Episode 121 – A Constitutional Crisis

By the end of the 14th century the Hanse is at the top of its game. The Cologne Confederation had shown that they could act in unison if the need arises, can defeat the largest and best run kingdom in Scandinavia. And even the mighty duke of Burgundy had to yield to the power of the merchant cities.

But just 10 years into the new century the association faces a mortal crisis. Not because of retaliation from the outside but due to internal tensions. Not everyone in the great trading cities is happy about the war efforts and the impressive infrastructure projects…

Hello and welcome to the History of the Germans: Episode 121 – A Constitutional Crisis

By the end of the 14th century the Hanse is at the top of its game. The Cologne Confederation had shown that they could act in unison if the need arises, can defeat the largest and best run kingdom in Scandinavia. And even the mighty duke of Burgundy had to yield to the power of the merchant cities.

But just 10 years into the new century the association faces a mortal crisis. Not because of retaliation from the outside but due to internal tensions. Not everyone in the great trading cities is happy about the war efforts and the impressive infrastructure projects…

But before we start it is again time to say thanks to my patrons and one-time contributors who maintain a truly astounding level of generosity. I am well aware that we are going through a cost-of-living crisis and that many people are struggling. If you are one of those and you feel uncomfortable about not making a contribution – don’t be. There are many other ways to support the podcast for instance you could comment or share a post from the History of the Germans on Facebook or Twitter. Just so you know, sharing and commenting has a much bigger impact on the algorithm than just liking a post. And those of you who feel so inclined, you can become a patron at patreon.com/historyofthegermans or you can make a one-time donation at historyofthegermans.com/support. It is really, really appreciated. Thanks a lot to Gavin E., Axel J., OldPivi and Michael M. who have already done so.

Last two weeks we talked about how a Hanseatic merchant operated. How he, and sometimes she could ensure that their business partners were reliable and worked in their interest, how they could get hold of the necessary market intelligence. What products were in demand where, what price one may achieve, how risky the journey would be and whether there were any new taxes, tolls or regulations. And we looked at the ways a Hanseatic Merchant transferred the funds to pay for the goods bought in Bruges or the copper from the Falun Mine in Sweden.

This week we are resuming our narrative. We have come to the beginning of the 15th century. The Hanse had fought and won a war with Denmark. As consequence the gemeine kopman had gained even more extensive privileges on the herring market in Scania, privileges that allowed them to push out the English and Dutch competition. And they had received some major political concessions, for one they had occupied the main fortresses controlling the Oresund for a period of 15 years. And they had been given the right to select the ruler of Denmark upon the death of King Waldemar Atterdag.

And they had not only won this conflict, but had also defended their rights in Bruges, England and Novgorod against some strong opposition. And last, but not least they had gained the upper hand over the Victual Brothers, the famous Baltic pirates.

By 1405, it looks as if the Hanse is invincible.  Their political opponents are subdued, their privileges confirmed, and trade keeps growing strongly. Some of the most iconic Hanseatic buildings, like the Holstentor in Lubeck, the town hall of Danzig and the façades of the Rathaus in Stralsund and Lubeck, were constructed during this period.

But if you look under the bonnet, things are not quite as rosy as they seemed. Tensions are rising, both inside the cities and between the different cities. The kings and major princes are consolidating their power and competition with England and Holland intensifies.

Internal conflicts and revolts were a feature of the 14th and 15th century, much more than in the High Middle Ages. Flanders was the epicentre of both peasant revolts and conflict between the city dwellers and their overlords. It started with peasant rebellions in 1280, 1302 and then 1323-1328. The cities shook off the princely control, at least temporarily, first under Jacob van Artevelde in 1337-1345 and then his son Philip in 1381/82. More rebellions followed in the 15th century.

Other notable uprisings were the Jacquerie in France in 1358. Etienne Marcel a rich merchant in Paris use the Jacquerie to force the Dauphin to sign the Great Ordinance of 1357, a document that could have become the Magna Carta of France had it not been rejected by the king. And let’s not forget the Peasant’s revolt in England in 1381.

In Sweden we had the Engelbrekt rebellion in 1434-36 which played a major role in maintaining the country as a separate entity within the Kalmar union.

