Hansa Towns - Helen Zimmern

B2. The Towns in the Fourteenth Century.

Our League had attained its maturity. As we have seen from its origin and as we shall see until its decadence, security and extension of commerce was its one aim and solicitude. The Hanseatics were at all times desirous to extend their markets abroad, to obtain, if possible, the monopoly of trade, and it must be admitted that they succeeded admirably in achieving the end they had in view. When we look back and consider the disorganized state of the empire and the slight support they received from their nominal liege lord, it seems strange that they did not take this occasion to constitute themselves also into a political union, forming independent states after the pattern of the Italian commercial republics. In general, the towns in pursuing their policy took as little real notice of the authority of the emperor, as the emperor of the interests and doings of the towns.

Even our shrewd Hansa merchants, it would seem, were afraid outwardly to present a bold front to their rulers, though secretly they defied them and circumvented their laws. The very existence of the federation was illegal, and in direct contravention to one of the chief clauses of the Golden Bull, which forbade all associations and unions within the empire. It is no doubt on this account that the Hansa, like the Venetian Republic, kept its organization so secret. Even in its own day people were but vaguely informed as to the working of its government, and as to the number and extent of its dominions.

The very natural question arises now that our League is mature, How many cities did it count in its federation? but it cannot be answered with precision. Nay, this question can receive no final reply in any period of the Hansa's history. The towns that joined did not always do so permanently, or were not able to maintain their place, and to fulfil their duties. Often, too, they proved restive and were "unhansed," and it was no easy or inexpensive matter to be readmitted. The ban of the Hansa was more potent than that of pope or emperor. A town that fell under it lost its commerce at one blow. Thus, for example, Bremen, headstrong and stiff-necked, anxious to play an undue part in the Hansa League, saw itself shut out in 1356, because one of its burghers had traded with Flanders at a time when such trading was forbidden. The municipality, called upon to punish him, took his part, with the result that for thirty years the town was "unhansed," thirty miserable years, during which "the city was impoverished, grass grew in its streets, and hunger and desolation took up their abode in its midst," so writes a contemporary eyewitness. Reinstated at last, Bremen had to take up heavy responsibilities in atonement for its misdeeds.

[Illustration] from The Hansa Towns by Helen Zimmern


On another occasion Brunswick fell into the hands of discontented artizans, who headed a revolt of several towns against the League. A fulminating decree was issued by the Hansa with the same results as in the case of Bremen. Misery and hunger in this case also proved persuasive, and at last, after six years, this proscribed town was readmitted. It had to send deputies to Lubeck, who craved pardon in the most abject terms, and who had to accept the most humiliating conditions. Besides questions of internal management, the Brunswickers undertook to build a votive chapel in the town in memory of their bad behaviour, and to send pilgrims to Rome who should crave the Papal pardon for the murders of councillors committed by the rioters. Two burgomasters of Brunswick, and eight of the chief citizens walked humbly in procession, bare-headed, bare-footed, carrying candles in their hands from the church of our Lady at Lubeck, to the town hall, where in the great council chamber of the League, before an enormous crowd, they had publicly upon their knees to confess their repentance for what unruly passion had caused them to do, and to implore their confederates to pardon them for the love of God, and the honour of the Virgin Mary.

[Illustration] from The Hansa Towns by Helen Zimmern


More and more did Lubeck come to take the leading place among the cities. Her laws ruled at the Hansa diets. They were reckoned the wisest ever framed by an autonomous community, and are still quoted with respect. The right to use Lubeck law was as eagerly craved by distant cities as the Greek colonies craved the holy fire from native altars. No wonder Lubeck's merchants loved to quote the proud couplet:

"Was willst begehren mehr,

Als die alte Lubsche Ehr?"

("What more will you desire

than the old Lubeck honour?")

Aeneas Sylvius Piccolomini, afterwards Pope Pius II., when travelling through Europe as Chancellor of the Emperor Frederick III., visited Lubeck, and writes of it as the town which surpasses all others in the wealth and magnificence of its buildings and churches. The same praise is echoed a little later by a rare guest, the Metropolitan of Moscow, who passed through Lubeck on his way to Florence, to be present at the great church council held there by Eugene IV. Aeneas also visited Danzig, and says it was so well equipped for land and sea warfare, that it could call under arms at least 50,000 men.

The prominence of the cities varied greatly. Circumstances which at one time might be to their advantage, might at another time prove adverse. Thus Wisby, after its sacking by Waldemar, was the victim of an accidental fire, which destroyed all that the Dane had spared. In consequence it fell at once from its position of importance, and its very site, once the source of its strength, became the cause of its downfall, for it proved a most convenient station to pirates. Where the merchant had safely halted, he was now in peril of life and goods.

[Illustration] from The Hansa Towns by Helen Zimmern


To the question put at various times to the Hansa's ambassadors "which are the Hansa's cities?" evasive replies were given, either "those towns that fought the Hansa's battles;" or a few were enumerated, and the list closed with a colossal etcetera, etcetera. For they were not easily caught napping, these worthy burghers, and had ever in view "the interests of the common German merchants," which they feared might be endangered by too much publicity. Still, they had become a power that could not be hid, and seeing how well they realized this in most respects, it is the more curious that they did not avail themselves of their chance of attaining political autonomy. The more curious too, because, as a rule, the Hanseatics, like the modern Italians, knew so well how to draw profit out of all the dissensions and disorders that agitated Europe.

