Cyclopædia of Political Science, Political Economy, and the Political History of the United States

Edited by: Lalor, John J.
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HANSEATIC LEAGUE, an association of the principal cities in the north of Germany, Prussia, etc., for the better carrying on of commerce, and for their mutual safety and defense. This confederacy, so celebrated in the early history of modern Europe, contributed in no ordinary degree to introduce the blessings of civilization and good government into the north. The extension and protection of commerce was, however, its main object; and hence a short account of it may not be deemed misplaced in a work of this description.


Origin and Progress of the Hanseatic League. Hamburg, founded by Charlemagne in the ninth, and Lübeck, founded about the middle of the twelfth century, were the earliest members of the league. The distance between them not being very considerable, and being alike interested in the repression of those disorders to which most parts of Europe, and particularly the coast of the Baltic, were a prey in the twelfth, thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, they early formed an intimate political union, partly in the view of maintaining a safe intercourse by land with each other, and partly for the protection of navigation from the attacks of the pirates, with which every sea was at that time infested. There is no very distinct evidence as to the period when this alliance was consummated: some ascribe its origin to the year 1169, others to the year 1200, and others to the year 1241. But the most probable opinion seems to be that it would grow up by slow degrees, and be perfected according as the advantage derivable from it became more obvious. Such was the origin of the Hanseatic league, so called from the old Teutonic word hansa, signifying an association or confederacy.


—Adam of Bremen, who flourished in the eleventh century, is the earliest writer who has given any information with respect to the commerce of the countries lying round the Baltic; and from the errors into which he has fallen in describing the northern and eastern shores of that sea, it is evident they had been very little frequented, and not at all known, in his time. But from the beginning of the twelfth century the progress of commerce and navigation in the north was exceedingly rapid. The countries which stretch along the bottom of the Baltic, from Holstein to Russia, and which had been occupied by barbarous tribes of Slavonic origin, were then subjugated by the kings of Denmark, the dukes of Saxony, and other princes. The greater part of the inhabitants being exterminated, their place was filled by German colonists, who founded the towns of Stralsund, Rostock, Wismar, etc. Prussia and Poland were afterward subjugated by the Christian princes and the knights of the Teutonic order. So that, in a comparatively short period, the foundations of civilization and the arts were laid in countries whose barbarism had ever remained impervious to the Roman power.


—The cities that were established along the coast of the Baltic, and even in the interior of the countries bordering upon it, eagerly joined the Hanseatic confederation. They were indebted to the merchants of Lübeck for supplies of the commodities produced in more civilized countries, and they looked up to them for protection against the barbarians by whom they were surrounded. The progress of the league was in consequence singularly rapid. Previously to the end of the thirteenth century it embraced every considerable city in all those vast countries extending from Livonia to Holland, and was a match for the most powerful monarchs.


—The Hanseatic confederacy was at its highest degree of power and splendor during the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. It then comprised from sixty to eighty cities, which were distributed into four classes or circles. Lübeck was at the head of the first circle, and had under it Hamburg, Bremen, Rostock, Wismar, etc. Cologne was at the head of the second circle, with twenty-nine towns under it. Brunswick was at the head of the third circle, consisting of thirteen towns. Dantzic was at the head of the fourth circle, having under it eight towns in its vicinity, besides several that were more remote. The supreme authority of the league was vested in the deputies of the different towns assembled in congress. In it they discussed all their measures; decided upon the sum that each city should contribute to the common fund, and upon the questions that arose between the confederacy and other powers, as well as those that frequently arose between the different members of the confederacy. The place for the meeting of congress was not fixed, but it was most frequently held at Lübeck, which was considered as the capital of the league, and there its archives were kept. Sometimes, however, congresses were held at Hamburg, Cologne, and other towns. They met once every three years, or oftener if occasion required. The letters of convocation specified the principal subjects which would most probably be brought under discussion. Any one might be chosen for a deputy; and the congress consisted not of merchants only, but also of clergymen, lawyers, artists, etc. When the deliberations were concluded, the decrees were formally communicated to the magistrates of the cities at the head of each circle, by whom they were subsequently communicated to those below them, and the most vigorous measures were adopted for carrying them into effect. One of the burgomasters of Lübeck presided at the meetings of congress; and during the recess the magistrates of that city had the sole, or at all events the principal, direction of the affairs of the league.


