The history of the Hanseatic League

The expansion of the Hanseatic League in the Middle Ages

The Hanseatic League is a unique phenomenon of German history. The co-operation and mergers of merchants for the promotion of their trade abroad gave rise to a town covenant, which in its heyday comprised of nearly 200 sea and inner cities.

The stepping stone of the Hanseatic League could be the “Artlenburger Privilege”, introduced by Duke Henry the Lion, which stopped the murder and manslaughter between Low German merchants and their competitors from Gotland. He granted them the same rights in his Empire as the German long-distance merchants. For example duty-free treatment, protection and freedom based on mutual trust.

More about the history, rise and fall of the Hanseatic League can be found in our Hanse-TV section.

The Hanseatic League in the Middle Ages, 200 cities in 7 countries

The hanseatic cog © H.-J. Draeger / © BOYENS BUCHVERLAG

These cities were located in an area that are nowadays comprised of seven European countries: From the Dutch Zuiderzee in the west to Baltic Estonia in the east and from the Swedish Visby / Gotland in the north to the line Cologne-Erfurt-Breslau-Krakau in the south.

From this area, the hanseatic long distance buyers developed an economic reach, which ranged from the 16th century from Portugal to Russia and from the Scandinavian countries to Italy, an area that now includes 20 European states.

The Hanseatic League - Economic power with self-assetion

Danish king Waldemar defeated the hanseatic fleet 1362 before Helsingborg © H.-J. Draeger / © BOYENS BUCHVERLAG

In its heyday, the Hanseatic League was so powerful that it imposed economic blockades against kingdoms and principalities to enforce their economic interests and in exceptional cases even waged wars.

Thus, in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries the Hanseatic League had several disputes with the Danes. After Waldemar was defeated in 1227, Waldemar IV defeated Gotland in 1361 and defeated the Hapsian fleet in 1362 (see Fleet commander Johann Wittenborg).

In 1367, the Hanseatic League defeated Bruno Warendorp and defeated the Danish king during the siege of Helsingborg. The Sundzoll, which had been introduced since 1425, for the passage of the hordes of the Oresund, also caused disputes for centuries.

Goods exchange monopoly

The Hanseatic Merchandise Exchange Monopoly © H.-J. Draeger / © BOYENS BUCHVERLAG

From the 13th to the middle of the fifteenth century, the Hanseatic League largely dominated the exchange of goods between the north-east and the north-west of Europe by covering the raw material and food supplies of the West from the East, which had been opened by the German colonization, and the east with the Western- Products. These included, for example, furs, wax, grain, fish, flax, hemp, wood and timber products such as pitch, tar and potato. In return, the Hanseatic merchants brought into these countries the industrial finished products of the West and South like cloths, metal goods, especially weapons, and spices.

The hanseatic branches as central trading branches abroad

Bruges © H.-J. Draeger / © BOYENS BUCHVERLAG

Central transhipment points of this trade were the trading posts of the Hanseatic League in Novgorod (Northwest Russia), in Bergen (Norway), Bruges (Flanders) and in London (England). In addition, the Hanseatic League, from Russia to Portugal, distributed numerous smaller branches, the so-called factories, across Europe. The long-distance buyers pursued commercial objectives.

The Hanseatic League organized itself, the hanseatic days were introduced

The Hanseatic League organized itself: Hanseatic days © H.-J. Draeger / © BOYENS BUCHVERLAG

Since the second half of the 14th century, however, the hanseatic cities were trying to create a firmer alliance organization for mutual support against aristocratic rule claims. With this firmer union, they also wanted to face problems caused by the growing competition of English, Italian and South German merchants and Dutch freightmen and by the state strengthening in the target countries of the trade. The pressure from the outside was thus the reason why the cities of the Hanseatic League („stede van der dudeschen hense“) joined together as a group on the first hanseatic day in Lübeck in 1358.

The creeping decline of the Hanseatic League

The Hanseatic League loses its influence © H.-J. Draeger / © BOYENS BUCHVERLAG

However, the development could not be stopped and the influence of the Hanseatic League was reduced, although trade in the 16th and early 17th century still showed enormous growth.

The emerging national and territorial economies left no room for a supraregional trade union such as the Hanseatic merchants and Hanseatic towns. The Reformation also split the cohesion.

A managing director of the Hanse is deployed

A syndic / managing director is employed © H.-J. Draeger / © BOYENS BUCHVERLAG

In the middle of the 16th century Heinrich Sudermann was hired as the first managing director (syndic) to free the Hanseatic League from their difficult situation. In spite of some successes, as well as his successor, he lacked the self-assetion against the personal interests of the merchants and cities.

The Thirty Years' War (1618-1648) finally destroys the trading area of Hanseatic merchants. There was no longer any thought of an orderly trade of goods.

In 1669 the last hanseatic day of the Hanseatic League took place in Lübeck.

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