This series has nine easy 5 minute installments. This first installment: Hanseatic League Begun.
The Hanseatic League, or Hansa — the word meaning a society, union — was the first trade trust of which we have authentic record. It began about A.D. 1140, but the league was not signed until 1241. It was first called into being to protect the property of the German merchants against the piratical Vikings, but presently became submerged in a combination of certain cities to enlarge and control the trade of each country with which they had commerce. So powerful did the league become that it dominated kings, nobles, and cities by its edicts.
The selection is taken from From the German Hansa: A Historical Sketch by Dr. Harry Denicke published in 1884.. The book’s original German title was “Von Der Deutschen Hansa: Eine Historische Skizze”. For works benefiting from the latest research see the “More information” section at the bottom of these pages.
With good reason the world’s commerce is today accepted as one of the most imposing and unique phenomena of our time. It is but necessary to consult a statistical handbook in order to obtain a conception of the gigantic figures involved in the exports and imports of the multifarious articles of commerce to and from all countries — figures whose magnitude precludes the possibility of forming an adequate conception of their true significance. No less astonishing are the means employed by traffic to-day to develop our system of credit and our complex and useful web of communication. One fact, however, should be borne in mind: namely, that our commerce is of comparatively modern growth. The two factors chiefly responsible for its development were: (1) The great voyages of discovery which began at the close of the fifteenth century and opened a theretofore unsuspected field of production and consumption; and (2) the utilization of steam, that great triumph of the nineteenth century. Perhaps a brief sketch of that earlier commercial development which immediately preceded our extensive modern commercial network may not be unwelcome to the reader desirous of contrasting the narrower but nevertheless fascinating medieval conditions of the German Hansa with those prevailing in our present mercantile world. Let us inquire how the confederation of the Hansa arose, and, after briefly sketching its external history, review in greater detail its commercial and industrial methods, its art work, domestic life, and constitution.
The development of the German Hansa may be traced to two principal sources: (1) The associations formed by German merchants abroad, and (2) the union established by the Low-German cities at home.
In the days of Charlemagne, Germany’s eastern boundary was extended to the Elbe, and beyond it to Holstein, but it was not until four centuries later, that is, in the reign of Frederick Barbarossa, that the Baltic was reached, the southern borders of which sea, now constituting Mecklenburg, Pomerania, and Prussia, having theretofore been inhabited chiefly by Slavonic and Lithuanian peoples. The credit for this increase of power is due primarily to the Saxon duke Henry the Lion, who, while the Emperor was engaged in maturing and executing mighty plans of world conquest, developed upon this virgin soil an extraordinary colonial activity, transplanting hither German peasants, burghers, and priests, and with them German customs and Christian civilization. In this way there arose about the year A.D. 1200, upon soil wrested from the Slavs, a number of promising towns, foremost among which was Lubeck, a place endowed by Duke Henry with municipal rights especially designed to promote commercial intercourse and affording liberal and far-reaching privileges to the counsellors and burghers. Soon thereafter the rapidly developing neighboring cities of Wismar, Rostock, Stralsund, Greifswald, Anklam, and Stettin, usually called “the Wendish cities,” became participants in the constitution thus granted. The territory now grew rapidly. In the course of the thirteenth century, the then pagan country of Prussia and the present Baltic provinces of Russia were conquered by the Teutonic knights and kindred orders and were occupied and settled. The same historical process which took place in Greece, and in more recent times in America, also repeated itself here: the youthful colonial offshoots overcame the narrowing and confining influence of the mother country, yet reacted favorably upon it by virtue of that vivifying influence, due to more rapid and exuberant growth.
In the mean time the other countries contiguous to the North and Baltic seas, that is, Russia, Sweden, Norway, Denmark, and England, had become converted to Christianity. Some of them, indeed, had embraced the Christian creed several centuries prior to this time. The natural consequence was that a lively intercourse was cultivated upon the two seas, especially after the crusades, which enterprises, by opening new avenues of commerce and increasing the knowledge concerning numerous articles of utility, had greatly augmented the demands of the people of the Occident. The extraordinary development of trade on the Baltic, indeed, vividly recalls the ancient commercial activity on the Mediterranean; and the phrase, “a basin fruitful of culture,” often applied to the latter region, may with equal justice be applied also to the former. In the beginning, Russians, Danes, and Englishmen participated in the active trade conducted on the northern littoral. Eventually, however, they were displaced by their German rivals. As the northern nations upon their acceptance of Christianity had once before formed their political and social institutions upon German models, so they now, in such cities as Stockholm, Bergen, Copenhagen, and others, became subject to the cultural and, above all, the commercial influence of the German burgher.
It is interesting to note the manner in which this extraordinary influence was secured. In later medieval times all classes of the population were compelled to rely upon self-help. In other words, they were compelled to replace the defective or insufficient protection afforded by the State by corporate bodies. Thus the merchants of a Low-German German town, when in search of a common centre of trade, pledged themselves by a solemn oath to a defensive and offensive alliance and mutual furtherance; and wider alliances between the various towns themselves soon followed. Of all these private commercial associations none attained to greater importance than did the Gothland Company, a society of Low-German merchants who visited Gothland, the centre of commercial activity in the Baltic, for trading purposes. Here was the seat of the mighty city of Wisby, which contained such wealth that a Danish king once declared that the swine there ate from silver troughs. Even at the present day the massive ruins of the old city wall and of the eighteen churches which once existed there bear testimony to the former magnitude and grandeur of the city. The Gothland Company flourished chiefly during the thirteenth century and enjoyed all the privileges of a political power; bearing its own seal, policing the seas, and insisting upon strict compliance on the part of all navigators of the Baltic with the marine laws which it had created.
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