Today’s installment concludes The Hanseatic League’s Story,
our selection from From the German Hansa: A Historical Sketch by Dr. Harry Denicke published in 1884. For works benefiting from the latest research see the “More information” section at the bottom of these pages.
If you have journeyed through all of the installments of this series, just one more to go and you will have completed a selection from the great works of nine thousand words. Congratulations!
Previously in The Hanseatic League’s Story.
The general character of the municipal life of the Hanse towns in those days has been well compared by a modern writer to a family household. The workman regarded himself within his circle as an official of the city — a fact shown by the use of the word Aemter (“offices”) to designate the guilds. Hence the strong municipal patriotism which animated these burghers and which compensates in some degree for the absence of that great political enthusiasm which is derived from the consciousness of a united country. A quaint genre picture of the time, preserved at Bremen, represents a native of the latter city and another from Lubeck sitting together in a tavern and disputing as to the comparative merits of their respective towns. The controversy reaches its climax by one of the disputants declaring stolidly that he too might “master such words” and taking a long and mighty draught.
The separate towns, usually upon a request of the Lubeck council, would send their deputies to confer jointly upon matters affecting the league, these conferences or diets usually being held in some Wendish city. On no occasion, however, were all the towns of the league represented at these conferences. Their constitution was absolutely free from all theoretical or rigid forms or ordinances. Whoever found that his interests were especially affected by the subject under discussion sent representatives to the diet of the league, and these usually discharged their duties faithfully, without shirking the long and arduous trip even during the winter season. The conferences held in this way were probably wider in their scope than those of any other power of the time. Usually, however, not political, but commercial, matters were discussed. There was no common treasury. Whenever money was required an export duty was levied, with which absolute compliance was demanded. An infraction of the laws of the league was punishable by a fine, and in extreme cases by exclusion from the Hansa — a sentence necessarily involving the commercial isolation and eventual bankruptcy of the delinquent city. Bremen, it is true, once withstood the consequences of the Hanseatic ban for more than fifty years, but this was before the extraordinary extension of Hanseatic power consequent upon the Danish war. From all this it appears that the constitution of the Hansa was a very slack but elastic one, which easily adapted itself to the exigencies of the moment. A charter of a Hanseatic constitution has never existed — proof in itself of the desire to afford as much latitude as possible in the construction of the laws. Theory is regarded as valueless; immediate facts and interests are all in all. The supremacy of Lubeck, for example, was never formally recognized by the other cities of the league.
Thus did the Hansa flourish until the close of the Middle Ages. With the discovery of America and of the passage to India trade was diverted into new channels; it became transoceanic and, not without some culpability on the part of the Hanses themselves, fell into the hands of the now more favorably situated countries of Western Europe — Spain, Portugal, France, the Netherlands, and, finally, England. Equally detrimental to the Hansa was the political transformation wrought at this time, especially as regards the rapidly growing power of the princes, who, with all the influence at their command, sought to abrogate all special privileges and to foster a leveling process in order that they alone might be exalted. One city after another sank into utter dependence upon the sovereign rulers of the respective provinces, who, in their turn, began to take an interest in economic affairs, thus contributing to widen the breach between these respective cities and the league. It was under these circumstances that Gustavus Vasa declared of the Hansa that “Its teeth were falling out, like those of an old woman.” The Hollanders, especially, had long been converted from allies into formidable rivals. The most important and decisive factor of this decadence, however, was the victorious opposition to the Hanseatic monopoly now brought to bear by the hitherto commercially oppressed nations, England and Russia, who simply closed the doors of the bureaus and abrogated the privileges of the German merchants of the league. The condition of the Hansa was akin to that of a healthy, vigorous tree, set in poor soil and deriving its sustenance from the weakness of the home rulers and the primitive or defective economic conditions of foreign countries. As soon as these negative medieval conditions were swept away by the storms of the Reformation the tree gradually but surely fell into decay. With this later stage there is associated the historic tragedy of Jürgen Wullenwever, that genial and daring democratic innovator, who, in an endeavor to conquer Denmark in order to restore the prestige of the Hansa, was betrayed by his patrician fellow-burghers and hanged.
The Hansa, though in a stage of increasing decrepitude, now lingered on until the final crash came in 1630, when all the members dissolved their allegiance to the league. Only the three Hanse towns of Hamburg, Bremen, and Lubeck renewed the compact, which, however, to-day is purely nominal. The Hansa had fulfilled its great historic mission. It had impressed the stamp of German culture upon the North; given German commerce the supremacy over that of all other nations; protected the northern and eastern boundaries of the empire at a time when the imperial power was impotent and the State disrupted; and maintained and extended the prestige of the German flag in the northern seas. Said a great German writer: “When all on land was steeped in particularism, the Hansa, our people upon the sea, alone remained faithful to the German spirit and to German tradition.”
This ends our series of passages on The Hanseatic League’s Story by Dr. Harry Denicke from his book From the German Hansa: A Historical Sketch published in 1884. This blog features short and lengthy pieces on all aspects of our shared past. Here are selections from the great historians who may be forgotten (and whose work have fallen into public domain) as well as links to the most up-to-date developments in the field of history and of course, original material from yours truly, Jack Le Moine. – A little bit of everything historical is here.
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