The Hansa ships were usually round-bellied, high-boarded craft with one mast, and flew the pennant of their home port.
Continuing The Hanseatic League’s Story,
our selection from From the German Hansa: A Historical Sketch by Dr. Harry Denicke published in 1884. The selection is presented in nine easy 5 minute installments. For works benefiting from the latest research see the “More information” section at the bottom of these pages.
Previously in The Hanseatic League’s Story.
Notwithstanding all these hindrances, the sea voyage, which, by reason of the dangers attending it, was strictly prohibited during the winter months, was incomparably safer and pleasanter than the journey by land. The traveler by land was strictly confined to the prescribed highway of travel, every deviation from which was regarded as a defraudation of the customs and was punished by confiscation of goods. The inconveniences to which the merchant was subjected in the way of taxes are almost incredible. As the medieval spirit was reflected in the confusion of coinage — nearly every petty count and every city eventually enjoying the privilege of a private mint — so also was the deplorable disunion existing among the German people mirrored in the innumerable road and water taxes. Above Hamburg, along a road about twelve German miles in extent, there were not fewer than nine customs stations. Fortunately the tariff was not complicated, but was levied on the freight of the ship or wagon, or estimated by the bale or box irrespective of value or the quality of the goods under inspection. Upon the presented crucifix the merchant, aided occasionally by his cojurors, solemnly swore to the correctness of his representations concerning the goods carried by him, the oath, as is well known, being very frequently brought into requisition in all judicial and commercial transactions during medieval times.
The Hansa ships were usually round-bellied, high-boarded craft with one mast, and flew the pennant of their home port. They were comparatively broad and built of heavy planks, and could easily be transformed into war vessels by furnishing them with a superstructure known as the castell (“castle”) in which catapults and archers could be placed. In size they were probably as large as the trading vessels which cross the Baltic to-day. That they were skillfully handled is evident from the fact that a contemporaneous report mentions a trip from Ripen in Jutland to Amsterdam as having been successfully made in two days. As regards the laws of navigation, a point especially noteworthy was the talent displayed in organizing fellowship unions. Reference is not here made to the habit of the merchants in sailing in squadrons so much as to the peculiar institutions which regulated the life on board — institutions which have recently been justly designated as the most perfect expression of that executive ability which characterized the close of German medievalism. An account of these institutions dating from the middle of the sixteenth century has fortunately been preserved.
As soon as the vessel was upon the high sea the crew, which consisted of the captain and the “ship’s children,” pledged itself strictly to obey orders and equitably to divide any booty eventually secured. A court of sheriffs was then organized, consisting of a judge, four sheriffs, a sergeant-at-arms, a secretary, an executioner, and several other officials. Thereupon came the proclamation of the maritime law upon which the eventual judgment of the court was based. The tenor of this law was as follows: It is forbidden to swear in God’s name; to mention the devil; to sleep after the hour for prayer; to handle lights; to destroy or waste food; to meddle with the duties of the drawer of liquor; to play at dice or cards after sunset; and to vex the cook or annoy the crew under penalty of a monetary fine. The following are some of the penalties inflicted for various offences: Whoever sleeps while on guard or creates a disturbance between decks shall be drawn under the keel of the vessel; whoever attempts to draw weapons on board, be they long or short, shall have the respective weapon run through his hand into the mast, so that he will have to draw the weapon through his own hand again if he would free himself; whoever accuses another unjustly shall pay the double fine prescribed for the offence charged; and no one shall endeavor to take revenge upon the executioners. Upon the completion of the voyage the court resigned, after dispensing a general amnesty and partaking of bread and salt in company with the rest of the crew. Upon landing, the monetary fines which had been collected from delinquents on board were presented to the lord of the strand for benevolent distribution.
On arriving at the end of his journey the merchant was confronted by new difficulties. It not infrequently happened that the master of the port visited by him had, within the time elapsed since the departure of the vessel from home, fallen into strife with the respective Hanse town whose ensign the vessel bore. As newspapers and dispatches were at that time unknown, it is not difficult to conjecture the difficulties with which a merchant had to contend. Moreover, he required an exact knowledge of local conditions and of the legal rights accorded him, which were different in each city and always inferior to those of the native inhabitants. To-day, as a rule, a foreigner, wherever he may be, enjoys the full benefits of the place he happens to visit, equally with the resident citizen. It was not so in the days of the Hansa, and hence the constant endeavor of the league to obtain firmly established offices or bureaus abroad. At an early date such a bureau existed in London under the name of the Stahlhof, another at Novgorod under the name of the St. Petershof, and still others at smaller towns in England and the Netherlands — each having its peculiar privileges, customs, and mercantile usages, but all possessing in common the invaluable right of settling any difficulty affecting the members of the league according to their own native code. In London the representative of the league was compelled to become an English citizen, and the entire bureau thus became naturalized, as it were. The same was true of the Hanse bureau at Bruges, a city in which after all, in view of the powerful competition prevailing there, a pronounced monopoly was certain to be curbed to some extent. Here the league merely possessed warerooms, while their agents lived privately among the burghers. The right of holding court in the Carmelite monastery was conceded to them; and there, too, they administered their affairs. In Novgorod, however, the conditions were entirely different. In view of the uncivilized condition and the national prejudices of the Russians, the greatest care had to be exercised in all intercourse with the natives in order that the existence of the entire Hanseatic colony might not be endangered. Consequently, this intercourse was regulated with great circumspection and in all detail both by the diet of the Hanseatic League and by the chiefs of the bureau.
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