1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Hanseatic League

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HANSEATIC LEAGUE. It is impossible to assign any precise date for the beginning of the Hanseatic League or to name any single factor which explains the origin of that loose but effective federation of North German towns. Associated action and partial union among these towns can be traced back to the 13th century. In 1241 we find Lübeck and Hamburg agreeing to safeguard the important road connecting the Baltic and the North Sea. The first known meeting of the “maritime towns,” later known as the Wendish group and including Lübeck, Hamburg, Lüneburg, Wismar, Rostock and Stralsund, took place in 1256. The Saxon towns, during the following century, were joining to protect their common interests, and indeed at this period town confederacies in Germany, both North and South, were so considerable as to call for the declaration against them in the Golden Bull of 1356. The decline of the imperial power and the growing opposition between the towns and the territorial princes justified these defensive town alliances, which in South Germany took on a peculiarly political character. The relative weakness of territorial power in the North, after the fall of Henry the Lion of Saxony, diminished without however removing this motive for union, but the comparative immunity from princely aggression on land left the towns freer to combine in a stronger and more permanent union for the defence of their commerce by sea and for the control of the Baltic.

While the political element in the development of the Hanseatic League must not be underestimated, it was not so formative as the economic. The foundation was laid for the growth of German towns along the southern shore of the Baltic by the great movement of German colonization of Slavic territory east of the Elbe. This movement, extending in time from about the middle of the 11th to the middle of the 13th century and carrying a stream of settlers and traders from the Northwest, resulted not only in the Germanization of a wide territory but in the extension of German influence along the sea-coast far to the east of actual territorial settlement. The German trading towns, at the mouths of the numerous streams which drain the North European plain, were stimulated or created by the unifying impulse of a common and long-continued advance of conquest and colonization.

The impetus of this remarkable movement of expansion not only carried German trade to the East and North within the Baltic basin, but reanimated the older trade from the lower Rhine region to Flanders and England in the West. Cologne and the Westphalian towns, the most important of which were Dortmund, Soest and Münster, had long controlled this commerce but now began to feel the competition of the active traders of the Baltic, opening up that direct communication by sea from the Baltic to western Europe which became the essential feature in the history of the League. The necessity of seeking protection from the sea-rovers and pirates who infested these waters during the whole period of Hanseatic supremacy, the legal customs, substantially alike in the towns of North Germany, which governed the groups of traders in the outlying trading posts, the establishment of common factories, or “counters” (Komtors) at these points, with aldermen to administer justice and to secure trading privileges for the community of German merchants—such were some of the unifying influences which preceded the gradual formation of the League. In the century of energetic commercial development before 1350 the German merchants abroad led the way.

Germans were early pushing as permanent settlers into the Scandinavian towns, and in Wisby, on the island of Gothland, the Scandinavian centre of Baltic trade, equal rights as citizens in the town government were possessed by the German settlers as early as the beginning of the 13th century. There also came into existence at Wisby the first association of German traders abroad, which united the merchants of over thirty towns, from Cologne and Utrecht in the West to Reval in the East. We find the Gothland association making in 1229 a treaty with a Russian prince and securing privileges for their branch trading station at Novgorod. According to the “Skra,” the by-laws of the Novgorod branch, the four aldermen of the community of Germans, who among other duties held the keys of the common chest, deposited in Wisby, were to be chosen from the merchants of the Gothland association and of the towns of Lübeck, Soest and Dortmund. The Gothland association received in 1237 trading rights in England, and shortly after the middle of the century it also secured privileges in Flanders. It legislated on matters relating to common trade interests, and, in the case of the regulation of 1287 concerning shipwrecked goods, we find it imposing this legislation on the towns under the penalty of exclusion from the association. But with the extension of the East and West trade beyond the confines of the Baltic, this association by the end of the century was losing its position of leadership. Its inheritance passed to the gradually forming union of towns, chiefly those known as Wendish, which looked to Lübeck as their head. In 1293 the Saxon and Wendish merchants at Rostock decided that all appeals from Novgorod be taken to Lübeck instead of to Wisby, and six years later the Wendish and Westphalian towns, meeting at Lübeck, ordered that the Gothland association should no longer use a common seal. Though Lübeck’s right as court of appeal from the Hanseatic counter at Novgorod was not recognized by the general assembly of the League until 1373, the long-existing practice had simply accorded with the actual shifting of commercial power. The union of merchants abroad was beginning to come under the control of the partial union of towns at home.

