One of the most successful enterprises of the Middle Ages was a collection of free cities located in Northern Germany and along the North and Baltic Seas.
These cities created one of the greatest trade networks that the world had ever seen and for several centuries dominated trade and economics in Northern Europe.
It was the early prototype for successful trade organizations in the future.
Learn more about the Hanseatic League, also known as the Hansa, on this episode of Everything Everywhere Daily.
My personal story with the Hanseatic League dates back to several years ago when I was traveling around Northern Germany.
I was able to visit several of the Hanseatic League cities such as Lubeck, Stralsund, Wismar, and Bremen. I’ve been to many many old European cities, and I was able to see some things which hammered home just how successful and important the Hanseatic League was.
Before I get to that, let me explain what the Hanseatic League was and how it came to be.
One of the defining characteristics of the Middle Ages in Europe was the guild system.
The guild system served several different functions. Guilds served to restrict entry into occupations decreasing competition, they offered a social network for members, it was a system for perpetuating technical knowledge, and perhaps most importantly, it allowed them to band together to protect themselves against kings and nobility.
These guilds also engaged in trade with other towns and cities. In Northern Germany, these guilds were known as hansa.
In particular, for the purpose of this episode, they were able to trade with a network of cities and towns located around the North and Baltic Seas.
The founding of the Hanseatic League began in the city of Lubeck. Lubeck was rebuilt in 1159 by Henry the Lion who was the Duke of ??Saxony and Bavaria.
Lubeck is located on the Baltic Sea, right on the eastern base of the Jutland Peninsula where Denmark is located.
Lubeck became an important trading port where goods from inland Germany, in particular Saxony and Westphalia, could be traded to cities in Scandinavia and along the Baltic Sea.
In 1226, Lubeck became what is known as an Imperial free city. A free city was one that was still part of a larger kingdom, but it wasn’t locally ruled by some other minor noble. It was self-ruled, in particular, it was run by the various guilds.
In 1241, Lubeck formed an alliance with the German city of Hamburg, which was also a free city. Lubeck had access to fishing grounds and Hamburg had access to the trade routes for salt. Together, they managed to monopolize the salt-fish market for the region.
This alliance was more than just about fish and salt. It also extended to mutual defense and efforts to combat piracy and thievery between the two cities. This was actually really important because the fractured political system made conditions ripe for robbers and pirates to thrive.
The Lubeck-Hamburg alliance eventually arranged a treaty to get access to markets in England from King Henry II. They established what was known as a kontor in London. A kontor was a trading post / embassy / counting-house.
This arrangement between Lubeck and Hamburg soon had other cities join in. Cologne joined the group, and then other German cities such as Stralsund and Wismar
The benefits of membership in the alliance were quickly realized by every city that joined. Removing piracy and opening up trade routes were profitable for everyone involved.
Soon free cities outside of Germany were joining. Visby, which is an island off the coast of Sweden, became an important port in Scandanavia.
Cities along the Baltic in what is today modern-day Poland, Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia became members. To the west, kontors popped up in places like Bergan, London, Bruges, and Antwerp.
In all, over a period of over 200 years, 194 cities in what is today 16 countries were part of or had outposts of the Hanseatic League.
Despite all of the growth of the Hanseatic League, the unofficial capital, and the city which was considered the Queen of the Hanseatic League was Lubeck.
The Hanseatic League was never more than a loose, informal coalition. Meetings were held in Lubeck, but they were not mandatory. The primary concern of the league was simply to facilitate trade and remove any barriers, be they pirates or tariffs.
Cities weren’t even bound by agreements made by the members. So long as they didn’t act against the league, they could remain in good standing and run their city as they saw fit.
There was also a mutual defense agreement that any one city would come to the aid of another if threatened.
The general terms that everyone had to abide by were known as the Law of Lubeck.
The League members traded in anything and everything. Cloth, wool, fish, amber, wax, salt, silver, furs, timber, copper, and grain.
The peak of power for the league came in the early 14th century. The wealth and power of the League were such that it started to influence the policies of larger kingdoms and empires around them.
They actually went to war against Denmark and Norway from 1361 to 1370. They were actually victorious and as part of the victory, they had free access to trade in most of Scandinavia.
This brings me back to my story from the beginning of the episode. I was in the city of Wismar, Germany, which was a major Hanseatic City. In the old part of the city, there were several old parish churches.
I’ve been all over Europe and I’ve seen hundreds of old parish churches.
However, none of them were like what I saw in Wismar.
The church of St. George was the size of a cathedral. It was enormous and it was larger than the cathedrals I’ve seen in other larger European cities.
Just one block away was another church which was just as big. Two cathedral size churches right next door to each other. The other church, St. Mary’s, had been severely damaged during World War II and was mostly demolished by the East German government during the Cold War. However, the ruins are still there and you can see their size.
There is a third church called St. Nicholas, which is also enormous, just a few blocks away from the other two.
Today, Wismar is a city of 43,000 people. It has never been a large city. So how it is that such a small city has three cathedral size churches all within short walking distance from each other?
The short answer is money. These churches were built during the heyday of the Hanseatic League. The various parishes were associated with certain guilds, and the guilds were constantly trying to show each other up.
One of the ways they did this was through the construction of massive churches. I’ve been almost everywhere in Europe, and I’ve never seen anything quite like this medieval display of wealth that I saw in the city of Wismar.
These churches, which still can be visited today, are a testament to the power and wealth of the Hanseatic League.
Eventually, the power and influence of the Hanseatic League started to wane.
One thing which hurt the league was the same thing that devastated all of Europe: the Black Death.
The 14th century Black Death reduced populations by up to 50% across Europe. In addition to the deaths, it devastated the economy by creating a severe labor shortage. Fields were left fallow. Ships couldn’t find crews.
In the 15th century, there was an event known as the Great Bullion Famine, which was a shortage of gold and silver, mainly due to outflows to the Middle East. Silver mines in Germany also flooded during this period, and there was no way to remove the water.
On top of that, there was the Little Ice Age in the 15th century, which was a climactic event that reduced agricultural output.
All of these things reshuffled the political climate in Europe and shifted the balance of power away from the free cities and back toward larger states.
In the 16th century, they found themselves on the wrong side of several conflicts in Scandanavia, and in the 17th century, they all but collapsed due to internal conflict.
Despite a massive reduction in influence, the Hanseatic League never quite died out completely.
In the 19th century, the Hanseatic League was down to just three cities: Bremen, Lubeck, and Hamburg. The final nail in the Hanseatic coffin took place in 1862 when the alliance was finally dissolved.
The legacy of the Hanseatic League can still be seen today.
The name of the German national airline is Lufthansa, which literally means Air Hansa.
Likewise, there are football clubs, breweries, banks, and theme parks all named after the Hanseatic League.
In 1980, an organization of former Hanseatic cities created a group called the New Hansa. Another group called the New Hanseatic League was founded in 2018 which a group of finance ministers from countries of the region.
The Hanseatic League was a major part of the history of Northern Europe and helped shape what the region is today. It was also a very distant ancestor to what would become the free trade organizations of the 20th century.