and casks of beer

Soon the Visby merchants had been joined by trading towns and cities across Europe (see map overleaf) – from Gotland in the north to cities like Cologne and Krakow in the south, and from the Netherlands in the west to the territory of the modern Baltic States in the east (where Germanic economic influence was already strong, courtesy of the crusading campaigns of the Teutonic knights in the 13th century, which paved the way for aristocratic Germanic settlers.) By 1259, this network had evolved into a powerful transnational group, the Hanseatic League.

So what explains the Hansa’s rapid growth? The answer lies, in part, in the benefits it conferred on its members. It created a network of trusted associates in far-flung parts of the European market, a network that any individual Hanseatic trader could turn to for advice and protection. Because they often lived together in trading bases, or convened at Hanseatic gatherings, members could tap into information about the availability of goods for trade – from Russian wax to Baltic grain – and their changing market value. Convoys were formed to defend shipping against piracy. The Hansa also oversaw the manufacture of new ships ideally suited to Baltic trade.

The gates to Lübeck, the Hanseatic League's pre-eminent city. It was here that the league's court of appeal was based. It was also ere that Johann Wittenborg was executed for failing to defeat the Danes. (Photo by Dreamstime)
The gates to Lübeck, the Hanseatic League’s pre-eminent city. It was here that the league’s court of appeal was based. It was also ere that Johann Wittenborg was executed for failing to defeat the Danes. (Photo by Dreamstime)

Key to the Hansa offering was quality control – whether that be in the standard of the goods being traded, the avoidance of counterfeiting, or the standardisation of weights and measures. And, by the mid-14th century, regular meetings of the Hansa were being held to regulate their affairs. Although it had a sometimes fluid membership, and no formal constitution or central government, the Hanseatic organisation did develop a set of customary practices and laws, and from 1373 a kind of court of appeal was based in Lübeck to settle disputes.

Resorting to force

For all the benefits that Hansa membership offered European traders, it’s important to remember that these benefits weren’t designed for everyone. The Hansa was not aiming to create a free trade utopia but rather to protect its privileges. Members used their collective power to try to negotiate the most favourable terms possible for trade in foreign markets – terms designed to give them an advantage over their rivals. The Hansa as a group could try to enforce its will by boycotting its enemies commercially, notably against Flanders in the 14th century. And if that didn’t work, they sometimes resorted to force.

So merchants became not only traders but sometimes soldiers. A 19th-century historian of the Hansa, Helen Zimmern, wrote that in a typical Lübeck merchant’s house “it was usual to see helmet, armour and sword hanging up above stores of codfish, bales of herrings, casks of beer, bales of cloth, or what not besides”.

And it wasn’t just rival trading blocs or Baltic pirates that felt the force of such weapons. Often, the Hansa found itself at loggerheads with governments.

There’s little doubt that the Hansa’s rise to power was facilitated by the weakness of many medieval governments, a weakness exacerbated by the desire of cities to free themselves of the restrictions medieval rulers placed upon them, ranging from taxes to bans on what kinds of weapons they could carry. In fact by the mid-14th century, with its laws and courts of appeal, the Hanseatic League had itself started in some ways to resemble a government. So, when it found itself at war with the Danes in the 1360s – following the Danish sacking of the strategically vital Baltic port of Visby in 1361 – the stakes were incredibly high.

The Hansa did not take any kind of defeat lightly. When one member of that great fur-trading Wittenborg family, Johann, failed in his attempt to defeat Danish forces, he was executed in Lübeck’s market place. In the end however the Hansa prevailed, imposing the 1370 Treaty of Stralsund in which the Danes were compelled to concede Hanseatic privileges. For some historians, this marks the height of Hanseatic power.

That power gave the Hansa the scope and the ambition to develop an early version of the logistics chains so prominent in international commerce today. Warehousing was a key to this, providing secure places to store, weigh and assess goods in locations linked to transport networks.

One such warehouse can still be seen in King’s Lynn on the Norfolk coast. This is England’s best-preserved part of the Hanseatic network, an impressive beamed building constructed in the late 15th century by merchants mainly from the Hanseatic town of Danzig (now Gdansk in Poland). It was, as one historian has observed, a “little piece of Germany in England”, creating a rich trade connection between the English port and merchants from Danzig. Intermarriage between the populations of the two towns helped reinforce the relationship.

Grateful English kings

London was not a member of the Hansa but it was home to a major Hanseatic base, the ‘Steelyard’, situated on the site of what is now Cannon Street station. The Steelyard was a self-contained community and compound, including storage space for goods, a weighbridge, accommodation, a wine cellar and a garden.

Security was tight. Only Hansa merchants were permitted to enter by means of a password (“bread and cheese”), a curfew was enforced, all women excluded. Its traders enjoyed privileges given to them by grateful English monarchs in return for financial favours. Edward III pawned his crown jewels in the Hanseatic city of Cologne between 1339 and 1344 to fund the early stages of the Hundred Years’ War. In return the king granted the Hansa privileges including concessions in many of the Cornish tin mines. The German traders – also known as ‘Easterlings’ – had a reputation for sound money and may have given us the name ‘sterling’ for our modern British currency.

The Prussians and Nazis attempted to exploit Hanseatic history as an example of Germanic racial expansion

Given such a strong position and extensive facilities, it’s hardly surprising that many Hansa fortunes were made in England, and that Hansa merchants went on to dominate the country’s cloth export trade. Hans Holbein famously painted the portraits of Hanseatic merchants operating out of 16th-century London (see image on page 59). These men exude status, wealth and, above all, great confidence in their future as well as their illustrious past.