A similar and contemporary extension of the influence of the Baltic traders under Lübeck’s leadership may be witnessed in the West. As a consequence of the close commercial relations early existing between England and the Rhenish-Westphalian towns, the merchants of Cologne were the first to possess a gild-hall in London and to form a “hansa” with the right of admitting other German merchants on payment of a fee. The charter of 1226, however, by which Emperor Frederick II. created Lübeck a free imperial city, expressly declared that Lübeck citizens trading in England should be free from the dues imposed by the merchants of Cologne and should enjoy equal rights and privileges. In 1266 and 1267 the merchants of Hamburg and Lübeck received from Henry III. the right to establish their own hansas in London, like that of Cologne. The situation thus created led by 1282 to the coalescence of the rival associations in the “Gild-hall of the Germans,” but though the Baltic traders had secured a recognized foothold in the enlarged and unified organization, Cologne retained the controlling interest in the London settlement until 1476. Lübeck and Hamburg, however, dominated the German trade in the ports of the east coast, notably in Lynn and Boston, while they were strong in the organized trading settlements at York, Hull, Ipswich, Norwich, Yarmouth and Bristol. The counter at London, first called the Steelyard in a parliamentary petition of 1422, claimed jurisdiction over the other factories in England.

In Flanders, also, the German merchants from the West had long been trading, but here had later to endure not only the rivalry but the pre-eminence of those from the East. In 1252 the first treaty privileges for German trade in Flanders show two men of Lübeck and Hamburg heading the “Merchants of the Roman Empire,” and in the later organization of the counter at Bruges four or five of the six aldermen were chosen from towns east of the Elbe, with Lübeck steadily predominant. The Germans recognized the staple rights of Bruges for a number of commodities, such as wool, wax, furs, copper and grain, and in return for this material contribution to the growing commercial importance of the town, they received in 1309 freedom from the compulsory brokerage which Bruges imposed on foreign merchants. The importance and independence of the German trading settlements abroad was exemplified in the statutes of the “Company of German merchants at Bruges,” drawn up in 1347, where for the first time appears the grouping of towns in three sections (the “Drittel”), the Wendish-Saxon, the Prussian-Westphalian, and those of Gothland and Livland. Even more important than the assistance which the concentration of the German trade at Bruges gave to that leading mart of European commerce was the service rendered by the German counter of Bruges to the cause of Hanseatic unity. Not merely because of its central commercial position, but because of its width of view, its political insight, and its constant insistence on the necessity of union, this counter played a leading part in Hanseatic policy. It was more Hanse than the Hanse towns.

The last of the chief trading settlements, both in importance and in date of organization, was that at Bergen in Norway, where in 1343 the Hanseatics obtained special trade privileges. Scandinavia had early been sought for its copper and iron, its forest products and its valuable fisheries, especially of herring at Schonen, but it was backward in its industrial development and its own commerce had seriously declined in the 14th century. It had come to depend largely upon the Germans for the importation of all its luxuries and of many of its necessities, as well as for the exportation of its products, but regular trade with the three kingdoms was confined for the most part to the Wendish towns, with Lübeck steadily asserting an exclusive ascendancy. The fishing centre at Schonen was important as a market, though, like Novgorod, its trade was seasonal, but it did not acquire the position of a regularly organized counter, reserved alone, in the North, for Bergen. The commercial relations with the North cannot be regarded as an important element in the union of the Hanse towns, but the geographical position of the Scandinavian countries, especially that of Denmark, commanding the Sound which gives access to the Baltic, compelled a close attention to Scandinavian politics on the part of Lübeck and the League and thus by necessitating combined political action in defence of Hanseatic sea-power exercised a unifying influence.

Energetic and successful though the scattered trading settlements had been in establishing German trade connexions and in securing valuable trade privileges, the middle of the 14th century found them powerless to meet difficulties arising from internal dissension and still more from the political rivalries and trade jealousies of nascent nationalities. Flanders became a battle-field in the great struggle between France and England, and the war of trade prohibitions led to infractions of the German privileges in Bruges. An embargo on trade with Flanders, voted in 1358 by a general assembly, resulted by 1360 in the full restoration of German privileges in Flanders, but reduced the counter at Bruges to an executive organ of a united town policy. It is worth noting that in a document connected with this action the union of towns, borrowing the term from English usage, was first called the “German Hansa.” In 1361 representatives from Lübeck and Wisby visited Novgorod to recodify the by-laws of the counter and to admonish it that new statutes required the consent of Lübeck, Wisby, Riga, Dorpat and Reval. This action was confirmed in 1366 by an assembly of the Hansa which at the same time, on the occasion of a regulation made by the Bruges counter and of statutes drawn up by the young Bergen counter, ordered that in future the approval of the towns must be obtained for all new regulations.