It was indeed a vast dominion that stood under the sway of the Hansa. In the course of less than a hundred years there had arisen on the Baltic coast, within the area of two hundred and fifty miles, no fewer than fourteen cities of first-class importance, not to name those that already existed there. Thus the merchants held in their possession the mouths of all the great Baltic rivers, on all of which they founded harbours and depots. Germany in that epoch evinced a power of colonization which in its successes recalls the most brilliant moments of the extension of Greek life in the Mediterranean. In more modern times only the North American soil has exercised an attraction similar to that of the Baltic coasts, and has shown an equal power of upraising cities within a brief space of time. Many of the towns boasted a far larger population than they have at this day. Thus Lubeck in the fourteenth century counted eighty thousand inhabitants, as against forty-eight thousand in 1870.

An interesting contemporary opinion on our merchants is extant from the pen of a learned and travelled Italian, Marino Sanudo, a pious Venetian, who set forth early in the fourteenth century with a mission to stir up the Christian world, and organize a new Crusade, for Askelon, the last stronghold of the Romish Church, had fallen into the hands of the unbelievers. His first purpose was to gauge the fighting power of the various European maritime states, for it was a fleet rather than an army that was required. In his journeyings he ventured as far north as the Baltic, and thus reports in his letter to Pope John XXII.:

"In Alemannia live many peoples that could prove most useful to us.... I have seen with my own eyes that these coasts of Alemannia are quite similar to the Venetian. The inhabitants, strong of limb and practised in arms, are mostly warriors; others well skilled in dyke-making; besides, they are rich, and what is yet more commendable, they show a warm zeal for the affairs of the Holy Land."

After enumerating other advantages to be gained from these allies, he is however obliged to draw his Holiness' attention to a serious drawback on their part, namely, "that the Germans are enormous eaters, which arouses anxiety in respect to supplies when the fleet shall find itself in the hot regions."

A love for feasting meets us repeatedly in the old chronicle reports on the German merchants, and shows that in those days there also held good what Hawthorne has more recently expressed, that the Germans need to refresh exhausted nature twice as often as any other peoples. Then, as now, they were an upright, thorough, massive race, not made of too fine a clay and wanting rather on the aesthetic side; a want sure to strike the more finely strung senses of an Italian.

[Illustration] from The Hansa Towns by Helen Zimmern


It is certain that the fourteenth century was in many respects the epoch when the Hansa cities flourished most actively. Neither before nor after did they have so many sided an importance for the whole life of the German nation. It was a stirring period in the history of the European continent; when the Minnesingers gave place to the Mastersingers; when learning, hitherto stored up jealously in the monasteries and the libraries of the princes, had found its way out among burghers and laymen; when protectors of art and science were more often simple merchant princes than noble-born beggars. In a word, it was an epoch when the middle class sprang into full being, and took its due and proper place as a link between the nobility and the common people.

Towards bringing about this state of things the Hansa had greatly contributed. If it failed to emancipate itself entirely from the empire, it was yet ever keenly desirous of emancipating itself from its petty suzerains. Thus the burghers of Lubeck, Cologne, Goslar, and other cities were early forbidden to hold posts under the lord of the domain, no matter how lucrative such posts might be. Wismar, engaged on one occasion in a dispute with the Dominican monks concerning the repair of the town walls, and obliged to cede to these ecclesiastics because the lord of the land was favourable to the Church, carefully recorded the occasion in its "town book," "in order," as it wrote, "that it might remember the circumstance on some future and more favourable occasion." "To pay them out" is implied though not expressed in the phrase.

With the same insistence and energy the towns made good their claims when it was requisite to protect the burgher in his commerce, this source of life to all the cities. Formerly, it is true, the German merchants had appeared in the foreign markets as "the men of the emperor," but now the emperors had no longer might wherewith to back their right, and more efficient protection was called for. This each found in his own city. Hundreds and thousands of treaties and letters of freedom attest to the fact that the towns recognized their duties towards their citizens and practised them most strenuously. Sometimes these were written out in the name of a princeling, whose signature it was always possible to buy for hard cash; but as time went on the towns gradually took an entirely independent stand, so that from France to the Russian districts of Smolensk the whole continent was overspread with a network of diplomatic and commercial contracts eagerly supported and extended by the towns.

The first thing sought for from the territorial lords, was protection for person and property from the gang of banditti who dwelt in every castle under the leadership of some titled robber; then protection against the cruel rights of wreckage and salvage, which declared all such goods the property of the territorial lord; further, release from imprisonment for debts and other misdemeanours incurred within the jurisdiction of the city and to be dealt with by itself alone; assistance in obtaining payment of foreign debts; freedom from the so-called "judgments of God" in the form of torture, walking on red-hot irons, etc.; regulation and diminution of local taxes and tolls on the lading or unlading of vessels, the weighing of merchandise; permission to fell wood to repair ships; in a word, one and all of the necessary permits to render more easy and profitable the intercourse between towns and nations.

