Hansa Towns - Helen Zimmern

B6. The Commerce of the League with the Netherlands and Southern Europe.

Among the Western countries not even England attracted the attention of the League so powerfully as did the Netherlands, with their cosmopolitan market of Bruges, a market which, as early as the days of King Canute, was already of great importance. There was to be found every element needful to second their vast ambition and to foster their activity. In Flanders lived the most industrious nation in Europe, dwelling in opulent cities, having excellent harbours and markets, where all the necessaries of life, and all objects of luxury abounded. In these markets our traders could find all the articles most eagerly sought after by the inhabitants of more northern climes, while they, in their turn, could furnish the Flemings with the productions of the North, and especially with those which were necessary to a maritime people. Thus the League had cunningly got into their hands the whole monopoly of hemp, so needful for rope making. Indeed, it must ever be borne in mind that the Hansa had the monopoly in those days of the whole industry and of all the products of Northern and Eastern Europe. This active and profitable commerce was almost entirely carried on by means of the factory which the League had established at Bruges. It was here that its merchants supplied themselves in their turn with the manufactures of the industrious Flemings; with cloth, linen, and the costly tapestries admired to our day.

[Illustration] from The Hansa Towns by Helen Zimmern


It was at Bruges, then, that the vast ramifications of Flemish and Hanseatic trade were united. Fifteen different foreign nations held established depots in the city which was a very artery of commerce. Sixty-eight Flemish trade-guilds flourished in the town. It communicated with the sea by means of a canal and a not too distant harbour. Extensive privileges had been accorded to it by various native princes. The inhabitants were proud, rich, and independent. It was said of them by a contemporary that the merchant-aristocrats of Bruges "rode to tournament yesterday, bottled wine to-day, cut out garments to-morrow." A queen of France could not deny that the splendour and luxury of the courts were cast into the shade by the pomp and splendour of the maids and matrons of commercial Bruges. With these men commerce had already become a science, and various peoples who had till then the most elementary notions on the point came to the Netherlands to instruct themselves. It is surprising to read that, as early as 1310, they had instituted at Bruges an insurance office, and that the chief principles affecting exchange of values were already understood. These matters were novelties even to the Hanseatics, though they owed their prosperity and very existence to trade.

The League therefore found itself in a totally different position in the Netherlands from that which it occupied in poor or barbarous countries like Norway or Russia. Here was no question of submitting a whole people to their monopoly; it was rather a matter of obtaining gracious concessions and privileges. Hence the factory at Bruges in no way resembled those of Bergen and Novgorod, which were armed citadels placed in the midst of a more or less hostile people and constantly liable to warlike attacks. Here, on the other hand, civilization reigned and competition was active. The Hanseatic factory at Bruges partook more of the character of a general office and storehouse than that of any other factory of the League. But "the Residence of the German Merchants," as it was called, was organized in the main like that of its brethren.

In its most prosperous days the factory consisted of about three hundred traders or agents, who executed the orders to buy and sell for those Hanseatic merchants who did not come to Bruges in person to carry on their trade. These resident merchants were not permitted to quit the factory until after a certain number of years' sojourn. During this time they were interdicted from associating with the natives. They lived in the Hanseatic building under the supervision of six aldermen and a council composed of eighteen members, and there were in force for them here as elsewhere rigid rules of life, among which the imposition of celibacy took a leading place. The factory was partitioned into several chief divisions called "districts," where the members from different cities abode in almost monastic seclusion. Less rude customs, however, prevailed than at Bergen. The Hanseatics being in the midst of a polished and luxury-loving people, acquired some of their more civilized habits. By way of Bruges comforts and refinements penetrated into German homes, and Flemish modes of thought and speech crept into German literature.

[Illustration] from The Hansa Towns by Helen Zimmern


The factory at Bruges was in every respect of immense value to Germany and the Hansa. It grew into a sort of training college from which came forth the most able magistrates and administrators of the Hanseatic League.

The head of the factory was a president chosen by the Diet of the League. He was changed annually, usually at Whitsuntide, when the by-laws of the factory were read and the newly elected had to swear "to submit to its statutes, to see that these were observed without fraud as far as in him lay and according to his five senses."

As elsewhere expenses were paid by fines and customs dues. These latter some cities tried to elude at various times in a spirit of egotistic and most short-sighted policy. Chief among these was Cologne which was in consequence "unhansed" for some time. Indeed Cologne was always a more or less turbulent member of the League. The official meetings of the Hanseatic representatives at Bruges curiously enough did not take place in their own factory, but were held in the Reventer, that is to say, the refectory of the Carmelite convent. Their charters were deposited in the church sacristy, or more precisely in the so-called Noah's ark, this alliance between sacred and profane things being a common feature of those times.

