Rise Of The Hanseatic League
Author: Denicke, H.
Translation: Joseph Sohn

Part II.

The Hansa ships were usually round-bellied, high-boarded craft with one
mast, and flew the pennant of their home port. They were comparatively broad
and built of heavy planks, and could easily be transformed into war vessels by
furnishing them with a superstructure known as the castell ("castle") in which
catapults and archers could be placed. In size they were probably as large as
the trading vessels which cross the Baltic today. That they were skilfully
handled is evident from the fact that a contemporaneous report mentions a trip
from Ripen in Jutland to Amsterdam as having been successfully made in two
days. As regards the laws of navigation, a point especially noteworthy was
the talent displayed in organizing fellowship unions. Reference is not here
made to the habit of the merchants in sailing in squadrons so much as to the
peculiar institutions which regulated the life on board - institutions which
have recently been justly designated as the most perfect expression of that
executive ability which characterized the close of German mediaevalism. An
account of these institutions dating from the middle of the sixteenth century
has fortunately been preserved.

As soon as the vessel was upon the high sea the crew, which consisted of
the captain and the "ship's children" pledged itself strictly to obey orders
and equitably to divide any booty eventually secured. A court of sheriffs was
then organized, consisting of a judge, four sheriffs, a sergeant-at-arms, a
secretary, an executioner, and several other officials. Thereupon came the
proclamation of the maritime law upon which the eventual judgment of the court
was based. The tenor of this law was as follows: It is forbidden to swear in
God's name; to mention the devil; to sleep after the hour for prayer; to
handle lights; to destroy or waste food; to meddle with the duties of the
drawer of liquor; to play at dice or cards after sunset; and to vex the cook
or annoy the crew under penalty of a monetary fine. The following are some of
the penalties inflicted for various offences: Whoever sleeps while on guard or
creates a disturbance between decks shall be drawn under the keel of the
vessel; whoever attempts to draw weapons on board, be they long or short,
shall have the respective weapon run through his hand into the mast, so that
he will have to draw the weapon through his own hand again if he would free
himself; whoever accuses another unjustly shall pay the double fine prescribed
for the offence charged; and no one shall endeavor to take revenge upon the
executioners. Upon the completion of the voyage the court resigned, after
dispensing a general amnesty and partaking of bread and salt in company with
the rest of the crew. Upon landing, the monetary fines which had been
collected from delinquents on board were presented to the lord of the strand
for benevolent distribution.

On arriving at the end of his journey the merchant was confronted by new
difficulties. It not infrequently happened that the master of the port
visited by him had, within the time elapsed since the departure of the vessel
from home, fallen into strife with the respective Hanse town whose ensign the
vessel bore. As newspapers and despatches were at that time unknown, it is
not difficult to conjecture the difficulties with which a merchant had to
contend. Moreover, he required an exact knowledge of local conditions and of
the legal rights accorded him, which were different in each city and always
inferior to those of the native inhabitants. To-day, as a rule, a foreigner,
wherever he may be, enjoys the full benefits of the place he happens to visit,
equally with the resident citizen. It was not so in the days of the Hansa,
and hence the constant endeavor of the league to obtain firmly established
offices or bureaus abroad. At an early date such a bureau existed in London
under the name of the Stahlhof, another at Novgorod under the name of the St.
Petershof, and still others at smaller towns in England and the Netherlands -
each having its peculiar privileges, customs, and mercantile usages, but all
possessing in common the invaluable right of settling any difficulty affecting
the members of the league according to their own native code. In London the
representative of the league was compelled to become an English citizen, and
the entire bureau thus became naturalized, as it were. The same was true of
the Hanse bureau at Bruges, a city in which after all, in view of the powerful
competition prevailing there, a pronounced monopoly was certain to be curbed
to some extent. Here the league merely possessed warerooms, while their
agents lived privately among the burghers. The right of holding court in the
Carmelite monastery was conceded to them; and there, too, they administered
their affairs. In Novgorod, however, the conditions were entirely different.
In view of the uncivilized condition and the national prejudices of the
Russians, the greatest care had to be exercised in all intercourse with the
natives in order that the existence of the entire Hanseatic colony might not
be endangered. Consequently, this intercourse was regulated with great
circumspection and in all detail both by the diet of the Hanseatic League and
by the chiefs of the bureau.