—Besides the towns already mentioned, there were others that were denominated confederated cities, or allies. The latter neither contributed to the common fund of the league, nor sent deputies to congress; even the members were not all on the same footing in respect to privileges: and the internal commotions by which it was frequently agitated, partly originating in this cause and partly in the discordant interests and conflicting pretensions of the different cities, materially impaired the power of the confederacy. But in despite of these disadvantages, the league succeeded for a lengthened period, not only in controlling its own refractory members, but in making itself respected and dreaded by others. It produced able generals and admirals, skillful politicians, and some of the most enterprising, successful and wealthy merchants of modern times.


—As the power of the confederated cities was increased and consolidated, they became more ambitions. Instead of limiting their efforts to the mere advancement of commerce and their own protection, they endeavored to acquire the monopoly of the trade of the north, and to exercise the same sort of dominion over the Baltic that the Venetians exercised over the Adriatic. For this purpose they succeeded in obtaining, partly in return for loans of money and partly by force, various privileges and immunities from the northern sovereigns, which secured to them almost the whole foreign commerce of Scandinavia, Denmark, Prussia, Poland, Russia, etc. They exclusively carried on the herring fishery of the Sound, at the same time that they endeavored to obstruct and hinder the navigation of foreign vessels in the Baltic. It should, however, be observed that the immunities they enjoyed were mostly indispensable to the security of their commerce, in consequence of the barbarism that then prevailed; and notwithstanding their attempts at monopoly, there can not be the shadow of a doubt that the progress of civilization in the north was prodigiously accelerated by the influence and ascendency of the Hanseatic cities. They repressed piracy by sea and robbery by land, which must have broken out again had their power been overthrown before civilization was fully established; they accustomed the inhabitants to the principles, and set before them the example, of good government and subordination; they introduced among them conveniences and enjoyments unknown by their ancestors or despised by them, and inspired them with a taste for literature and science; they did for the people round the Baltic what the Phœnicians had done in remoter ages for those round the Mediterranean, and deserve, equally with them, to be placed in the first rank among the benefactors of mankind.—"In order," as has been justly observed, "to accomplish their purpose of rendering the Baltic a large field for the prosecution of commercial and industrial pursuits, it was necessary to instruct men, still barbarous, in the rudiments of industry, and to familiarize them in the principles of civilization. These great principles were laid by the confederation, and at the close of the fifteenth century the Baltic and the neighboring seas had, by its means, become frequented routes of communication between the north and the south. The people of the former were enabled to follow the progress of the latter in knowledge and industry. The forests of Sweden, Poland, etc., gave place to corn, hemp and flax; the mines were wrought, and, in return, the produce and manufactures of the south were imported. Towns and villages were erected in Scandinavia, where huts only were before seen; the skins of the bear and the wolf were exchanged for woolens, linens and silks; learning was introduced; and printing was hardly invented before it was practiced in Denmark, Sweden, etc." (Catteau, Tableau de la Mer Baltique, tom. ii., p. 175.)


—The kings of Denmark, Sweden and Norway were frequently engaged in hostilities with the Hanse towns. They regarded, and, it must be admitted, not without pretty good reason, the privileges acquired by the league, in their kingdoms, as so many usurpations. But their efforts to abolish these privileges served, for more than two centuries, only to augment and extend them.—"On the part of the league there were union, subordination and money; whereas the half-savage Scandinavian monarchies were full of divisions, factions and troubles; revolution was immediately followed by revolution, and feudal anarchy was at its height. There was another circumstance, not less important, in favor of the Hanseatic cities. The popular governments established among them possessed the respect and confidence of the inhabitants, and were able to direct the public energies for the good of the state. The astonishing prosperity of the confederated cities was not wholly the effect of commerce. To the undisciplined armies of the princes of the north—armies composed of vassals without attachment to their lords—the cities opposed, besides the inferior nobles, whose services they liberally rewarded, citizens accustomed to danger, and resolved to defend their liberties and property. Their military operations were combined and directed by a council composed of men of tried talents and experience, devoted to their country, responsible to their fellow-citizens, and enjoying their confidence. It was chiefly, however, on their marine forces that the cities depended. They employed their ships indifferently in war or commerce, so that their naval armaments were fitted out at comparatively small expense. Exclusive, too, of these favorable circumstances, the fortifications of the principal cities were looked upon as impregnable; and as their commerce supplied them abundantly with all sorts of provisions, it need not excite our astonishment that Lübeck alone was able to carry on wars with the surrounding monarchs, and to terminate them with honor and advantage; and still less that the league should long have enjoyed a decided preponderance in the north." (L'Art de vérifier les Dates, 3me partie, tom. viii., p. 204.)


