1902 Encyclopedia > Hanseatic League

Hanseatic League

HANSEATIC LEAGUE. The word "hansa," when we find it first in the Gothic Bible of Ulfila, signifies a military assemblage or troop. From this comes the gene-ral sense of union, and especially in the Middle Ages of union for mercantile purposes. A later but less important meaning is that of a tax paid by traders for the right of forming such an union.

The Hansa, the league which ultimately overshadowed all rivals and usurped the name for itself, was no inten-tional creation, and we can fix no exact date for its origin. It arose gradually from two elements, the union of German merchants abroad, and the union of German towns at home.

The first impulse to mercantile union came from the dangers of travelling in the early Middle Ages. In those days mariners had neither chart nor compass to guide their course, and were forced to creep timidly along the shore and to avoid as much as possible the open sea. The merchant had also to dread more positive dangers than those of storm and wreck. The coasts of northern Germany harboured numbers of rovers and pirates, who regarded the peaceful trader as their natural prey. To increase their powers of resistance, it was usual for merchants to under-take their voyages in more or less numerous companies. The union thus begun on sea was still further cemented on land. In those days law was personal and not terri-torial. The foreign merchant had no share in the law of the land where he sojourned ; he brought with him his own law, and administered it as best he could. The legal customs of northern Germany were substantially alike ; and this similarity strengthened the bonds of union among the merchants who found themselves for a time settled in a foreign land. Moreover, the state of trade frequently required a long stay, and sometimes a depositing of goods among strangers. This led in time to the acquisition of common possessions abroad, lodgings, storehouses, &c. This common depot, or " factory," became the central point of the union or Hansa formed by the merchants. The union soon received a corporative constitution. At its head stood the elders, whose chief functions were to administer justice and to represent the society in its relations to the natives of the country. It was by means of these orderly unions that the German merchants obtained their important privileges, chiefly advantages in trade and taxes, from the people among whom they sojourned.

The most important German mercantile settlements were founded in Wisby, the capital of Gothland, in London, Novgorod, Bergen, and Bruges. Wisby was the central point of the Baltic trade; the other towns represent the four extreme points of North-German commerce. It was not unnatural that the mercantile settlements should exer-cise great influence on the towns from which they sprang. In those towns the municipal government was wholly in the hands of merchants. There was no feudal aristocracy as in the Italian cities, and the artisan was always jealously excluded from political power. It is obvious therefore that the policy of the town-councils would often be influ-enced by the exigencies of foreign commerce. But the influence of the foreign factories was not exercised by all in an equal degree. Wisby differed from the other settle-ments in the fact that the Germans there were not merchants making a temporary visit, but were real settlers living side by side with the native population. Novgorod was a mere colony of the German settlement in Wisby, and never held an independent position. Bergen was compara-tively unimportant, and the German " counter" in Bruges was not formed until some amount of union had been at-tained at home. But in the German colony in London the majority of the members were merely passing traders, who remained citizens of their native towns. It was therefore the London Hansa which exercised the greatest influence on the growth of the town league.

In the reign of Edgar we find the "people of the emperor " occupying a prominent position in London trade, and joined in a lasting league. The members of this league came mostly from Cologne, the first German town which obtained great importance both at home and abroad. Its citizens possessed at an early date a guild-hall of their own, and all Germans who wished to trade with England had to join their guild. This soon included merchants from Dortmund, Soest, and Münster, in Westphalia; from Utrecht, Stavern, and Groningen, in the Netherlands; and from Bremen and Hamburg on the North Sea. But when, at the beginning of the 13th century, the rapidly rising town of Lübeck wished to be admitted into the guild, every effort was made to keep her out. The intervention of the emperor Frederick II. was powerless to overcome the dread felt by Cologne towards a possible rival to its supre-macy. But this obstacle to the extension of the league was soon overcome. In 1260 a charter of Henry III. assured protection to all German merchants. A few years later Hamburg and Lübeck were allowed to form their own guilds. The Hansa of Cologne, which had long been the only guild, now sinks to the position of a branch Hansa, and has to endure others with equal privileges. Over all the branch Hansas rises the " Hansa Alamannise," first men-tioned in 1282.

