The Hansa League - A Brief Introduction
In spring 2004, I undertook a journey to some German Hansa Towns at the Baltic Sea coast: Lübeck, Wismar, Rostock, and Stralsund. This was pre-digital camera time, so there are not many photos to begin with; and I only scanned a few (even those are nowhere near the quality of my recent photos) which I posted on my old website, together with some info about my journey. This is the revised version of the first part of the essay, with some new photos from my Norway tour added.
Except Lübeck (which I had seen about 25 years earlier), all places I visited were located in the former GDR where the old buildings were seldom cared for properly and thus had lost much of their splendour. Thirteen years after the Reunion, much had been done, and while some churches still showed parts that were in disrepair, and scaffoldings, and some half-timbered houses were yet waiting for a carpenter and new paint, the larger part of the old heritage looked fine, and I really enjoyed walking the streets and visiting the churches.
Wismar, one of the cobblestone ways beside a canal, with St. Nikolai Church in the background
All the towns I visited are situated close to the coast of the Baltic Sea: Lübeck a few miles inland where the Wakenitz confluences into the Trave river, Wismar at a bay, Rostock at a firth, and Stralsund dircetly at the coast opposite the island of Rügen. In former times, the towns were additionally protected by a system of channels - these can still be seen in Lübeck and Stralsund - and walls. The combination of sea harbours and landward protections was one of the facts that made these towns some of the most wealthy and powerful places during the Middle Ages, and the Old Towns mirror this until today.
The harbours are still used, and so you face the odd combination of 14th century brick or half-timbered houses and magnificent churches side by side with modern harbour and shipyard equipment within a few metres distance. I found it fascinating and took several photos of this contrast.
Rostock, Inner Harbour and Old Town
The word Hansa (German Hanse) is very old; it appears already in Wulfila's 5th century Gothic bible translation where it means something like "a group of armed men". In the 12th/13th centuries it is used to name a group of merchants in a foreign country or the tax they have to pay.
The rise of the Hansa in the sense it is used in historiography today to describe the vast net of towns in northern Europe which were connected by mutual protection agreements and trade laws, took place during the second half of the 12th century, the same time as the process of town development and the role of towns changed.
Towns have played an important role in many cultures, from Babylon to Aegypt, Ancient Greece and the Roman Imperium as well as in the cultures of the Maya and Inka. But except for the Greek polis and Republican Rome, those towns were governed by kings and the society structure was hierarchical.
Bergen, the German Hansa quarter Tyske Bryggen
In the feudal system of the Middle Ages, towns did not stand on their own, but in vassalty to a king, prince or bishop. Nor did they - except in Italy - own any land. But in the 11th century, there was a development to gain more independency, especially the right of self-administration. A citizen government developed with guilds and councils, elections and meetings under the leadership of the merchants who were the most important social group. The right to actively participate in town government was restrictied to people with possessions in the town, because it was assumed that only those who had something to lose would care to protect it (which ruled out fe. journeymen and harbour workers).
But the rights of self-administration (including a special city law), defense (town walls) and market had to be granted by the feudal overlord. Many of the lords were interested in towns on their land, though, because a rich town meant tax income for them as well.
The increase of long distance trade went hand in hand with a growing number of towns. Around 1000 AD there were about 150 towns in Germany, two hundred years later it were about thousand, many of them new foundations. Lübeck was to become one of the most flourishing and important among them.
Lübeck, merchant houses along one of the channels
Lübeck was founded in 1159 by Heinrich 'the Lion' Duke of Saxony after an older settlement had burned down. Duke Heinrich wanted a harbour to the Baltic Sea, and thus gave the merchants who settled in Lübeck many rights and privileges (low taxes, trade monopols). We don't know much about the details of the founding, but it seems probable that the ground was given to a group of settlers who then distributed it among the newcomers. Heinrich also transfered the Bishop's Seat from Oldenburg to Lübeck.
How important a flourishing merchant town was for the empire is shown by the fact that Barbarossa granted Lübeck imperial immediacy at a time when the town still sided with Duke Heinrich in his feud with the emperor. Imperial immediacy (Reichsunmittelbarkeit) meant that Lübeck had feudal obligations only towards the emperor and his successors (taxes mostly, and the fact that death sentences needed confirmation by the emperor), and thus was able to enter into negotiations and contracts with other feudal lords or other free towns, and to maintain an army / fleet. It had the same powers and privileges a prince would have had.
Both citizens and Church would demonstrate their status by representative buildings. In Lübeck it was mostly about who got the bigger church; while Stralsund has the most impressive town hall.
The town hall in Stralsund with its representative Gothic gable (entirely constructed of bricks)
Wares traded across the Baltic Sea at the time Lübeck rose to power were fish (very important with 130 Lent days a year), and Lübeck's access to the saltworks in Lüneburg played a role in that because salt was needed to conserve the fish - if it wasn't prepared as stockfish. Another important good was wax, the material for candles. The largest church in Stralsund, St.Nikolai, had 53 altars and on each of them candles burned day and night. Consider that larger towns all over Germany, France, Italy, Flanders and England had at least three or four churches with more than a score of altars, and you can imagine the vast amount of wax needed. This part of the trade (fish and wax) broke down after the Reformation.