The largest and most successful of these revolts were the Hussites in Bohemia, modern day Czech republic who rose up against their king in 1419, a story we will explore in quite some detail in an upcoming series on the Luxemburger emperors.

These revolts were all different. Some were led by peasants rebelling against the heavy taxation, others involved rich burghers fighting for the freedom of their cities, others again were triggered by political and economic inequality within the cities. Some, like the English Peasant’s revolt and the Hussite Wars had strong religious components.

There are many reasons for this rising unrest amongst the people. The change in the economy is the most obvious component. The economic boom that underpinned the High Middle Ages had ended. That was in part due to the end of the medieval warming period. The climate in europe was now on a cooling trajectory known as the little Ice Age that hit its Nadir in the 17th century. But we also find that innovation had stalled. The improved agricultural tools and practices of the 11th and 12th century are now rolled out across almost all of Europe.

What has also ended was the colonisation of the East. The option to emigrate first into the eastern marches and then further into Poland, Prussia and the Germanic enclaves along the Baltic shore was no longer there. The local rulers no longer needed or were able to accommodate large numbers of foreigners looking for land to cultivate.

Plus the Black Death and the waves of epidemics following it had reset the relationship between Landowners and peasants and between burghers and city labourers. Labour had become scarce and hence wages had risen. Keeping peasants as serfs on the estate became seen as more and more unfair as they knew they could find better work and better living conditions elsewhere.

And finally, the moral decline of the church following the move of the papacy to Avignon fed into this general sense of discontent. We are now at the hight of the great schism where various attempts to return the pope to Rome has resulted in first two competing papacies and now three contenders. Not only did they raise tithes to fund their lavish courts and the fight against their opponents, but they were too engrossed in their conflicts to care much about the souls of their flock.

The cities of the Hanse weren’t free from such tensions. They did erupt in many cities and shared a similar background to what happened in Flanders. But they did have some specific Hanseatic characteristics.

The Hanse cities were quite different to places like Bruges and Ghent or the capital cities of Paris and Prague.

All the Hanseatic cities were dominated by an upper class of long-distance traders and major landowners. These were men of significant means, usually commanding a fortune of more than 5,000 mark. They were members exclusive merchant associations, the Artushof in Danzig, the Great Guild in Reval, the Richerzeche in Cologne or the Circle society in Lübeck. They sat on the city council and one of them was the city mayor, the Burgermeister. These were the patricians. The cities on the shores of the Baltic and the North Sea tended to be dominated by the long-distance traders, whilst the inland cities like for instance Cologne, Dortmund, Muenster and Brunswick had a higher proportion of landowners amongst the patricians.

Being a patrician was in principle a function of birth, but at least in the 14th and 15th century this was more theory than practice. As we have seen with our two Tallin merchants, Bernd Pal and Hans Selhorst. Bernd Pal’s father sat on the city council in Lübeck as did his grandfather. But Bernd did not manage to get there. The scale of his business and his failure to make a suitable marriage effectively relegated him from the patrician status of his forefathers. Hans Selhorst on the other hand had come from Hamm in Westphalia with at best a modest amount of money and no connections. He rose to be member of the great guild and the city council thanks to his great commercial acumen and a favourable marriage.

Across the Hanse patrician families stayed in the top flight for a few generations before they are relegated. But that varied considerably between cities. Membership in the Richerzeche in Cologne for instance was very stable with some dynasties like the Lyskirchen sticking it out for 500 years. On the opposite end were Hamburg and Stralsund who had a materially higher turnover, chucking out families after just 2 to 3 generations. Lubeck and most others were somewhere in the middle averaging a staying time of 3 to 4 generations before disease, inbreeding or incompetence pushed them out of their position.

It is also notable that the patricians were perfectly happy to admit foreigners into their ranks, even allowing them to become Burgermeister, provided they were successful, rich and fitted in. Hinrich Castorp, the legendary Lübeck Burgermeister was originally from Dortmund and was admitted to the city council just 7 years after gaining citizenship.

Most cities did not have something akin to the Golden Book of Venice where the names of all the patrician families were entered. Patrician status in the Hanse city was mainly achieved by getting admitted into one of these great societies and from there into the city council.