The opposition to the exclusive pretensions of Cologne was chiefly the work of Lübeck, and with the rise of Lübeck we must connect the second element, the internal political element, which contributed to the formation of the Hansa. The old capitals of German trade, Cologne and Wisby, took their stand on the unions of German mer-chants abroad. In opposition to them Lübeck found support in home alliances, in its league with Hamburg and with the Wendish towns. The alliance between Lübeck and Hamburg is generally and with some truth given as the origin of the Hanseatic League. It was well fitted to play this part. These two towns com-manded the commerce of the North Sea and the Baltic. By taking the land route between them, a merchant could avoid the dangerous passage of the Sound or the Belts, and could evade the Sound dues which were often exacted by the Danish kings. The first alliance between the two towns, for which there is no exact date, had for its object the defence of the roads between them. From that came agreements as to mutual legal security, and thence they advanced to common political action in London and in Flanders.

The league between Lübeck and Hamburg was not the only, and possibly not the first, league among the German towns. But it gradually absorbed all the others. Besides the influence of foreign commercial interests there were other motives which compelled the towns to union. The chief of these were the protection of commercial routes both by sea and land, and the vindication of town independence as opposed to the claims of the landed aristocracy. The first to join this league were the Wendish towns to the east, Wismar, Bostock, Stralsund, <&c, which had always been intimately connected with Lübeck, and were united by a common system of law known as the " Lübisches Becht." The Saxon and Westphalian towns had long possessed a league among themselves; they also joined themselves to Lübeck. Lübeck now became the most im-portant town in Germany. It had already surpassed Cologne both in London and Bruges. It soon gained a similar victory over Wisby. At a great convention in which twenty-four towns from Cologne to Bevel took part it was decided that appeals from Novgorod which had hitherto been decided at Wisby should henceforth be brought to Lübeck.

In the 14th century the Hansa changes from a union of merchants abroad to a league of towns at home. In 1330 mention is first made of the Hanse towns, where before it had been the Hanse merchants. In 1343 the league is first designated as the Hansa by a foreign prince, Magnus of Norway, and thus acquires a diplomatic position as a united state. In 1356 a statute about mercantile privileges at Bruges is made, not by the German merchants, but by the towns themselves, through their representatives assembled at Bruges. Henceforth the town-league subordinates to itself the mercantile unions; the factories and depots of the merchants lose their independence, and became the " counters," as they are called, of the Hanse towns.

The league thus formed would scarcely have held long together or displayed any real federal unity but for the pressure of external dangers. The true function of the Hansa, and especially of the Baltic towns, was to conduct the commerce between the east and west of northern Europe. But the geographical position of the Scandinavian countries enabled them to interpose a bar to this commerce. Thus from an early period the Hansa stood in a position of watchful hostility towards those countries. It was the careful maintenance of this watch over the Baltic which gave Lübeck its position in the league, and which gave the League its political as contrasted with its mercantile character.