It was, however, in Bergen, Norway, that northernmost station of the
Hansa, that the most interesting conditions prevailed. Here, that is, in
Norway, the German merchant, by means of money or arms, gradually drove all
competitors, including Englishmen, from the field, and in 1350 succeeded in
establishing in the most favorably situated and liveliest city of the land,
Bergen, the last of his numerous bureaus - a bureau which maintained itself,
though in somewhat deteriorated form, until the eighteenth century. This
station, created at a late period of Hanseatic expansion, bears testimony to
the colonial genius of the German merchants of the league and affords a
glimpse into their business methods. It may therefore be deserving of a more
detailed consideration.

Twenty-one farms or granges, belonging to as many Hanse towns, dotted the
shore. Each of these, surrounded by trees and lawns, covered considerable
space and included spacious granaries and dwellings, most of which served also
as warehouses. Each grange had its dock, where ships could conveniently land
and discharge their goods. The entire space thus occupied by the Hanses was
enclosed by a wall, beyond which and running parallel with it was the
so-called "Schustergasse" - a street occupied by German artisans, who, though
permanently settled here, nevertheless remained closely in touch with their
German brethren of the bureau. Every bureau had its Schutting - a spacious,
windowless room which depended for light and air upon a hole in the roof,
which likewise served as a vent for the smoke issuing from the hearth. It was
in this room that the agents of the Hansa merchants assembled to debate on
judicial or mercantile affairs. During the long winter evenings the families
of the agents, as the assistants and apprentices of the resident factors were
pleasantly termed, congregated here, each group at its own particular
roughhewn, wooden table, to indulge in strong drink and pleasant gossip. When
the interests of the entire colony were to be discussed, the Aelterleute
("seniors") from every grange would meet in the Schutting belonging to Bremen
and called Zum Mantel. This assemblage was called the "Council of Eighteen,"
the representative of Lubeck enjoying the greatest distinction and wielding
the greatest influence among them by reason of the hegemony exercised by his
native town. When matters of particular importance arose, or in case of a
serious dispute, the affair at issue was usually referred to the
Bergenfahrercollegium ("the town council"), or more frequently to the general
convention of the Hansa at Lubeck.

The expenses of maintaining the colony, in view of the almost monastic
simplicity of life prevailing there and the large membership, were naturally
small. In its zenith it probably numbered about three thousand persons, who
were subjected to strict laws - as strict, indeed, as those of any camp or
monastery. No woman was permitted within the colony, and no person was
permitted out of doors after sundown, unless, indeed, he wished to run the
gauntlet of the fierce watchdogs which guarded the reservations of the
settlers. The members and employes of the Hansa who resided here were not
permitted to marry Norwegian women, in order that their special rights and
privileges might not be endangered through intermixture with the natives. How
considerable were these special rights the reader may determine from the fact
that, during the weekly markets, the members of the Hansa bureaus had the
streets barricaded by powerful fellows who permitted no one to interfere with
the valuable privilege of priority conceded to the Hanses in the matter of
barter. Naturally enough the purchasing price of goods was arbitrarily set by
the latter under these conditions, while the fixing of the selling price, in
the absence of all competition, was a matter of course.

That the exercise of such pressure sometimes disturbed the serenity of
the Norwegian can readily be conjectured, especially when it is considered
that the average Northman is by no means indisposed to have a little brush
with his neighbor now and then. But in such an event the Germans usually gave
tit for tat, and that with a vengeance. On one occasion they killed a bishop
in the presence of the king; at various other times they burned monasteries
over the heads of the inmates; and frequently they sheltered criminals, or
demolished entire dwellings in order to obtain kindling wood speedily and
conveniently.

