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Medieval maritime trade. Credit: Yury Kisialiou / Adobe Stock

The Hanseatic League: Dominating the Baltic Maritime Trade

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The Baltic Sea has historically been an important region for maritime trade. Its favorable location, which acts as a connection between major nations and trading hubs, always made it a focal point for north European traders and merchant caravans. But such favorable routes always become contested with many regional powers struggling for dominion. One such power came to be known as the Hanseatic League.

A quickly rising and powerful merchant guild confederation, the Hanseatic League showed how smart alliances and a functioning network of trading towns can benefit everyone on the long run, creating wealth for all without internal disagreements. This merchant league emerged in the Middle Ages . It flourished for over three centuries, dominating north European maritime trade and creating an immense network that brought prosperity to the region. We will explore these trading towns in depth, as we learn more about one of the finest merchant confederations that ever existed.

Emergence of the Hanseatic League

The North European and Baltic Sea shores were always an important region for trading. From its earliest mentions in the annals of history, the Baltic has been known for its regional trading hubs that enjoyed great wealth and connected various tribes and peoples, each of which had different goods to offer.

During the early medieval period, the shores of the Baltic sea were dotted with many Slavic walled towns, while the northeastern shores were home to Baltic tribes such as the Curonians, Samogitians, Yotvingians, and Prussians.

The powerful Slavic tribal confederation of the Obodrites and many other Pomeranian tribes dominated the region of modern north-central Germany and built many powerful regional centers. Furthermore, the Vikings also had many flourishing trading hubs, such as Birka, Hedeby, and Visby. But as the Slavic tribes were gradually annihilated and assimilated, through violent means and several crusades, their towns became German. Some of these towns would later become the most important in medieval Germany, as well as influential in the Hanseatic League. Some of these ex-Slavic towns included Stralsund (from the Slavic strela – arrow), Rostock ( rastoka – river fork), Wismar ( Wyszemir), and, the most important of all, Lübeck ( Liubice – lovely).

Map of Medieval Northern Europe showing the extent of the Hanseatic League. Source: Droysen / Andrée / CC BY-SA

Map of Medieval Northern Europe showing the extent of the Hanseatic League. Source: Droysen / Andrée / CC BY-SA

Lübeck was always at the center of all Baltic trade. The region gradually became an emporium. Many different tribes and peoples of varied heritage congregated in the region, while goods from varied provenance flowed towards these towns. The Scandinavians were the pioneers of such trade. Visby, on the island of Gotland, was a major trading hub, and its sailors travelled through the river systems of the Baltic as far as Novgorod. But it was Lübeck that would emerge as the heart of the Hanseatic world as maritime trade brought important changes to the area. Scholars can trace the emergence of the Hanseatic League in its earliest form to circa 1159. It was around this year that Lübeck was strengthened and rebuilt, after being captured by Henry the Lion, Duke of Saxony and Bavaria.

Even before that, Lübeck had a strategically important location as a Baltic port town. The Slavs created it in 700 AD, and it steadily rose in power and importance until 1128, when it was razed to the ground by another Slavic tribe. Soon afterwards it was rebuilt by the Germans. Around 1200 its importance as a port town was evident due to its location as an important hub between the North Sea, Scandinavia and the Baltic.

With its rising importance, other German trading hubs also gained increasing prestige. As Lübeck became a gathering point for countless merchants that travelled both east, west, and north, merchant guilds gradually began to emerge. The guilds, known in German as hansa, would trade with the oversea towns, providing assistance to each other. These guilds emerged in many cities related to the Baltic trade. In time, each Hanseatic city relied on its own troops: it raised levies and had its own army. But most importantly, the cities helped each other, eliminating competition and creating a confederation of towns.

Autonomy and Power

The cities involved in the Baltic trade brought about various changes to economic and maritime trade of the era. Many cities and representatives were motivated by personal gain, attempting to exempt Hanseatic merchants via trade restrictions. Hamburg – one of the most important and powerful of the emerging Hanseatic League – gained the status of a “free Imperial city” in 1189.

A free Imperial city enjoyed a degree of autonomy compared to other cities within the Holy Roman Empire . Lübeck followed Hamburg soon after, achieving the same status in 1226. A crucial aspect for both their futures was the forging of an alliance between Hamburg and Lübeck in 1241. Each city controlled a specific area of the trade network: salt trade was controlled by Hamburg, but fishing grounds were controlled by Lübeck. Together, they came to dominate the entire salted fish trading network, one of the major products traded in the Baltic region.

