The large commercial settlements of the Hanse were called branch offices. They were the cornerstones of the Hanseatic trade. These were the Steelyard in London, the Peteryard in Novgorod, the branch office in Bruges and the “Tyske Bryggen” in Bergen. Numerous smaller settlements existed which were called trading posts.
Elected elder men, heads of the settlements abroad, had to establish and maintain good relationships with the local rulers to negotiate acceptable commercial terms in the country.
There were also other methods to getting privileges for the long-distance merchants from the rulers. When the Norwegian King tried to curtail the privileges of the Hanseatic merchants in 1284, they simply cancelled commercial trade and no longer supplied any grain. When the resulting famine crisis in the country became too severe, the King had to give in and granted the merchants extended rights. The Hanseatic League used this kind of embargo also on several occasions in other countries.
The route to Novgorod in Russia was long, difficult and dangerous, so the merchants usually stayed 6 months. Summer and winter travellers took turns. Rules for Germans living in Peteryard were summed up in the “Schra”. The yard took its name from the church St Peter, the town’s only brick-built edifice, which was both warehouse and treasury. The entire complex with a lot of timbered houses was protected by high palisades.
Very early on, the people of Gotland owned an office in Novgorod called the “Gotenhof ”. Later they also included the Germans, but these soon put the Gotland people out of business. Lübeck, in discussion with Visby, regulated the issues in the office in Novgorod thereafter. Riga later took over this office.
Furs, wax, honey and timber were the main products of export by the branch office. Low German traders brought fabrics, amber, salt, wine, silver and more in exchange.
The Norwegian site in Bergen was called the “Tyske Bryggen” meaning “German Quai”. It consisted of a lot of timbered houses lined up on the quay and connected by narrow yards. Here the German businessmen lived and worked in close contact with their staff. Dried cod was exported, while grain was mainly brought into the country. The Bergen traders from Lübeck ruled the office.
Apprentices coming to Bergen for the first time were teased mercilessly, which meant they had to go through a brutal entrance ritual. For example they had to sing or answer questions while sitting in stinging smoke. If coughing or choking prevented them from answering, they were birched repeatedly. The rough male-dominated community called this the “Bergen Games” which they greatly enjoyed.
The office in Bruges was the most important one of the Hanseatic League. Merchants from all over the known world came here and exchanged goods and experiences. They did not live in exclusive areas, but with native innkeepers who were also working as agents. It was only in 1442 that the German merchants got their own meeting place, the “House of the Hanse”. Before that they met in the rooms of a monastery.
The Hanse merchants boycotted trade with the Flemish city of Bruges several times, because they thought their rights had been denied. They moved to Aardenburg or Dordrecht in the Netherlands and operated their business from there until Bruges had backed down.
In 1175 the English King Henry II issued a letter of safe-conduct for some merchants from Cologne, which allowed them to trade wine in England. In the 13th century the long-distance merchants from the Baltic cities were also able to participate in this trade with their own products.
The meeting place of the “Hansa Allemanie” in London was the Guildhall. This was their business and storage premises as well as dwellings for merchants. The entire area of this office was later called “Steelyard”. The name probably comes from the way in which cloth, their most valuable merchandise, was marked with a metal seal of quality.