Hansa Towns - Helen Zimmern




A2. Federation

The free ocean, owned by no king or ruler, has from earliest times been the highroad of nations, and in the life and movement of the last eighteen hundred years the Baltic takes a scarcely less important place than the lovelier, more poetical, and oft-sung Mediterranean. Even to-day it is more frequented than most of the seas; the traffic through the Sound being second to that of no other strait.

The Baltic has had its singers too. We need only turn to the strong, rugged Norse Saga to find that sea extolled as the nurse of mighty heroes, or the scene of giant combats; and the wilder element that pervades these heroic tales is in keeping with the rugged iron-bound coasts that skirt its waters, which do not invite the cooing of idyls, nor lap the fantasy in luscious dreams. Here all is stern life and movement; here man must fight hand to hand with nature if he would extort from her even the bare necessities for his daily nourishment.

The contrast between the North and the South is nowhere more strikingly seen than in the different characteristics of the two seas, and the races they have produced. Nor could these characteristics be better illustrated than by a comparison between the great commercial Republics of Italy and the Hanseatic federation of Germany. The former, though individually great, never became a corporate body. Jealousy and rivalry were ever rife among them, and in the end they destroyed themselves. Where nature is kind men can better afford to be cruel, and need not hold together in such close union. Thus it was here.

But if the Baltic is at a disadvantage compared with the Mediterranean in climate as well as in size, it is not inferior in wealth and variety of its produce. Mighty rivers, watering many lands discharge themselves into its bosom, and produce upon their banks rich and needful products, such as wheat and wool. In the earth are hidden costly metallic treasures, while the sea itself is a well of opulence from the number and diversity of the fish that breed in its waters.

It has been well said that since the days of the Hansa, possession of the Baltic and dominion of the sea are synonymous terms. The Hansa, the Dutch, and the English have necessarily played the first role in the Baltic trade. But the trade dates from an even earlier time. Thanks to coins accidently dropped, and after long years unearthed, we learn that by way of the Volga the Northmen brought to their distant home the treasures of the far East—spices, pearls, silks, furs, and linen garments; and that following the course of the Dwina, the Dnieper, and the Oder, they found their way to Constantinople, the Black Sea, and even the Caspian.

Canon Adam, of Bremen, a chronicler of the eleventh century, in one of those farragoes of fact and fiction in which our forefathers read history, tells of a great trading city at the month of the Oder, "Julin, the greatest town of heathen Europe." "It is a famed meeting-place for the barbarians and Greeks of the neighbourhood, inhabited by Slavs and other barbarians. Saxons, too, may live there if they do not declare themselves Christians; for the town is rich in the wares of all Eastern peoples, and contains much that is charming and precious."

This town of Winetha, of whose exact site we are no longer sure, since it has been destroyed by the encroachment of the Baltic, was, and is still, a favourite theme of song and legend with German writers. It is fabled that it was destroyed like Sodom and Gomorrha, because of its sins; for its inhabitants had grown hard and proud and disdainful, trusting in wealth, and despising God. On fine and calm days mariners can, it is said, behold the city, with its silver ramparts, its marble columns, its stirring, richly-dressed population, leading, beneath the ocean, the life which they led while their city was still on firm ground. Every Good Friday this splendid city, with its towers, palaces, and walls, is permitted to rise from the ocean, and sun itself in the daylight, to be again submerged on Easter Day, by this annual fall recalling to all who might else forget it the severe justice of God.

The extract given above from the old writer impresses on us a fact we must bear well in mind, namely, that the Baltic mainland littoral at the time the Teutonic merchants began to ply their trade upon its coast was not a German possession, but inhabited and owned by a Slavonic people, who clung to their pagan creed long after their neighbours in the East and West had become converted to the new religion. And, as usual to this day, it was the trader who preceded the missionary, and gave the natives the first idea of a different code of ethics and morality. In the missionary's track, as at this day, followed the soldier, enforcing by the sword the arguments that reason had failed to inculcate. It was thus that German merchants had founded on Slavonic soil the various cities and ports that were later to be the pride and strength of the Hanseatic Union. Nor did they rest content with the coast that bounded their own lands. They traversed the narrow ocean, touching Finland, Sweden, and Russia, and they established on the isle of Gothland an emporium, which, in the first Christian centuries, became the centre of the Baltic trade, and in which "people of divers tongues," as an old writer calls these visitors, met to exchange their products.

A glance at the map will show why this island assumed such importance. At a time when the mariner was restricted to short passages, not liking for long to lose sight of the shore, this spot naturally made a most favourable halting-place on the road to Finland, Livonia, or Sweden. It is evident from the chronicles that the Germans soon acquired and exercised great power in this island, and that they were accorded special privileges. Thus Pope Honorius II. granted them his protection for their town and harbour of Wisby, in acknowledgment of the part they had played in the conversion of the pagan nations.

There are many testimonies to the ancient wealth and commercial importance of the island of Gothland; among them the amount of Roman, Byzantine, Anglo-Saxon, and German coins still found on its soil, as also the number of ruined churches, many of them of great size and architectural beauty, dotted over its area. To this day the island, impoverished and depopulated, owns a church to every six hundred inhabitants. The churches have fallen into sad decay, but yet remain to testify of past prosperity and glory.