The counter at London was soon forced to follow the example of the other counters at Bruges, Novgorod and Bergen. After the failure of the Italians, the Hanseatics remained the strongest group of alien merchants in England, and, as such, claimed the exclusive enjoyment of the privileges granted by the Carta Mercatoria of 1303. Their highly favoured position in England, contrasting markedly with their refusal of trade facilities to the English in some of the Baltic towns and their evident policy of monopoly in the Baltic trade, incensed the English mercantile classes, and doubtless influenced the increases in customs-duties which were regarded by the Germans as contrary to their treaty rights. Unsuccessful in obtaining redress from the English government, the German merchants finally, in 1374, appealed for aid to the home towns, especially to Lübeck. The result of Hanseatic representations was the confirmation by Richard II. in 1377 of all their privileges, which accorded them the preferential treatment they had claimed and became the foundation of the Hanseatic position in England.

In the meanwhile, the conquest of Wisby by Waldemar IV. of Denmark in 1361 had disclosed his ambition for the political control of the Baltic. He was promptly opposed by an alliance of Hanse towns, led by Lübeck. The defeat of the Germans at Helsingborg only called into being the stronger town and territorial alliance of 1367, known as the Cologne Confederation, and its final victory, with the peace of Stralsund in 1370, which gave for a limited period the four chief castles on the Sound into the hands of the Hanseatic towns, greatly enhanced the prestige of the League.

The assertion of Hanseatic influence in the two decades, 1356 to 1377, marks the zenith of the League’s power and the completion of the long process of unification. Under the pressure of commercial and political necessity, authority was definitely transferred from the Hansas of merchants abroad to the Hansa of towns at home, and the sense of unity had become such that in 1380 a Lübeck official could declare that “whatever touches one town touches all.” But even at the time when union was most important, this statement went further than the facts would warrant, and in the course of the following century it became less and less true. Dortmund held aloof from the Cologne Confederation on the ground that it had no concern in Scandinavian politics. It became, indeed, increasingly difficult to obtain the support of the inland towns for a policy of sea-power in the Baltic. Cologne sent no representatives to the regular Hanseatic assemblies until 1383, and during the 15th century its independence was frequently manifested. It rebelled at the authority of the counter at Bruges, and at the time of the war with England (1469–1474) openly defied the League. In the East, the German Order, while enjoying Hanseatic privileges, frequently opposed the policy of the League abroad, and was only prevented by domestic troubles and its Hinterland enemies from playing its own hand in the Baltic. After the fall of the order in 1467, the towns of Prussia and Livland, especially Dantzig and Riga, pursued an exclusive trade policy even against their Hanseatic confederates. Lübeck, however, supported by the Bruges counter, despite the disaffection and jealousy on all sides hampering and sometimes thwarting its efforts, stood steadfastly for union and the necessity of obedience to the decrees of the assemblies. Its headship of the League, hitherto tacitly accepted, was definitely recognized in 1418.

The governing body of the Hansa was the assembly of town representatives, the “Hansetage,” held irregularly as occasion required at the summons of Lübeck, and, with few exceptions, attended but scantily. The delegates were bound by instructions from their towns and had to report home the decisions of the assembly for acceptance or rejection. In 1469 the League declared that the English use of the terms “societas,” “collegium” and “universitas” was inappropriate to so loose an organization. It preferred to call itself a “firma confederatio” for trade purposes only. It had no common seal, though that of Lübeck was accepted, particularly by foreigners, in behalf of the League. Disputes between the confederate towns were brought for adjudication before the general assembly, but the League had no recognized federal judiciary. Lübeck, with the counters abroad, watched over the execution of the measures voted by the assembly, but there was no regular administrative organization. Money for common purposes was raised from time to time, as necessity demanded, by the imposition on Hanse merchandise of poundage dues, introduced in 1361, while the counters relied upon a small levy of like nature and upon fines to meet current needs. Even this slender financial provision met with opposition. The German Order in 1398 converted the Hanseatic poundage to a territorial tax for its own purposes, and one of the chief causes for Cologne’s disaffection a half-century later was the extension from Flanders to other parts of the Netherlands of the levy made by the counter at Bruges. Since the authority of the League rested primarily on the moral support of its members, allied in common trade interests and acquiescing in the able leadership of Lübeck, its only means of compulsion was the “Verhansung,” or exclusion of a recalcitrant town from the benefits of the trade privileges of the League. A conspicuous instance was the exclusion of Cologne from 1471 until its obedience in 1476, but the penalty had been earlier imposed, as in the case of Brunswick, on towns which overthrew their patrician governments. It was obviously, however, a measure to be used only in the last resort and with extreme reluctance.

