Hansa Towns - Helen Zimmern

B8. The Organization of the Hanseatic League.

The notices that have come down to us about the organization of our League are scanty, although we possess a vast number of minutes concerning their diets. It is doubtful whether there was even a fixed mode of governing and government, whether the whole was not rather in a state of flux controlled by the circumstances of the moment. That certain traditional modes of administration obtained, however, seems indisputable. It raises a smile to read that when some problem seemed insoluble, or some venture proved a failure, our naive Hanseatics registered in their books, "of this matter let those think who come after us," thus throwing the burden upon the following generation.

There was no fixed place of meeting for the Hanseatic diets, but most frequently these were held at Lubeck, because it was situated almost in the centre of the various activities of the League. The assemblies were held in "the name of all the cities," and those who failed to send representatives were begged "not to take it amiss" if conclusions were arrived at without their sanction. "Every town shall consider the benefit of the others, so far as is in accordance with right and honour," runs one of their quaint formulae. "Should strife arise between the cities, which God forbid, they shall settle their dispute according to the counsels of the neighbouring towns."

There was also no fixed time for these diets; they were assembled according to urgency or press of business, but usually they were annual, and met about Whitsuntide, as that feast falls in the fine weather, when travelling was easier for the delegates of the northern towns. At the close of each diet, the deputies present decided on the time and place of the next meeting, and Lubeck and other leading cities were charged with the care of making known to the cities unrepresented the decisions arrived at by the assembly. But default to send a deputy to the diet was not lightly overlooked. Some excuse had to be given, and the validity of the excuse was sharply criticized. Sometimes a town might be busy resisting its temporal or ecclesiastical lords, an internal revolution might have occupied all its energies, the roads might be unsafe, or it might have been visited by some public calamity like the Black Death. If the diet thought that these pleas were merely subterfuges to save the expense of sending a delegate, or to avoid explaining some infraction of the rules of the League of which the city in question was guilty, a heavy money fine was imposed, and in case of absence three times repeated it might even find itself "unhansed," deprived of all the pecuniary privileges belonging to members of this powerful association. By such rigid measures did the League hold its members together. Nor was this all. A deputy who did not arrive in time for the opening of the proceedings was fined a gold mark for each day of delay, a fine that was not remitted unless the causes for his default were found on scrutiny to be in every way sufficient.

On their arrival at the meeting place, the deputies were received in state by some member of the local municipal council, and were offered the wine of honour. The conferences began about seven or eight in the morning, and lasted till one or two in the afternoon. One of the burgomasters of Lubeck was usually made president. At the first meeting he would thank the members present for having come, and these would reply to him in courteous terms. Then when all their credentials had been examined, and the excuses of the absent sifted, the diet would proceed to the business in hand. This business was heavy and varied, covering the external and internal policy of the League, the needful moneys to be raised, the state of the various foreign factories. Even private quarrels between merchants were heard here in appeal. The diet decided on peace and war, sent despatches to foreign kings and princes; threatened, warned, exhorted, those who had failed to fulfil treaty obligations. Such was its power that it rarely failed to make its voice heard, and a threat indited by the city of Lubeck was not put quietly into the waste-paper basket by the northern courts. These missives were sealed with the seal of the city in which the diet was sitting at the time. Just as in their buildings, their guildhalls, and their towers, our forefathers knew how to express a quaint conceit, so also in a simple seal they understood how to express symbolically a summary of their activity. Thus the pious and wise Lubeck bore on its city seal a ship with high bulwarks, from whose single central mast waved a flag bearing the cross. An ancient pilot steers the vessel through the waves with his left hand while his right is raised in admonition. Opposite to him sits a youth busy with the ropes, who, with his uplifted right hand, seems to point to the help of heaven. This was to symbolize that prudence, energy, and pious confidence accompanied Lubeck in all its paths. The common Hanseatic seal was only used for foreign affairs. It represented the imperial double eagle with the inscription "Signum civitatum maritimarum."

[Illustration] from The Hansa Towns by Helen Zimmern


The decisions arrived at by the diet were all recorded in careful minutes, known as "recesses," of which an immense number have come down to us, escaping fire and other vicissitudes. They all testify to the thoroughly businesslike character that distinguished the League. Among other matters we often come across applications from cities to be admitted into the Hansa. Their candidature was generally addressed to Lubeck, and their claims and resources carefully scrutinized by the prudent League. As a rule the demand was conceded. The League was never sorry to see its strength grow, and its expenses diminish by being divided among a greater number of towns. Such admission, however, was made upon unequal conditions, according to the importance, the resources, and the situation of the city in question. This inequality had struck deep roots also in the very heart of the cities. The inhabitants were far removed from enjoying the same prerogatives, the Hansa was by no means a democratic association. The most important posts were reserved for a certain number of families know as patricians, who had distinguished themselves by services for the common weal, or who held power in the shape of wealth. An individual, however, could be "unhansed" as well as a city, if he had failed to observe some law of high commercial consequence, and it was even more difficult for an individual to be readmitted than a town.

[Illustration] from The Hansa Towns by Helen Zimmern


From the inequalities in the position of different members of the League there arose conflicts of interest which were to prove "the little rift within the lute," that by and by should "make the music mute." For instance, the interest of the maritime towns was not always that of the inland ones. Schisms and divisions were apt, above all, to take place when there was a question of beginning a war, as this could never be done without general approbation. Each town was inclined to throw the burden on its associates. For as each was solely preoccupied with its personal interests, and only entered into the League with a view to the profits it could thus obtain, there was always in the minds of the delegates a tacit reserve to make as few sacrifices as possible, and as time went on they were even ready to abandon their allies, and let the League perish if they did not find themselves directly benefited by any sacrifice demanded by the common weal.

What held them together at all was, in a word, nothing more noble or ideal than personal advantage, the fear through exclusion of losing by exclusion, the great advantages that accrued from being a member of the League. No wonder that with an ambition so little exalted the Hansa was destined not to survive until our own day. For communities like individuals must strive after some lofty ideal if their existence is to be happy, and to have a sound enduring basis. The wonder is rather that seeing what motives animated its members, the defective character of the means at its disposal, such as the lack of a standing army, and the constant mutations in its form of government, it should have attained to such mighty results as we have roughly sketched in this, the second and culminating period of its existence.