—As already explained, the extirpation of piracy was one of the objects which had originally led to the formation of the league, and which it never ceased to prosecute. Owing, however, to the barbarism then so universally prevalent, and the countenance openly given by many princes and nobles to those engaged in this infamous profession, it was not possible wholly to root it out. But the vigorous efforts of the league to abate the nuisance, though not entirely successful, served to render the navigation of the North sea and the Baltic comparatively secure, and were of signal advantage to commerce. Nor was this the only mode in which the power of the confederacy was directly employed to promote the common interests of mankind. Their exertions to protect shipwrecked mariners from the atrocities to which they had been subject, and to procure the restitution of ship wrecked property to its legitimate owners, though most probably, like their exertions to repress piracy, a consequence of selfish considerations, were in no ordinary degree meritorious, and contributed not less to the advancement of civilization than to the security of navigation.


—A series of resolutions were unanimously agreed to by the merchants frequenting the port of Wisby, one of the principal emporiums of the league, in 1287, providing for the restoration of shipwrecked property to its original owners, and threatening to eject from the consodalitate mercatorum any city that did not act conformably to the regulations laid down.


Factories belonging to the League. In order to facilitate and extend their commercial transactions, the league established various factories in foreign countries, the principal of which were at Novogorod in Russia, London, Bruges in the Netherlands, and Bergen in Norway.


—Novogorod, situated at the confluence of the Volkof with the Imler lake, was, for a lengthened period, the most renowned emporium in the northeastern parts of Europe. In the beginning of the eleventh century the inhabitants obtained considerable privileges, which laid the foundation of their liberty and prosperity. Their sovereigns were at first subordinate to the grand dukes or czars of Russia; but as the city and the contiguous territory increased in population and wealth, they gradually usurped an almost absolute independency. The power of these sovereigns over their subjects seems at the same time to have been exceedingly limited; and, in effect, Novogorod ought rather to be considered as a republic under the jurisdiction of an elective magistrate, than as a state subject to a regular line of hereditary monarchs possessed of extensive prerogatives. During the twelfth, thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, Novogorod formed the grand entrepôt between the countries to the east of Poland and the Hanseatic cities. Its fairs were frequented by an immense concourse of people from all the surrounding countries, as well as by numbers of merchants from the Hanse towns, who engrossed the greater part of its foreign commerce, and who furnished its markets with the manufactures and products of distant countries. Novogorod is said to have contained, during its most flourishing period, toward the middle of the fifteenth century, upward of 400,000 souls. This, however, is most probably an exaggeration. But its dominions were then very extensive; and its wealth and power seemed so great and well established, and the city itself so impregnable, as to give rise to a proverb, Who can resist the gods and great Novogorod? "Quis contra deos et magnam Novogordiam?" (Coxe's "Travels in the North of Europe," vol. ii., p. 80.)


—But its power and prosperity were far from being so firmly established as its eulogists, and those who had only visited its fairs, appear to have supposed. In the latter part of the fifteenth century, Ivan Vassilievitch, czar of Russia, having secured his dominions against the inroads of the Tartars, and extended his empire by the conquest of some of the neighboring principalities, asserted his right to the principality of Novogorod, and supported his pretensions by a formidable army. Had the inhabitants been animated by the spirit of unanimity and patriotism, they might have defied his efforts; but their dissensions facilitated their conquest, and rendered them an easy prey. Having entered the city at the head of his troops, Ivan received from the citizens the charter of their liberties, which they either wanted courage or inclination to defend, and carried off an enormous bell to Moscow, that has been long regarded with a sort of superstitious veneration as the palladium of the city. But notwithstanding the despotism to which Novogorod was subject during the reigns of Ivan and his successors, it continued for a considerable period to be the largest as well as most commercial city in the Russian empire. The famous Richard Chancellour, who passed through Novogorod, in 1554, in his way from the court of the czar, says, that "next unto Moscow, the city of Novogorod is reputed the chiefest of Russia; for although it be in majestic inferior to it, yet in greatness it goeth beyond it. It is the chiefest and greatest mart town of all Muscovy; and albeit the emperor's seat is not there, but at Moscow, yet the commodiousness of the river falling into the gulf of Finland, whereby it is well frequented by merchants, makes it more famous than Moscow itself."