The decisive factor in determining membership in the League was the historical right of the citizens of a town to participate in Hanseatic privileges abroad. At first the merchant Hansas had shared these privileges with almost any German merchant, and thus many little villages, notably those in Westphalia, ultimately claimed membership. Later, under the Hansa of the towns, the struggle for the maintenance of a coveted position abroad led to a more exclusive policy. A few new members were admitted, mainly from the westernmost sphere of Hanseatic influence, but membership was refused to some important applicants. In 1447 it was voted that admission be granted only by unanimous consent. No complete list of members was ever drawn up, despite frequent requests from foreign powers. Contemporaries usually spoke of 70, 72, 73 or 77 members, and perhaps the list is complete with Daenell’s recent count of 72, but the obscurity on so vital a point is significant of the amorphous character of the organization.

The towns of the League, stretching from Thorn and Krakow on the East to the towns of the Zuider Zee on the West, and from Wisby and Reval in the North to Göttingen in the South, were arranged in groups, following in the main the territorial divisions. Separate assemblies were held in the groups for the discussion both of local and Hanseatic affairs, and gradually, but not fully until the 16th century, the groups became recognized as the lowest stage of Hanse organization. The further grouping into “Thirds,” later “Quarters,” under head-towns, was also more emphasized in that century.

In the 15th century the League, with increasing difficulty, held a defensive position against the competition of strong rivals and new trade-routes. In England the inevitable conflict of interests between the new mercantile power, growing conscious of its national strength, and the old, standing insistant on the letter of its privileges, was postponed by the factional discord out of which the Hansa in 1474 dexterously snatched a renewal of its rights. Under Elizabeth, however, the English Merchant Adventurers could finally rejoice at the withdrawal of privileges from the Hanseatics and their concession to England, in return for the retention of the Steelyard, of a factory in Hamburg. In the Netherlands the Hanseatics clung to their position in Bruges until 1540, while trade was migrating to the ports of Antwerp and Amsterdam. By the peace of Copenhagen in 1441, after the unsuccessful war of the League with Holland, the attempted monopoly of the Baltic was broken, and, though the Hanseatic trade regulations were maintained on paper, the Dutch with their larger ships increased their hold on the herring fisheries, the French salt trade, and the Baltic grain trade. For the Russian trade new competitors were emerging in southern Germany. The Hanseatic embargo against Bruges from 1451 to 1457, its later war and embargo against England, the Turkish advance closing the Italian Black Sea trade with southern Russia, all were utilized by Nuremberg and its fellows to secure a land-trade outside the sphere of Hanseatic influence. The fairs of Leipzig and Frankfort-on-Main rose in importance as Novgorod, the stronghold of Hanse trade in the East, was weakened by the attacks of Ivan III. The closing of the Novgorod counter in 1494 was due not only to the development of the Russian state but to the exclusive Hanseatic policy which had stimulated the opening of competing trade routes.

Within the League itself increasing restiveness was shown under the restrictions of its trade policy. At the Hanseatic assembly of 1469, Dantzig, Hamburg and Breslau opposed the maintenance of a compulsory staple at Bruges in the face of the new conditions produced by a widening commerce and more advantageous markets. Complaint was made of South German competition in the Netherlands. “Those in the Hansa,” protested Breslau, “are fettered and must decline and those outside the Hansa are free and prosper.” By 1477 even Lübeck had become convinced that a continuance of the effort to maintain the compulsory staple against Holland was futile and should be abandoned. But while it was found impossible to enforce the staple or to close the Sound against the Dutch, other features of the monopolistic system of trade regulations were still upheld. It was forbidden to admit an outsider to partnership or to co-ownership of ships, to trade in non-Hanseatic goods, to buy or sell on credit in a foreign mart or to enter into contracts for future delivery. The trade of foreigners outside the gates of Hanse towns or with others than Hanseatics was forbidden in 1417, and in the Eastern towns the retail trade of strangers was strictly limited. The whole system was designed to suppress the competition of outsiders, but the divergent interests of individuals and towns, the pressure of competition and changing commercial conditions, in part the reactionary character of the legislation, made enforcement difficult. The measures were those of the late-medieval town economy applied to the wide region of the German Baltic trade, but not supported, as was the analogous mercantilist system, by a strong central government.