[Illustration] from The Hansa Towns by Helen Zimmern


In each foreign country the Hanseatics had always their permanent settlement, known as the Kontor, and for these they had early obtained a species of autonomy that permitted them to exercise jurisdiction according to their native laws over their own country people. Defaulters were judged by Hanseatic rules, and the "common merchant" found a help and support against the foreigners among whom he for the moment resided and with whom he traded.

The shrewd towns knew well how to estimate the value of such foreign settlements, and it is noteworthy that they never accorded reciprocal rights. In vain foreigners pleaded permission to found similar settlements in the Hansa's dominions; the towns always skilfully declined such requests. Thus in Cologne foreign merchants were not allowed to reside longer than six weeks at a stretch, and this only three times in the year; therefore only eighteen weeks in all. Similar and even more restrictive regulations prevailed in the other cities.

It is curious to note that, until the end of the thirteenth century, it was chiefly the inland towns who were the great traders, but when they needed for their trade the highway of the ocean, gradually the maritime ports had taken the place of importance. One of the chief lines of sea traffic was that between Bruges in Flanders and Northern Russia. On this route hundreds of ships sailed annually, all owned by the "Easterlings," as the Baltic merchants were called to distinguish them from the inland traders. It was not until the fifteenth century that we find Dutchmen, Zealanders, and Frisians striving to come into serious competition with the Hansa.

A decree that no German merchant might go into partnership with a Russian, Fleming, or Englishman, no doubt aided greatly this exclusive possession of the Baltic Sea. In Russia waterways led them as far as Smolensk; and, later on, they penetrated even further inland, by utilizing the roads that had been made by the German knights whose seat of might was Pomerania and Livonia. The Marienburg, the chief house of the Order, proved a welcome halting station for the merchant travellers, where they found safety and shelter. Furs were largely obtained from the inner districts of Russia. "They are plentiful as dung there," writes the pious chronicler, Adam of Bremen; adding, "for our damnation, as I believe, for per fas et nefas we strive as hard to come into the possession of a marten skin as if it were everlasting salvation." According to him, it was from this cause and from Russia "that the deadly sin of luxurious pride" had overspread the West.

[Illustration] from The Hansa Towns by Helen Zimmern


Wax, that played so large a part in mediaeval religious rites, and was required in great abundance, was furnished by the "honey-trees" of the virgin Russian forests. Leather, skins, tallow, and all species of fat, were also among the chief products of Russia and the exports of the Hansa. In return, they imported into that empire the produce of the looms of Germany, England, and Flanders, the fine Flemish cloths, the coarser English and German. Silk, too, and linen were valued goods. Important also were all manner of worked metal objects, and such wares as town industries manufacture. Beer, too, was a valued and most profitable article of commerce. This drink was brewed in superior excellence in Northern Germany, the hops being grown on the spot. Contemporary writers tell how outside all the northern cities hop gardens flourished. This beer was never wanting at any carouse in the whole stretch of land from Flanders to Finland; a heavy, heady beverage, which would now be deemed unpalatable and indigestible. Some specimens are preserved to this day in the Danzig Topenbier and the Brunswick Mumme. To this thirst for ale Hamburg largely owes its prosperity. For many long years it was the greatest beer-making town of the North, boasting in the fourteenth century no less than five hundred breweries.

From Sweden the Hanseatics fetched copper and iron; in many cases they had acquired the sole possession of the mines. Scandinavia also furnished skins, as well as the various forest products of wood, potash, pitch, and tar. From Blekingen, as at this day, the merchants brought granite, and from Gothland and Bornholm limestone, both stones being required for those building purposes for which the native material of brick did not suffice. Already the Baltic supplied the Netherlands with grain.

The Hansa carried in return to Sweden, Finland, and Russia the requirements of daily life, since these countries possessed neither manufactures nor skilled labour. Down to the altar shrines and the psalters of the Church the merchants brought the evidences of civilized workmanship to these lands. The very furs they had taken thence were returned to their northern homes; of course manipulated and worked up. Even the English, more advanced in handicraft, submitted to the same regime. It used to be said on the European continent in those days: "We buy the fox skins from the English for a groat, and re-sell them the foxes tails for a guilder." With England indeed the Hansa's intercourse was most active, as we shall show more in detail later on.

[Illustration] from The Hansa Towns by Helen Zimmern


Danzig owes almost all its splendour to the English trade. This city dealt largely in Austrian and Hungarian products, which were distributed from out its harbour. English crossbowmen received all the wood for their bows from Austria by way of Danzig. They were made from the yew tree, which was considered especially adapted to this end.

