Of the two great avenues of trade, that indicated by the termini Bruges and Novgorod is first deserving of mention.
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 treaty not only provided for considerable concessions in matters of navigation and intercourse, but also conceded to the members of the Cologne confederation, comprising about sixty Hansa cities, the right to occupy and to fortify for a period of fifteen years the four chief castles on Skane — Helsingborg, Malmo, Scanov, and Falsterbo — commanding the sound, the most important maritime highway traversed by the Hanseatic vessels.
But the most extraordinary privilege granted by this treaty was that making the subsequent election of a king for Denmark subject to the approval of the confederation — thus assigning to the burghers a right such as no king or emperor of that time exercised over a foreign state. The confederates, however, wisely declined to avail themselves of this dangerous prerogative, not only for political reasons, but also because of the clever negotiations of the youthful queen Margaret, the daughter and heir of Waldemar, who, by the union of Kalmar in 1397, became invested with the triple crown of Denmark, Norway, and Sweden. The fact remains, however, that the Hansa for the ensuing century and a half maintained its title as the foremost of maritime and as one of the principal political powers — and that entirely unaided and without the sanction of kaiser or empire.
Let us take a very general survey of this glorious period, concerning which many interesting disclosures have recently been made, and endeavor to obtain, if possible, a glimpse of the activity of these busy cities and of the confederation which they formed.
As to commerce, the first task which the confederation set itself to fulfil was the abolition of that early medieval condition which inclined to regard the stranger in foreign parts as devoid of rights. The efforts of the confederation in this particular resulted in the acquisition of hundreds of privileges, secured either singly or conjointly by the cities. The contents of the treaties are usually the same: (1) Protection of person and goods; (2) abolition of the law which declared forfeit to the feudal lord such goods as, for instance, might happen to fall from a wagon and thereby touch the ground; (3) the abolition of the strand right, which had secured to the owner of the shore land the jetsam and flotsam of wrecked or stranded vessels; (4) the concession of legal procedure to the debtor; (5) liberation from the duel and other forms of the “divine judgment” in legal procedure; (6) the reduction of duties; (7) permission to sell at retail, as for example, cloth and linen by the ell — a privilege previously accorded only to natives. These are but a few of the privileges secured, the most important of which, however, remains to be mentioned. This was the establishment of branches and bureaus in the most frequented commercial centres abroad. On the other hand, the confederation never had the remotest intention of granting similar privileges to the nations from which these concessions had been secured, such as the English, Flemish, Norwegians, Danes, and Russians. On the contrary. In Cologne, for example, foreign merchants were permitted only three times a year and then for a period of three weeks only. Never, perhaps, in history has a monopoly been so rigidly and relentlessly enforced — a monopoly which not only rested upon the nation at home, but which made bold incursions into the sovereignty of foreign states in order to smother their independent trade, or, as in Norway, utterly to stamp it out.
Of the two great avenues of trade, that indicated by the termini Bruges and Novgorod is first deserving of mention. For centuries it was practically used exclusively by merchants of the Hansa, who, moreover, were forbidden to form copartnerships with foreigners, such as Russians and Englishmen. Novgorod, well guarded against pirates and situated in the navigable Volkhov, was at that time in a sense the capital of the much-divided Russian empire. This city, since the day of its founder, Rurik, had been the centre of Russian trade and enjoyed an almost republican independence. From this point diverged the most frequented highways of trade to the Dnieper and the Volga. From Russia the German merchant exported chiefly fine furs, such as beaver, ermine, and sable, and enormous quantities of wax, which to-day, as formerly, is still obtained in the central wooded parts of the country where apiculture is extensively prosecuted. His imports, on the other hand, consisted of fine products of the loom, articles of wool, linen, and silk; of boots and shoes, usually manufactured at home of Russian leather; and finally, of beer, metal goods, and general merchandise. It is evident, therefore, that the German merchant provided Russia — which country was at that time industrially in a very primitive condition — with all the necessaries required.
Bruges, in Flanders, the western terminus of the before-mentioned highway of commerce, was during the last centuries of the Middle Ages approximately what London is to the world of to-day. It was, beside Venice, the actual world-mart of the Continent, a centre where Italians, Spaniards, Portuguese, Frenchmen, and High- and Low-Germans — a motley throng — congregated to exchange their goods. Thither the Hanseatic merchant transported wood and other forest products; building stones and iron, the latter being still forged in primitive forest smithies; and copper from the rich mines of Falun, the ore from which was usually sold or mortgaged to the Lubeck merchants. From the Baltic countries he imported grain, and from Scandinavia herring and cod — all natural products, in exchange for which he sent to the respective countries his own manufactured goods. In Bruges he represented the entire northern region, both in the giving and the receiving of merchandise, for only through his instrumentality could the gifts of the East, such as oil, wine, spices, silk, and other articles of luxury, which were usually transported through the Alpine passes and thence down the Rhine to Bruges, be distributed among the northern nations. This applies also to the highly prized textiles of Flanders, which in those days were sometimes sold at fabulous prices.
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