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The Hanseatic Era

(Baltic Sea Trade, part 2)

In the late Middle Ages, maritime trade in the Baltic developed under the aegis of the German Hanse. The origins of this League lie in the loose associations of long-distance merchants, notably from northern Germany and Westphalia, who succeeded in securing trading privileges abroad to the benefit of all subjects of the Holy Roman Empire. It was, however, Lübeck and the Wend towns along the northern German coasts that built the core of the urban League as it started to take shape in the final decades of the twelfth century. During its heydays (c. 1370-1474), the League comprised 200 towns, which cooperated in a rather loose fashion and covered an area stretching from Reval (Tallinn) in the east to Kampen on the Zuiderzee coast in the west.

The successful linkage of sea, river and land routes is one of the reasons for the prolonged existence of the Hanseatic trading system. Northern Europe's main rivers and roads served the vast Prussian and Russian hinterlands and connected Germany's urban markets and production centres to the Baltic ports. Lübeck served in many ways as the starting point of this system. Already in the 1160s, its merchant families started to settle in the Wend nuclei along the Pomeranian coast (Wismar, Stralsund, Rostock, Stettin (Szczecin) and Greifswald). Northern Germans were also involved in the founding or refounding of cities like Riga, Danzig (Gdansk) and Reval. From there they opened up the Prussian and Russian hinterlands, bringing the southern Baltic ports within the orbit of the western markets. These cities comprised the core of the Hanseatic trading system in the Baltic, whilst Hamburg and Bremen were the main ports on the North Sea. On the western flank of the Hanseatic region, Cologne emerged as the Hanse's main trading partner with England and with it the satellites (Kampen, Deventer) along the Zuiderzee coasts came into being.

The trading network of the Hanse merchants was based on a system of staple markets and foreign offices (Kontoren), in Bruges, London, Bergen (Norway) and Novgorod (Russia). Since all foreign Hanseatic trade was supposed to be concentrated in these Kontors and the adjacent staple markets, they represented an indispensable instrument in the League's efforts to dominate the few trading routes that connected the eastern Baltic to the west. Because of its strategic position on the Trave River, Lübeck maneged to direct all major trading flows in the Baltic and from the North Sea to its port and staple market. In this way, the town controlled all trans-shipments at the Elbe, Stecknitz and Trave estuaries.

Merchants from Lübeck and the Wend towns made their fortune by exchanging the western rich trades (e.g. high-quality cloth, spices and wines) for the minerals and the agrarian and sylvan products of the north and the east. Among these were bulk commodities such as Prussian and Livonian hard dusk grains, hemp and flax, as well as unprocessed timber, deal boards, masts and klapholz, which was used for barrel making. Farmers exploiting the vast Livonian, Russian and Scandinavian forests produced tar, pitch destined for the shipbuilding industries and potash for glass making. Bar iron and copper were produced in the mines in Sweden and south of Krakow. The Finnish and Russian hinterlands were the main providers of such high-value products as wax, furs, leather and skins. On top of this, the League was engaged in the Baltic herring and beer trade, and Lübeck had a monopoly on the exports of Lüneburg salt.

Lübeck's position as the largest entrepôt in the Baltic system was reflected in its leading position in the Kontors. There, members of its rich merchant families maintained contact with their trading partners abroad, fostered intense diplomatic contacts with foreign powers and carefully guarded the trading interests of the Hanse merchants and the abundant privileges that had clipped the wings of potential competitors. The Hanse Kontors and the merchant settlements around these acted as entrepôts for the commodities over which the Hanse had established a quasi monopoly. These were furs and wax from Novgorod, dried cod from Bergen, wool and cloth from London and Boston (on England's west coast), and high-quality cloth from Flanders, Brabant and Holland, which was exported through the staple market of Bruges.

Underlying this long-distance network, a range of trading routes developed between the staple markets on the northern and southern Baltic coasts. Most Hanseatic cities were engaged in triangle trade between their home markets, Lübeck, and Sweden, Finland or Novgorod. Stockholm — Sweden's main port for iron and copper — had a substantial number of Hanseatic merchants among its inhabitants. Åbo (Turku) and Viborg were the important staple markets for Finnish timber and tar, whilst Narva and Novgorod were the main gateways to the Russian hinterland. Shipping on the Livonian coasts was concentrated at Reval, Riga, Dorpat (Tartu) and Pernau (Pärnu), the main suppliers of grain, hemp, flax and naval stores. Already in the fourteenth century, attempts to protect the trade with the Livonian and Russian hinterlands led to prolonged rivalry with merchants from Lübeck and the Wend towns, who tried to evade the local markets in order to cut transaction costs. The ports of Danzig, Königsberg (Kaliningrad) and Elbing were the main outlets for Prussian grain and timber, which lay at the root of their trade on the Swedish and Finnish coasts.

However, what challenged Lübeck's dominion was not the increasing density of Baltic triangle shipping, but primarily the developing Sound trade. The Baltic, Prussian and Wend towns — which engaged in much the same trade and thus shared the same markets — were in fact potential rivals rather than loyal allies. Rising commercial centres like Reval, Riga and particularly Danzig were therefore exploring new markets in order to escape Lübeck's tutelage. Growing demand for Prussian and Livonain grain at the western markets and the availability of cheap French bay salt, which rapidly replaced the Lüneburg salt exports, were the main factors behind the expansion of the eastward Sound trade at the expense of Lübeck. By the end of the fourteenth century, eastern Baltic cogs and hulks were plying the waters along the North Sea and Atlantic coasts, supplying the ports of Amsterdam and Zeeland with increasing amounts of grain, as well as loading salt on the French coast at Brouage or cloth in Holland or England. Keenly circumventing the staples of Lübeck and Bruges, the eastern Baltic merchants gradually eroded the traditional Hanseatic trading system, which was based on the almost complete control of the few sea routes linking the Kontors abroad. Especially Danzig, which controlled as much as 75 per cent of the total Baltic grain exports, developed into a major rival of Lübeck, as its merchants sailed directly to the transit ports of London, Amsterdam and Antwerp's satellites along Zeeland's waters.

