Hansa Towns - Helen Zimmern

B5. The Hanseatic Commerce with Denmark, Sweden, and Russia.

Though the Government of Denmark was more enlightened than that of Norway, and though the Danes were jealously desirous of keeping their trade in their own hands, they, too, could not free themselves from the all-absorbing power of the Hanseatic League. In vain did they endeavour to raise up rivals to these traders; in vain did they even encourage pirates to attack them; in vain did they institute custom dues and taxes; each and all of these measures proved insufficient. The credit of the towns was unassailable. The Hanseatics knew how to vanquish all obstacles, and finally they found themselves in full possession of all their ancient privileges, as well as those which they had extorted in concluding peace with Waldemar.

The dissensions of the three northern kingdoms, which lasted for nearly fifty years, and which the Hanseatic League were by no means anxious to see settled (for, above all else, they feared the union of the three northern kingdoms under one head) were admirably utilized. The League played off one set of enemies against another, now aided this faction, now sided with that, never too openly expressed either sympathy or hostility, and yet always contrived so that any advantages accruing were theirs.

It was in those troubled times that Lubeck bought from the Danish king the town of Kiel and adjoining lands, while the queen pawned her jewels to the city in order to raise money for war purposes.

Denmark was of immense importance to the Hanseatic League, not only for the grain and cattle it produced, but because it was the key to the passages of the Belt and the Sound, the only maritime routes for passing from the Baltic to the North Sea. And, above all, the Sound was of first-class importance as dominating the coveted province of Scania, that mediaeval Peru. This tongue of land, which juts out into the sea in form of a hook on the extreme south-west of Sweden, and shows to-day two miserable towns, Skanoe and Falsterbo, almost buried in driving sand, presented in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, from St. Jacob's to St. Michael's Day (July 25th to September 29th), a most animated spectacle. Nothing more strange is to be found in either hemisphere than was the tumultuous life of this arid province. Here each foot of ground was jealously disputed by fishermen and merchants.

Englishmen, Flemings, Danes, and peoples of tongues and customs the most diverse were found side by side. But the Hanseatics preponderated. They established themselves in a species of rude wooden barrack called by them Witten, where they at once instituted their peculiar rules and privileges, which gave them that united power which in the end enabled them to crush out all competition. For the device of the Hanseatics, though unexpressed, was "Monopoly," and during these centuries they carried it rigidly into effect. The word Witten still survives in the name of various fishing stations on the Baltic; for example, one not far remote from the old pagan city of Arkona, once the site of a temple, where the Christian Saxons bought the right to fish by paying tribute to the local god.

The main object of the trade in Scandinavia was herrings, but this brought many other industries in its train. Itinerant merchants offered cloth, linen, hardware, wine, beer, and many other articles to the natives, whose country boasted no handicrafts, as well as to the temporary residents. In short, the place became a market for the exchange of Western and Eastern products, natural and manufactured. Here could be seen the Lubeck cooks busy in extemporized kitchens that formed a sort of rude restaurant; here rough taverns in which German drinks were obtainable at easy prices; here German shoemakers plied their skill; above all, the coopers drove a lively trade, making and mending the barrels needed for the precious fish. The import of salt, too, was obviously of first-class importance, and this was entirely in the hands of the Germans. We might expect that during the busy period when thousands of men were hard at work fishing, salting, packing the herring, beer should have been drunk in large quantities, but the amount consumed almost passes belief. This also was entirely supplied by the Hanseatic cities. It was they, too, who shipped the indispensable fish and sent it to England, France, the Netherlands, the Baltic, nay, far into the centre of Germany, and even to Poland and Russia.

They had not in Scania, as at Bergen, a regularly organized factory, but the Witten stood under superintendence, while at adjacent Malmo they founded a permanent colony, under the jurisdiction of an alderman, who administered Lubeck law and watched over the Witten trade with jealous care. Here each town had its guild representative, often its house, and here annually a dignitary from Lubeck would pay a passing visit in order to adjust quarrels and investigate the state of trade.

The "Scandinavian travellers," as they were named, instituted a number of companies with rules of a religious, commercial, and worldly-sensuous character. Thus the "Pious Brotherhood of Malmo" buried every poor stranger with the same church pomp, costly palls, candles and masses, as they would one of their own members. No one was admitted into the brotherhood who was at feud with one of its associates. No one might enter the common room bearing arms. A member who introduced a guest was responsible for his good behaviour. In a word, the regulations were of a certain humane character, far different from those which obtained at Bergen. They were evidently copied from those of the guilds in the Hanseatic and other towns of the Middle Ages.

