Late Middle Ages
Dynastic Policy

Late Middle Ages : The Hanseatic League

A.) Luebeck and the Opening of Baltic Trade to German Merchants

WAGRIA (Eastern Holstein), until into the 11th century was inhabited by heathen Slavs. In a series of campaigns provoked by Wagrian raids, the region was conquered, and the port city of LÜBECK was founded in 1043, the Empire's first port on the Baltic Sea. The city's lord, Duke Henry the Lion, was immediately concerned about his merchants' trading rights, and signed treaties ensuring equal trading rights with the Baltic's leading trading nation, Gotland. However, Emperor Friedrich I. Barbarossa now regarded duke Henry all too powerful, used a welcome opportunity and banned him, confiscated the city of Lübeck and declared it a city immediately subject to the Empire (in Ger.: REICHSFREIE STADT). This status gave the CITY COUNCIL a free hand to govern their own affairs, and in fact to actively pursue a foreign policy. As long as city policy was not directed against the Empire, taxes were paid regularly and no privileges were violated, the Emperor, residing far away, did not interfere.
Lübeck was a city based on far-distance trade, connecting the German with the Baltic market. The dominating group of BURGHERS were the PATRICIANS, the families engaged in far-distance trade, the wealthiest taxpayers in town. They alone were represented in the city council. COUNCILMEN (Lat. consules) were appointed for life. If a councilman died, the remaining councilmen elected a replacement, often from the deceased family. The city council was headed by two BURGHERMASTERS (Lat. proconsules). The city was exempt from the surrounding country's Law (LANDRECHT) and had it's own set of laws (LUBIAN LAW). The city council was free to adapt changes in the city's law, which had to be approved by the Emperor (he usually complied).
Lübeck brought German knowhow (German cities had at that time a higher degree of division of labour, and German craftsmanship in a number of crafts was advanced, as compared to that of their Scandinavian, Slavic and Baltic counterparts) and capital into the Baltic trade. The trade so far was dominated by the Gotlanders, traders-farmers who sailed between Novgorod, Bergen, England and Bruges in small boats. The Lubians over time introduced the COG, a large ship capable of carrying a lot of cargo, but requiring a deeper harbor.

B.) Urbanization of the Shore of the Baltic and North Sea

Lübeck was an instant success, the flow of tax revenue into the Emperor's treasure box encouraging others to try to imitate him. Since 1220/35, the territorial lords within the Empire had the right to found cities on their own. Within a few decades, cities mushroomed all around the Baltic Sea. The territorial lord, be it the Duke of Mecklenburg, Pommerania, the Grand Master of the Teutonic Order or the King of Sweden, invited burghers from Luebeck and from other German cities to settle down in his new city and to live there according to their own tradition, under the same conditions as the burghers of Lübeck. Thus, these cities, such as STOCKHOLM, REVAL, RIGA, STRALSUND, DANZIG were given Lubian Law and were German in character.
The German merchants of all these cities, and of other cities along the shore of the North Sea as well as in Westphalia, often appeared as a group to negotiate TRADE PRIVILEGES, especially in foreign countries such as the Republic of Novgorod, the Kingdoms of Norway, Sweden, Denmark, England, the County of Flanders. The merchant group soon came to be known as the HANSEATIC LEAGUE. It became so important, that in the 1290es when it inflicted a trade embargo over Norway, the country experienced a famine and it's king had to give in. The Hanseatic League had become the most powerful force in the Baltic region. According to traditional law in the regions surrounding the Baltic, if any goods of a sunken ship were washed ashore, they belonged to the finder (Ger.: STRANDRECHT). If a sinking ship or a ship in distress was aided by others, the cargo would belong to those who helped. Now the Hanseatic League used it's economic dominance to have these laws changed.
Non-German traders found themselves at a disadvantage, as they missed the economic strength of the Hanseatic League, and as they missed the high degree of political autonomy the Hanseatic cities enjoyed. VISBY, the trading centre on the island of Gotland, and STAVEREN in Frisia, were such cases. Having no territorial lord who could give them a law such as that of Lübeck - both Gotland and Frisia had a kind of a republican constitution, and the respective assemblies were unwilling to give up their Strandrecht, the burghers of Staveren went to the Count of Holland, paid homage to him and received their city law in return (1280), the burghers of Visby went to the King of Sweden in 1288 for the same purpose. Now they were free to join the Hanseatic League as full members.
The Hanseatic League fought a number of wars with Denmark, over the isssue of the SOUND LEVY. They came to a mutual agreement to leave the Levy in place, but give Hanseatic merchants favourable treatment. Thus, outside competition in the Baltic was practically excluded, until into the 15th century. The Hanseatic cities extended from Holland to Estonia, most of them located on it's southern shore. The Swedish cities (Stockholm, Kalmar and others; not Visby) lost their high degree of independence in 1350 when king Magnus Eriksson introduced his uniform city law for Sweden's cities. In foreign countries, the Hanseatic League ran COMPTOIRS, such as the PETERHOF in Novgorod, the STEELYARD in London, the GERMAN BRIDGE in Bergen and the Hanseatic Comptoir in Bruges. The Hanseatic League, from the 14th century on, consisted of 4 quarters, the WESTPHALIAN, WENDIAN, PRUSSIAN and LIVONIAN QUARTER. Luebeck was regarded the head of the League.

Links from ORB
Encyclopedic description from infoplease, from Baron Fum/Society of Creative Anachronism
Homepage :
The Hanseatic League - a Bold Precursor to the European Union, from European Digest
History of Lübeck from Univ. Luebeck, of Hamburg by stoni, of Riga by rcc and by Versia , of Visby by ovpm
DOCUMENTS Grants of Privileges at London to the Hanse of Köln, 1157-1194, from the Medieval Sourcebook

This page is part of World History at KMLA
First posted on January 3rd 2002, lst revised on November 12th 2004

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