Hamburg and Lübeck forged an alliance in 1241, which allowed them to dominate the entire salted fish trading network in the Baltic region. (Unknown: CC BY-SA)

Hamburg and Lübeck forged an alliance in 1241, which allowed them to dominate the entire salted fish trading network in the Baltic region. ( Unknown: CC BY-SA )

When another powerful city, Cologne, joined the Hanseatic League soon afterwards, the alliance grew in power and came to dominate the trade networks. King Henry III of England granted the Hanseatic cities the freedom to operate in England, which further benefited their wealth and influence. It’s important to underline the fact that the alliance forged between these cities and merchant guilds was born out of necessity.

Trading at the time was unsafe, due to piracy and frequent raids, and the merchants needed to safeguard the system of their own accord. As other major cities joined the alliance, the league continued to prosper, and its power and influence gained strength. One of these was the merchant guild of Visby, with whom Lübeck was previously in competition. The trade networks spread to the east and the Kievan Rus’ town of Veliky Novgorod.

The Domination of the Hansa

The Hanseatic League steadily grew in power in the following years and decades. The allied towns or hansa (guilds) came to number between 70 and 170 cities. On top of that, the Hanseatic League established several crucial trading outposts that would grow into powerful enclaves that were essential for trade outside of their usual trade network. These trading outposts were known as kontor, and were located in Bruges (Flanders), London, Bergen (Norway), as well as many less significant warehouses all along the English coasts.

The major trading goods dominant in the Hanseatic League networks connected the many parts of northern Europe. These included salt from Lüneburg, cloth from Flanders, fine cloth and linens from England, wax, tar, timber, skins, furs, and leather from Russia, hard dusk grains from Prussia and Livonia, copper and iron from Poland and Sweden, glassmaking goods from Sweden, salted fish, herring, and beer from the Baltic regions, wine from Rhineland, and many other goods from all over the region.

The salzspeicher (salt storehouses) of Lübeck in Germany are six historic brick buildings which are still standing today. The salt trade in the Middle Ages helped make Lübeck the center of all Baltic trade. (lsnurnfoto /Adobe Stock)

The salzspeicher (salt storehouses) of Lübeck in Germany are six historic brick buildings which are still standing today. The salt trade in the Middle Ages helped make Lübeck the center of all Baltic trade. ( lsnurnfoto /Adobe Stock )

As most of these trade towns were centered in the Germany of the period, its success in trading had a significant effect on that nation. Its wide-reaching networks brought new peoples, technologies and goods to Germany, furthering its advance and refining its industries. And as the bulk of this trade was maritime, it meant that the new fashions, and in particular the Renaissance, reached Germany much faster. It also made the Hanseatic League’s lingua franca, Middle Low German (also known as Middle Saxon), an influential language of the time, which impacted many regional languages via loanwords.

Cyriacus Kale (1533) by Hans Holbein the Younger. Merchants from the hansa trading association came to London to supervise their trade empire. These merchants were based at the Steelyard in the City of London. (Hans Holbein / Public domain)

Cyriacus Kale (1533) by Hans Holbein the Younger. Merchants from the hansa trading association came to London to supervise their trade empire. These merchants were based at the Steelyard in the City of London. ( Hans Holbein / Public domain )

Of course, as the commerce of the Hanseatic League was a maritime endeavor, the merchant guilds largely depended on effective and dependable ships. This gave rise to many innovations in shipbuilding, and the creation of larger, expensive ships that could carry more weight. Before these advancements entered use, the merchant guilds were mostly equipped with Frisian cogs: single mast, oak-built ships typical of the Baltic region from the 10th to 12th century. The largest of these could bear a load of about 90 tons.

With time, and driven by need, the Hanseatic league refined these designs to create a bulky ship known as the Hanseatic cog . The basic ones had a single large mast, but with a forecastle and an aftercastle. But the largest trading cogs were three-mast carvel hulks that could carry about 200 tons, a significant amount for the period. They could only ride with the wind, but were largely inexpensive to build. Interestingly, the Hanseatic cog brought some changes in shipbuilding that would influence all designs of the future. One of these was the addition of the fore and aft castles, an addition imported from England. These were defensive raised walled platforms at each end, used to defend the ship if needed. In time, the aft (rear) castle was fully enclosed, which gave rise to the distinctive rear cabin, the captain’s quarters which would become an important aspect of ships built in later centuries.

