History teaches that where commerce and industry flourish, art also secures its triumphs.
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.
All these trades were divided into guilds and sequestered in certain streets or localities; and it was long before they were permitted to participate in the city government, which rested solely in the hands of the great landlords and merchant princes. In the fourteenth century, however, following the example of the South German communities, the “Rebellious Guilds” arose also in the Hanse towns and inaugurated that far-reaching democratic movement akin to the War of the Classes in ancient Rome. The guilds demanded a seat and a voice in the municipal councils, and made the payment of their quota dependent upon this concession. Most of the Northern cities experienced bloody insurrections at this time, and the hangman was very busy. Now the victory was with the patricians, and anon with the plebeians; and the contest was continually renewed with changing fortune. After holding aloof for some time the Hanseatic League finally took part in this purely internal affair of the several cities, and always in favor of the patrician party; in this way assuming a function originally foreign to its purpose.
The movement was a perfectly natural and justifiable one. Though originally subject to service and tribute on the part of bishop, cloister, or prince, the condition of the tradesman changed with the establishment of the principle that long unchallenged residence in a city insured personal freedom to the individual — a privilege which in those days of marked class discrimination was shared only by the burgher and the monk. Among the two last-mentioned classes even the low-born individual could rise by his own efforts: here neither prejudice nor privilege interfered with the free exercise of native talent. Many a poor apprentice in the bureau of Bergen eventually became the progenitor of a long race of distinguished merchants; and some of these families are flourishing in Europe to-day. It is but natural that the handicraftsman, once released from his bonds, should have desired to share these privileges, more particularly as the old aristocratic régime constantly became more assertive and presumptuous. It is necessary also to consider that the former social position of the artisan should not be measured by present standards; for the difference in the educational status of the classes was not nearly so pronounced then as now, and the workman, moreover, was characterized by a spirit often as chivalrous as that of the commercial magnate. There is a well-authenticated case of a shoemaker challenging another member of his craft to a duel — which, by the way, had a fatal termination — without exciting either serious comment or ridicule.
History teaches that where commerce and industry flourish, art also secures its triumphs. The glorious Gothic cathedrals of the Hanseatic cities bear eloquent testimony to this truth. “The Northlander who entered the Trave or the Vistula and beheld the multitude of soaring church spires must have felt as did once the German pilgrim to Rome,” says a modern investigator. The principal representative and patron of this art culture, here as elsewhere during the Middle Ages, was the Church. But the splendid town halls as well as the few private mansions preserved, with their step-like aggregation of gables, afford convincing evidence alike of the solid appreciation of art as of the love of splendor which characterized that distant generation. Certain it is that they greatly surpassed us in the domain of Gothic architecture. Owing to the strict adherence to the Catholic dogma a scientific development in the modern sense was, of course, impossible in those days; and, although most of the parish churches had their schools also, these were commonly designed chiefly for the sons of patricians, whose schooling usually embraced a little Latin and some reading, writing, and singing. Not infrequently the only scholar in the place was the town clerk, the forerunner of our present recorder.
The robust, healthy German of that day, yielding to a tendency which has characterized our people from immemorial times, preferred the more to surrender himself to a life of solid comfort and good cheer. The Middle Age was one which inclined to favor the enjoyment of life. It is but necessary to consider the variegated costumes, rich in color, whose ultimate extravagances necessitated special dress regulations, as well as the tournaments, the numerous archer festivals, and the frequent masquerades, to realize that the people of that day appreciated the good things of life. On the occasion of baptisms, weddings, and other domestic events, great feasts were frequently arranged in the house of the guilds or even in the town hall; and many princely visitors were here also entertained at the expense of the municipal budget. The administration of the cellarage of the municipal council was also then considered a far more respectable post than now. All these facts attest the prosperity of the Hanseatic towns. Fortunes of one hundred thousand marks were by no means exceptional, and were often invested in neighboring knightly estates (feofs), thereby sometimes securing to the owner an eventual admission to the ranks of the nobility. At one time — i.e., after the great Hanseatic war — the city of Lubeck owned the entire dukedom of Lauenburg.
The constitution of these municipalities provided for a council consisting of from twelve to twenty-four members who, though elected for life, alternated in terms of office ranging from two to three years. These members had the privilege of appointing their successors from among the eligible families of the Hanse town. The heads of the council consisted of from two to four burgomasters, who presided at the meetings. The position of member of the council was a purely honorary one. The duties comprised the administration of municipal affairs; of military and judicial affairs; of the archives; the exercise of police supervision over the market, the marine service, and the guilds; and, most important of all, the administration of the finances. They fixed the taxes, for which frequently no receipt was given or demanded; the money on such occasions being deposited unnoticed in a box set apart for the purpose — a proof that the payment of taxes at that time was regarded as a point of honor by the burgher and without suspicion by the magistrate.
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