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Baltic Sea States’ integration history: Hanseatic League

Eugene Eteris, BC Scandinavian Office, 08.06.2011.Print version
The Hanseatic League (also known as the Hanse or Hansa); in Latin: Hansa, Hansa Teutonica or Liga Hanseatica was an economic alliance of trading cities and their merchant guilds that dominated trade along the coast of Northern Europe. It stretched from the Baltic to the North Sea and inland. Historically, it was an important trading monopoly among the Baltic States during late middle-ages: somewhere around 13th –17th centuries.

The League was created to protect commercial interests and privileges granted by foreign rulers in those cities and countries that the merchants visited. The Hanseatic cities had their own legal system and furnished their own protection and provided a mutual aid.


However, the Hanseatic League was not a “city-state” or an association or a confederation of city-states; only a very small number of the cities within Baltic Sea region enjoyed autonomy and commercial liberties. 


Historians generally trace the origins of the League to the rebuilding of the North German town of Lübeck in 1159 by Henry the Lion, Duke of Saxony, after Henry had captured the area from Count Adolf II, Count of Schauenburg and Holstein.


Exploratory trading adventures, raids and piracy had happened earlier throughout the Baltic (e.g. during Viking time). For example, sailors of Gotland sailed up rivers as far away as Novgorod, for example; however, the scale of international trade economy in the Baltic area remained insignificant before the growth of the Hanseatic League.


German cities achieved domination of trade in the Baltic with striking speed over the 13th century, and Lübeck became a central node in all the seaborne trade that linked the areas around the North Sea and the Baltic Sea. The 15th century saw the climax of Lübeck's hegemony.

History & Foundation

Lübeck became a base for merchants from Saxony and Westphalia to spread east and north. Well before the term Hanse appeared in any document (the notion is attributed to 1267), merchants in a given city began to form guilds or Hansa with the intention of trading with towns overseas, especially in the less-developed eastern Baltic area, a source of timber, wax, amber, resins, furs, even rye and wheat brought down on barges from the hinterland to port markets.


The towns furnished their own protection armies and each guild had to furnish a number of members into service, when needed. The trade ships often had to be used to carry soldiers and their arms. The Hanseatic cities assisted each other's in this regard. 

Visby functioned as the leading centre in the Baltic before the Hansa. Sailing east, Visby merchants established a branch at Novgorod. To begin with, they used the Gotlandic Gutagard. With the influx of too many merchants, the Gotlanders arranged their own trading stations for the Peterhof further up from the river. Before the foundation of the League in 1356 the word Hanse did not occur in the Baltic. The Gotlanders used the word varjag.


Hansa societies worked to remove restrictions to trade for their members. For example, the merchants of the Cologne Hansa convinced Henry II, King of England to free them (in 1157) from all tolls in London and allow them to trade at fairs throughout England. The "Queen of the Hansa", Lübeck, where traders were required to trans-ship goods between the North Sea and the Baltic, gained the Imperial privilege of becoming a free imperial city in 1227, the only such city east of the River Elbe. Source: Wikipedia (2010).


In 1241, Lübeck, which had access to the Baltic and North Sea fishing grounds, formed an alliance — a precursor of the League — with Hamburg, another trading city, which controlled access to salt-trade routes from Lüneburg. The allied cities gained control over most of the salt-fish trade, especially the Scania Market; and Cologne joined them in the Diet of 1260.


In 1266, Henry III granted the Lübeck and Hamburg Hansa a charter for operations in England, and the Cologne Hansa joined them in 1282 to form the most powerful Hanseatic colony in London. Much of the drive for this co-operation came from the fragmented nature of existing territorial government, which failed to provide security for trade. Over the next 50 years the Hansa itself emerged with formal agreements for confederation and co-operation covering the west and east trade routes. The chief city and linchpin remained Lübeck; with the first general Diet of the Hansa held there in 1356, the Hanseatic League acquired an official structure.


Northern Europe in 1400

League of merchants

The Hanseatic League was not so much a league of cities as it was a league of merchant associations within the cities of Northern Germany and the Baltic. Trade in the middle ages was a dangerous and risky business and the only way for merchants to protect themselves was by travelling together. This banding together of merchants on the road led to their alliances at home as well. In the case of the Hanseatic League the impetus for its formation was trade along the Kiel "salt road" which did not run between Kiel and Luebeck, but between Hamburg and Luebeck; it was named after the town where the salt was mined.