What the German merchant obtained as produce from Russia, Scandinavia, and other parts of Europe, not to mention the special productions of his own towns, he distributed either at home or in the world-famed markets of Bruges and London, for the Hansa was then the only intermediary between East and West. For more than three hundred years Bruges maintained its place as the central market for the whole of Europe this side the Alps. Here could be met traders from all parts; the Lombard bankers and money-changers, the Florentine, Spanish, Portuguese, French, Basque, English, Scotch, North and South Germans. It was from Bruges that the Baltic merchant supplied his home and Northern Germany with the products of the East, which the South German had brought from Venice and over the Alpine passes along the Rhine. In Bruges he could buy the fruits of the Mediterranean, the silks of Florence, the oils of Provence, the wines of Spain and Italy. These meetings of merchants were wont to take place at stated times, intercourse being thus made surer and easier. This custom laid the foundation for those annual fairs for the exchange of wares, of which one yet survives in Germany in little diminished importance, namely, the great fair of Leipzig, where all the German publishers meet to exchange the intellectual productions of the year.

Another source of wealth to the cities arose from the circumstance that they not only supplied the requirements of the mass, but were also the purveyors to the princes and the aristocracy. We find in their books that these frequently owed them heavy sums for furs, Flanders cloth, and choice wines. They were also most often their bankers, for the towns and, above all, Lubeck, the centre of cash transactions, were held desirable places for money investments. Even in the distant districts of Sweden people knew no better mode of investing capital than to confide it to Lubeck merchants.

Of course the conditions of trade were vastly different from those of to-day. Above all, the merchant had to act more in person. Posts did not exist, orders and contracts, therefore, could rarely be made by letter, for it mostly required a special messenger to carry these. It was hence almost the rule that the merchant accompanied his wares "over sea and sand," as the phrase went. For the sake of greater security, and in order also to diminish expenses, many would club together to charter a ship. It was usual to interest the captains in the sales of the wares, it being held advisable that every one on board should have an advantage in bringing the goods safe to land and in their profitable disposal. This custom arose from the dangers that lurked from robbers, while insurance of goods in transit was yet unknown. By interesting captain and crew pecuniarily they were less likely to throw the goods overboard in a storm, or to allow pirates quietly to board and rob the vessels; both matters of common occurrence.

If it was dangerous to travel by water, it was yet far worse to travel by land. Not to mention that there were few roads, that the mud often lay piled wheel high, so that the strongest horses could not pull the carts; the presence of robbers was a constant cause of fear on the road. Many of these were, as we know, the lordlings of the land in disguise, and hence they naturally turned a deaf ear to the repeated petitions of the merchants to keep the highways in better order. Added to this, each lord had the right to demand toll for the passing of his dominions and the toll stations were often very close together. Thus, for example, within a space of fifteen miles from Hamburg the merchant encountered no less than nine. Fortunately the tables of tolls in those days were not too complicated. They were generally paid by waggon, or ship load, regardless of contents.

The Middle Ages were ignorant of protective taxes. These impediments to the useful exchange of international produce were reserved for the invention and practice of our more enlightened centuries. It is characteristic that the oath which played so great a part in all mediaeval transactions, social and political, was also employed to settle the toll dues of the traveller. A crucifix was held before him; on this he swore that he was not defrauding, that the weight of his wares, as stated by him, was accurate, and herewith the transaction was completed. It was, however, necessary to be most careful not to diverge from the toll roads. If a merchant was found on a bye-road his goods were confiscated and he himself imprisoned. On this account, too, companionship was sought after, the leadership of some one familiar with the ground, and hence merchants and merchandize generally moved in caravans.

It is worthy of note that all the trade of that time was strictly legitimate, and what is known as real merchant's business. Speculation hardly existed. Commission and agency dues were not wholly unknown, but happily there was not existent that pernicious scourge of modern trade, the time bargains, which permit merchandize to be sold a dozen times over before it actually exists. It was honest, true trade, which only sold what it could show. Therefore, it could uphold and practise the axiom, "ware for ware, or for cash." In certain districts, for example Russia, barter was more common than money payments. Credit was absolutely forbidden in certain towns and in certain branches of trade. If credit was allowed the borrower had to find a surety, and to go surety was a grave matter, of which the consequences might easily prove disastrous, entailing loss of property and often of personal freedom.

Payments were usually made in coined money, but bar silver was also employed, especially in Russia, and bills of exchange were not quite unknown. The bills were payable as a rule either at Lubeck or Bruges. Silver was the chief currency, but in the fourteenth century Lubeck was permitted to coin gold. It made guilders after the pattern of the Florentine ducats. The gold to coin them with was bought at Bruges. We must remember that money had a far higher value in those days than in ours, and that if we want to arrive at a just comparison with our own times, we must multiply the sums by seventy or seventy-five. The most common form of reckoning was the Flemish, i.e., one pound, equal to twenty shillings at twelve groats each; in a word, exactly the reckoning that has survived in England to this day. The pound of money was originally a weight. The best money was that of Lubeck, and, above all, the English contracted to be paid in pounds of the "Easterlings," their generic name for the Baltic merchant. As a survival and abbreviation of this phrase we in England say pound sterling to this day. A bad light upon the morality and conditions of the period is thrown by the fact that the petty kings, seeing that their coins were often refused and mistrusted, did not hesitate to coin and give currency to false money bearing the imprint of the League. We come across frequent bitter and often useless complaints on this subject.