The most dangerous of the Scandinavian countries at this time was Denmark. Until the 16th century the southern coast of what is now Sweden was in the hands of the Danes, who were thus enabled to command the important channel of the Sound, and to interfere with the herring fisheries, a great source of wealth to the Hanse merchants. The Danish kings were almost always opposed to German interests, and were especially jealous of the supremacy of German traders in the Baltic. Eric Menved (1286-1319) almost succeeded in making himself master of the southern coast of the Baltic. He captured Bostock and the island of Biigen. Even Liibeck submitted to him, and was for a time practi-cally detached from the empire. Stralsund alone success-fully resisted the Danish attack. The league of Wendish towns was for the time wholly broken up, and the growth of the Hansa was arrested; but it was saved from total dissolution by the feuds which distracted Denmark. Eric's successor, Christopher II., an exile from Denmark, fled to the very towns which his predecessor had humbled. After extorting from him numerous privileges, especially the exclusive right to the fisheries on the coast of Schonen, the Hanse towns restored him to his throne, though to only a fraction of his former power. From 1333 to 1340 Denmark was without a king, and a prey to the wildest anarchy. But as it recovered strength it again became formidable to the Hansa. Waldemar ILL (1340-1377) devoted the early part of his reign to the recovery of the lands which Denmark had lost during the recent troubles. To carry out this policy he had to spend large sums of money, and in his straits he determined to enrich himself by the plunder of German commerce. In 1361 he sailed to Gothland, and sur-prised and captured the town of Wisby. The news of this act reached the representatives of the Hansa as they were assembled at Greifswald. They at once resolved on war, and in 1362 their fleet stormed and captured Copenhagen. But while they were besieging the strong fortress of Helsingborg, Waldemar attacked their defenceless fleet and destroyed it. This defeat was followed by a truce, which recognized the Danish possession of Gothland. W7aldemar might easily have turned this truce into an advantageous peace, but his success seems to have inspired him with the hope of crushing German ascendency in northern Europe. In 1367 a Hanseatic assembly at Stralsund was informed that Waldemar had laid new duties on the fishing stations, and that he had robbed German merchants in the Sound and the Belts. Another war was inevitable, and this time the result was different. Waldemar did not await the arrival of the hostile fleet, but fled in 1368 to Branden-burg. Denmark fell entirely into the hands of the League. In 1370 Waldemar was compelled, as the price of his return to his kingdom, to sign the treaty of Stralsund. By this treaty the Hansa obtained possession for five years of all fortresses on the coast of Schonen, and as compensation for its losses was to receive for fifteen years two-thirds of the Danish revenues. It was also stipulated that hence-forth no king should ascend the throne of Denmark without the consent of the Hanse towns, and that their privileges should be expressly confirmed at each coronation. The treaty of Stralsund marks the zenith of the power and pros-perity of the Hansa. The emperor Charles IV., who had always looked coldly on independent combinations among his subjects, seems to have been induced to alter his policy, and in 1375 he distinguished Liibeck by a personal visit.

The war against Waldemar III. seems to have had a great effect in consolidating the Hanseatic League, and in forcing it to adopt a federal constitution. From 1361 we can date the regular meeting of the general assemblies, whose acts (Becesse) have been preserved in the archives at Lübeck. These assemblies met once a year about mid- ! summer, usually but not exclusively at Lübeck. They were attended by representatives of the various towns, but no one below the rank of councillor could act as representa-tive. The League always endeavoured to maintain its aristocratic character. The assemblies busied themselves with all the details of foreign policy as well as of internal management. The penalty for non-observance of their decrees was expulsion from the League (Verhansung). The chief offence which brought this punishment on a town was the admission of democratic tendencies. The struggle between the artisans and the old burgher families, which is so important a feature of European history in the 13th and 14th centuries, necessarily affected the Hanse towns. It was for admitting artisans to the council that Brunswick was expelled from the League in 1375, and was not re- j admitted till 1380, when the old constitution was restored.

Besides the central constitution of the Hansa, there are also traces of an internal grouping. At Bruges the German merchants are divided, according as they came from (1) the Wendish and Saxon towns, (2) Westphalia and Prussia, (3) Gothland, Livonia, and Sweden. This division is supposed to refer to a real division of the League, each third being gathered round one of the three chief towns, Lübeck, Cologne, and Wisby. But in later times we find the League divided into four quarters with their respective capitals,—Lübeck, Cologne, Brunswick, and Dantzic.

Although, by comparing the documents which have come down to us, we can trace the existence of a fairly definite system of government, yet we must not imagine that this system was carried out with the regularity of a modern constitution. The composition of the League was always fluctuating, and it is impossible to say at any fixed time how many members it contained. The towns lay scattered over a large territory extending from Revel to the Scheldt, and their interests, both territorial and com-mercial, must have often clashed. It was only in time of danger that the League displayed any real consistency. When the immediate danger was withdrawn, the want of union soon made itself again manifest. It is true that the towns joined the League of their own accord, but when they had joined, they tried to make their position as independent as possible. They never considered themselves bound to send deputies to the general assemblies. When the depu-ties did appear they usually came late, and after a matter had been discussed they would insist on referring it to the town-council at home, as their own powers were insufficient. The wonder lies, not in the dissensions which sprang up among the towns, but in the fact that for three centuries they did in a manner hold together, and not infrequently sacrificed their individual advantages for the common good.