Only by means of concord among themselves and strict exclusiveness could
the Hanses for centuries maintain their position upon that inhospitable and
thinly peopled shore. The novice, who usually entered the service of the
Hansa at the age of twelve, was compelled to serve an apprenticeship of seven
years, during which his duties consisted also in cooking, cleaning, and
washing for and in waiting upon the older clerks. Thereafter he advanced to
the position of journeyman, his inauguration being attended by festive, highly
suggestive, and, to the beholder, amusing ceremonies. These ceremonies began
with a great drinking bout arranged at the youth's expense. The next feature
of the programme was entitled Das Staupenspiel im Paradies ("the Walloping in
Paradise"), a procedure to which every apprentice was exposed annually and to
which on this occasion he bade a final farewell. This part of the ceremony
consisted in setting apart a space enclosed within birch boughs, on entering
which the blindfolded and scantily attired youth who was to be initiated into
the order of journeymen was thoroughly trounced by "angels of paradise" in the
form of lusty companions who were usually unsparing of the rod. A festive
procession through the streets followed. It was led by two fantastically
attired youngsters who impersonated a Norwegian peasant and his wife, and
whose duty it was to play tricks upon the sightseers and to amuse them. After
a baptism in the sea the unfortunate youth who figured as the hero of this
festival was subjected to a procedure akin to that of roasting a herring in
the flue; and it is singular enough that the records show only one case of
death by suffocation consequent upon this ordeal. Good days, however, now
followed upon evil ones, and the youthful novitiate was feted and entertained
by his companions and made to forget the sufferings and hardships of his
initiation. Many other pastimes were indulged in by the members of the
bureaus, which, however, cannot be touched upon here. Suffice it to say that
they were characterized by the humor and roughness of the age. Despite
repeated attempts of the Hansa and of the several cities to put an end to
these sports, they nevertheless continued to be practised for centuries, upon
the rather plausible plea that they served as a wholesome training for the
mercantile youth. Never before or since, however, has the pedagogy of the rod
found so thoroughgoing an application as here.

One of the busiest centres of Hanseatic activity remains to be touched
upon: namely, the small tongue of land near Skanor and Falsterbo, and
constituting an appendage of the larger peninsula of Skane or Schonen. The
once prosperous stretch of beach here referred to is now a desert tract of
sand, the furrows and ruins on which are the only relics of the busy
commercial life once prevailing. After the herring had during the tenth and
eleventh centuries visited the Pomeranian coast in great shoals, it changed
its course to the above-mentioned region of the Sound. The Hanses were not
slow to avail themselves of this circumstance. They succeeded in securing a
practical ownership of this most valuable district of Denmark; thereby
demonstrating how incredibly incompetent the princes of the land were at that
time as regards the utilization of their natural resources. These princes
actually granted to several German cities, and, moreover, to each
individually, the right to establish reservations here - the so-called Vitten
- consisting of fenced enclosures on the coast, within which were erected
vendors' and fish-booths, dwellings, and even churches, all under the
administration of special governors appointed by the Germans. From this point
the herring grounds were readily accessible. The fishing lasted from July
until October; and during this time merchants, fishermen, and coopers resorted
here by thousands to fish as well as to salt, smoke, pack, and load the
produce of the net. In connection with this industry there were held in the
immediate vicinity much-frequented annual markets, the distributing centres
for home consumption. At the beginning of the fifteenth century the
capricious fish suddenly took another direction, visiting the coast of
Holland, to the people of which he thenceforth became as lucrative a source of
revenue as he had been to the Hanses. It has been said that Amsterdam with
all its wealth is built upon herrings; and a similar statement could once be
applied with equal justice to the Hansa cities of the Baltic.

