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The Hanseatic League: Definition, History & Purpose

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

In this lesson we'll examine the Hanseatic League, a group that put the logic of 'safety in numbers' into practice. We'll also explore how they came to dominate the Baltic Sea. Keep reading this world history lesson to learn more.

The Hanseatic League

We've all heard the phrase that says there is safety in numbers. If you're a little fish in the ocean, this could mean safety from sharks. If you're a shipping merchant in 13th-century Northern Europe, this probably meant safety from pirates. You see, the medieval seas were a dangerous place, and in the Baltic Sea along Northern Europe, merchants realized that they might be safer if they worked together.

So, they formed an alliance of trading guilds called the Hanseatic League, or often simply the Hansa. From roughly the 13th-17th centuries, the Hanseatic League dominated the maritime trade from the Baltic to North Sea and proved that not only can numbers be safer, they can also be pretty lucrative as well.

The Hanseatic League dominated the Baltic Sea
Hansa

Formation

Where did this league come from? Well, it's important to remember that at this time much of Northern Europe was organized into independent city-states or small kingdoms, not unified countries. Many of the cities, which basically operated on their own, relied on trading for survival. This meant that the most powerful political and economic groups in these towns were often the trading guilds. However, trade could be dangerous. Piracy was a common problem and ocean-side towns were often subject to raids.

The origins of the Hansa trace all the way back to 1159 CE, when the North German town of Lübeck was rebuilt under Saxon control and quickly became one of the most important trading centers in the region. As Lübeck grew in power, it became recognized by other powers and in 1227 CE was granted the title of free imperial city under the Holy Roman Empire, basically meaning it had the right to govern itself.

Imperial charter granted to Lubeck
Lubeck

A decade or so later, Lübeck formed a trade alliance with some other very important German trading cities that shared its status, notably Hamburg. Over the 13th century, this alliance grew. More and more German trade towns made alliances with Lübeck by agreeing to the Law of Lübeck, which stated that if any allied town was attacked, the others would all send their militaries to defend it.

By the end of the century, this network had stretched practically from England all the way to the Russian city of Novgorod. The cities that joined all agreed to defend each other and protect their trade relationships above all else. In 1356, the Hanseatic League was officially organized.

Function

For about 400 years, the Hanseatic League dominated commercial shipping in the Baltic Sea. At their height, they contained more than 70 towns, controlled their own military, set their own trade tariffs, and for a while even had their own parliament. Still, defining the league is trickier than it may sound.

The alliances were officially between the trading guilds of these towns, not the towns themselves, but since port cities relied almost completely on these guilds, the line between them could be somewhat blurry. The base of operations for the league in each town was the Kontor, the trading post controlled by the Hansa. These were essentially their administrative offices.

The basic function of the league was to protect and control trade throughout the region. The league set common trade tariffs and taxes for all of the merchant guilds it controlled. If somebody wanted to trade with any of these towns, they had to agree to the terms of the Hanseatic League. If they didn't, then no town in the league would trade with them.

Thus, the league had the power to set trade embargoes, official trade bans, on cities or kingdoms who didn't want to pay the taxes set by the league. Since the most prominent traders of Northern Europe all belonged to the league, a trade embargo basically meant you couldn't import or export anything, so Hansa demands were generally met.

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