Putting out capital at interest was not wholly unknown in those days, notwithstanding the prohibitions of the Church which, founded on the text in St. Luke vi. 54, and the Fourteenth Psalm ("qui pecuniam non debet ad usuram"), forbade all usury business. The Jews early held this branch of trade in their hands. Rates of interest varied from 6 to 10 per cent. Loans, too, were made to princes, foreign and native, and to cities, upon industrial enterprises. Wholly erroneous is the notion that capital was inactive, kept in a strong box or an old stocking. That great riches were accumulated is proved by some of the old wills and account books. Fortunes of a quarter of a million were not unknown. A single merchant would often own not only many farms in different and distant parts of the country, but whole villages and townships. As for the men themselves, we encounter them in every part of the continent, the artisan as well as the merchant. Thus, for example, Germans seem the favourite shoemakers; we hear of them in this capacity as far off as Lisbon. Then, as now, they were renowned as bakers, and no one knew better how to salt and preserve herrings and cod-fish.

In Livonia, Esthonia, Gothland, rich merchants died whose nearest heirs had to be sought in far off Westphalia. For instance: A worthy shoemaker became burgher of Lubeck; then visited Rome and San Jago di Compostella as a pilgrim, and afterwards being named shoemaker to the German knights, had as his chief debtor for goods supplied a cavalier who fought in Sweden. Thus diverse, many-coloured, and full of adventure were lives in those times, which we are too often tempted to think sleepy and stay-at-home.

It is difficult to gain an idea of the full extent and nature of mediaeval trade, but this too was far more rich and varied than we suppose. Though there was no activity outside Europe, still it can well stand beside our modern commerce, and as regards honesty, thoroughness of produce and workmanship, it unhappily far eclipses it. Certainly the list of articles imported and exported in their variety of needful and needless objects, their luxury and magnificence, goes far to disprove our notions of the greater simplicity of life in the Middle Ages. For supply means demand, and meant this yet more emphatically with our practical forefathers.

Apart from the evidences of figures and statistics, the evidences of wealth and luxury can also be found in the yet extant monuments of the time, and, above all, in the churches. In the Middle Ages the one converging point of ideal life was the Church. Everything that went beyond the immediate practical needs of daily existence, every form of charity, every endeavour after culture, every striving of artistic and scientific activity had in those days a religious foundation. Imagination, too, came to the aid of this tendency in the shape of the possible and probable dangers encountered by "sea and sand," by the town traders. Thus in 1401 we find merchants and shippers at Lubeck founding "an eternal brotherhood and guild to the honour of God, of Mary His beloved mother, and all the saints; above all, the holy true helper in need, St. Nicholas, that they may aid and comfort the living and the dead, and all those who seek their rightful livelihood on the water, many of whom, alas! perish in water troubles, are thrown overboard or expire in other ways, dying unconfessed and without repentance; for on account of their agonies they could feel neither remorse nor penitence for their sins, and who have none who pray for them except the general prayers."

Such guilds were by no means rare. Legacies, too, were left for similar ends, by which thousands of our money were willed away: churches, monasteries, and holy foundations of all kinds raised or aided to pray for the benefit of the souls of the dead.

Nor were distant pilgrimages unknown. The merchant would go in person, combining business and religion on the road, or he would send a substitute, who for a certain sum would visit Rome, the Holy Land, San Jago in Spain, or Rocamadour in Guyenne. Such pilgrims by profession were frequent. St. Peter, St. James, after them St. John, then St. Nicholas and St. Clement as patron saints of merchants, shippers and fishermen, and among the women saints St. Catherine, were the chosen objects of North German piety. In no town was lacking a leper house, a refuge for those troubled with that plague of the Middle Ages, happily now almost unknown in Europe. These were dedicated to the Holy Ghost and to St. George, the slayer of dragons.

Above all, worship was paid to the Virgin Mary. All the municipal churches were dedicated to her. There is not a town that has not its church of "Our Lady." The municipal council were put under her especial protection. To this day the so-called Beautiful Door of the Mary Church at Danzig bears the inscription in golden letters: "Queen of Heaven, pray for us!"

[Illustration] from The Hansa Towns by Helen Zimmern


These churches and religious buildings of all kinds, many of which survive to this day amid surroundings to which they have grown strange, speak more eloquently of the Hansa's might than piles of old parchment records. All Scandinavia can show nothing to compare with these architectural monuments, and we can well comprehend that the Northman entering the Elbe, the Trave, or other Baltic rivers, and seeing the lighthouses, churches, and mighty buildings of the towns, were awed by the Germans' wealth and power and strength, much as we are impressed now-a-days when we first set eyes upon Eternal Rome. These buildings resembled each other in externals; in each we find the same tall graceful steeples rising into the heavens, the same proud, defiant battlements and turrets, the same high-gabled many storeyed, small-windowed houses, the same tendency to employ bricks as building materials, and to use coloured varieties as ornamentation. Of this method of building and decoration the Holstenthor of Lubeck is a well-preserved example, as indeed these double gates to the towns were also a characteristic feature. One, a round tower, resembling greatly the Castel St. Angelo of Rome, situated on the south side of Rostock, was so strongly built that even the mechanical contrivances of our days found it hard work to demolish it when modern progress required its removal.