Until early in the sixteenth century the League retained in undiminished vigour its advantages in Scandinavia. To break their power it was necessary for the Dutch to discover a better mode of salting the fish. Then the fish itself came in smaller shoals to these coasts, and appeared instead near Scotland and Ireland, and, worst of all, modern Europe became Protestant, and fasting was hence no longer an obligatory fashion. Only a few sunken gravestones, still standing amid the desolation of this district, bear witness to the former importance of the site.

As for the rest of Sweden, the country, though not productive, was still of value to the Hanseatics, since they held the entire trade in their hands. As from Norway, they exported wood, iron, copper, skins, in a word, explored all its resources. In most of the maritime towns they exercised certain rights. Thus Stockholm itself was partly in their possession, the local administration being half chosen by them. In this wise they were able to bring pressure to bear upon the government. In short, they disposed of the whole commerce of Sweden, and it was not until the days of Gustavus Vasa that their might was rudely and completely shaken.

Indeed, in those middle centuries there seemed no limit to the Hanseatics' ambition and power. They early cast their eyes towards that immense territory in the far north, that Russian Empire which in those days was truly an unknown land. With quick traders' instinct they recognized that the country was worthy to be included in their vast monopoly. When they first established themselves in Russia is not known. Towards the end of the thirteenth century we find them in possession of a factory at Novgorod, on the river Volchor, a city which, with the province that surrounded it, was then an independent republic, for the Russia of those days was surrounded by various principalities mostly under Tartar rule. The natives were not strong enough to claim as their own a rich and populous city, whose liberties were protected by the Western Christians, and which had moreover been founded by aliens, namely, by one of those enterprising Norman chiefs, who in early times were, as we know, the terror of all states and countries.[9]

It is thought that the Hanseatics had another similar establishment at Pleskow, a city on the Velika, and perhaps even a depot at Moscow, but undoubtedly Novgorod was their most important station. Here merchants and artizans fixed their abode, and drew around them a rich commerce for the town. It was the staple for Arctic and Byzantine riches, riches which the more barbarian Russians did not understand how to utilize like our cunning traders. As early as the eleventh century we hear of a German trading settlement at Novgorod. In 1269 the local ruler accorded to the Hanseatics, "to the German settlement, the Goths, and all peoples of Latin tongue," special freedom in dealing with his province.

As usual, the Hanseatics created a monopoly and jealously excluded all strangers. Assigned in Novgorod to a special quarter of the town, they built a church of their own, dedicated to St. Peter, and grouped their guildhall, shops, stores, and dwelling-houses around it. The quarter soon became known as the Court of the Germans at Great Novgorod, or the Court of St. Peter. As at Bergen, it was built in such a manner that it could be defended, if need be, and at night it was closed and guarded by watchmen and fierce dogs.

There is happily preserved for us the Codex of this German colony on the Lake of Ilmen. It is called the Skra, an old German word which we encounter elsewhere in Hanseatic chronicles. This Skra furnishes a lively picture of the strange character of the Court of St. Peter. It appears that "the entire council, together with the common consent of the wisest of all the German cities," had decreed that the laws here laid down should be enforced on all who visited the court, "as it was done from the commencement." The non-resident merchants, who always travelled in large parties and accompanied by a priest, are spoken of as the "summer and winter travellers." They elected from out of their number the alderman of the Court of St. Peter. He became head of the settlement, received the income, fees, and taxes, and defrayed the general costs.

The alderman of the dwelling court was the highest dignitary and, with the aid of the four wisest, adjudged all quarrels, personal or commercial. These aldermen had special privileges in the choice of residence, and the aldermen of the "winter travellers" were further allowed certain honours and comforts in the great common room. The land travellers had to yield to the seafarers in all matters of convenience and space. Their priest, too, was regarded as the chief ecclesiastic of St. Peter's Court, and to him alone was accorded free board and a salary out of the common funds.

Any one who refused to appear in answer to a summons before the court was subjected to a heavy fine. The so-called "rooms" (i.e., dwellings) were common to all; except that the "winter travellers," secluded from all the world in midst of the long Arctic nights, were permitted special privileges. The "children's room," the abode of the younger clerks and apprentices, also enjoyed rather more freedom from strict rules than was accorded to their elders. A master might not dismiss his subordinate until he had brought him back to his country; he was also bound to care for him in sickness, and might not punish him arbitrarily, or on his own authority alone. As at Bergen, and at the Steelyard in London, the whole establishment partook of a monastic character, in which most stringent rules prevailed. And of these rules none was more strict than that which forbad social intercourse or partnership trading with natives.

