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The Hanseatic League was a league of merchant associations within the cities of Northern

Germany and the Baltic. It included cities in The Grand Duchy of Lithuanian, England,

Scotland, Prussia, Estonia, Flanders, Norway, interestingly enough Cardinal Nicholas

Breakspear (afterwards Pope Adrian IV the only Englishman to be Pope), confirmed in 1164

the arrangements of 1162 which made Began Norway a Hansa member, and Russia. Trade in

the middle ages was a dangerous and risky business and the only way for merchants was to

band together for protection. The Hanseatic league was formed on was trade along the Kiel

"salt road". When a canal was built from near Hamburg to Lubeck the salt trade shifted the

trade from road to the cheaper canal route, and the Hamburg merchants who controlled the

canal replaced the Kiel merchants in their position of importance in the salt trade. 

The Hansa was founded in the twelfth century by an alliance between merchants of the

northern towns of Hamburg and Luebeck which lay on opposite sides of the Danish

peninsula. Luebeck fishing boats had easy access to the herring spawning grounds off the

coast of Scania (The lower tip of Sweden, which at that time was Danish territory). A large

portion of the foodstuff of Christian Europe was made of fish since there were many fast days

and the church forbade the eating of meat on Friday. Luebeck position allowed it capitalize on

a large in the herring market. No refrigeration or canning made the shipping of fish 


Hamburg, on the other side of the Jutland peninsula, had easy access to the salt produced in

the salt mines at Kiel,( one of the principal hotels there is still called the Conti Hansa). Salting 

fish made transport and distribution possible. It was in the interest, then, for the merchants of

these two towns to open trade along the canal that was made between them, a canal which

came to be known as the Kiel canal because Kiel was the source of the salt that travelled

through it.

The trade between the merchant associations of Hamburg and Luebeck provided a model for

the merchant associations of the other North German cities to follow. In 1201 Cologne,

already wealthy, joined the league. Danzig, whose port was a gateway to the eastern Baltic

also joined as did most of the important Baltic port cities. At the height of the Hansa's power

merchants from over sixty cities had joined the association. While each city had its own

merchant association the alliance formed a loose parliament, to govern inter-city trade and

common policies. The Hanseatic Diet (parliament) met infrequently and was filled with

divisive politics based on differences in regional priorities. It was more frequent that the

regional assemblies, known as "thirds", met. There was a Rhennish third based on the Rhine

trade, a Wendish third based on Baltic shipping out of Luebeck, and a Prussian third based on

the trade of grain from the lands of the Teutonic Order. A Polish duke, Conrad of Massovia, 

asked the assistance of the Teutonic Knights, offering them in return the territory of Culm

with whatever they could wrest from the infidels. Hermann of Salza, fourth Grand Master of

the order, was authorized to make this change by Pope Honorius III and the Emperor

Frederick II, who, moreover, raised him to the rank of prince of the empire (1230). The knight

Hermann Balk, appointed Provincial of Prussia, with twenty-eight of his brother knights and a

whole army of crusaders from Germany began this struggle which lasted twenty-five years and

was followed by colonization. Owing to the privileges assured to German colonists, new

towns arose on all sides and eventually Germanized a country of which the natives belonged to

the Letto-Slavic race. Thenceforth the history of this military principality is identified with that

of Prussia In 1309 the fifteenth Grand Master, Sigfried of Feuchtwangen, transferred his

residence from Venice, where at that time the knights had their chief house, to the Castle of

Marienburg, which they made a formidable fortress surrounded with lands rich in grain.

The predominant town in all dealings was Luebeck, which held a central position at the Baltic

side of the Danish Sound. Other member cities often complained that the merchants from

Luebeck were given advantages over their own merchants.

Whilst most of the cities in the Hansa were within the domains of local feudal lords and the

citizens of these cities were feudal vassals Luebeck was one of the few "free cities" or more

properly, it was an imperial city which owed its allegiance to the emperor alone. This in itself

gave Luebeck an advantage over many of the other cities. When added to that are the position

it held geographically and the access it had to the rich herring fisheries its predominant

position in the alliance is understandable. Almost all trade to the Baltic, either coming or

going, went through the port of Luebeck.