Art was then almost exclusively the handmaiden of religion, and hence it is also in the churches we have to seek evidences of what the Hansa could produce in this respect. Metal gravestones, rich bindings, cunning iron work, attest its taste. Evidence of a love of painting is found in many works now preserved in museums of the pre-Holbein day. And, incredible though it may seem, they were so famous for glass painting that early in the fifteenth century men came from Italy to Lubeck to learn perfection in the craft.

[Illustration] from The Hansa Towns by Helen Zimmern


Of their domestic architecture little, unhappily, remains to us, the practice of building with wood having wrecked most of the cities. Such houses as survive, however, testify to the national love of cunning carvings and inscriptions of didactic purpose. For it is the keynote of that time to express in artistic form its ardent faith and activity, and its somewhat rough-and-ready philosophy. Theorizings and abstractions were little understood. Thus in old legal codes we see the punishments to be inflicted pictorially portrayed. Contempt and mocking also took tangible form, and the clergy were by no means exempted from such satire. Notwithstanding all the piety of the age, the people were ever on their guard against the encroachments of the wily priests. The deeds of Reynard the Fox—that favourite national comic epic, so wholly in keeping with the Hansa spirit of practical good sense and business cunning—was a favourite theme for weaving into arras and carpet; and it was common to give a distinct hit at the clergy in the person of the sly beast.

It was the custom to depict the Last Judgment in the court of justice of each guildhall. That painted in 1341 for Hamburg led to a long lawsuit before the Papal Court at Avignon, because the local dean and chapter saw in it personal allusions. Thus devoutness did not impede the townspeople from rigidly retaining their mental independence of view and action.

Science and literature—such as those ages could boast—were, like art, more or less pressed into the service of the Church. The only exception is to be found in the few popular folk-tales, all comic, like the deeds of Eulenspiegel, and in the town chroniclers who were in the pay of the municipal council; but activity was not great in this latter domain. In most cities, schools were attached to all the parishes, in which the children of the wealthy classes learned reading, writing, some arithmetic, singing, and a little Latin. These institutions were founded in defiance of the priests, who loved to keep the people in the darkness and enslavement of ignorance.

Nearly all the merchants and many artizans could read and write, even if they did not practise these arts with great facility. Business letters were indited either in Latin or German, for the latter tongue was more widely diffused for commercial purposes than in our day.

But if the wealth of the towns led them to encourage the gentler aspects of life, it also enabled them to give expression to less refined tastes, and refinement of taste was never a speciality of these rather coarse-grained and boorish Teutons. The Middle Ages were essentially a time of animal enjoyment and license; the people loved life and all life could offer on the material side. We come across constant records of carouses and feasts, at which the manners and customs were—to our ideas, at least—most gross. No occasion for merry-making, which meant largely eating and drinking, was allowed to slip by unheeded. Nor were these occasions few, for the Catholic Church, with its endless list of saints, furnishes easy and constant excuses for holiday-making, as we see to this day in Catholic countries.

When guilds, corporations, or associations met for convivial intercourse, this was pursued according to established rules, some of which survive in the student corps of German universities. Breaches of regulation were punished by extra rations of beer that were paid for by the delinquent. Entrance fees were defrayed by giving a feast to all members. In short, they ate hard and drank yet harder, with the result that nightly drunken brawls were frequent, the quieter folk often lodging complaints concerning disturbed sleep or rioting beneath their windows between the younger burghers and the watchman. Occasionally a man is banished for molesting the town guard, while intoxicated and disorderly, for undue license was not winked at by the town council.

This was also the epoch when flourished those civic games which furthered the sentiment of brotherhood, and served, besides, to improve the youth of the city in the use and practice of arms. Among these, the May games, May processions, May empires, took a foremost place. They had their origin in the pagan conception of spring as a fair youth, who, in victorious duel, overcame the treacherous winter.

The May emperor was usually elected from among the town council. The one who had obtained the wreath during the previous year delivered it up at the beginning of May or at Whitsuntide. He would ride out into a neighbouring wood "upon his good horse," accompanied by all the councillors clad in armour, to the sound of martial music and with the town's flag flying. This was called "going to fetch the May." A beautiful boy generally headed the procession. What ceremonies went on in the wood is not known, but when the procession returned, leading in the new May emperor, the boy would bear a flowery wreath upon his long pole as token of victory; while all the councillors and the huge crowd that followed in their train were decked with green branches and boughs. The newly-elected emperor was expected to treat the crowd. After a while this grew a heavy and serious expense, and we find it recorded that a certain burgher of Stralsund, who knew he would be elected to this honour, fled the city. He was, however, followed and brought back, made to accept the post and its expenses, and heavily fined into the bargain.

As in modern Switzerland, so in mediaeval Germany, crossbow shooting for prizes gave another occasion for public holiday, the different guilds turning out, with banner and music, to do honour to their various patron saints. In such wise all adult men were trained to warfare, though the armies of the Hansa usually consisted in great part of hired mercenaries, easily obtained for ready cash in those days, when fighting was held a pleasure far beyond legitimate work. Many records survive to attest that these Hansa merchants were skilled in the use of dagger and axe. One, for example, a peaceful citizen and trader, with his own hand killed a noted pirate who had long rendered the Baltic unsafe. The merchant went his road, as the saying was, trusting to God and his own right arm. "Whosoever would be a good burgher at Danzig must be industrious both in commerce and arms," runs an inscription on the house of the crossbow shooters of that city.

