My Illlustrated Travel Journal with Essays about Roman and Mediaeval History and some Geology

  The Hanseatic League - Introduction

This is the first part of a series of posts about the Hanseatic League. It offers an introduction to the Hanseatic League, in German known as die Hanse (Hansa) and the first trade coperation that precedes the Hanseatic League, the Gotland Corperation.

It is the revised version of an older post (1).

Gabled town houses in Lübeck

The first and most important towns that would become the nucleus of the Hanseatic League are all coastal trade towns situated close to the Baltic Sea: Lübeck a few miles inland where the Wakenitz confluences into the Trave river, Wismar at a bay, 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 features that made these towns some of the most wealthy and powerful places during the Middle Ages.

The same goes for places like Bergen (in a fjord), Riga (at the Daugava river some miles inland) or Tallinn (in a bay). The one place that doesn't really follow the pattern is Visby on Gotland.

Bergen, the German Hansa quarter Tyske Bryggen

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 historiographic meaning of 'Hansa' today is used to describe the vast net of towns in northern Europe which were connected by mutual protection agreements and trade laws. The beginnings of the Hanseatic League 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, detail of the German Hansa quarter

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 there was a development to gain more independency, especially the right of self-administration, during the 11th century. A citizen government developed with guilds and elected councils under the leadership of the merchants who were the most important social group. The right to actively participate in town government was restricted 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 important among them.

Lübeck, merchant houses along one of the canals

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.

The importance of a flourishing merchant town for the empire is shown by the fact that Friedrich 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 death sentences needed confirmation by the emperor). The town 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.

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 fasting 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 for candles. The largest church in Stralsund, St.Nicholas, 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 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). Other goods were corn, furs from Russia, timber from Scandinavia and from Sweden also ore; wool from England, cloth and wine from Flanders. Luxury goods that had to be transported via the Mediterranean Sea and the Alpes came by the way of the inland markets of Nuremberg and Augsburg (which were not members of the Hanseatic League), those wares were often handled in Cologne (which was a member).

Wismar, the Old Harbour (the large oversea harbour is outside town today)

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, and when several Hanseatic towns joined their fleets, they were a power to reckown with.

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.

Visby, the head of the Gotland Corperation

The predecessor of the Hanseatic 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 treaty in which German merchants were granted the same rights on the Gotland markets as the Gotland merchants in Germany, esp. Lübeck. With the foundation of the universi mercatores Imperii Romani Gotlandiam frequentantes (Union of the Merchants from the Roman Empire Who Travel to Gotland) the Hanseatic League 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 (guildhall and stalhof in London) and Flanders, thus exploring the North Sea as well.

St.Mary Church in Stralsund, a fine example of Gothic brick architecture

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); 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.

Most of those new towns were planned by the citizens of Lübeck, and the founding members / merchants hailed from there. They usually choose places which already had a settlment and built their houses and a church near it; 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 (a duke or count, or sometimes the king).

Visby on Gotland, the town walls

1) The photos to illustrate those posts will be mostly from my travels to Bergen (2011); the Baltic Sea Cruise (2012) with photos of Bremen, Visby, Riga, Tallinn and Gdansk; and two trips to the German Balic Sea coast (2015) with pictures of Lübeck, Wismar, Stralsund, and Lüneburg. Of course, not all towns that became member of the Hanseatic League were coastal towns; Braunschweig and my own Göttingen were part of the Hansa as well.

Philippe Dollinger: Die Hanse. 3rd edition, Stuttgart 1981
J. Bracker, V. Henn, R. Poster (Ed.): Die Hanse - Lebenswirklichkeit und Mythos. 4th edition, Lübeck 2006
Frohe Weihnachten

Great post and pictures.
I used to live down the road from Heidelberg. My memory sees license plates with HD, but it has been a long time.

Hank’s Eclectic Meanderings
This is fascinating. I had no idea the word Hansa had such early origins. Terrific photographs, too.

Happy Christmas, and best wishes for the New Year!
Thank you, Hank and Carla. Merry Christmas to you as well. :)
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The Lost Fort is a travel journal and history blog based on my travels in Germany, the UK, Scandinavia, and other places. It includes essays on Roman and Mediaeval history, as well as some geology, illustrated with photos of old castles and churches, Roman remains, and beautiful landscapes.

All texts (except comments by guests) and photos (if no other copyright is noted) on this blog are copyright of Gabriele Campbell.
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Location: Germany

I'm a blogger from Germany with a MA in Literature and History which doesn't pay my bills, so I use it to research blogposts instead. I'm interested in everything Roman and Mediaeval, avid reader and sometimes writer, opera enthusiast, traveller with a liking for foreign languages and odd rocks, photographer, and tea aficionado. And an old-fashioned blogger who still hasn't got an Instagram account. :-)

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Vindolanda Tablets

Not so Dark Ages
Burgundians in the Mist
Viking Society for Northern Research

Mediaeval History
De Re Militari
Internet Mediaeval Sourcebook
The Labyrinth
Mediaeval Crusades

Exploring Castles
The World of Castles

Miscellaneous History
Heritage Daily
The History Files

Ancient History
Encyclopedia Mythica

Online Journals
Ancient Warfare
The Heroic Age
The History Files

Travel and Guide Sites

Germany - History
Antike Stätten in Deutschland
Strasse der Romanik

Germany - Nature
Naturpark Meissner
Naturpark Solling-Vogler

English Heritage
Visit Northumberland

The Chain Mail (Scottish History)
Historic Scotland
National Trust Scotland

Books and Writing

Interesting Author Websites
Bernard Cornwell
Dorothy Dunnett
Steven Erikson
Diana Gabaldon
Guy Gavriel Kay
George R.R. Martin
Sharon Kay Penman
Brandon Sanderson
J.R.R. Tolkien
Tad Williams

Historical Fiction
Historical Novel Society
Historia Magazine

Writing Sites
Absolute Write
National Novel Writing Month


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