The merchant guilds invested in many shipbuilding innovations, including the creation of a ship known as the Hanseatic cog which could carry up to 200 tonnes (2,204.6 pounds), for their trading networks in the North and Baltic Sea. (acrogame / Adobe Stock)

The merchant guilds invested in many shipbuilding innovations, including the creation of a ship known as the Hanseatic cog which could carry up to 200 tonnes (2,204.6 pounds), for their trading networks in the North and Baltic Sea. ( acrogame / Adobe Stock )

The Hanseatic League at the Height of Its Power

With the refinement of shipping vessels, and the expansion of trade networks to include many more cities, the economic circumstance of trade significantly improved. Goods were now traded in large quantities which in turn influenced improvements in all fields of industry. This also allowed for trade in a greater variety of goods. Many goods previously considered luxury items and traded on small scale, now became more affordable and were shipped in mass volumes.

The kontor, which were iconic for the Hanseatic League, brought a big change in commerce itself. The so-called Hanseatic age brought with it the custom of urban markets and money economy. This changed the old system of trading in goods (exchange), for a permanent commercial premise. A good example of how the Hanseatic age influenced the trade of large quantities is fish. The fairs and markets of the Danish-occupied southern Sweden, known as Scania, would trade in huge quantities of herring: every year 200,000 and 300,000 tons of herring were traded in the region.

The Hanseatic League had their own military force. During the Danish-Hansearic War, they bombarded Copenhagen destroying the Danish fleet in 1428. (acrogame / Adobe Stock)

The Hanseatic League had their own military force. During the Danish-Hansearic War, they bombarded Copenhagen destroying the Danish fleet in 1428. ( acrogame / Adobe Stock )

As imperial free cities, the Hanseatic League members owed allegiance directly to the Holy Roman Emperor, but not to local nobles. With this level of autonomy and self-rule, the Hanseatic League came to hold a lot of power and regional influence. They also enjoyed the privileges of Lübeck law, which emphasized self-government. This law would come to apply to more than 100 towns of the league.

These aspects of the Hanseatic League gave them the ability to wage war on their own. Supported by their own military force, the league did engage in a few conflicts. One of the most important was the war with Denmark, which took place from 1361 to 1370, and was largely successful for the league. After allying with Cologne, they sacked Copenhagen and Helsinki, forcing the Danish King Valdemar IV to grant the league 15% of profits from Danish trade. This result gave the Hanseatic League a big foothold within the trading and economic monopoly of Scandinavia.

The Downfall of the Hanseatic League

With time, the political landscape of Europe bore witness to increasing changes. At the beginning of the 16th century, the Hanseatic League found itself in an increasingly difficult position, due to the rapidly changing politics of Europe. New forces rose to power, wrestling trade from Hanseatic hands. The Swedish Empire was one of these, as was Denmark. Faced with this reality and the loss of trade, some cities of the Hanseatic League came to pursue a more personal path, looking out for their own interests. Due to this, during the mid-16 th century the Hanseatic League entered a slow downward descent.

Unable to deal with the growing losses to trading competitors, several of its most important kontors closed for good: the one in Antwerp was closed in 1593 and the one in London in 1598. In the end, the pressure became too great. The Hanseatic League was ravaged with internal struggles and economic losses, and effectively disbanded. Its last formal meeting was held in 1669, with the representatives of only three cities attending the meeting. The official dissolution of the Hanseatic League took place in 1862.

The Antwerp Oostershuis kontor (trading outpost) was the headquarters of the Hanseatic League and was destroyed by fire in 1893. (Unknown: Public domain).

The Antwerp Oostershuis kontor (trading outpost) was the headquarters of the Hanseatic League and was destroyed by fire in 1893. ( Unknown: Public domain ).

The First European Union and Its Impact Upon History

The Hanseatic League and its rich history were very important for the development of Germany and the Baltic region. The significant developments of the Baltic maritime trade under the Hanseatic League ushered the region into a new era and hastened its evolution into the Renaissance and beyond. The league showcased the tactful mastery of mercantile systems and displayed how an alliance of semi-independent trading cities can effectively take care of themselves and ensure their own survival through wealth and the domination of well developed trade networks.

Top image: Medieval maritime trade. Credit: Yury Kisialiou / Adobe Stock

By Aleksa Vučković

References

Cowan, A. 2010. Hanseatic League: Oxford Bibliographies Online Research Guide. Oxford University Press.


Harreld, D. 2015. A Companion to the Hanseatic League . BRILL.


Meier, D. 2006. Seafarers, Merchants, and Pirates in the Middle Ages . Boydell Press.


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