As the number of travelling merchants from various cities increased on its shores, it was natural that they should hold together more and more in a tacit offensive and defensive alliance against the aliens, and that when they returned home from their voyages they should speak of the mutual benefits rendered and the help that lay in union. Some influential persons among them doubtless brought pressure to bear upon the rulers and magistracies of the various cities to give their informal union an official character. Thus much is certain, that after a time the merchants from various cities who traded with the Baltic had united into a federation having a common seal and conforming to a common law, so that by the middle of the thirteenth century the Hanseatic League was practically consolidated, although this name for the association only occurs later.

So far, however, the Union only exercised rights abroad. It was from Wisby also that the reaction was to come for union at home; but this was a little later, when its strength was well matured and established.

What really, in the first instance, led the Germans from their inland towns to the shores of the Baltic was the desire to benefit by the great wealth that lay hidden in its waters in the form of fish, which could be obtained in return for the mere labour of fishing. At a time when all Europe was Catholic, or of the Greek Church, and fasts as well as feasts strictly observed, the sale of fish was an important industry, and, above all, of salted fish, since our forefathers were ignorant of the art of preserving these creatures fresh by means of ice. Now, from the beginning of the twelfth century until the beginning of the fifteenth, when they once more altered their course, each spring and autumn the migratory fish, and especially that most prolific and valued of fish, the herring, came in great shoals to the shores of Scania, the isle of Rugen, and the coasts of Pomerania, tempting the inhabitants of the strand and near inland hamlets out on to the waters to secure these treasures.

Nor had nature herewith ceased her bounties. At certain points of the littoral there were salt springs, in which the precious draught could at once be pickled; and it is certain that the art of preserving the gifts of the ocean from decay was familiar to the Slav inhabitants of these districts long before it was known to those of the German Ocean. Already, in the eleventh century, "salt Kolberg" was famed as an emporium for salted herrings; and the words of a Polish poem of rejoicing at a victory won over its inhabitants in 1105 are extant to this day. It has more historical than literary value. "Formerly," so jubilantly sang the conquerors of the harbour, "they brought us salt and stinking fish, now our sons bring them to us fresh and quivering."

Salted herrings became an acknowledged form of tax or tribute, as also a medium of exchange for inland produce, and it was the value of these small fish that really first roused the cupidity of the inland dweller and caused them to compete with and finally oust the pagan Slav. And Wisby for a time was their great emporium, whence they extended their power, founding among other towns Novgorod on the Lake of Olm. It was to Wisby that association dues were paid; it was in Wisby that common money was deposited. They were kept in the German Church of Our Lady Maria Teutonicorum. For the churches in those times were buildings as much secular as religious, being not only places of worship, but also banks, storehouses, market-places, and sanctuaries. Four aldermen, selected from important cities of the League, namely, Wisby, Lubeck, Soest, and Dortmund, had each a key to the common treasure. The rules laid down in common council, over which these aldermen presided, and whose execution they enforced, were stringent in the extreme. For example, according to an old principle of Teutonic laws, a city was made responsible if a trader suffered malignant shipwreck or was robbed of his goods within its domain, and if these things occurred they were bound to help the sufferers to recover their goods or safety.

That it was not always an easy task for the towns to execute this command may be gathered from the fact that in the earliest times even the Church looked on flotsam and jetsam as its legitimate dues; indeed, the revenues of some monasteries and churches were distinctly founded on this. Even Papal authority, even excommunication in later days, could not for a long while break the force of a barbarous and cruel custom. All the booty the waves cast on the shore was designated by the well-sounding term of strandgut (property of the shore), and was regarded as a gift from Providence. The dwellers on the Baltic shore held so naive a belief with respect to this matter that in their daily prayers they innocently asked God to give them a good harvest of strandgut.

Lubeck in 1287, demanding from Reval, on the basis of its treaties, the restitution of stranded property, is told frankly by the governor of the city that "however many and long and large letters they may send him across the seas," yet his vassals would hold to the rights of their land, and "if," he adds, "on your letters or your prayers your goods are restored to you, I will suffer my right eye to be put out."

Still by steady persistence the German cities got their will, and of course they exercised it first on members of their union. The defaulting city had to pay a fine of something like two to three hundred pounds of our money to the common fund of the Union, and, in event of a recurrence, was threatened with expulsion from the community. This punishment was called unhansing, and it was inflicted several times, and was only atoned for by the heaviest penalties not only of money tributes, but often of pilgrimages to some distant sacred shrine, to wipe out the disgrace that the city had drawn down, not on itself alone, but also on its brethren of the League, by the fact that there could be such a black sheep among them.

Such, briefly, was the empire that, by the middle of the thirteenth century, was exercised by a community of German men of commerce, who had their seat of control, not at home, but on a foreign soil. Such, briefly, was the rise of these powerful merchants who not only dared to dictate terms to distant cities, but were absolutely obeyed. Such, briefly, was the transformation of bands of pirates and adventurous traders into a peace-loving and industrious association.

Let us now take a rapid glance at what had occurred meantime in the Holy Roman Empire and the towns.