Concerning the characteristic methods of conducting trade it may be well
here to add that during the distant period here under consideration a
so-called commission business could scarcely be said to exist; and this is
true also of speculation in the narrower sense. While buying and selling on
time were not infrequent, especially in the grain market, the transactions
were upon an infinitely smaller scale than as conducted at present, when, as
the saying goes, "goods is sold a dozen times before it is actually
available." The unsound methods at present in vogue, based as they are upon
fluctuations in price, were then scarcely known. "Goods in exchange for goods
or its equivalent in money" was the motto of the Hanseatic merchant, who,
however, was by no means always entirely guiltless of fraudulent operations.
Often enough the lowermost layers of herring in the keg consisted of spoiled
goods, and not infrequently a bale of linen had to be returned from station to
station to the place whence it was sent in order that it might be reexamined
as to quantity and quality. In these transactions the crafty dealer usually
preferred to take advantage of the proverbial simplicity of the Norwegian.

The scope of the Hansa trade was greater than one would imagine. It was
greater, for example, than that of the maritime towns of Germany for the
period immediately preceding the era of steam navigation, i.e., about 1830.
The fish trade was at that early period far more brisk, partly because the
herring then visited the shores of the Baltic, and partly because the church
laws relative to abstinence from meat during the fasts were rigidly observed
by all the states of Christian Europe. A few figures will serve vividly to
illustrate this change: In 1855, 3,700 kegs of herring were imported by way of
Lubeck, as against 33,000 kegs for the period 500 years previous; and in the
year of war, 1369, despite the embargo with Denmark, a great consumer, the
exports of herring from thirty Hanseatic ports yielded a sum of 130,000,000
marks, 40,000,000 of which fell to the share of Hamburg, then a much smaller
city than Lubeck.

It is natural, in the light of these commercial conditions, that
industry, and handicraft also, must have greatly flourished. In those days
there were twice as many bakers in Lubeck as at present. The coopers, also,
in view of the great demand for herring kegs, were in high repute, and
scarcely less so the brewers, who at that time greatly excelled their South
German competitors. The beer of Hamburg or Rostock was never absent from a
northern feast. Nearly all the cities from Livonia to the mouth of the Weser
were surrounded by gardens of hops, and Hamburg especially owed its rapid rise
during the fourteenth century chiefly to its brewers, at times five hundred or
more in number, one hundred and twenty-six of whom supplied the market of
Amsterdam alone. Not only representatives of the higher industrial arts, such
as goldsmiths, metal workers, picture carvers, paternoster makers, and altar
makers, but shoemakers and other handicraftsmen were to be found in the Far
North, which, at that time, was still somewhat deficient in these matters.
There is report of a worthy shoemaker, who, after sojourning in Russia,
repaired to Stockholm, where he entered the service of a knight, and thence to
Santiago di Compostela, where he wrought for pilgrims.

All these trades were divided into guilds and sequestered in certain
streets or localities; and it was long before they were permitted to
participate in the city government, which rested solely in the hands of the
great landlords and merchant princes. In the fourteenth century, however,
following the example of the South German communities, the "Rebellious Guilds"
arose also in the Hanse towns and inaugurated that far-reaching democratic
movement akin to the War of the Classes in ancient Rome. The guilds demanded
a seat and a voice in the municipal councils, and made the payment of their
quota dependent upon this concession. Most of the Northern cities experienced
bloody insurrections at this time, and the hangman was very busy. Now the
victory was with the patricians, and anon with the plebeians; and the contest
was continually renewed with changing fortune. After holding aloof for some
time the Hanseatic League finally took part in this purely internal affair of
the several cities, and always in favor of the patrician party; in this way
assuming a function originally foreign to its purpose.

The movement was a perfectly natural and justifiable one. Though
originally subject to service and tribute on the part of bishop, cloister, or
prince, the condition of the tradesman changed with the establishment of the
principle that long unchallenged residence in a city insured personal freedom
to the individual - a privilege which in those days of marked class
discrimination was shared only by the burgher and the monk. Among the two
last-mentioned classes even the low-born individual could rise by his own
efforts: here neither prejudice nor privilege interfered with the free
exercise of native talent. Many a poor apprentice in the bureau of Bergen
eventually became the progenitor of a long race of distinguished merchants;
and some of these families are flourishing in Europe to-day. It is but
natural that the handicraftsman, once released from his bonds, should have
desired to share these privileges, more particularly as the old aristocratic
regime constantly became more assertive and presumptuous. It is necessary
also to consider that the former social position of the artisan should not be
measured by present standards; for the difference in the educational status of
the classes was not nearly so pronounced then as now, and the workman,
moreover, was characterized by a spirit often as chivalrous as that of the
commercial magnate. There is a well-authenticated case of a shoemaker
challenging another member of his craft to a duel - which, by the way, had a
fatal termination - without exciting either serious comment or ridicule.