—But the scourge of the destroyer soon after fell on this celebrated city. Ivan IV., having discovered, in 1570, a correspondence between some of the principal citizens and the king of Poland relative to a surrender of the city into his hands, punished them in the most inhuman manner. The slaughter by which the bloodthirsty barbarian sought to satisfy his revenge was alike extensive and indiscriminating. The crime of a few citizens was made a pretext for the massacre of 25,000 or 30,000. Novogorod never recovered from this dreadful blow. It still, however, continued to be a place of considerable trade, until the foundation of Petersburg, which immediately became the seat of that commerce which formerly had centered at Novogorod. The degradation of this ill-fated city is now complete. It is at present an inconsiderable place, with a population of about 8,000 or 9,000, and is remarkable only for its history and antiquities.


—The merchants of the Hanse towns, or Hansards, as they were then commonly termed, were established in London at a very early period, and their factory there was of considerable magnitude and importance. They enjoyed various privileges and immunities; they were permitted to govern themselves by their own laws and regulations; the custody of one of the gates of the city (Bishopsgate) was committed to their care; and the duties on various sorts of imported commodities were considerably reduced in their favor. These privileges necessarily excited the ill will and animosity of the English merchants. The Hansards were every now and then accused of acting with bad faith, of introducing commodities as their own that were really the produce of others, in order to enable them to evade the duties with which they ought to have been charged; of capriciously extending the list of towns belonging to the association; and obstructing the commerce of the English in the Baltic. Efforts were continually making to bring these disputes to a termination; but as they really grew out of the privileges granted to and claimed by the Hansards, this was found to be impossible. The latter were exposed to many indignities; and their factory, which was situated in Thames street, was not unfrequently attacked. The league exerted themselves vigorously in defense of their privileges; and having declared war against England, they succeeded in excluding her vessels from the Baltic, and acted with such energy that Edward IV. was glad to come to an accommodation with them, on terms which were anything but honorable to the English. In the treaty for this purpose, negotiated in 1474, the privileges of the merchants of the Hanse towns were renewed, and the king assigned to them, in absolute property, a large space of ground, with the buildings upon it, in Thames street, denominated the steel yard, whence the Hanse merchants have been commonly denominated the association of the steel yard; the property of their establishments at Boston and Lynn was also secured to them; the king engaged to allow no stranger to participate in their privileges; one of the articles bore that the Hanse merchants should be no longer subject to the judges of the English admiralty court, but that a particular tribunal should be formed for the easy and speedy settlement of all disputes that might arise between them and the English; and it was further agreed that the particular privileges awarded to the Hanse merchants should be published, as often as the latter judged proper, in all the seaport towns of England, and such Englishmen as infringed upon them should be punished. In return for these concessions, the English acquired the liberty of freely trading in the Baltic, and especially in the port of Dantzic and in Prussia. In 1498, all direct commerce with the Netherlands being suspended, the trade fell into the hands of the Hanse merchants, whose commerce was in consequence very greatly extended. But, according as the spirit of commercial enterprise awakened in the nation, and as the benefits resulting from the prosecution of foreign trade came to be better known, the privileges of the Hanse merchants became more and more obnoxious. They were in consequence considerably modified in the reigns of Henry VII. and Henry VIII., and were at length wholly abolished in 1597. (Anderson's Hist. Com., anno 1474, etc.)


—The different individuals belonging to the factory in London, as well as those belonging to the other factories of the league, lived together at a common table, and were enjoined to observe the strictest celibacy. The direction of the factory in London was intrusted to an alderman, two assessors, and nine councilors. The latter were sent by the cities forming the different classes into which the league was divided. The business of these functionaries was to devise means for extending and securing the privileges and commerce of the association; to watch over the operations of the merchants; and to adjust any disputes that might arise among the members of the confederacy, or between them and the English. The league endeavored at all times to promote, as much as possible, the employment of their own ships. In pursuance of this object, they went so far in 1447 as to forbid the importation of English merchandise into the confederated cities except by their own vessels. But a regulation of this sort could not be carried into full effect, and was enforced or modified according as circumstances were favorable or adverse to the pretensions of the league. Its very existence was, however, an insult to the English nation; and the irritation produced by the occasional attempts to act upon it contributed materially to the subversion of the privileges the Hanseatic merchants had acquired in England.


—By means of their factory at Bergen, and of the privileges which had been either granted to or usurped by them, the league enjoyed for a lengthened period the monopoly of the commerce of Norway.