[Illustration] from The Hansa Towns by Helen Zimmern


Later on, as the towns grew more aristocratic in character, the gilded youth of the day had games of their own, from participation in which the artizan was excluded. These, in many cases, led to such riots and uprisings of the populace against the municipality as occasioned the "unhansing" of Brunswick and other cities. Foremost among them were the so-called "Popinjay Associations," who met to shoot down from a pole these bright-coloured birds with which travellers had become acquainted in the market of Bruges. It was usual for the winner to treat his comrades to a barrel of beer and cakes.

Indeed, without touching upon the innumerable institutions common to guilds, trades, patricians, and plebeians, a picture of those times would be imperfect. Some of these were instituted for purely hilarious purposes, others combined charity and mutual support with carouse and license. Thus in Cologne there was a society which met to drink wine, and presented to every honoured guest a medal having the inscription, "Bibite cum hilaritate." This society imposed on itself certain laws regarding the avoidance of bad language, of lawless living, of coarse speech and action.

In the North beer was the chief beverage, many companies were dedicated to Gambrinus, the "arch-king and inventor of brewing." Here, too, quaint rules attest the rudeness of contemporary manners. It was customary to exact a monetary fine from those who spilt more beer than they could cover with their hand. It seems that even women were not excluded wholly from these revels. At least a princely guest, harboured by Lubeck, expressed his disapprobation at the presence in the cellar of the town hall of patrician ladies, who under cover of their veils, which formed for them an incognito, drank hard and enjoyed themselves grossly.

Endless are the rules and regulations of the various calends, ghostly brotherhoods, companies, and other names by which they styled themselves. Thus, for example, they were forbidden to take the food off each other's plates, to call each other certain most injurious names, to throw knives and plates at each other, to appear at solemn drinking bouts bare-footed, to roll in the mud, to retain arms, hat, and cloak when in company, to tap a fresh barrel without the presence of an elder, and so forth. Their duties to each other combined social and religious obligations. Thus they were often bound to pray for those who, absent on travels, could not attend at mass. They gave decent burial to their poorer comrades, nursed them when sick, helped them when distressed. A pound of wax, half a hundredweight of tallow, a barrel of beer, were not uncommon fines for dereliction of duty. Games of chance were universally forbidden. Dancing and song were common forms of diversion. The shoemakers and tailors of Lubeck were noted for their skill in the sword-dance, a dance probably not unlike the Highland reel executed to this day by Scotchmen.

[Illustration] from The Hansa Towns by Helen Zimmern


Wit, grace, imagination, were elements mostly absent from the lives of these rough Germans. This is nowhere more evident than in their amusements. The carnival practices furnished a notable example, practices so graceful, so pretty in the South, so rough and rude in the North. Two instances will suffice. At Stralsund it was customary to nail up a poor cat with which a man fought until he hit it to death, when he was mock-knighted by the burgomaster. In Cologne poor blind people were let loose in an enclosed space to hit a pig, which should be the prize of the successful candidate. The joy of the spectators reached its height when the poor blind men struck each other in place of their victim. The practices at weddings were too rude for description.

Luxury in dress was most pronounced, and sumptuary laws were repeatedly enacted. It seems strange that it was the men even more than the women who offended in these respects. Simple, nay, rude as the lives of these burghers were in their homes, out of doors they loved to make display, especially in the matter of costly weapons and brave horses. Young men returning from the wars or the great markets of London or Bruges, introduced new fashions and fantasies which changed far more frequently than we are apt to suppose. The most conservative dress was the headgear of the patricians, the councillors and members of the municipality. This consisted for many ages in a long cap of cloth, trimmed with fine fur. Before hats or caps came into fashion as coverings, the sight of these men in their long fur cloaks, with their heads enclosed in these curious hoods, must have had a stately, grave effect. So proud were the patricians of this dress that the councillors of Bremen actually forged a document early in the thirteenth century, according to which Godfrey of Bouillon, accorded to them, during the first Crusade, the permission to wear fur and gold chains. The dress, clogging the free action of the legs, necessitated a stately slow walk, and its length would seem often to have inconvenienced them in those times of unpaved streets and mud-coated roads. A certain Evart von Huddessen, the representative of Stralsund at the Court of King Erik of Sweden, gained the special favour of the monarch on an occasion, when, invited by the king to visit with him his pleasure gardens outside the town, he quietly walked through the puddles after Erik's horse, instead of waiting like the other representatives for their servants to carry for them their trains, which they feared to spoil in the mud. "Eh! what are we waiting for here?" he cried to his colleagues, "shall his royal highness ride alone? I reckon my masters of Stralsund are rich enough that they can make good to me my new coat."