A special brewery concocted the sweet mead or beer drunk by the thirsty brotherhood of St. Peter's; in St. Peter's cauldron was melted down all the wax brought in from afar; the wood for firing was felled in St. Peter's forests. A monotonous life it was, interrupted only in spring and autumn by the arrival of the summer and winter travellers with their rich wares. In the cosy warmth of the common room, over endless bowls of mead, these far-travelled men, snowed up here and unable to return till spring released them, would beguile the long winter evenings with anecdote and tales. In this wise the Scandinavian Sagas first penetrated into Middle and Southern Germany.

The rules made against the Russians were severe and offensive in the extreme. It is evident they were not trusted in the smallest degree. A Hanseatic enjoyed the first privilege in all respects. For example, if a native was bankrupt, the German merchant to whom he was in debt had the first right to be paid before Russian creditors, and the Germans could further insist that such a bankrupt should be banished the city with wife and child. By way of tax they themselves paid a piece of cloth to the ruler of the mainland between their Court and the sea, and a pair of gloves to the Russian officials.

For the rest their whole attitude was haughty and overbearing, and it is scarcely astonishing that quarrels and risings against them were of frequent occurrence. But they almost always kept or at least regained the upper hand. Their audacious motto was "Who can stand against God and the Great Novgorod?" No doubt many of their rigid measures were necessary to a small colony living amid a turbulent and rude population, differing from them in manners, language, and religion. The station was as difficult to hold as years ago was that of Canton for the English. Like the Chinese, the Russians hated the merchants, if for no other reason than because they were foreigners. In every possible manner they tried to cheat them, adulterating wax, furnishing bad furs, etc., etc.

In consequence, the alderman of St. Peter's saw himself obliged continually to issue new warnings and rules to secure his traders from the Russian tricksters. So, for example, the dwellers of the Court of St. Peter were enjoined only to buy furs in well-lighted places, where it was easier to test their genuineness and excellence, further to accept no large consignments that had not been previously subjected to careful scrutiny. And notwithstanding the fact that their commerce in Russia was subjected to great danger, that they even had several times to close their court and withdraw, the Hanseatics clung tenaciously to their Russian monopoly, which was one of the chief sources of their wealth. They even watched to see that no non-Hanseatic learnt Russian, an indispensable acquirement for this trade. Nay, at one time they held the whole province of Livonia responsible for hindering such a proceeding. After a time, under penalty of one hundred marks, no Russian was allowed to live in Livonia. On pain of corporal punishment, they were enjoined to treat with Russians only for ready money, or more strictly for ready goods. Credit with these barbarians was not encouraged, for it was desirable in every way to simplify intercourse, and moreover then, as now, it was next to impossible to a foreigner to make good his credit claims before Muscovite justice.

The trade consisted in Russian products, furs, metals, honey, and, above all, wax, much sought after in those Catholic times, when the consumption of this article was wonderfully great. It would seem as though some obscure merit were attached to the burning or the gift of candles, the origin of which is probably heathen. What the Hanseatics brought to market was chiefly Flemish and English cloths and linen, as well as divers articles of luxury, eagerly sought after by the various princes and sovereigns and by the innumerable Boyars who ranked like petty princes.

In those large and small courts a barbaric and gorgeous display was common, and ostentatious rivalry existed between the princes. Probably this love of exterior pomp is explained by their neighbourhood to the East. The Hanseatics astutely utilized this Russian tendency, and spared no pains in bringing to market wares calculated to dazzle and please these grown children; children in this respect alone however, that they could be fascinated by finery and show. In other matters the Russians behaved like adults, and they kept a constant watch upon the Hanseatics, never neglecting any opportunities of annoying them or hindering their trade. Thus, if the League accused the Russians of want of good faith in commercial dealings, they returned the compliment, and complaints of linen goods as being too narrow, too coarse, or not according to sample, were frequent. Often these were justified, as often not. But on several occasions the Russians arrested Hanseatics, put them in irons, even on one occasion hanged a Hanseatic merchant from the door of the League's own factory. The Hanseatics met such insults by threatening to leave Novgorod; indeed, carried out this threat several times, but love of gain on the one hand, hunger after luxuries on the other, appeased the troubled spirits, and peace was re-established on the old footing. These treaties of reconciliation were sealed by the Germans with a key in a shield, the seal of St. Peter's Court. The Russians swore fidelity by kissing the crucifix.