The cargos in the port of Luebeck consisted of salt, herring, grain, timber, honey, amber, ships

stores, and other bulk commodities. These were not cargos that made quick fortunes, but they

were a steady trade, and the Hansa held a monopoly on a great deal of it, if not all. This was

accomplished not only by the formation of the trade association, but also because the Hansa

had produced a new and innovative ship design, the Baltic cog

Before the development of the cog ships in the north of Europe were built in the same design

as the Viking ships of old. These ships were strong and seaworthy, but could handle only

limited amounts of cargo. The average Scandinavian design cargo ship of the period held

about 20 lasts (a last being a measure of volume not of displacement, but being roughly equal

to two metric tons). A Baltic cog, on the other hand, ranged from 50 to 200 lasts with an

average size of 100 lasts. It was clinker built of abundant Baltic timber from the forests of

Novgarod, with a flat bottom and a centre mounted rudder (which was a technological

advance for the period). The ship could be fitted with a removable keel and held one mast with

a square rigged sail. With their flat bottoms they were well fitted for sailing in shallow waters,

a design factor still used by small sailing ships in the Netherlands. They were rugged, held a lot

of cargo, and sailed like barges compared to the sleek Viking design. They also had the

disadvantage, because of their square rigged sail, of not being able to sail into the wind. It is

lucky, therefore, that in the Baltic and North Sea the winds blow with a seasonal change of


Sailing in the middle ages was not very technologically advanced and aside from the crude

compass and Jacob's ladder, or perhaps and astrolabe, there were no navigational tools.

Because of this most sailing was done in view of the coastline following the guide in the Book

of the Sea. This book gave directions based on the silhouette of the headlands and soundings

of the depth. If you sailed west until you reached a point where you could see a particular

church spire and your depth was so-and-so fathoms, then you should turn north northwest and

sail for two days until the depth reached so-and-so fathoms and you would shortly find this or

that particular landmark by sailing west. Such was the method of navigation in most of the

middle ages. If you put in at night and sighted the pole star with the Jacob's ladder or astrolabe

you could find your latitude. You could also try sighting the sun at midday, but it would make

you go blind and you were probably sailing then, making sightings impossible because of the

rolling of the sea. As far as longitude, there was no way to calculate it, you simply had to rely

on landmarks. Aside from the difficulty of navigation the danger of piracy was very real.

Because of the dangers involved with shipping cargos, especially since there was no such thing

as insurance, the common practice was to form partnerships and have each merchant buy a

share of a cargo or a share of a ship. By spreading your investment over several cargos and

shipping them on several ships the risk of a catastrophic loss was reduced. The same is true of

investing in shares of several ships, if one was sunk or taken by pirates, the others may come

through with their cargos intact. The sailors who manned the ships often worked for a share of

the profits from the voyage and the captain was often one of the shareholders of the ship.

Ships rarely sailed alone but usually joined into large convoys for mutual protection. The

convoys would sail following the seasonal winds and make the circuit in a year's time.

On land the base of operations for a merchant was his "factory". This should not be mistaken

for the manufacturing plant it now represents, but was usually a three storied structure

containing on the lowest floor the retail outlet where buying and selling took place, on the

second floor a warehouse, and on the topmost floor offices and living quarters. Abroad the

Hansa had foreign "counters". These "counters" were basically trading posts, though the most

important were more elaborate and may have been whole neighbourhoods. The five major

foreign "counters" were the "counter" in Wisby on the island of Gotland, the "counter" in

Novgarod, the Norwegian "counter" in Bergen, the "counter" at Bruges, and the English

"counter" in London. In order to be eligible to work at one of the foreign counters a merchant

had to be a married man of good reputation and make a commitment to serve there for a full

year (since the sailing of the convoys were annual). It was an attack against the "counter" at

Wisby that fermented the wars between the Hansa and the Danish crown.