By the 15th century these patrician societies operated a bit like English gentlemen clubs. First you have different grades of those, from the top, top level, like the Circle Society and then further down the society of St. Lawrence or St. Anthony and at the entry level the society of Blackheads that admitted unmarried new merchants who had finished their apprenticeship.  To get into the higher levels, you needed not only a certain minimum wealth, but you also needed to be the right sort of chap. For instance, the circle society in Lubeck was so snobbish the rejected Nouveau Riches set up their own club, the Koplude Kompanye, the company of merchants.

Once one had joined one of these societies, one had a chance to get on to the city council. Membership there was for life. Once a member had died, the existing members co-opted somebody new to the council, again usually from one of these societies. In some cities there were rules on how many members from each society should have a seat on the council.

Below the patricians was a quite large upper middle class comprising the smaller long-distance merchants, brewers, shippers, clothmakers and sometimes horse traders. These people were well off and well connected across the Hanse world, but they were excluded from the levers of power and the great information exchange within the patrician societies.

As membership of the patrician societies was relatively fluent, members of this upper middle class could expect that over a number of generations there was a good chance they could join these societies and become a member of the city council, either at home or in a different city. But these aspirations were often several generations in the future, too far off for many.

Whether or not this upper middle class joins a rebellion depended very much on the question how amenable or open the patricians were to let others in. In Cologne, the power of the very exclusive Richerzeche was broken under widespread pressure in 1396. In Hamburg where society was more permeable, there was much less tension.

Below these two layers, the patrician and the upper middle class were the artisans. The size,  composition and importance of this group depended upon the economic structure of the city. A place like Cologne with a broad set of industries had many and powerful artisan guilds. In the mainly trading-driven settlements like Riga or Tallin, the artisan community was smaller and much less politically significant. In most Hanseatic cities the artisans had no representation on the city council and other than the Upper Middle Class, did not have a realistic option of moving into the patrician class over time. What added to their frustration was that their interests are often diametrically opposed to that of the merchants. They had little benefit from wars fought over trading privileges or major infrastructure projects.

And finally, we have the lower classes, the labourers and servants. The size of this group again depended on the economic structure of the city. In Flanders with its huge cloth production, labourers were a large group, and they played an important role in the various rebellions. The Hanseatic cities tended to have a lot less manufacturing activity so that they made up just 25% of the population of Hamburg or 38% of Rostock.

You can see where the fault lines lie. The artisans are constantly frustrated and ready to rebel. To succeed they need the support of the Upper Middle Class to overthrow the patricians. Sometimes it worked, sometimes it didn’t.

The first such conflict erupts in Magdeburg. In 1301 the artisans demand more representation in the city council. The archbishop together with the council responds with utter brutality and has 10 guild masters burned at the stake. But by 1330 the artisans succeed in the next uprising and a new city constitution is passed, giving Magdeburg artisans an important voice on the council.

Brunswick was the next epicentre. There had already been an uprising of the artisans in 1293/94. Things got worse when two brothers, both dukes of bits of Brunswick fought for control over the city. One supported the artisans, the other the patricians. The patricians won and the successful duke had all the members of the artisan’s city council executed.

In 1374 another uprising occurred in Brunswick when the patrician city father increased taxes to deal with the huge debt burden accumulated in the wake of the Black Death. This was quite a bloody affair and the mob murdered 8 members of the patrician council. The remaining council members fled to Lubeck where a Hanseatic diet was in session. They told the assembly of their plight and demanded that the Hanse excluded the city of Brunswick from the Hanse privileges until the old council is reinstated and its members compensated.

That exclusion lasted from 1375 to 1380. The city of Brunswick took a serious economic hit, but the artisans were unwilling to give up. Brunswick had become hugely important since the time of Henry the Lion who had built his great palace of Dankwarderode here. It sat right on the intersection of two major long distance trading routes, one the Via Regia, an east west connection from Magdeburg to Aachen and the north south salt route from Lüneburg to Erfurt and Nürnberg. Cutting Brunswick out led to major deviations and delay in the shipping of Eastern European and Baltic goods south and west. Many even patrician Hanse merchants therefore opposed the exclusion of Brunswick.

Things moved back and forth and by 1380 a compromise was found. The exiled council members were compensated and allowed to return and a new city constitution is established sharing power between patricians and artisans.

