Hansa Towns - Helen Zimmern

Period I: Dawn of a Great Trade Guild

Whether it be that our forefathers were not so prompt to put pen to paper as we are, or that they purposely avoided written words and inclined to silence from motives of that combined prudence and love of mystery-making that distinguished the Middle Ages, the fact remains that of the real origin and founding of that great federation of industry and intelligence known to after-years as the Hanseatic League, we have no accurate knowledge.

We see the tree in full growth, with its widespreading boughs and branches; of the modest seedling whence it sprung we are in ignorance. We only know most surely that some such seed there must have been, and in this case may with certainty infer that the main causes of this unique combination were the alliance of the North German cities among themselves, and the protective and social alliances formed by German merchants who met in foreign parts.

It is obvious that there must have been much commerce, and that it must have played an important part before either of these circumstances could have arisen. Therefore in order fully to understand the importance and bearing of the League we must begin our story earlier than its history proper would seem to warrant; only thus can we thoroughly comprehend why the Hanseatic alliance in fostering its own interests, in aggrandizing and enriching itself, was working also for all humanity, since it created and enlarged the idea of public right, and thus sowed the seeds of principles then novel, but on which our modern civilization is largely founded and with which we are now so familiar that it is difficult to realize how matters could ever have been otherwise. Can we grasp, for example, a state of things when wrecking was considered a legitimate occupation; when the merchandise thus thrown on land became the possession of the strand dwellers and the ship's crew their legitimate slaves; when barons who deemed themselves noblemen lay in wait within their strong castles to pounce on luckless traders, and either deprived them wholly of their wares or levied black mail under the name of toll; in short, when humanity towards the weak and unfortunate was a word of empty sound?

Yet so strongly is the love of enterprise implanted in the Northman's breast that even these obstacles did not deter him from the desire to enlarge his experience and to widen the field of his energies. He was the kinsman of those adventurous Angles and Saxons who had not feared to cross the boisterous German Ocean and to subjugate Great Britain to themselves; in his veins ran the blood of those Normans, the scourge and terror of European coasts, against whom the peoples knew no better protection than the prayer addressed to Heaven in their despair—"A furore Normanrorum libera nos Domine," a clause that survived in their litanies some time after the cause was no longer to be feared.

[Illustration] from The Hansa Towns by Helen Zimmern


Indeed it is not easy to distinguish the earliest traders from corsairs. It would seem that as occasion served they employed their long narrow rowing ships to scour the ocean or to carry the produce of the north, above all the much prized amber. It is thought that they bore it down even to the Bay of Biscay, nay, perhaps yet further within the Roman Empire.

Under the intelligent rule of Charles the Great the activity of the Northman assumed a more pacific character, and we meet with the idea of merchant and trade guilds, though the latter were not much encouraged by the emperor, who feared lest they should contain in themselves elements of corporate union and political revolt. But he fostered the growth of cities; and in those days trade and commerce filled up even more than at the present day the daily life of a citizen. In the Middle Ages the expression "merchant" (mercator, negotiator) was on the Continent actually held as identical with townsman.

It is curious that the early Teuton regarded manual labour as unworthy a free man, but did not extend this feeling to commerce, and trading became more and more the occupation of the third estate. We find them on horseback or in ships traversing many regions to bring their wares to market and to enlarge their sphere of action, and gradually as their numbers increased they would meet each other at the various foreign ports, exchange news, perhaps even wares, and hold together in that brotherly spirit that men of one nation and one tongue are wont to feel towards each other on foreign soil. Disputes and difficulties with the natives must also have been of frequent occurrence, for though the merchant, as bringer of news and novelties, was usually a welcome visitor at a time when intercourse between nations can hardly be said to have existed, yet, on the other hand, he had to reckon with the prejudice that regards what is strange as equivalent to what is hostile. Hence the merchants very naturally combined among themselves at the different ports to protect their common interests, and endeavoured by all means in their power to enlist in their favour their own sovereigns and those of the lands they visited.

Thus in the lawbook of London, under the reign of Ethelred II. the Unready (978), we come across the phrase, "the people of the Emperor have been judged worthy of the good laws, like to ourselves." This phrase meant that, in cases of wrong done to the foreigner by the native, the foreigner should enjoy the protection of the native laws as though he were a citizen, instead of being treated as heretofore like an alien. "The people of the Emperor" meant in this case the Teutonic merchants who traded on the banks of the Thames long before the German cities had combined to form their famous league, long before they had founded their factories in Russia, Scandinavia, and Flanders.

London was their earliest foreign settlement, and already in the tenth century we find that the Germans enjoyed the same rights when their ships entered British ports as those possessed by the English. In return for this they had at Easter and Christmas to make a donation of two pieces of grey and one of brown cloth, ten pounds of pepper, five pairs of men's gloves, and two barrels of vinegar. The fact that they thus paid toll in kind and not in money is entirely in accordance with the ancient usage of guilds and corporations, and the conditions of mediaeval tenures. Gloves as tokens of good faith and submission, and pepper, probably because of its rarity as an Eastern product, were forms of payment frequent in early days.

