Thursday, April 10, 2014

Hanseatic League: Economic Group of Germany

Lübeck - center of the Hanse
A united German States was not formed until the establishment of the German Empire in 1871 under the leader of Prussia, its King Wilhelm I, and its brilliant Chancellor, Otto von Bismarck. In present Germany before the 1871, several small German states were established and ruled by local princes. During the Middle Ages, the Holy Roman Empire existed under the control of the Germans, but the Empire was fragmented by Princes who owned lands and treated it like their own smaller kingdom. The closest form of united Germany was a mercantile organization known as the Hanseatic League or otherwise known as Hanse.

The Hanseatic League or Hanse was a grouping of small German States that had an economic purpose in the Baltic and Northern European seas. In the 13th century, the Holy Roman Empire and its Hohenstaufen Dynasty had fallen. Disintegration led to the rise of many small German city states. Most of the city states primary source of income was trade. Because of small stature of their navy and army, many of them were unable to protect their trading ships. Some city states decided to form groups to organize the defense of their ships from pirates.  In Visby located in the Island of Gotland situated in the Baltic Sea, group of German merchants formed a league that would answer their needs in foreign lands. In the city of Bergen in Norway, a grouping of German merchants were also founded. Similar groupings were also established in the cities of Burges, Novgorod, Venice, and even in London. It would be in London, where future main trading post of the League, the Steelyard, was to establish.

On the onset of the 14th century, League was formally established and stimulated economic growth and political power. In 1367, the Hanseatic League was formally established. It was also called Hanse, or in old German meaning Union or Association. Prominent cities that joined included Magdeburg, Memel, Bremen, Lübeck, Brunswick, Brunswick, Cologne, Riga, Breslau, Krakow, and Danzig. At its pinnacle, the Hanse had over seventy members.

The Hanse was in charge of providing several services for its members. The League provided security from pirates and highway men for German merchants. But the Hanseatic League also began to promote maritime safety as well as development of transportation and basic infrastructure. It repaired ships as well as construct new canals and waterways. It also constructed lighthouses for the merchant ships. In addition it provided maintenance and construction of new roads for land merchant travelers. Inns were also set up to major ports to provide comfort for its members.The League had no formal administrative organization. Meetings of member city states were conducted time to time in the city of Lübeck. It also had many trade missions abroad, like London, Venice, and Novgorod, that would cater the needs of merchants from member states. It also had commercial laws that its members must abide or face economic sanctions in form of embargo or trade blockade. It had courts which would settle disputes among the merchants of its members.The League had specialized in very strategic trades. Fur and textile traded was lucrative in Europe and the League had a large share of the trade of this items. It also had interest lumber, grains, and fish. Fish, in particular, herring and cod, were highly valued in Europe because of the Catholic Church. Under the church’s doctrine, in every Friday of a week, followers were not allowed to consume meat. Thus, the only thing available to eat was fish, herring and cod specifically. It also had interests in ship building and minerals. Because of its trading activities, Scandinavian cities of Kalmar, Stockholm, Oslo, and Tonsberg flourished.With their commercial activity, the League wielded strong influence. 

During the 1360’s, the Danish King Waldemar IV challenged the dominance of the League in the Baltic Seas. A commercial war began. The League retaliated to Denmark by imposing commercial blockade upon the Kingdom. The conflict between Denmark and the Hanseatic League transpired through a decade. It ended in 1370 with Denmark bowing down to the League and was then mandated to pay 15% of its trade revenue to the Hanseatic League. Nations gave preferential treatment to merchants of its members. In 1281, it received a status of extraterritoriality in England and in 1422, it received the privilege of zero taxes for their trading activities in England.

The League continued to prosper until wind of changes blew in the 15th to 17th century. With the discovery of the New World in 1492, much of trading activities shifted from the Baltic Seas to the Atlantic. New trading powers also emerged to compete with the Hanseatic League. There was England, Spain, France, and then later, the Dutch. The Dutch began to encroach on the interest of Hanseatic League when in the 15th century it took control of herring fish trade in the continent. The rise of great Kingdoms led to the downfall of its several city state members. One by one, the number of its members began to drop until in 1669, four states remained. They were Lübeck, Bremen, and Hamburg. It final meeting on that year was recognized as the end of 4 centuries of the Hanseatic League.

See also:
Delian League: The Athenian Empire
Holy League: The Victors of Lepanto
Kalmar Union
Schmalkaldic League
Swabian League
German Customs Union - Zollverein


Anderson, J. Daily Life Through Trade: Buying and Selling In World History. California: ABC-CLIO, Inc., 2013. 

Derry, T.K. A History of Scandinavia: Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Finland, Iceland. Minnesota: University of Minesota Press, 2000. 

Nollan, C. The Greenwood Encyclopedia of International Relations. Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 2002. 

Tellier, L. N. Urban World History: An Economic and Geographical Perspective. Quebec: Presses de’l’Quebec,  2009. 

“Hanseatic League.” How Stuff Works?. Accessed April 4, 2014.

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