The German coastal towns also traded salt, amber and beer (since the quality of the water was not for drinking, beer played an important role). Later, they also exported wheat. Other goods were furs from Russia, timber from Scandinavia and from Sweden also ore; wool and ore from England, cloth and wine from Flanders; and by the inland markets of Nuremberg and Augsburg came luxury goods that were transported via the Mediterranean Sea and the Alpes.
One reason for the increase of trade on the Baltic and North Sea was a new type of ship, the cog (Kogge). These were seaworthy ships carrying up to 100 tons. Old paintings show that most of them had more than one sail, and the Holstentor Museum in Lübeck displays a painting of a sea battle where most of those cogs had canons. Up till the Thirty Years War, the Fleet of Lübeck alone was bigger than the one of England (hehe), and when several Hansa towns joined their fleets, they were a power to reckown with.
Wismar, the yacht harbour (on the site of the former trade harbour; the large oversea harbour is outside town today)
Of course, many cogs have sunk in the Baltic Sea during the 300 years they were in use. The Baltic Sea is quite flat and has a low salt concentration of 1,5% compared to other seas and oceans with 3-4%, therefore that nasty shipworm which eats wood doesn't thrive there, and some of the wrecks could be salvaged in good shape. They have served as models for several sucessful attempts to rebuild cogs.
In Wismar, I had the chance to see the hull of a cog in the process of being rebuild and talk with some of the men involved in the task. I learend that this was a reconstruction of the so-called Poeler Kogge (after the place near Wismar where the wreck had been found), done by a group of dedicated young people, who were at it for 4 years then. The state paid some money, but they worked a lot in their free time as well. Every plank and beam was hewn by hand, every iron nail hand-forged, and they used tar and warg according to old receipes. The men told me that the most difficult work had been to bow the great planks that form the elegant oblong shape of the hull. It had to be done by heating the oak timber without burning it, but hot enough to prevent the plank from breaking. When the wood cooled it would remain in the given shape. Seen from inside the hull, the cog was huge, and most of the place under the deck planks in former times had been storage room.
The rebuild cog is be named Wissemara. It is the largest late-Mediaeval ship on the Baltic Sea found so far. Some numbers may demonstrate this: length 22 metres, bredth 8 metres, the mast rose to 32 metres, the sail was about 300 square metres, storage room 200 tons. In summer 2004 I found an article in a newspaper that the cog had as been brought to water as it was tradition in the Middle Ages; the superstructure - mast, rigging and all that - was always finished on water. The cog now serves for tourist excursion on the Baltic Sea.
Bergen, detail of the German Hansa quarter
The predecessor of the Hansa League was the Gotland Corperation. Gotland is an island east of southern Sweden, and by this position predestined to play an important role in the Baltic Sea trade since the time of the Vikings who already traveled to Novgorod and Lake Ladoga, and from there the river systems of Russia down to Kiev and the Black Sea) In the 12th century, the Russian rivers were no longer open to the people from Gotland, but they still had a main office in Novgorod and their merchants were granted special rights.
The Gotland merchants jealously protected their trading routes, but in 1161, Duke Heinrich of Saxony managed to establish peace between them and the German merchants, and from that time on the German merchants held the same rights on the Gotland markets as the Gotland merchants in Germany. With the foundation of the universi mercatores Imperii Romani Gotlandiam frequentantes (Union of the Merchants from the Roman Empire Who Travel to Gotland) the Hansa was born. Soon the Germans built an office in Visby on Gotland and in the following centuries outmaneouvred the Gotland merchants from their important positions.
In the beginning, Russia was the most important trade partner, but the German / Gotland merchants soon developed trade on a regular basis with the other Scandiavian countries (where the German kontor, the office in Bergen, was the most important one), later also with England and Flanders, thus exploring the North Sea as well.
Roskilde Cathedral (as representative for the Gothic brick churches in most Hansa towns)
In the wake of securing the eastern routes, German merchants had great influence on the conquest of the heathen tribes living in Latvia, Livland and Prussia (Lithuania). By putting money and manpower to disposal; they became almost a rival of the Teutonic Knights. After the conquest followed colonialization, the building of towns like Riga, Danzig (Gdansk) and Reval (Tallinn). In what is now Mecklenburg-Vorpommern (the land of the Slavic tribes of the Obodrites and Vendes which Duke Heinrich of Saxony conquered), the colonialization process was much stronger since it also involved permanent settlement outside
the towns so that towards the end of the 13th century, the land became German.
The towns I visited were planned by the citizens of Lübeck, and also the founding members / merchants hailed from there. Usually, a place was chosen that already had a settlement; the merchants then would build their houses and a church near it, and soon thereafter the two kernels would be united by a palisade or stone wall. Rights of Town and additional privileges were granted by the owner of the land, the Duke of Mecklenburg. Rostock became a town in 1218, Wismar in 1228 and Stralsund 1234. Led by Lübeck, these towns became the most important members of the Hansa League on German ground besides Hamburg and Bremen on the North Sea coast.
Even today, the Hansa has left a trace. German car registration numbers include an abbreviation of 1-3 letters that names the town, so M
is for Munich (München), GÖ
for Göttingen, BS
for Braunschweig etc. Only the Hansa towns of Hamburg, Bremen, Lübeck, Wismar, Rostock and Stralsund include a H
(HH, HB, HL, HWI, HRS, HST) in the abbreviation to denote their special impact on history.Source:
Philippe Dollinger, Die Hanse. 3rd edition, Stuttgart 1981