As the might of the League increased at Bruges they insisted that every vessel sailing the seas must make an enforced halt at the port of Bruges, and thus give the traders a first chance of buying their wares or, in any case, of exacting from them a staple toll. Exception was made only in the case of ships sailing to England or to the Baltic seaboard. The possession of this privilege naturally proved a source of great wealth and power to the League, who grew proud and haughty as they increased in strength, and even ventured to oppose themselves to the Flemings, if they considered that these had in any way offended against "the majesty of the Hanseatic nation in the person of any of its members or officers." They would then threaten to transport their factory into some other city, and once actually carried out the threat. They suspended all trade with Flanders, blocked its ports, and refused to buy its goods. At the last the murmurs of the artizans thus thrown out of work, and the general distress among the people, forced the rulers to crave grace and to beg for the return of these masterful strangers, even according them new privileges, that is to say, new weapons of oppression.

For the League, on these occasions of proud resentment, took the most menacing of tones and exacted a heavy satisfaction. Thus once, because one of its members had been, as it considered, gravely insulted, and others murdered, it demanded that a chapel should be built and masses founded to pray for the repose of the souls of those who had perished; and that a large indemnity should be paid to the relations of the dead and to the division of the League to which they belonged. And, further, in order to induce this division to return to Bruges, it was requisite that one hundred of the chief burghers should come in procession to the Carmelite convent and ask public pardon from the Hanseatics, and that sixteen of these should go in pilgrimage to Santiago de Compastello and four to the Holy Sepulchre at Jerusalem. Only after such expiation would the division allow itself to be re-established.

The dissensions and revolutions which, in the fourteenth century, convulsed Flanders and caused the sovereignty of the provinces to pass into the hands of the Dukes of Burgundy, did not, for a long time, touch the commerce of the Hanseatics. Their trade seemed able to cope with the subversive influences of tumults, seditions, and civil wars; their activity was not discouraged; their great credit enabled them to repair all losses, and even to draw profit from these very disturbing influences themselves. Each new ruler, guided by the same motives of interest, awarded the same favour to this association of strangers, who, in coming to their country, nourished its industries and profitably exchanged products. Even Charles the Bold—proud and warlike though he was, a declared foe to all liberty, attacking at that very time the Swiss people, who were striving to gain their national independence—openly protected the Hanseatic towns, and interested himself warmly in aiding them to overcome the English, with whom they had been at strife.

This good understanding, it is true, was impaired under Maximilian of Austria, his son-in-law and successor. This prince was a stranger to the Flemings, a German by birth, accustomed to exact blind obedience, the son of an emperor and his heir. On all these accounts he was distasteful to the Flemings, who rose up in revolt against him, and imprisoned him in the Castle of Bruges. It was on this occasion that there happened an event made famous in legend. Maximilian's Court jester, who loved his master, had formed a plan for his liberation. Horses, rope ladders—all were in readiness. The jester himself sprang into the canal that separated the castle from the mainland, in order to swim across and aid his sovereign. But it happened that his night raid alarmed the swans which were kept by the town on this canal. They raised a great noise, flapped their wings in anger, and threatened to kill the poor fellow, who was obliged to beat a hasty retreat, while his scheme, thus discovered, was rendered futile. For four months Maximilian was kept in confinement. No sooner was he liberated and master of the empire than he took his revenge. This audacity was punished severely, and ended in a loss to Flanders of its opulence and a great part of its industry. Above all, the town of Bruges had to submit to hard treatment, and ceased from that time forwards to be the most flourishing and important market of Europe.

The wily Hanseatics had, meanwhile, acted like the proverbial rats that abandon the sinking ship. Seeing the course that things were taking, they sought to establish themselves elsewhere, and Antwerp, long jealous of Bruges, obtained the reversion of its rival's trade: the fruits of which it enjoyed until the murderous hordes of Philip II., in their turn, crushed Antwerp as Maximilian had crushed Bruges.

[Illustration] from The Hansa Towns by Helen Zimmern


No doubt, by means of the Flemish market, the League also treated with France, but our knowledge concerning this trade is very scanty. It seems certain that they had no regular factory in that country, though for a short time they held a depot at Bordeaux. Probably their trade with France was chiefly indirect and by means of Flanders. The fact that for so long the greater part of the French seaboard was in the hands of the English may have had something to do with this matter. We know, however, that successive French kings accorded to them various privileges. Louis XI., on one occasion, speaks of them as a "Power," and proposed to make an alliance with them against England. Charles VIII. yet further enlarged the concessions granted by his father. It is even recorded that in case any difficulties arose because of obscurities of phrase in a contract made between the League and Frenchmen, these should always be interpreted to the advantage of the Hanseatics. They were further promised impartial justice, reduced custom dues, and a civil standing equal in all respects to that of the natives. The kingdom was open to them for trading purposes, and in case of a war breaking out between France and a foreign nation, the Hanseatics were allowed to continue their commercial connection with that nation without being regarded as violating the peace and friendship promised. France, on the other hand, reserved to itself the same privileges. But why France was willing to concede so much to these strangers does not appear. The commerce can in no case have been considerable. The manufactures of France in those days were few and limited. Their small navy did not require much wood, iron, or hemp. It is true they had their wines and their salt, and that in exchange they bought herrings and smoked fish, but there was no such lively and profitable intercourse as we encounter elsewhere. The land was still too poor, too distracted with wars and dissensions to be able to utilize its native riches. Besides this, her own direct commerce with the Mediterranean and Latin East, and the Crusaders and Italian traders, rendered her more independent of Hansa help.