After this first mention we find that year by year the privileges of the German were extended in England. The kings desired that they should be treated as subjects and friends, and after Henry the Lion had married a daughter of Henry II. of England, the alliance grew yet closer. Thus special privileges were accorded to them with regard to the sale of Rhine wine, of the importation of which into Great Britain we now hear for the first time. It is evident that the commerce of England was largely in the hands of these foreigners, a circumstance the more remarkable when we consider that the English have now for some centuries been the great traders of the world.

What hindered the rise of the British in early days was the feudal system against which the Germans had rebelled. It was a system incompatible with burgher life, with independent industry and enterprise. For many years the English trade was practically restricted to the exportation of wool, skins, lead, and tin. For where there is no middle class there can be no real commerce, and this fact explains the widespread power of the German merchants in England. The lessons they learnt here they carried farther afield; appearing now as the vanguard of civilization, now as the pioneers of Christianity, everywhere as traders desirous to fill their coffers, bearing in mind the maxim that "union is strength," and clinging closely to one another for mutual protection and defence.

We must remember that travelling in the tenth, eleventh, and twelfth centuries was not what it is to-day. Dangers lurked on all sides for the bold mariner who ventured forth in ships of small size devoid of compass, load-line, chart, and chronometer. It was slow work to make headway under the difficulties put in the mariner's path by the elements alone, such as the darkness of night, fogs and storms, shoals, quicksands, and rocks, to say nothing of the peril from pirates. The fact, too, that, owing to the want of maps, they kept as close as possible to land, increased the risks they ran. Arrived at his destination, the trader would often have to wait long ere he could find a purchaser for his wares, for in those days the merchant himself carried his wares to market; there were no commission agents at the various ports; there were no posts, nor was the art of remitting money understood. In the stormy winter-time, moreover, neither sailors nor merchants cared to venture upon the ocean; and owing to the brevity of the northern summer it often became needful for them to pass the bad season at whatever place they happened to be. Indeed the hazards connected with a winter voyage were so great, that in the very earliest days of union it was determined by common consent that no merchants should send their ships to sea after St. Martin's Day (November 11th), and that they should endeavour as far as possible to be in port by Michaelmas (September 29th). "To sail after Martinmas is to tempt God," writes an old chronicler. With the 11th of November the winter season commenced for the Baltic trading fleet.

Curiously enough a similar custom obtains in Greece to this day. The Greek coasters do not sail on the seas from December 6th till after the New Year; during this time the ocean is hallowed for new trips. The Hanseatics, of course, had to extend the time of exemption in the northern seas. In the year 1391 a Hanseatic Diet ordained that no Hanseatic merchant should sail forth from a western to an eastern, or from an eastern to a western harbour between Martinmas and Candlemas (November 11th-February 2nd). The climatic conditions of certain ports obliged this rule to be extended to St. Peter in Cathedra (February 22nd), if they were carrying "precious goods."

It is amusing, however, to find in the older records an exceptional clause to the effect that herrings and beer, two of the most important exports of the coast towns, could not possibly be subjected to these restrictions. The herring, that much prized fasting dish, to the preparation and distribution of which the Hansa attached such value, had necessarily to be despatched before February 22nd in order that it might arrive at its destination before Lent. A no less important reason determined the transport of beer, which was brewed in most of the export towns, and which might easily spoil in a more advanced season of the year. These reasons caused the cities to decide that a ship laden with beer, herrings, or dried cod, might go to sea on St. Nicholas Day (December 6th) if it were ready laden by that date.

But this was the exception. The rule was for the trader to winter wherever he happened to be. In the long, cheerless evenings men liked to associate with compatriots who spoke the same tongue, and had the same interests and customs. These men of the Middle Ages were specially distinguished by their social instincts. They were bound together also by the element of a common religion, by the desire to worship together, to fulfil, perchance, some holy vow made in an hour of great danger, to bury, with the familiar rites of his own Church and country, some less fortunate comrade who had expired on foreign soil. Thus were formed those Guilds, or Hanse, as they were called, of merchants on alien soil, clustering, as a rule, around a church erected by them, and having besides a general living and storehouse for the safe custody of their goods. There is nothing strange in the fact that such settlements should have been formed; what is strange is the power they acquired in the course of time, until at last, in some places, they dictated terms to the natives of the country; nay, they even made and unmade their rulers, until in the end their sway extended from Bergen in the north to Venice in the south, from Novgorod and Smolensk in the east to York and London in the west.

[Illustration] from The Hansa Towns by Helen Zimmern