From the perspective of the patricians both in Brunswick and across the majority of the Hanseatic cities, the exclusion policy had been expensive and still ultimately had resulted in failure. As a consequence, the Hanse did not get involved in the following conflicts between artisans and patricians in Cologne in 1396, Dortmund in 1399, Danzig in 1416 and Breslau/Wrocław in 1418.

But when these problems hit Lübeck the situation became precarious.

Like everywhere else in the Hanseatic League, the artisans were unhappy with the rule of the patricians. First ructions happened in 1380 and 1384 when a man called Hinrik Paternostermacher conspired to topple the city council. He wasn’t an artisan but the son of an upper middle class merchant. He blamed his lack of commercial success on the snobbishness of the Lubeck societies and teamed up with the guild of the butchers. Before the conspiracy could get going properly, it was discovered. 18 of the 47 conspirators, including Hinrich Paternostermacher were executed.

Things heated up again after 1403. The city was in a very challenging financial situation. On the one hand they were fighting the war against the piratical Victual Brothers, which included a two year closure of the herring market in Scania. At the same time, they were building the Stecknitz Kanal that linked the Trave River to the Elbe, creating a waterway connecting the Baltic and the North Sea from Lubeck to Hamburg. And finally, Lubeck had taken an ever-increasing role in the management of the Hanse. Most Hanseatic diets took place in Lübeck, requiring the city to lay on festivities and banquets for their honoured guests at vast expense.

Somebody had to pay for that and the patrician-led senate decided that the artisans of the city should make a sizeable contribution. This was as unsurprising as it was unpopular. The artisans could see how much these initiatives were supporting the great long-distance merchants, what they could not see is what benefit any of these things would have for them.

As one would expect, the brewers and artisan guilds objected. In the subsequent negotiations the Council made some material political concessions and the artisans agreed to this one-time tax.

Two years later the financial situation still had not improved and another tax was proposed, this time on beer. This again was unpopular. The council was forced to admit the creation of a committee of 60 representatives of the different boroughs to debate the proposals. This committee of 60 quickly became the place where all sorts of grievances against the council were aired.

A list of complaints was compiled, ranging from excessive taxes all the way to the expense associated with the leading role of the city in the Hanse. The Committee of 60 then assumed control of parts of the city bureaucracy. To top it off, they proposed a reform of the city constitution which included the election of members of the council.

Things went back and forth, but by 1408 a minority of the council members agreed to the reforms. At which point the conservative majority, 15 out of 23 left the council and the city. A new council was formed that allowed for a representation of Artisans and whose members had to face re-election every 2 years.

Those of you who have studied the French revolution may see some rather obvious parallels in the way you get from financial difficulty to loss of power.

 We now have two city councils, the old patrician council that has gone into exile and a new more democratic council that controlled the city.

The new Council went straight to King Ruprecht of the Palatinate to gain recognition as the official representatives of the city of Lubeck. Lubeck was a free imperial city and as such the emperor had at least theoretically the final say in such a matter. In exchange for the imperial grace they offered an oath of allegiance and payment of the outstanding imperial taxes the patrician council had so far refused to pay.

Ruprecht graciously grants the new council what it wants, but the old council then sues them in front of the Reichshofgericht and wins, at least in so far as it demands the reestablishment of the old council.

At this point the new council orders the confiscation of the possessions of the members of the old council and refuses to follow any future imperial or court summons. That – and the fact that he had never seen a dime of the promised taxes – turns king Ruprecht against the new council. He places the whole city into the imperial ban, which means that in principle everyone can apprehend anyone form Lübeck, put him in chains and take all their goods.

As one can imagine, this creates chaos in the city and devastates the Lübeck trade. But not only that. By now Lübeck had become some sort of secretariat of the Hanse. They kept the records, they sent out the invitations for the Hanseatic diets, they coordinated the activities of the Hanseatic Kontors. All that is now on hold. The New Council is banned and therefore cannot send envoys plus many of its members do not want to take a lead role in the Hanse in the first place. The old council is in exile, is short of funds and has no venue for these kind of events.

Effectively for 8 years the coordination mechanism of the Hanse is stalling. Many merchants fear the whole thing will collapse. In particular the traders inside the Kontors are struggling to maintain their position in what is effectively hostile territory.