History teaches that where commerce and industry flourish, art also
secures its triumphs. The glorious Gothic cathedrals of the Hanseatic cities
bear eloquent testimony to this truth. "The Northlander who entered the Trave
or the Vistula and beheld the multitude of soaring church spires must have
felt as did once the German pilgrim to Rome," says a modern investigator. The
principal representative and patron of this art culture, here as elsewhere
during the Middle Ages, was the Church. But the splendid town halls as well
as the few private mansions preserved, with their step-like aggregation of
gables, afford convincing evidence alike of the solid appreciation of art as
of the love of splendor which characterized that distant generation. Certain
it is that they greatly surpassed us in the domain of Gothic architecture.
Owing to the strict adherence to the Catholic dogma a scientific development
in the modern sense was, of course, impossible in those days; and, although
most of the parish churches had their schools also, these were commonly
designed chiefly for the sons of patricians, whose schooling usually embraced
a little Latin and some reading, writing, and singing. Not infrequently the
only scholar in the place was the town clerk, the forerunner of our present
recorder.

The robust, healthy German of that day, yielding to a tendency which has
characterized our people from immemorial times, preferred the more to
surrender himself to a life of solid comfort and good cheer. The Middle Age
was one which inclined to favor the enjoyment of life. It is but necessary to
consider the variegated costumes, rich in color, whose ultimate extravagances
necessitated special dress regulations, as well as the tournaments, the
numerous archer festivals, and the frequent masquerades, to realize that the
people of that day appreciated the good things of life. On the occasion of
baptisms, weddings, and other domestic events, great feasts were frequently
arranged in the house of the guilds or even in the town hall; and many
princely visitors were here also entertained at the expense of the municipal
budget. The administration of the cellarage of the municipal council was also
then considered a far more respectable post than now. All these facts attest
the prosperity of the Hanseatic towns. Fortunes of one hundred thousand marks
were by no means exceptional, and were often invested in neighboring knightly
estates (feofs), thereby sometimes securing to the owner an eventual admission
to the ranks of the nobility. At one time - i.e., after the great Hanseatic
war - the city of Lubeck owned the entire dukedom of Lauenburg.

The constitution of these municipalities provided for a council
consisting of from twelve to twenty-four members who, though elected for life,
alternated in terms of office ranging from two to three years. These members
had the privilege of appointing their successors from among the eligible
families of the Hanse town. The heads of the council consisted of from two to
four burgomasters, who presided at the meetings. The position of member of
the council was a purely honorary one. The duties comprised the
administration of municipal affairs; of military and judicial affairs; of the
archives; the exercise of police supervision over the market, the marine
service, and the guilds; and, most important of all, the administration of the
finances. They fixed the taxes, for which frequently no receipt was given or
demanded; the money on such occasions being deposited unnoticed in a box set
apart for the purpose - a proof that the payment of taxes at that time was
regarded as a point of honor by the burgher and without suspicion by the
magistrate.

The general character of the municipal life of the Hanse towns in those
days has been well compared by a modern writer to a family household. The
workman regarded himself within his circle as an official of the city - a fact
shown by the use of the word Aemter ("offices") to designate the guilds. Hence
the strong municipal patriotism which animated these burghers and which
compensates in some degree for the absence of that great political enthusiasm
which is derived from the consciousness of a united country. A quaint genre
picture of the time, preserved at Bremen, represents a native of the latter
city and another from Lubeck sitting together in a tavern and disputing as to
the comparative merits of their respective towns. The controversy reaches its
climax by one of the disputants declaring stolidly that he too might "master
such words" and taking a long and mighty draught.