Among the factors, economic, geographic, political and social, which combined to bring about the decline of the Hanseatic League, none was probably more influential than the absence of a German political power comparable in unity and energy with those of France and England, which could quell particularism at home, and abroad maintain in its vigour the trade which these towns had developed and defended with their imperfect union. Nothing was to be expected from the declining Empire. Still less was any co-operation possible between the towns and the territorial princes. The fatal result of conflict between town autonomy and territorial power had been taught in Flanders. The Hanseatics regarded the princes with a growing and exaggerated fear and found some relief in the formation in 1418 of a thrice-renewed alliance, known as the “Tohopesate,” against princely aggression. But no territorial power had as yet arisen in North Germany capable of subjugating and utilizing the towns, though it could detach the inland towns from the League. The last wars of the League with the Scandinavian powers in the 16th century, which left it shorn of many of its privileges and of any pretension to control of the Baltic basin eliminated it as a factor in the later struggle of the Thirty Years’ War for that control. At an assembly of 1629, Lübeck, Bremen and Hamburg were entrusted with the task of safeguarding the general welfare, and after an effort to revive the League in the last general assembly of 1669, these three towns were left alone to preserve the name and small inheritance of the Hansa which in Germany’s disunion had upheld the honour of her commerce. Under their protection, the three remaining counters lingered on until their buildings were sold at Bergen in 1775, at London in 1852 and at Antwerp in 1863.

Bibliography.—Hansisches Urkundenbuch, bearbeitet von K. Höhlbaum, K. Kunze und W. Stein (10 vols., Halle und Leipzig, 1876–1907); Hanserecesse, erste Abtheilung, 1256–1430 (8 vols., Leipzig, 1870–1897), zweite Abtheilung, 1431–1476 (7 vols., 1876–1892); dritte Abtheilung, 1477–1530 (7 vols., 1881–1905); Hansische Geschichtsquellen (7 vols., 1875–1894; 3 vols., 1897–1906); Inventare hansischer Archive des sechzehnten Jahrhunderts (vols. 1 and 2, 1896–1903); Hansische Geschichtsblätter (14 vols., 1871–1908). All the above-mentioned chief sources have been issued by the Verein für hansische Geschichte. Of the secondary literature, the following histories and monographs should be named. G. F. Sartorius, Geschichte des hanseatischen Bundes (3 vols., Göttingen, 1802–1808), Urkundliche Geschichte des Ursprunges der deutschen Hanse, herausgegeben von J. M. Lappenberg (2 vols., Hamburg, 1830); F. W. Barthold, Geschichte der deutschen Hansa (3 vols., 2nd ed., Leipzig, 1862); D. Schäfer, Die Hansestädte und König Waldemar von Dänemark (Jena, 1879); W. Stein, Beiträge zur Geschichte der deutschen Hanse bis um die Mitte des fünfzehnten Jahrhunderts (Giessen, 1900); E. Daenell, Die Blütezeit der deutschen Hanse. Hansische Geschichte von der zweiten Hälfte des XIV. bis zum letzten Viertel des XV. Jahrhunderts (2 vols., Berlin, 1905–1906); J. M. Lappenberg, Urkundliche Geschichte des hansischen Stahlhofes zu London (Hamburg, 1851); F. Keutgen, Die Beziehungen der Hanse zu England im letzten Drittel des vierzehnten Jahrhunderts (Giessen, 1890); R. Ehrenberg, Hamburg und England im Zeitalter der Königin Elisabeth (Jena, 1896); W. Stein, Die Genossenschaft der deutschen Kaufleute zu Brügge in Flandern (Berlin, 1890); H. Rogge, Der Stapelzwang des hansischen Kontors zu Brügge im fünfzehnten Jahrhundert (Kiel, 1903); A. Winckler, Die deutsche Hansa in Russland (Berlin, 1886).  (E. F. G.)