A large portion of the diet of Christian Europe was made of fish since there were many fast days and the church forbade the eating of meat on Friday. Luebeck was in a position to capitalize on a large commodities market in herring, but one thing held Luebeck back. With no refrigeration or canning the shipping of a highly perishable commodity like fish was problematic. Hamburg, on the other side of the Jutland peninsula, had easy access to the salt produced in the salt mines at Kiel, and salting and drying of meat and fish made transport and distribution possible. It was in the interest, then, for the merchants of these two towns to open trade along the "salt" road.


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. By 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 Diet, or parliament, to govern inter-city trade and common policies. In most respects the policy of the merchants was protectionist and aimed at producing a German monopoly in the markets they supplied.


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. 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 investment over several cargos and shipping them on several ships the risk of a catastrophic loss was reduced. The same was 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.

Factories and counters

On land the base of operations for a merchant was his "factory", which was usually a three storied structure containing on the lowest floor of 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 neighborhoods. 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 sailings of the convoys were annual). It was an attack against the "counter" at Wisby that formented the wars between the Hansa and the Danish crown.

Hansa administration

The Hanseatic Diet met only 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. 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.


While 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.  

Some Baltic Cities in “The Hanseatic League”



Dorpat (Tartu)


Terra Mariana (Livonia)




The Bishopric of Dorpat gained increasing autonomy within the Terra Mariana. During the Livonian War (1558–83), Dorpat fell under the rule of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania; with the 1581 Treaty of Drohiczyn definitively ceding Livonia to the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth until the city was captured by Sweden in the Polish–Swedish War (1621–1625).




Reval (Tallinn)


Terra Mariana (Livonia)




On joining the Hanseatic League, Reval-Revel was a Danish fief, but was sold, with the rest of northern Estonia, to the Teutonic Order in 1346. After the Livonian War (1558–83), northern Estonia became a part of the Swedish Empire.






Terra Mariana (Livonia)




During the Livonian War (1558–83), Riga became a Free imperial city until the 1581 Treaty of Drohiczyn ceded Livonia to the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth until the city was captured by Sweden in the Polish–Swedish War (1621–1625).



Königsberg (Kaliningrad)

Teutonic Order




Königsberg was the capital of the Teutonic Order, becoming the capital of Ducal Prussia on the Order's secularisation in 1466. Ducal Prussia was a German principality that was a fief of the Polish crown until gaining its independence in the 1660 Treaty of Oliva. The city was renamed Kaliningrad in 1946 after East Prussia was divided between the People's Republic of Poland and the Soviet Union at the Potsdam Conference.



Kovno (Kaunas)

Grand Duchy of Lithuania




Pleskau (Pskov)

Pskov Republic




In the 12th and 13th centuries, Pskov adhered to the Novgorod Republic. It was captured by the Teutonic Order in 1241 and liberated by a Lithuanian prince, becoming a de facto sovereign republic by the 14th century.




Principality of Polotsk




Polotsk was an autonomous principality of Kievan Rus' until gaining its independence in 1021. From 1240, it became a vassal of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, being fully integrated into the Grand Duchy in 1307.

Modern times: City League the HANSE

In 1980, former Hanseatic League members established a "new Hanse" in Zwolle, the "City League the HANSE". This league is open to all former Hanseatic League members and cities that once hosted a Hanseatic kontor. The latter include twelve Russian cities, most notably Novgorod, which was a major Russian trade partner of the Hansa in the Middle Ages. The "new Hanse" fosters and develops business links, tourism and cultural exchange.


The headquarters of the New Hansa is in Lübeck, Germany. The current President of the Hanseatic League of New Time is Bernd Saxe, Mayor of Lübeck.


Each year one of the member cities of the New Hansa hosts the Hanseatic Days of New Time international festival.


In 2006 King's Lynn became the only English member of the newly formed modern Hanseatic League.


 The legacy of the Hanseatic League is reflected presently in several “public” names, for example the German airline Lufthansa (i.e., “Air Hansa”) and the Hanze University Groningen in the Netherlands. 

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