However, the privileges that these merchants enjoyed – including freedom from arrest and exemption from many customs duties – caused resentment. The Hanseatic League was accused of “crocodile-like behaviour”, showing only its head and teeth, while the rest of the body remained concealed beneath the water. In England, rival trading groups, such as the Merchant Adventurers, began to flex their lobbying muscles. Worse still, so did the government itself. Fears that Hanseatic dominance of shipping was threatening England’s emerging maritime prowess provoked a backlash from some of the most powerful figures in the land. In 1597 Queen Elizabeth I forced the Hansa to leave the Steelyard – albeit temporarily – and the site never regained its significance before being destroyed in the Great Fire of London.

By then, the Hansa’s fortunes were also under pressure in continental Europe. The Reformation led to disputes among its members. And there was the rise of new regional powers, such as the Swedish monarchy: a war between King Gustavus I and Lübeck in the 1530s led to the end of the Hanseatic trading monopoly in the Baltic Sea. New Dutch, Italian and southern German traders – and commercial operators like the Fugger banking family – also challenged the Hansa families’ commercial position.

The Prussians and Nazis attempted to exploit Hanseatic history as an example of Germanic racial expansion

Added to all that was a reorientation of European trade towards new opportunities opening up in southern Europe, Asia and across the Atlantic. And a shift in the natural world had an impact. Due to changes in sea temperature, huge shoals of herring, a staple of Hanseatic trade and diet (and once said to be so thick in places that they could be caught by hand) moved in the 15th century out of the Baltic and into the North Sea.

States fight back

But it was the Thirty Years’ War in the 17th century that perhaps marked the final straw for the era of Hanseatic prosperity, as trade was disrupted by conflict, and newly emerging nation states – no longer cowed by Hanseatic power – asserted their rights ever more strongly. In 1669 the final formal gathering of the Hanseatic League took place in its pre-eminent city, Lübeck.

That might have been the end of the story. But, during the Napoleonic invasions of German territory, the memory of the Hansa was revived as an ideal of robust Germanic independence. The Prussians and Nazis also attempted to exploit Hanseatic history as an example of Germanic racial expansion.

It is the purely economic achievements of the Hansa that are the focus today, as northern German towns and cities such as Lübeck, Bremen and Hamburg proudly proclaim their Hanseatic roots. The name lives on too in the German airline Lufthansa and the football team Hansa Rostock. And along the eastern Baltic coast the memory is still potent. In the Estonian capital, Tallinn, the Hanseatic past is celebrated through architecture and cuisine in a way shrewdly designed to appeal to German tourists.

Champions of the European Union have tried to celebrate the Hanseatic League as a kind of prototype version of continental unification. However, historians point out that the Hansa never had the kind of political or economic integration associated with the EU. And it is striking that a group of northern EU members, collaborating today informally under the name the ‘New Hanseatic League’, support ideas of liberal and thrifty economics and freer trade rather than EU centralisation.

Meanwhile, memories of a simpler but evocative kind can be found in the remains of Hanseatic architecture, such as elegant old salt warehouses in Lübeck or formidable churches built by prosperous Hanseatic merchants in Baltic towns like Stralsund, decorated with images such as bearded Russians arriving at trading posts with mounds of furs. The squirrel trade, like so much Hanseatic activity, faded over time, due partly to overhunting. The trading network had – in that particular field – been too successful for its own good.

But it had shown the enormous potential of linking businesses, families, ports and urban centres, which others went on to exploit. And it reminds us why trade is so significant in global history.

Chris Bowlby is a journalist who produces documentaries for the BBC. His BBC Radio 4 documentary on the Hanseatic League, The Hansa Inheritance, presented by Chris Morris, is available on BBC Sounds: bbc.co.uk/sounds.


The Hanseatic Trading Empire

Feeding Europe’s consumer boom: 7 products that greased the wheels of the Hanseatic trade network

Pepper was often sourced from southern Europe or markets like Bruges and then supplied by Hanseatic merchants across its northern network. The Danzig merchants based at King’s Lynn in England were known locally as pepper sacks’.

Grain was collected from farmland around Baltic river systems and supplied to great cities of northern Europe. The Baltic grain trade remained significant for Europe until the opening of the American prairie markets in the 19th century.

Hansa merchants dominated trade routes, from Russia to England, as our map shows. (Illustration by Paul Hewitt/Battlefield Design)
Hansa merchants dominated trade routes, from Russia to England, as our map shows. (Illustration by Paul Hewitt/Battlefield Design)

Hanseatic traders brought together fish from the Baltic Sea and salt from cities such as Kiel on the Baltic coast. This enabled the preservation of fish and its distribution to those observing the religious rules of eating fish on Fridays. The image, left, shows a fishmonger gutting herring in the 15th century. Hanseatic networks distributed hops from central and eastern Europe, spreading ideas too about how brewing methods could be improved. This helped reinforce, it’s been argued, the dividing line between beer-drinking northern Europe and the wine-drinking south.

Timber and wood products were a highly significant Hanseatic product, brought from areas around the Baltic to western European trading markets like Antwerp and Bruges.

Wax was transported to the west from Russia and Poland, which may have given us the word ‘polishing’. Sweet-smelling beeswax candles (shown, right, being sold in the 14th century) were in high demand for lighting, and for ecclesiastical use.

Advertisement

This article was first published in the August 2019 edition of BBC History Magazine