Very scanty are the records that have come down to us concerning the trade of the League with Spain. This nation, incessantly occupied in wars with the Moors and in chivalrous exploits, neglected and disdained trade. They even went so far at times as to interdict it also to others. But all that has come down to us concerning the intercourse of the Hanseatics with this country is so vague, and borders so much on the fabulous, that it cannot be accepted as history. What does seem certain is that in 1383 King John of Castile forbade the Hanseatics to have any intercourse with his kingdom, that he confiscated eighty-four of their vessels, and that in 1441 the factory of Bruges received orders to practise reprisals upon the Spaniards and to close to them all the ports of the Netherlands. All details, however, are lacking. We only know, again, for certain that in 1472 the Spaniards raised the interdict against the League. No doubt they had suffered pecuniarily from the absence of these active traders. In 1551 Philip II. even went so far as to sign a treaty of commerce with the League, in which this prince favoured them as much as his predecessors tried to harm them. And this treaty, strange to say, was not quite a nullity even at the beginning of our own century. On the strength of certain clauses contained in it were founded various privileges enjoyed up to that date, in their commercial intercourse with Spain, by the cities that were then all that remained of the once mighty League—namely, Lubeck, Hamburg, and Bremen.

In Portugal the League was more fortunate than in Spain, and early established a factory at Lisbon. From this port they traded with the Mediterranean, and came in contact with the flourishing Italian commercial republics, as well as with the products of the Levant and India, for which Italy was the sole market. But the Italian trade was chiefly in the hands of the South German cities, such as Augsburg, Ulm, and Nuremberg, and the wares were transported by land. These cities formed a counter league among themselves, which, though in a measure affiliated to the Hansa, was never quite an integral part. Their sole object was the Levant and Italian trade. Already in the thirteenth century they had a depot at Venice, the far-famed Fontego de' Tedeschi, which visitors to Venice behold to this day as one of the most lovely palaces abutting on the Grand Canal. This factory, however, was very differently constituted from that of other cities. The League never obtained a monopoly or special privileges in Italy. The Fontego at Venice was merely the warehouse or dwelling-house of the German traders, without any internal jurisdiction or president.

[Illustration] from The Hansa Towns by Helen Zimmern


They were permitted to sojourn with their wares at stated times in Venice, received on their arrival the keys of the fifty-six rooms of the building, which on their departure they had to re-deliver to the Venetian authorities. In course of time the Germans, gaining refinement and acquiring a love of art from their Italian intercourse, spent large sums in decorating and adorning this palace, which, however, never passed into their real possession. Three Venetian citizens, under the title of Visdomini de' Tedeschi, and native secretaries, and a "fontegaro," always inhabited the building and kept strict watch over the traders, whose commerce was subjected to all manner of tedious restrictions. The house, as we have said, was only open to them at stated times of the year. They were only permitted to sell to and buy from Venetians; all wares exported or imported had to be weighed in the public balances, and only this weight was accepted as just. The Italian secretaries, one of whom always slept in the Fontego, kept strict account of all goods that came to hand or were sent away, and the control over these wares was in the power of the Visdomini. Nothing might be unladen in the warehouse without permission from one of these local officials. But in spite of all these restrictions, which the Germans would not have tolerated for a moment at Bergen or Bruges, their depot at Venice was a favourite sojourn, and remained the centre of a pleasant, easy, and refined intercourse between Germany and Italy until the time of the Reformation. The influence of the Rialto made itself felt in Prague, Dresden, Frankfort, and the other South German cities, and has placed its imprint upon their literature and art. From Italy these cities brought the models to adorn their streets, markets, guildhalls, and churches. From Italy they brought the tales and fables that delighted listeners long before the days of printing, and awoke the native mediaeval poetic art, so that the stories of Boccaccio became as familiar to the Germans as to the Italians themselves. In spite of all the restrictions they placed on their freedom, the foreigners were not unwelcome to the proud Venetian signoria. They even spoke of the German nation as their "cuorisino" (little heart), and in their sore need, during the time of the League of Cambray, formed by the Pope, the Emperor and the kings of France and Spain against the Republic of Venice (1508), they called upon their German friends for sympathy, and did not call in vain. The bond of a common interest, that of trade, bound together the proud rich city of the Lagoons and the less powerful, less wealthy, but by no means poor or insignificant, cities of Southern Germany.