The separate towns, usually upon a request of the Lubeck council, would
send their deputies to confer jointly upon matters affecting the league, these
conferences or diets usually being held in some Wendish city. On no occasion,
however, were all the towns of the league represented at these conferences.
Their constitution was absolutely free from all theoretical or rigid forms or
ordinances. Whoever found that his interests were especially affected by the
subject under discussion sent representatives to the diet of the league, and
these usually discharged their duties faithfully, without shirking the long
and arduous trip even during the winter season. The conferences held in this
way were probably wider in their scope than those of any other power of the
time. Usually, however, not political, but commercial, matters were
discussed. There was no common treasury. Whenever money was required an
export duty was levied, with which absolute compliance was demanded. An
infraction of the laws of the league was punishable by a fine, and in extreme
cases by exclusion from the Hansa - a sentence necessarily involving the
commercial isolation and eventual bankruptcy of the delinquent city. Bremen,
it is true, once withstood the consequences of the Hanseatic ban for more than
fifty years, but this was before the extraordinary extension of Hanseatic
power consequent upon the Danish war. From all this it appears that the
constitution of the Hansa was a very slack but elastic one, which easily
adapted itself to the exigencies of the moment. A charter of a Hanseatic
constitution has never existed - proof in itself of the desire to afford as
much latitude as possible in the construction of the laws. Theory is regarded
as valueless; immediate facts and interests are all in all. The supremacy of
Lubeck, for example, was never formally recognized by the other cities of the
league.

Thus did the Hansa flourish until the close of the Middle Ages. With the
discovery of America and of the passage to India trade was diverted into new
channels; it became trans-oceanic and, not without some culpability on the
part of the Hanses themselves, fell into the hands of the now more favorably
situated countries of Western Europe - Spain, Portugal, France, the
Netherlands, and, finally, England. Equally detrimental to the Hansa was the
political transformation wrought at this time, especially as regards the
rapidly growing power of the princes, who, with all the influence at their
command, sought to abrogate all special privileges and to foster a levelling
process in order that they alone might be exalted. One city after another
sank into utter dependence upon the sovereign rulers of the respective
provinces, who, in their turn, began to take an interest in economic affairs,
thus contributing to widen the breach between these respective cities and the
league. It was under these circumstances that Gustavus Vasa declared of the
Hansa that "Its teeth were falling out, like those of an old woman." The
Hollanders, especially, had long been converted from allies into formidable
rivals. The most important and decisive factor of this decadence, however,
was the victorious opposition to the Hanseatic monopoly now brought to bear by
the hitherto commercially oppressed nations, England and Russia, who simply
closed the doors of the bureaus and abrogated the privileges of the German
merchants of the league. The condition of the Hansa was akin to that of a
healthy, vigorous tree, set in poor soil and deriving its sustenance from the
weakness of the home rulers and the primitive or defective economic conditions
of foreign countries. As soon as these negative mediaeval conditions were
swept away by the storms of the Reformation the tree gradually but surely fell
into decay. With this later stage there is associated the historic tragedy of
Jurgen Wullenwever, that genial and daring democratic innovator, who, in an
endeavor to conquer Denmark in order to restore the prestige of the Hansa, was
betrayed by his patrician fellow-burghers and hanged.

The Hansa, though in a stage of increasing decrepitude, now lingered on
until the final crash came in 1630, when all the members dissolved their
allegiance to the league. Only the three Hanse towns of Hamburg, Bremen, and
Lubeck renewed the compact, which, however, to-day is purely nominal. The
Hansa had fulfilled its great historic mission. It had impressed the stamp of
German culture upon the North; given German commerce the supremacy over that
of all other nations; protected the northern and eastern boundaries of the
empire at a time when the imperial power was impotent and the State disrupted;
and maintained and extended the prestige of the German flag in the northern
seas. Said a great German writer: "When all on land was steeped in
particularism, the Hansa, our people upon the sea, alone remained faithful to
the German spirit and to German tradition."
 

Back to Main menu

A project by History World International

World History Center