It was greater, for example, than that of the maritime towns of Germany for the period immediately preceding the era of steam navigation, i.e., about 1830.
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.
One of the busiest centers of Hanseatic activity remains to be touched upon: namely, the small tongue of land near Skanor and Falsterbo, and constituting an appendage of the larger peninsula of Skane or Schonen. The once prosperous stretch of beach here referred to is now a desert tract of sand, the furrows and ruins on which are the only relics of the busy commercial life once prevailing. After the herring had during the tenth and eleventh centuries visited the Pomeranian coast in great shoals, it changed its course to the above-mentioned region of the Sound. The Hanses were not slow to avail themselves of this circumstance. They succeeded in securing a practical ownership of this most valuable district of Denmark; thereby demonstrating how incredibly incompetent the princes of the land were at that time as regards the utilization of their natural resources. These princes actually granted to several German cities, and, moreover, to each individually, the right to establish reservations here — the so-called Vitten — consisting of fenced enclosures on the coast, within which were erected vendors’ and fish-booths, dwellings, and even churches, all under the administration of special governors appointed by the Germans. From this point the herring grounds were readily accessible. The fishing lasted from July until October; and during this time merchants, fishermen, and coopers resorted here by thousands to fish as well as to salt, smoke, pack, and load the produce of the net. In connection with this industry there were held in the immediate vicinity much-frequented annual markets, the distributing centers for home consumption. At the beginning of the fifteenth century the capricious fish suddenly took another direction, visiting the coast of Holland, to the people of which he thenceforth became as lucrative a source of revenue as he had been to the Hanses. It has been said that Amsterdam with all its wealth is built upon herrings; and a similar statement could once be applied with equal justice to the Hansa cities of the Baltic.
Concerning the characteristic methods of conducting trade it may be well here to add that during the distant period here under consideration a so-called commission business could scarcely be said to exist; and this is true also of speculation in the narrower sense. While buying and selling on time were not infrequent, especially in the grain market, the transactions were upon an infinitely smaller scale than as conducted at present, when, as the saying goes, “goods is sold a dozen times before it is actually available.” The unsound methods at present in vogue, based as they are upon fluctuations in price, were then scarcely known. “Goods in exchange for goods or its equivalent in money” was the motto of the Hanseatic merchant, who, however, was by no means always entirely guiltless of fraudulent operations. Often enough the lowermost layers of herring in the keg consisted of spoiled goods, and not infrequently a bale of linen had to be returned from station to station to the place whence it was sent in order that it might be reëxamined as to quantity and quality. In these transactions the crafty dealer usually preferred to take advantage of the proverbial simplicity of the Norwegian.
The scope of the Hansa trade was greater than one would imagine. It was greater, for example, than that of the maritime towns of Germany for the period immediately preceding the era of steam navigation, i.e., about 1830. The fish trade was at that early period far more brisk, partly because the herring then visited the shores of the Baltic, and partly because the church laws relative to abstinence from meat during the fasts were rigidly observed by all the states of Christian Europe. A few figures will serve vividly to illustrate this change: In 1855, 3,700 kegs of herring were imported by way of Lubeck, as against 33,000 kegs for the period 500 years previous; and in the year of war, 1369, despite the embargo with Denmark, a great consumer, the exports of herring from thirty Hanseatic ports yielded a sum of 130,000,000 marks, 40,000,000 of which fell to the share of Hamburg, then a much smaller city than Lubeck.
It is natural, in the light of these commercial conditions, that industry, and handicraft also, must have greatly flourished. In those days there were twice as many bakers in Lubeck as at present. The coopers, also, in view of the great demand for herring kegs, were in high repute, and scarcely less so the brewers, who at that time greatly excelled their South German competitors. The beer of Hamburg or Rostock was never absent from a northern feast. Nearly all the cities from Livonia to the mouth of the Weser were surrounded by gardens of hops, and Hamburg especially owed its rapid rise during the fourteenth century chiefly to its brewers, at times five hundred or more in number, one hundred and twenty-six of whom supplied the market of Amsterdam alone. Not only representatives of the higher industrial arts, such as goldsmiths, metal workers, picture carvers, paternoster makers, and altar makers, but shoemakers and other handicraftsmen were to be found in the Far North, which, at that time, was still somewhat deficient in these matters. There is report of a worthy shoemaker, who, after sojourning in Russia, repaired to Stockholm, where he entered the service of a knight, and thence to Santiago di Compostela, where he wrought for pilgrims.
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