—But the principal factory of the league was at Bruges in the Netherlands. Bruges became, at a very early period, one of the first commercial cities of Europe, and the centre of the most extensive trade carried on to the north of Italy. The art of navigation in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries was so imperfect that a voyage from Italy to the Baltic and back again could not be performed in a single season, and hence, for the sake of their mutual convenience, the Italian and Hanseatic merchants determined on establishing a magazine or storehouse of their respective products in some intermediate situation. Bruges was fixed upon for this purpose; a distinction which it seems to have owed as much to the freedom enjoyed by the inhabitants, and the liberality of the government of the Low Countries, as to the convenience of its situation. In consequence of this preference, Bruges speedily rose to the very highest rank among commercial cities, and became a place of vast wealth. It was at once a staple for English wool, for the woolen and linen manufactures of the Netherlands, for the timber, hemp and flax, pitch and tar, tallow, corn, fish, ashes, etc., of the north; and for the spices and Indian commodities, as well as their domestic manufactures imported by the Italian merchants. The fairs of Bruges were the best frequented of any in Europe. Ludovico Guicciardini mentions, in his "Description of the Low Countries," that in the year 1318 no fewer than five Venetian galleases, vessels of very considerable burden, arrived at Bruges in order to dispose of their cargoes at the fair. The Hanseatic merchants were the principal purchasers of Indian commodities: they disposed of them in the ports of the Baltic, or carried them up the great rivers into the heart of Germany. The vivifying effects of this commerce were everywhere felt; the regular intercourse opened between the nations in the north and south of Europe made them sensible of their mutual wants, and gave a wonderful stimulus to the spirit of industry. This was particularly the case with regard to the Netherlands. Manufactures of wool and flax had been established in that country as early as the age of Charlemagne; and the resort of foreigners to their markets, and the great additional vent that was thus opened for their manufactures, made them be carried on with a vigor and success that had been hitherto unknown. These circumstances, combined with the free spirit of their institutions and the moderation of the government, so greatly promoted every elegant and useful art, that the Netherlands early became the most civilized, best cultivated, richest and most populous country of Europe.


Decline of the Hanseatic League. From the middle of the fifteenth century the power of the confederacy, though still very formidable, began to decline. This was not owing to any misconduct on the part of its leaders, but to the progress of the improvement which it had done so much to promote. The superiority enjoyed by the league resulted as much from the anarchy, confusion and barbarism that prevailed throughout the kingdoms of the north, as from the good government and order that distinguished the towns. But a distinction of this sort could not be permanent. The civilization which had been at first confined to the cities, gradually spread from them, as from so many centres, over the contiguous country. Feudal anarchy was everywhere superseded by a system of subordination; arts and industry were diffused and cultivated; and the authority of government was at length firmly established. This change not only rendered the princes over whom the league had so frequently triumphed superior to it in power, but the inhabitants of the countries among which the confederated cities were scattered, having learned to entertain a just sense of the advantages derivable from commerce and navigation, could not brook the superiority of the association, or bear to see its members in possession of immunities of which they were deprived; and in addition to these circumstances, which must speedily have occasioned the dissolution of the league, the interests of the different cities of which it consisted became daily more and more opposed to each other. Lübeck, Hamburg, Bremen, and the towns in their vicinity, were latterly the only ones that had any interest in its maintenance. The cities in Zealand and Holland joined it, chiefly because they would otherwise have been excluded from the commerce of the Baltic; and those of Prussia, Poland and Russia did the same because, had they not belonged to it, they would have been shut out from all intercourse with strangers. When, however, the Zealanders and Hollanders became sufficiently powerful at sea to be able to vindicate their right to the free navigation of the Baltic by force of arms, they immediately seceded from the league; and no sooner had the ships of the Dutch, the English, etc., begun to trade directly with the Polish and Prussian Hanse towns than these nations also embraced the first opportunity of withdrawing from it. The fall of this great confederacy was really, therefore, a consequence of the improved state of society, and of the development of the commercial spirit in the different nations of Europe. It was most servicable so long as those for whom its merchants acted as factors and carriers were too barbarous, too much occupied with other matters, or destitute of the necessary capital and skill, to act in these capacities for themselves. When they were in a situation to do this, the functions of the Hanseatic merchants ceased as a matter of course; their confederacy fell to pieces; and at the middle of the seventeenth century the cities of Lübeck, Hamburg and Bremen were all that continued to acknowledge the authority of the league. To this day they preserve the shadow of its power; having been acknowledged in the act for the establishment of the Germanic confederation, signed at Vienna June 8, 1815, as free Hanseatic cities. But their enforced embodiment since 1866 in the North German confederation, and association with the other Germanic states in the Zollverein, will cause even this shadow to lessen very rapidly.


—See Mallet, La Ligue Hanséatique; Schlözer's Verfull und Untergang der Hansa; Lappenberg's Urkundliche Geschichte des Hansischen Stahlhofes zu London; and Report for 1867 of Mr Consul General Ward of Hamburg.


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