Nor were they invariably simple in their homes, though usually so. A favourite German folk tale tells how Melchior, of Bremen, had his dining-room paved with silver dollars, and even if history or chronicle does not confirm this legend, it is thoroughly in keeping with Hanseatic modes of displaying wealth. There did exist, for instance, a certain Wulf Wulflam, of Stralsund, who sat upon a silver seat, and had his rooms hung with costly arras. When he married he, like a royal personage, caused the road from his house to the church to be overspread with a Flanders carpet, while musicians played day and night before his door. No doubt at his wedding appeared also the eighty dishes which at weddings was the highest limit allowed to burgher luxury by the Hanseatic by-laws.

It would seem, too, that the Hansa representatives when sent to "Hansa days" (the meetings of the various cities in common council) after a while indulged in great display to impress beholders with the power and wealth of their respective cities. This, after a time, assumed such proportions that poorer or wiser communities refrained, whenever possible, from sending members to the "Hansa days."

Such were the habits and customs of these old burghers. As we see, it was a time when men were occupied with the material rather than the ideal side of life. A curious medley it presents of egotism and altruism, piety and license, love of individuality and strict regulation, roughness of living and unbridled luxury, boorishness and civilization.

A word must be said of that important institution, the town council, to complete this sketch of the German towns during the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. Its constitution varied somewhat of course, according to the size and wealth of the cities, but there were certain main resemblances. The number of aldermen varied from twelve to twenty-four. At their head were two or four burgomasters, who enjoyed no special privileges, except that in council they held the office of president. The appointment was for life, but they took it in turns to be on active duty. Certain limitations of choice as to aldermen existed. Thus for long in Lubeck no one could hold that office who earned his bread by handicraft. This regulation however did not last. Still merchants throughout filled the chief places; as, being travelled men, and knowing the requirements of their fellows, they were considered the most fit. Next to these, brewers and tailors took a leading part. The general constitution of the council may be regarded as in a fashion aristocratic, but it was checked in deliberations and decisions by a sort of second chamber, the common council. Under their rule the cities certainly flourished; the one chamber counselled, the other acted, and to be alderman was indeed no sinecure, but rather a post that imposed heavy labour. Honour it brought, but scanty remuneration.

[Illustration] from The Hansa Towns by Helen Zimmern


Noblesse oblige was the proud motto these men acted on. The church bells called them to their meetings, which at first were held in the municipal church, later in the guildhalls. At Lubeck they always assembled first in their own chapel of Our Lady's Church, then went in procession to the town-hall. This was the centre of all national life. The market-place was built before it, around it were the chief shops. In the market-place justice was administered, either in the open air or under the open porticos of the guildhall. Civic feasts were held here, foreign guests received at this spot. No wonder, then, that the burghers spent great sums upon the building and decoration of their town-halls and surroundings. They were to them the palladium of civic independence, whence law and order, merriment and feasting took their origin. To this day the cellars of the town-halls in Germany boast the best wines and choicest foods, and though now let out as restaurants they still, many of them, show in fresco and carving the remains of ancient splendour. In the town-halls were preserved the treasure, the civic documents, and the great town books, called into requisition in all disputes. "No witness goes beyond the Book" was the axiom of the day.

The market-place was always the largest open place in a city. The streets were narrow and tortuous. This was necessitated by the circumstance that all towns at that date were walled, and hence their extension circumscribed. Each class of workmen lived together; shoemakers in one street, coopers in another, and so forth. Their houses being small, it was usual for them on fine days to do their work out of doors, which gave an animated appearance to the place. At night these streets were closed by iron chains drawn across them.

The town life was, in short, but the family life on an extended scale, and the municipality watched over the welfare of the inhabitants as a father over that of his household. To facilitate commerce and industry, and to look after roads and buildings, were among its chief cares. It is noteworthy that in some towns regulations existed compelling every one who had means to leave in his will a certain sum for repairing the highways and keeping the ports in good condition. Many fulfilled this provision, even without this order.

Another occupation of the aldermen was to superintend trade, and see it carried out on honest principles. Thus, at Novgorod, a bale of linen is discovered to be bad, so that "no honourable and good man could be paid in such ware." It is sent back to Riga, thence to Wisby, thence to Lubeck, where the aldermen had to find out who delivered these goods. Punishment for such fraud followed inevitably, and was so heavy that, on the whole, few attempted to play these base tricks. We also come across complaints that barrels of herrings had been packed fraudulently, good and large fish being on the top; small and inferior and even stale ones filling the rest of the barrel. As such perishable goods could not be returned, the aldermen instituted official herring packers, who were responsible for honest action.

In all difficult matters, the advice of the municipality was asked and given. It was held "that they knew what others did not know." Thus burgher and burgher ruler worked hand in hand, and each man felt himself a link of the whole chain. This feeling gave rise to an active patriotism, a warm love for their own town, of which instances abound in the mediaeval chronicles. Many tales are preserved of brawls arising in the towns through the vauntings of rival citizens. Thus a certain Lubecker meeting a Bremener in a Hamburg inn, boasted so greatly of his native town's advantages and made such fun of his companion's aldermen that they all but came to serious blows. "You had better mind your words and drink your beer in peace," was the friendly advice of a bystander.

Such were these burghs which had grown free and strong through burgher industry, and were kept powerful by burgher unity and honesty.