Waldemar Atterdag, King of Denmark, was envious of the wealth the Hansa was taking from

the herring fisheries off the coast of Scania. Waldemar felt, perhaps rightly so, that the

revenues from the fisheries in his territories should be more under his control and did his best

to reduce the privileges his predecessors had given to the Germans. In 1361, just after the

counsellors from the Hansa had returned to Luebeck after re-negotiating the rights to the

herring fisheries, news came that Waldemar had sacked the city of Wisby on the island of

Gotland. The leaders of the Hansa in Luebeck, who had the greatest interest in the Wisby

"counter", were outraged and pushed for war. The Wendish third was in favour of the war,

but the Rhennish third saw no interest to be gained from it and the Prussian third were

forbidden to take part by the Grand Master of the Teutonic Order, who was a friend of

Waldemar's, though they were allowed to give financial support. Despite the lack of support

from the other thirds the Wendish third decided to undertake a campaign against the Danes,

who they saw as pirates. They picked Johann Wittenborg of Luebeck to lead the expedition

and fitted out 52 cogs, each with 100 men-at-arms, and 104 smaller auxiliary vessels to carry

out the attack.

The campaign was initially quite successful and the fleet sacked Copenhagen and took with

them the bell from the main church. They then went to attack the Danish fortresses on the

Scania coastline of the sound. The plan was to meet with an army provided by Magnus

Erikson, King of Sweden, who held sovereignty over Gotland in order to besiege the fortress

of Halsingborg. When the Hansa fleet arrived there was no Swedish army to be found and

Johann Wittenborg made a grave error in taking the men-at-arms off the ships in order to

besiege the fortress. Several days later, with the soldiers all on land, the Danish fleet sailed

into view, and with only skeleton crews on most of the German vessels most of the German

ships and Provisions were either sunk or taken captive. Johann Wittenborg was forced to sue

for peace and march home in disgrace. While the merchants in the Hansa tried to save his life

the outraged citizenry of Luebeck demanded his death and a year after sailing he was publicly

beheaded in the city square. The Hansa, in the terms of peace, was forced to cede most of its

revenues from the herring fisheries to the Danish crown.

Waldemar was a cunning man and he felt that since only the Wendish cities had taken part in

the war with him he had only made peace with the Wendish cities and not the Prussian ones.

Therefore, Danish attacks against the Prussians increased through the next decade causing the

Prussians to repeatedly call for a reopening of the hostilities, but the Wendish cities, who had

lost so much in the first war without the support of the Prussians and the Rhennish third, were

not in any hurry to take the risk again. Finally the situation became totally intolerable and the

Wendish cities were persuaded to join into a unified campaign which would include all of the

cities. This time the Grand Master of the Teutonic Order, who had lost revenues to Danish

attacks, did not interfere with the Prussian cities' involvement. Further Waldemar, who had

taken the last half decade to try to consolidate his power against his own nobles, found his

nobles either unwilling to support him or in alliance with the Germans. Waldemar was forced

to flee Copenhagen and stay as a guest of the Grand Master of the Teutonic Order, who

treated him graciously as a guest but gave him no aid against the Hansa, counselling him to

sue for peace instead. Waldemar had no choice and agreed to a treaty which gave the

Hanseatic merchants sweeping rights.

The Germans gained control over the revenues from the herring fisheries, control over the

fortresses of the sound, the right to be the only ships allowed to enter the port of Bergen with

their tops in place (Haakan Haakanson, the Norwegian King, had allied with Waldemar), and

the right to veto any person's ascension to the Danish throne for fifteen years. When that time

period was done the Hansa returned the fortresses to Danish control, though popular

sentiment was against it. The Hansa was in a period leading to decline. The privateers that

were given letters of marque and reprisal in the war liked their jobs too well and many

remained as pirates working out of the area around Gotland. In addition, the herring spawning

ground suddenly and unexpectedly moved to the North Sea where the Dutch ships could move

into the market. Also the English with their Round Ships and the new Carracks and Caravels

began to take over the shipping the Germans had previously monopolized in the North Sea.

By the end of the fifteenth century the power of the Hansa was a mere shadow of its former

days. Today it is remembered only in name.

Ref The Catholic Encyclopaedia

Histoire de l'ordre teutonique par un chevalier de l'ordre (4 vols., Paris, 1784);

VOIGT, Gesch. des deutschen Ritterordens (Berlin, 1859);

KÖÖHLER, Ritterzeit, II (Breslau, 1886);

LAVISSE, Les chevaliers teutoniques en Preusse in Revue des Deux Mondes (Paris, 1879