But as such disturbances might always recur, and in order that the damage should not prove too heavy to members of the League, it was decreed by them in the fourteenth century that no merchant might send to or store at Novgorod merchandise exceeding in value the sum of a thousand marks. This shows that their position at Novgorod was rather that of a hostile encampment than that of a secure and permanent settlement.

Above all, the Hanseatics strictly forbade Russia to trade on the sea, and any Russian merchant ships that they encountered were captured and the captain and crew severely punished.

Early in the twelfth century the clever Lombards, already famous throughout Europe for their skill in all banking transactions, tried to gain a footing at Novgorod. It seems that their financial shrewdness was not always combined with the strictest honesty, and that hence they enjoyed an ill fame. Certainly the Hanseatics succeeded in 1405 in prohibiting "these dangerous men" from any residence in the Baltic cities, while in St. Peter's Court their presence was formally proscribed in 1346.

A serious interruption to the commerce of the League with Russia occurred in the middle of the fifteenth century, when the Prussian towns revolted against the oppressive supremacy of the chivalric order of the Teutonic Knights. Like all spiritual powers, when it is a question of the goods of this world, the Teutonic Knights fought ardently to regain their power, and this warfare long rendered the Baltic dangerous and impossible for trade purposes. Indeed, so long and so serious was this war that but for the fact that the League was in a sufficiently flourishing condition to be able to bear great losses, and also for the fact that the Russian trade was worth many sacrifices, the League might even then have been permanently crushed.

More serious was the next enemy who arose and who shook to its foundations the empire of Hanseatic commerce in Russia. This was the Czar Ivan II., known as the Terrible. He had conquered and chased from his domains the savage Tartar hordes that annually ravaged it; he was ambitious to unite the whole Muscovite kingdom under his sway. Like his successors to this day, he hated all that savoured of liberty and independence, and was resolved to exclude from his realms everything that approached a more advanced civilization and was irreconcilable with absolute rule.

He cast a jealous eye on Novgorod, with its political independence and its prosperity. Here, he said to himself, were rich spoils to be obtained; this power within his own domains must be broken. He tried, with success, to gain over to his side a portion of the population. These were, however, soon denounced as traitors to the community, and the great bell of Novgorod, regarded as the Palladium of popular liberty, was rung to call the city under arms. A violent struggle ensued, in which Ivan committed many of those acts of cruelty that have made his name notorious.

At last, after a gallant resistance, in which especially a woman, named Marsa, took a leading part, Novgorod fell into the hands of Ivan, who despoiled it of its liberty and riches, and sent its chief inhabitants into the centre of his empire and replaced them by his Muscovites; burnt, ravaged, pillaged, and sacked, so that at one blow the town lost its liberty, lustre, and prosperity. The great bell of freedom was carried to Moscow, where to this day it hangs, no longer inciting to revolt, but calling the people to prayer. As for the Hanseatics at Novgorod, they were taken prisoner and kept in cruel durance. Their merchandise was confiscated, and all their possessions, such as church ornaments, bells, silver vases, etc., were carried off in triumph to Moscow.

This blow came upon them like a thunderbolt, for all their privileges had just been reconfirmed by the Russian ruler. But to Ivan no sacred treaties were binding. Only after many years and long negotiations did the Hanseatics succeed in getting him at least to release their prisoners. When he did agree to this most had already died from the effects of privation. Of the confiscated goods he would not return a bale.

Thus ended the glory of the Hanseatic rule in Russia. It is true that under Ivan's son the cities once more endeavoured to open their court on the Volchor. But a twenty years' interruption of trade was not easily made good. They could not recover their monopoly, which had been usurped by Danes and Dutchmen. The last blow to all such efforts came from the English, who had discovered a passage to Russia by means of the White Sea and Archangel, and hence no longer needed Hanseatic mediation. In 1603 Czar Boris Gudenow wanted to reinstate the Hansa in its ancient privileges. It was too late. The dissensions that agitated Russia did not permit the League to derive any profit from his good intentions. Commerce had taken another direction, and kept it. When, some time after, a traveller passed through Novgorod, all he found to remind him of the German colony here were only the ruins of the stone church of St. Peter, a single storehouse, and one wooden shanty, which served as shelter for him and his servant. Of the former glory and prosperity there was no sign.

[Illustration] from The Hansa Towns by Helen Zimmern