Hanseatic nobility and civic freedoms

The medieval trade association that shaped Germany and modern Europe

Welcome to a journey back into history and up to the very North of Germany, the realm of the “Hanseat”, a very special breed of German civic nobility. Hanseatic traditions are found along the coasts and especially in the big port cities, with the proud free state of Hamburg taking the lead. Pride is a defining characteristic of the Hanseat: Reserved, dignified (if a bit posh) and calm in appearance, full of civic self-confidence, reliable and courageous. Many times, hanseatic pride is misunderstood as lofty arrogance, especially in the South of Germany, yet it is usually free of the conceit that sometimes defines the members of old aristocratic circles.

This attitude stems from a rich history: The Hansa (German: Hanse) of old times was a merchant league born from the need to provide security and stability for tradesmen in a severely divided country. For many centuries, the “Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation” was anything but a united nation. It rather resembled a rag rug of small kingdoms, duchies, counties and religious realms.

The starting point of the Hanseatic league is lost in history, but very likely caused by the splintered rulership of medieval Germany. Duke Heinrich der Löwe (Henry the Lion), a favourite of Holy Roman Emperor Frederick Barbarossa, personally favoured the port city of Lübeck, handing out trade privileges. The conflicts arising from these had to be sorted in the “Artleberger Privilege”, a free trade agreement in 1161. Duke Henry unwillingly created a strong bond between the merchants in Visby on the island of Gotland and Lübeck. Both would become giants of the Hanseatic League, soon strong enough to challenge the power of monarchs. In hindsight, one could see this iconic organisation as a civic movement, a precursor to republican democracy – or as a first step to European unity by trade, foreshadowing the European Union.

Very likely, for its contemporaries, the Hanse rather felt like a medieval parallel to what we know as “globalisation” today: Influential trade families built an economic zone that stretched from Portugal to Russia, from Scandinavia to Italy, bending the will of the people and their rulers in order to satisfy the interests of wealthy elites.

The League grew quickly to more than 200 members in seven countries, with even more places connected via ever expanding trade routes. At its peak, the Hanse was so powerful that it could not only block trade and pressure whole kingdoms; it actually started wars against the rulers of independent nations. In the 13th and 14th centuries, the Hanse fought Danish kings multiple times to remove obstacles that the regional power created for free trade.

The Hanse ruled the waves

What made the Hanse so powerful? They occupied a niche of power that medieval monarchs didn’t care for. Free cities and their urban lifestyle stayed below the attention of feudalist rulers, becoming massive drivers of progress and new civil liberties. The wealthy, educated, powerful and well connected merchants of the Hanse were able to build an economic union that gained power over their rulers, even financed the ventures of the ruling class.

The other secret of success were ships. The hanseatic merchants relied on a new type of vessel, the Cog. Bigger than existing ship types, it was a bulky freighter with lots of space for cargo, yet only requiring a small amount of crew. A flat floor made the cog able to maneuver in low water, which was important in the Baltic sea that made up so much of the Hanse’s trade volume. The lack of a keel meant the cog couldn’t cross before the wind. It had to sail with the wind, which should prove to be a real disadvantage in later centuries.

Cogs were cheap and fast to produce, able to transport up to 90 tons of cargo, and while their 15 to 25 metres of length might seem tiny from a modern point of view, for contemporaries they were giants.

While most of the Hanse fleet were merchant ships, the cogs were well able to stand their ground in battle. The Hanse also maintained a little navy of what they called “Friedeschiffe” (peace ships). They were, however, armed to the teeth. Instead of cargo, they transported battle proven sailors and mercenaries. A Friedeschiff was a swimming fortress, valuable in a time that didn’t know cannons yet. Naval warfare was pretty similar to battles on land: The ships crashed together and the armed forces battled in hand to hand combat. For this purpose, the Friedeschiffe had high towers on front and rear, from where archers fired at the enemy, while infantry climbed from ship to ship.

The introduction of cannons in the 16th century changed the way that marine battles were fought, making the traditional Hanse ships, although constantly developed over the centuries, unable to cope with the attacks of faster, more movable opponents.

International cooperation and democracy

In a time when democracy was just a distant memory from ancient times, the Hanse created democratic rules with flat hierarchies. There was little official “government” or authority, although Lübeck was seen as the headquarters for most of the time. Decisions were made by consensus, and more important issues needed a meeting called “Tagfahrt” (literally: daytrip, but rather referring to a “Tag” as a meeting). The work itself happened regionally and in special foreign trade centres, the “Auswärtige Kontore”. In Britain, these were present in York, Hull, Yarmouth, Ipswich and London. They worked much like modern stock markets.

Everyday items as well as luxury goods were shipped across Europe: Fur from Novgorod, fish from Bergen, salt from Lüneburg and Lisbon, finest cloth from Flanders, delicacies from oriental places far beyond the continent. The Hanse included places like Cologne or Dortmund, which were far away from the sea but were connected by huge rivers.

“All power to the merchants” was the motto of the League that made the chase for profit its central idea. It created wealth, power and influence for those that worked hard, thought fast and recklessly pursued their business. The merchants rose to see eye to eye to noblemen, giving normal citizens the self confidence to stand up to their betters.

So huge was the influence of the Hanse, that up to this day many cities call themselves “Hansestadt” (hansa city). Two of them are free cities with the status of own German states: Bremen and Hamburg. Among the others are Lübeck, of course, but also Wismar, Rostock, Greifswald, Stralsund, Demmin and the Dutch cities Groningen, Deventer, Kampen, Zutphen and Zwolle.

In 1937, Lübeck shortly lost its title as Hansestadt. After not allowing Adolf Hitler to speak in the city during the 1932 election campaign, the Führer held a grudge. He would only refer Lübeck as “the small city close to Bad Schwartau” from then on – and Lübeck was not the only former Hanse city that faced the wrath of the Nazi regime.

The word “Hansa” is still present in modern Germany – in football clubs, for example, like “Hansa Rostock”, or in the name of the biggest German amusement park, the “Hansa Park”. The university of Groningen in the Netherlands is known as “Hanze University of Applied Sciences”, a brewery in Bergen uses the name “Hansa”, and so does the Hansabank of the Baltic. The German national airline is known as Lufthansa, the “Hanse of the air”. The original word in old Germanic language means “cohort” or “entourage”.

The legend lives on until today: In 1980, a “New Hansa” was formed, inviting all former Hanse centres and their associates as members. The organisation is headquartered in Lübeck and celebrates the “Hanseatic Days of New Time” once in a year. Three English names are among the members: King’s Lynn, Hull and Boston, as well as Novgorod and eleven other Russian cities.

Additionally, the Finance Ministers of Denmark, Estonia, Finland, Ireland, Latvia, Lithuania, the Netherlands and Sweden established the “New Hanseatic League” in 2018. Its impact is yet to be seen, but the declared goal is to gain influence on European politics based on shared views and values – surely more than just a trade union.

Discovering Hanse history

Travellers in Germany, should not miss the European Hanse Museum in Lübeck and the famous medieval Holsten Gate right next door. Visiting Hamburg’s traditional Town Hall is like time travel, the same goes for Bremen. In Cologne, the famous “Gürzenich” hall survived the allied bombings of World War 2. Outside of Germany, the city of Bergen in Norway has a Hanseatic Museum worth visiting, and Riga in Latvia as well as Tallinn in Estonia have maintained lots of their medieval architecture.

The end of the Hanse came as slow decline during the 17th century. Colonialism, technological progress and the rise of the English to become the major power on the oceans, but also a changing character of feudalism towards developing nation states ended the power of the big Hanseatic dynasties.

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