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The Hanseatic League

Formation of the Hanseatic League

The Hanseatic League was formed in the 13th century by cities in the northern part of Germany, a region to which, apparently, the Holy Roman Emperor paid little attention. Merchants from cities like Lübeck, Hamburg, and Bremen were encountering more and more obstacles in trying to extend their trade abroad. In foreign ports, without the protection of treaties and a strong organization, the owner of a single ship was subjected to excessive taxes. The so called staple law forbade him to pass through a town having a larger, better market, unless he was willing to offer most of his goods to the local burghers.

Hanseatic League-Lübeck
Lübeck-The Queen of The Hanseatic League

The merchants also needed common churches, and courts of justice to legalize transactions, and to regulate weights and measures. They needed treaties with foreign countries to prevent reprisals. Cooperation and consolidation became imperative, and in 1241, Lübeck formed an alliance with Hamburg, thus laying the foundation of the Hanseatic League.

Characteristics of the Hanseatic League

The Hanseatic League was named from the word “hanse”, meaning guild or union for trade. Lübeck is also known as "The Queen of the Hanseatic League".

The Hanseatic League became a union primarily for commercial purposes, comprising around seventy cities. The number is approximate, as the membership fluctuated. Numerous towns along the east coast of the Baltic conquered by the Teutonic Knights also joined the Hanseatic League. The League did not have all the prerogatives of a political federation, but the members held assemblies, had agreements in place for the extradition of criminals, and they were going to war together.

Significant numbers of traders, members of the League, were present in foreign countries like Sweden. No less than thirty German towns were represented, with their representatives already forming an association.

Hanseatic League expansion

The influence of the Hanseatic League was projected abroad by its warlike fleet. The ships were heavily armed, had their complement of soldiers, while their decks were defended by two strong forts made of wood. In 1367 fifty-seven towns declared war upon the Kings of Norway and Denmark and defeated them in several naval engagements.

On the diplomatic front, the Hanseatic League secured special trading privileges abroad, and as a result, had settlements in various foreign ports. The most important were at Bergen on the Norwegian coast, Novgorod in Russia, Bruges in Flanders, and London in England. The commerce was carried on only with arms in hands, as the merchant had to defend his ships and his merchandise. In a similar manner, the posts on foreign soil were heavily fortified, as in the case of the “Steelyard” in London. The league representatives manning them were subject to strict discipline, and they were not allowed to marry during their assignment. The building was in the same time a storehouse, a market and a tribunal, and no strangers were allowed in.

The settlements at Bergen and Novgorod allowed the Hanseatic League to monopolize the trade of Norway and to deny Russians access to the Baltic Sea. The Hanseatic merchants acquired extended privileges in Bruges and London. They tried to exclude any foreign merchants from the League towns and from the Baltic.

In the Middle Ages people abstained from read meat on Fridays and monks on most other days. Thus herring fishing in the Baltic and North Seas was a source of great profit for the Hanseatic League. Wax for candles and amber for rosaries were other Northern commodities in great demand. The League was also extensively trading timber, furs, metals, grain, and beer.

Decline of the Hanseatic League

The prosperity of the Hanseatic League continued till the end of the 15th century, when a gradual decline started. The League lost Novgorod, captured by tsar Ivan of Russia in 1478. The maritime and commercial power of the English and the Dutch will become predominant. The nature also had its role, as maritime currents changes caused the herrings to migrate from the Baltic to the North Sea.

And last, but not least, the Hanseatic League was weakened by the great deal of confusion caused in Germany by the Protestant reform, and the religious wars following it.

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