Moreover, the Hanse itself is split. Some cities like Brunswick, Cologne, Dortmund had undergone a transformation towards a more open constitution. They are now joined by Wismar and Rostock in their support of the New Council in Lubeck. Meanwhile the other cities who were still ruled by the patrician class sided with the old council, fearing that their defeat would bring about their own downfall.

To keep things rolling, a Hansetag was called in Hamburg and it was decided that all correspondence from the Kontors should be sent there. But then Hamburg formed its own committee of 60 and expelled Lubeck’s Old Council who were staying there at the time. The old council moved to Luneburg and this city became the new secretariat city.

The leader of the Old Council was Jordan Pleskow, an accomplished diplomat. He initiated a policy to undermine the new Council by cutting the city’s trade off from key routes of the Hanse. In 1411 he showed up in Bruges and demands the return of the property of the exiles. He placed his demands not just with the Konor, but also with the duke of Burgundy and the four main cities of Flanders. Using the judgement by the Imperial Court, this would have authorised the Flemish to seize the whole of the Bruges Kontor, effectively killing it. Surely not something Pleskow wanted, but it was the lever that forced the Kontor to join the side of the Old Council.

Pleskow then went to Prussia and convinced the Grand Master of the Teutonic Knights to place an embargo on all Lubeck trade.

Meanwhile a new king had ascended the throne, Sigismund. The New Council thought that this was the option to gain the upper hand. They offered him 6,000 guilders if he was to lift the imperial ban and declare for them. Sigismund said yes, but only if they paid 24,000 guilders, a first tranche to be paid on all saints day 1415 in either Paris or Bruges.

The problem for the new Council was that after years of tensions and ban, that kind of money was simply no longer there. When no cash arrived, Sigismund changed tack, revoked all imperial privileges for the city of Lubeck and reconfirmed the imperial ban.

The final blow came when Eric of Pomerania, the new king of Sweden, Denmark and Norway took the opportunity to confiscate Lubeck ships and incarcerate Lubeck merchants.

The New Council had to give up. They admitted the 10 surviving members of the Old Council back into the city. They co-opted a further 10 patricians allowing just 5 members of the new Council to remain. That meant the patricians were back in control. A tax was imposed to pay emperor Sigismund 13,000 guilders so that he lifted the ban. Meanwhile patrician rule had also been reintroduced in Rostock and Wismar wiping out artisan participation in the Wendish cities.

The return of the patrician was remarkably bloodless. There were only 2 executions and also during the reign of the New Council the patricians who had stayed behind had been unharmed. That is where the comparison with the French revolution no longer holds.

This episode had however a major impact on the way the Hanse thought about itself. Having come to the brink of dissolution so soon after its great string of successes urged its members to rethink the association.

They came together in one of the largest Hanseatic diets ever, in 1418.

The Hanse was to get a proper constitution. In 32 articles the member cities agreed to several innovations:

  • The Hanseatic diet can now intervene in the internal affairs of a city. Specifically, cities whose population had replaced the patrician council were no longer admitted to the diet.
  • A merchant who wants to partake in Hanse privileges must now prove that he is a burgher of a member city of the League.
  • Lubeck and the Wendish cites were put in charge to look after the interests of the overall organisation in between the times the diet was sitting.

And Lubeck was trying to go further and initiated formal alliances between several cities that committed each member to provide a specific number of ships and soldiers and to place them under the command of Lubeck. That the Hanseatic diet rejected, but over the next century at times cities came together in such alliances, called Tohopesaten.

The general trend towards formalisation continued after 1418. The Hanseatic diet issued regulations on shipping, trading, production, quality control, all intended to facilitate trade. Since Lubeck convened the diets and drafted the proposed regulations, the city on the Trave became not the capital of the Hanse as some had said in the past, but some sort of general secretariat that could steer the organisation’s policy in a direction that benefitted them, sometimes more than others.

The dominance of Lübeck became a problem as the century progresses. Other important participants, Cologne, Danzig and the Livonian cities find the dominance of the city on the Trave River increasingly chafing. Their interests are diverging and with a city council now stacked with members of the great families, all fearing the next uprising, the leader of the League finds it harder and harder to cope. How this pans out we will discuss next week. I hope you will join us again.

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