What Was the Hanseatic League?

The Hanseatic League formed in the late 12th century as merchant guilds and market cities to protect themselves politically and economically, and spread across Northern Europe and the Baltic.

Apr 1, 2024By Matt Whittaker, BA History & Asian Studies
what was the hanseatic league

 

The late Middle Ages, despite many advances, still lay in the grips of feudalism. The age-old practice of only nobles wielding power and their eldest son inheriting began to fade by the 12th century. That power shift slid over to kings and popes, but not without struggle. Many cities and merchant groups around the Baltic and North Sea were stuck somewhere in the middle, vulnerable to both forces. 

 

Both groups realized working together was better and began to combine their efforts for trade, politics, and stabilizing trade routes. By doing so, the Hanseatic League became a dominant power, able to negotiate with kings and nobles. Their political and economic clout lasted several centuries.

 

The Membership

Lubeck Castle Source: Pixabay
Lubeck Castle Source: Pixabay

 

The member cities or settlements stretched from London to Novgorod at the Hanseatic League’s height. German cities like Lubeck were considered the League’s hub. Other members were Hamburg, Bremen, Visby, Bruges, Riga, Cologne, and Stockholm. Two cities, London and Novgorod, had Kontors (trading posts) that expanded trade to new markets. Traders created two hundred settlements eventually.

 

Though named a league, the Hanseatic League more closely resembled a confederation. Members could pursue their interests yet collaborate for mutual benefit. Common causes like diplomacy, economic control, or war were decided by consensus. As a body, the League, for example, negotiated with European rulers to protect their trade routes or merchant privileges.

 

Meetings and Roles

14th Century Map Hanseatic League Source: Wikimedia Commons
14th Century Map Hanseatic League Source: Wikimedia Commons

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Members or their representatives met in Lubeck at the Hansetag or Hanseatic Diet. Decisions could be made without the member cities giving up their independence. The Hansetag never met regularly, only as needed or in an emergency, but lacked any enforcing power on members.

 

The League did not shy away from war if needed. In the 1360s Danish-Hanseatic War, the Danish King occupied Visby in Denmark, a major Hanseatic city controlling the profitable herring trade. The Hanseatic forces, led by the city of Lubeck’s forces, unsuccessfully attacked Visby. This led to infighting among the League cities, almost causing a collapse – some Hanseatic cities continued trading with Denmark.

 

After more fighting, the League formed a coalition with Sweden, Prussia, and Dutch cities and went on the offensive. Led by the Hanseatic ships, they sacked Copenhagen and blockaded Denmark and its ally Norway. Soon, Denmark asked for terms. This war, like others, showed the Hanseatic League’s power when its members cooperated. It also exposed the bad-not all members fought.

 

Setup and Settlements

Rostock Hanseatic Buildings Source: picryl.com
Rostock Hanseatic Buildings Source: picryl.com

 

The Hanseatic League cleverly used tangible reminders in important cities: trading posts. Known as Kontors, these were built in non-Hanseatic cities. Besides being strategically placed trading posts, Kontors were political and cultural centers. One person headed the Kontors, a legal representative to that host city to expand the League’s power and keep trade flowing. Often, that trade could help local communities even as far as England’s countryside

 

The League trade representatives often enjoyed legal protections, like extraterritoriality-diplomatic immunity from local laws. Such legality could be useful as needed. London and Novgorod Kontors fell under extraterritoriality; akin to embassies today, the area is considered that country’s sovereign territory. Traders settled in such cities, too, so Novgorod Russians rubbed shoulders with Germans from Lubeck, for example.

 

Kontors brought a city into the Hanseatic League’s massive network of trade routes. Often, cities had goods that could not be produced quickly elsewhere. Cologne produced steel and weapons, and London (and other British cities) traded wool. The League’s connections made trading safer and more accessible.

 

Peasant Kermis, by David Teniers, 1665. Source Rijksmuseum
Peasant Kermis, by David Teniers, 1665. Source Rijksmuseum

 

Plying these trade routes came the cog, a newer ship capable of carrying more cargo than Viking-type ships. The Hanseatic League used cogs extensively, their white and red flag a common sight in many northern European ports.

 

A Quiet Ending and Legacy

Cog sailing ship Source: About History
Cog sailing ship Source: About History

 

The Hanseatic League lasted nearly four centuries, making member cities wealthy. Members operated semi-independently from each other, all serving different markets and locations. But all operated for the mutual good. The League faced challenges from expanding kingdoms, pirates, and trading rivals. But it survived through diplomacy, war, and economic power. 

 

The Hanseatic League petered out as new trade routes (the Americas), war, and changing times. Kingdoms arose like Sweden and Germany, which seized Hanseatic land, restricted trade, or limited free cities. By 1769, only a few core cities remained, making the League irrelevant. The most significant Hanseatic legacy still in use today is its approach towards international law and diplomacy. This legacy developed into diplomacy for trade agreements, setting up common trade regulations, and more.

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By Matt WhittakerBA History & Asian StudiesMatt Whittaker is an avid history reader, fascinated by the why, how and when. With a B.A. in History and Asian Studies from University of Massachusetts, he does deep dives into medieval, Asian and military history. Matt’s other passion besides family is the long-distance Zen-like runs.