From the very moment of the treaty of Stralsund, the weakness of a community founded chiefly on commercial interests began to show itself. The eastern Baltic towns, especially those of Prussia, were indignant at the erection of a staple at Lübeck. They desired to trade directly with England and Flanders. To repress this movement Lübeck i as the head of the League entered into the closest relations with the Teutonic order. But the evil of these dissensions lay in the fact that they distracted the attention of the Hanse towns from events in Scandinavia. The influence guaranteed to them by the treaty of Stralsund was never exercised, and their supineness allowed Margaret, Waldemar III.'s. daughter, to unite the crowns of the three Scandi-navian kingdoms at Calmar in 1397. The erection of a powerful northern state was obviously dangerous to the ascendency of the Hansa. About the same time their allies, the Teutonic knights, were threatened in a similar manner by the accession of the Jagellon dynasty in Poland. ¡ The battle of Tannenberg (1410) and the peace of Thorn I (1411) were clear signs that the Slavonic race was begin-ning to turn the tables on its German oppressors. At one time it seemed probable that Slavs and Scandinavians would unite in a great anti-German crusade, and that the Hansa and the Teutonic order—the pioneers of German civilization in northern Europe—would fall victims to the alliance. During the 15th century the Hanse towns were frequently compelled to seek safety in arms. Their con-stant policy was to break up the union of Calmar. In 1428 they sent a large fleet against Eric, Margaret's successor, who wished to add Schleswig and Holstein to his possessions. The accession of two German princes, Christopher of Bavaria and Christian I. of Oldenburg, to the Danish crown was due in no slight measure to the exertions of the Hansa. On the whole the League held its own in this century, though not without considerable and increasing difficulty.

But with the 16th century the Hansa begins really to decline. The English and Dutch proved formidable rivals for the commercial supremacy in northern Europe. Henry VII. secured in 1489 a treaty from Hans of Denmark, which gave England the right of commerce in the northern seas, and which enabled English merchants to found mer-cantile establishments in the ports. The herrings no longer came in crowds to the Swedish and Norwegian coasts, where the members of the Hansa had so long held a practi-cal monopoly of the fisheries. These fish made at this time one of their periodical changes of course, and went to the coasts of Holland. The Dutch were not slow to grasp at the advantages thus offered to them. Another great blow was dealt to Hanseatic commerce by the grand discoveries of the age. Most of the German towns were out of the way of the new commercial routes, and could scarcely hope to hold their own with more favourably situated countries.

Besides these causes of decline, the domestic position of the Hanse towns had altered very much for the worse. While in other countries the power of the feudal nobles had fallen before the rapid rise of the monarchy aided by the sympathy of the commons, in Germany alone the power of the princes had constantly increased, at the expense of both king and people. The Beformation and the con-sequent secularization of church property in northern Germany only served to strengthen the hands of the lay princes. Such a state of things was fatal to the independ-ence of a town league which had always stood opposed to the lawless independence of the nobles. Gradually most of the towns fell off from the League. Foreign countries triumphed at the fall of their formerly successful rival. In Elizabeth's reign the Hanse merchants in London lost the privileges which they had held since the time of Henry III.

Religious disturbances and the fearful disasters of the Thirty Years' War completed the work thus begun. The peace of Westphalia restored the form but not the reality of the League. In 1669 the last general assembly was held. Henceforth the name of Hanse towns was kept by Lübeck, Hamburg, and Bremen, but it was to designate their independence, not their union.

References.—Hanse-Recesse, 1256-1430, B. i.-iv., and 1431-1476, B. i. and ii.; G. F. Sartorius, Urkundliche Geschichte des Ursprunges der deutschen Hanse (edited by J. M. Lappenberg); Lappenberg, Urkundliche Geschichte des hansischen Stahlhofes zu Lomlon (Hamburg, 1851) ; Wehrmann, Hie Lübeckischen Zunftrollen (Lübeck, 1872); Karl von Schlözer, Die Hansa und der deutsche Ritter-Orden in den Ostseeländern the Hansische Gesichtsblätter; Schäfei, Die Hansestädte und König Waldemar von Dänemark (1878).

About this EncyclopediaTop ContributorsAll ContributorsToday in History
Terms of UsePrivacyContact Us

© 2005-19 1902 Encyclopedia. All Rights Reserved.

This website is the free online Encyclopedia Britannica (9th Edition and 10th Edition) with added expert translations and commentaries