The methods of transportation and intercourse at that time were very different from those of today.
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.
The other stream of Hanseatic trade terminated at London. The German merchant sent thither chiefly French wines and Venetian silks. It was he who attended to this traffic — not the consumer or the producer. In exchange for these commodities he took English wool — the output being already at that time very extensive — transporting it to the mills of Flanders. Such was at that time the commercial relation of Germany to England. If the latter country today, by virtue of its incomparably favorable geographical position, has become the first naval and commercial power, it was in an economic sense at that time absolutely dependent upon Germany, which country, after the loss of its political supremacy, outstripped all other nations in the contest for economic supremacy — excepting perhaps the Arabians and the republics of Northern Italy, who controlled the trade in the Orient and the Mediterranean. Naturally the English merchants were jealous and frequently brought complaints before their kings and parliaments; but the latter, despite occasional contentions, ever and again upheld the foreign invader. The reason is not far to seek: like the kings of the north, they could not dispense with the silver chests of the Hanseatic towns and merchants, who on more than one occasion secured their loans by appropriating the products of the tin mines or the duties on wool, or by taking in pawn crown and jewels.
It is evident, therefore, that the greatest source of wealth to the Hansa was this intermediary traffic. Several other important commercial connections will be touched upon later. Casual mention should here be made, however, to the trade with Scotland, Ireland, Brabant, and France, whose annual markets were regularly attended by the Hansa merchants. While the trade of the cities of the league found such wide extension abroad, however, the traffic with their nearest neighbors, the High-Germans, was very weak. Their domestic trade, indeed, was confined chiefly to the plains of Northern Germany, extending southward to Thuringia and eastward to the Oder and the Vistula, where Cracow constituted the last outpost. The great High-German communities along the Main and the Danube pursued different political and economic interests. Being chiefly manufacturing cities, they formed only temporary unions. Dependent rather upon the south of Europe, they were also differentiated from their northern brethren by their coinage, inasmuch as they accepted gold as their standard, whereas the Low-Germans preferred silver money, especially that of Lubeck. Of course each Hanse town formed the nucleus of the local intercourse; and thither came noblemen and peasant to barter the produce of the fields for the merchandise of the city, and to invest, or probably more frequently to borrow, money. Lubeck and Bruges were in those days the money centers of Northern Europe, and their councilors and commercial magnates were the bankers of kings and princes.
The methods of transportation and intercourse at that time were very different from those of today. There was no postal service, no insurance, very sparse circulation of bills, and very little of that agency — or commission — business, which relegates to a third party the transportation and management of goods. Trade was very largely a matter of individual enterprise, demanding in a far greater measure than today the personal superintendence of the merchant. Usually the latter himself traveled well-armed across sand and sea to distant lands, trusting in God and upon his strong right arm. As master of a vessel he did not fail to interest his crew in the safety of the ship and cargo by allotting to them part of the profits. Indeed, his journey was far more perilous than it is to-day. Upon the public highway he was subject to the attack of the robber barons, who held him prisoner against heavy ransom; and in the innumerable hiding-places of the rock-bound northern coast his course was followed by the watch-boats of pirates. The occupations of highway robbery and piracy were at that time still regarded among wide circles as excusable. Dozens of feudal castles, the retreats of robber barons, were destroyed by the soldiers of the municipalities, and dozens of freebooting vessels were annihilated, the robbers themselves being executed with axe or sword or thrown overboard. The piracy of that age reached its acme in the notorious “Society of Equal Sharers” or “Brotherhood of Victuallers.” This consisted of an incongruous aggregation of noble and plebeian blades, who, despite their excessive brutality, nevertheless possessed some genuine knightly characteristics, the hardihood and bravery of the true mariner, and a boundless love of adventure. Formed during the eighth decade of the fourteenth century for the purpose of assisting the King of Sweden against the martial queen Margaret of Denmark, its immediate object at that time was the supplying of victuals to the beleaguered city of Stockholm — whence its name. When, upon the surrender of the city and the establishment of peace, the immediate object of the society had been fulfilled, the attraction of freebooting proved too strong for these wild companions, whose excesses now assumed an increasingly alarming form. For more than a half century they remained the terror of the northern seas. Almost annually the cities were compelled to send out vessels against them, which, however, were not always so successful as the celebrated Bunte Kuh (“Brindled Cow”) of Hamburg, which captured the most dangerous of the piratic captains, Claus Stoertebeker and Godeke Michel, with their followers and their fabulous treasures, and brought them to Hamburg. Tradition has it that for three days the public executioner stood ankle-deep in the blood of the condemned. Nevertheless, the seafaring public did not suspect the presence of a robber behind every bush or cliff. After all, an undisturbed voyage was the rule rather than the exception; sensational occurrences, of course, then, as now, playing an important part in the reports of the time.
To these social disorders must be added elemental dangers of all kinds, such as the tides and shallows of the North Sea — the shallow waters contiguous to the coast being chiefly navigated — dangers against which neither compass nor chronometer was then available. Even buoys and lighthouses were comparatively rare or inadequate at a time when nautical knowledge itself was still extremely defective. It was therefore not astonishing that shipwrecks were of daily occurrence and were of course followed by all the evils of that cruel and barbarous “Strand law” which, despite all papal edicts and voluntary treaties, could not be abrogated, but was actually carried out by the Archbishop of Bremen himself.
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