On the western flank of the Hanse region, Lübeck's supremacy was challenged not only by Cologne, but also by the Zuiderzee towns of Kampen, Deventer and Zwolle. These three towns had rather ambiguous relations with the core of the League, varying from earnest sentiments of loyalty to downright defiance. Loyalty was the result of their enjoying the Hanseatic privileges abroad, which offered advantageous trading positions in the eastern Baltic, English and Norse markets. Defiance was related to Lübeck's discriminating policies against the merchants from the County of Holland and notably Amsterdam. The latter's prolonged struggle for free access to the Sound posed a serious threat to the League's dominion in both Scandinavia and the eastern Baltic. Exposed on the League's westernmost frontiers, and therefore relying heavily on the transit traffic between Holland and the Hanseatic towns, the Zuiderzee towns fundamentally opposed measures that put their trading relations with the County at risk. On top of this were Lübeck's efforts to maintain the staple at Bruges, which suffered under the flowering of direct trading relations between Dutch, English and Hanseatic merchants from all the major towns on the League's western flank.

Hamstrung by the failures of their own system, Lübeck and the Wend towns offered little coordinated resistance against the free-riding activities of their rivals along the Baltic and Zuiderzee coasts. On several occasions, the Prussian, Livonian and Zuiderzee towns brushed aside Hanseatic policies that impaired excellent trading relations with the northern Low Countries. During the Holland-Wend war of 1438-1441, with free Dutch access to the Baltic at stake, Prussia refused to join the Hanseatic grain blockade against the County of Holland. The Zuiderzee towns preferred neutrality in order not to put their trade with Holland at risk. In 1470, the Wend towns tried to exclude Holland's shipping from the Sound traffic in an attempt to revive discriminating regulations at both the Bruges and the Trave staple. Highly valued commodities from the east had to be shipped through Lübeck and Hamburg, whilst Dutch high-quality cloth destined for the Baltic had to be exported through the harbour of Bruges, where Wend ships were awaiting. With the Hanseatic towns on both the eastern and the western flank refusing to cooperate, the operation was a failure. Danzig and the other Baltic towns were prepared to ally with Lübeck and the Wends in the wars with Denmark in the early sixteenth century, but they pulled back as soon as the League's belligerent attitude seriously jeopardised trading relations with Holland. This process of fragmentation contributed in two ways to the prolonged demise of the German Hanse: it resulted in the increasing isolation of Lübeck and the Wend towns within the League, and it encouraged the development of a dense network of trading routes between the harbours along the shores of the Baltic, the North Sea and the western Atlantic, which finally led to the demise of the traditional staple system.

Views that maintain that these episodes were a turning point in the decline of the Hanseatic seaborne trade through the Sound are corroborated by a long-term analysis of the Sound Toll registers. The levying of the Sound dues, which were introduced in 1429 by the Danish king in order to tap some of the revenues of the increasing east-west trade, gave birth to an impressive registration system of all ships that passed through the Sound between 1497 and 1857. Despite interpretation difficulties concerning the origins of the ships and their cargoes, the registers represent the historian's most important tool for reconstructing both the volume and the value of Baltic shipping over the centuries. In the sixteenth century, the Hanseatic east-west trade gained importance, since while there were fewer than 1000 vessels passing through the Sound each year between 1500 and 1540, in the 1560s some 3280 vessels and in the years around 1590 some 5038 vessels passed through it annually. It is estimated that about 80 per cent of this flow was headed towards the Hanseatic towns situated on the northern German and the eastern Baltic coast. This was reflected in the size of the Hanseatic fleet. At the end of the sixteenth century, it had about 1000 ships with a total carrying capacity of 45,000 lasts (90,000 tons). Compared to the situation 100 years earlier, this was an increase of 50 per cent. Though lagging far behind the Dutch, the League's fleet capacity outstripped that of England and France.

Lübeck succeeded in maintaining its position in the Baltic until well into the seventeenth century. Shipbuilding in Lübeck blossomed in the decades around 1600: each year until about 1640, fifteen to twenty ships left the slipways of the yards on the Trave River. Still, Lübeck's role and that of the other Hanseatic towns became much more confined to the Baltic itself as, with the rise of the Atlantic system, trading routes moved to the west to the benefit of Antwerp, Amsterdam and London. From 1600 on, Hanseatic seaborne trade was mostly limited to short hauls between the Scandinavian and the southern Baltic ports, with only sporadic long-distance voyages to the Mediterranean or across the oceans. This led to the remarkable situation that one of Europe's largest fleets was cut off from Europe's newly emerging maritime flows. Only Hamburg escaped this fate, by ceasing its resistance to the English merchant adventurers and allowing a massive influx of Protestant immigrants from Antwerp and of converted Portuguese Jews, who had escaped the claws of the Inquisition. Thanks to the immigrants' world-encompassing networks, the Elbe harbour rapidly replaced Lübeck as the largest maritime centre on the Baltic shores. The transfer of former Hanseatic business into foreign and, progressively, Dutch hands marked the final stage of the prolonged demise of the League. The final blow came in 1648, when Sweden occupied the Pomerian and northern German shores. With the Wend cities of Stettin, Stralsund and Wismar becoming Swedish, and Hamburg, Bremen and Lübeck forced into benevolent neutrality, the days of the League were numbered. In 1669, the last general Hanseatic meeting assembled in Lübeck in order to confirm the League's status as a quasi impotent power in the Baltic.

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