Episode 109– Gotlandfahrer

If I put the word Hanseatic into Google Search I get as result number 4 “Hanseatic King’s Lynn -Visit West Norfolk”. I can say with absolute confidence that there is not a single German individual, place or organisation that a small town in England would choose to not just associate with but incorporate itself into its history, safe for the Hanseatic League. They may play Zedoch the Priest at the coronation but that is because both Handel and Price Charles are considered English with German roots. Kings Lynn calling itself a Hanseatic city is a different thing. And it happens in many other places, Bergen is proud of its Hanseatic past as is Visby in Gotland or the Dutch former members of the League.

The love of all things Hanseatic goes so far that it even overrides the German fascination with all things car related. As you may know, the German system of numberplates is strictly hierarchical. The first 1, 2 or 3 letters indicate the place where the vehicle is registered at the time. The more letters, the smaller the town or county of registration. For instance, WES stands for Wesel and STD for Stade, two of the smaller members of the Hanseatic League. The two-letter cities are plentiful and some, like LG stands for Lüneburg and BS for Brunswick. Only the largest cities get to proudly display just one single letter – for instance K for Cologne, B for Berlin and F for Frankfurt.

But what about Germany’s second largest city, the Free and Hanseatic City of Hamburg? Does your honourable Hamburg merchant drive round in a car ostentatiously displaying a proud single H? No, of course he doesn’t. His numberplate is HH, standing for Hansestadt Hamburg, leaving the single H to the inland Hanoverians. Other Hanseatic cities like Bremen, Lübeck, Wismar, Rostock, Greifswald and Stralsund also proudly carry an additional H on their numberplate, a subtle reminder to everyone that their hometowns are different and dare one say, superior to other cities.

How can an organisation that had hardly any permanent institutions traded rather pedestrian commodities like grain, Hering, furs and beeswax and ceased to exist in 1669 still stir so many peoples’ hearts with pride, that is what we will try to figure out in this podcast series.

Hello and welcome to the History of the Germans – Season Six, the Hanseatic League is starting today with Episode 109 – The Gotlandfahrer

If I put the word Hanseatic into Google Search I get as result number 4 “Hanseatic King’s Lynn -Visit West Norfolk”. I can say with absolute confidence that there is not a single German individual, place or organisation that a small town in England would choose to not just associate with but incorporate itself into its history, safe for the Hanseatic League. They may play Zedoch the Priest at the coronation but that is because both Handel and Price Charles are considered English with German roots. Kings Lynn calling itself a Hanseatic city is a different thing. And it happens in many other places, Bergen is proud of its Hanseatic past as is Visby in Gotland or the Dutch former members of the League.

The love of all things Hanseatic goes so far that it even overrides the German fascination with all things car related. As you may know, the German system of numberplates is strictly hierarchical. The first 1, 2 or 3 letters indicate the place where the vehicle is registered at the time. The more letters, the smaller the town or county of registration. For instance, WES stands for Wesel and STD for Stade, two of the smaller members of the Hanseatic League. The two-letter cities are plentiful and some, like LG stands for Lüneburg and BS for Brunswick. Only the largest cities get to proudly display just one single letter – for instance K for Cologne, B for Berlin and F for Frankfurt.

But what about Germany’s second largest city, the Free and Hanseatic City of Hamburg? Does your honourable Hamburg merchant drive round in a car ostentatiously displaying a proud single H? No, of course he doesn’t. His numberplate is HH, standing for Hansestadt Hamburg, leaving the single H to the inland Hanoverians. Other Hanseatic cities like Bremen, Lübeck, Wismar, Rostock, Greifswald and Stralsund also proudly carry an additional H on their numberplate, a subtle reminder to everyone that their hometowns are different and dare one say, superior to other cities.

How can an organisation that had hardly any permanent institutions traded rather pedestrian commodities like grain, Hering, furs and beeswax and ceased to exist in 1669 still stir so many peoples’ hearts with pride, that is what we will try to figure out in this podcast series.

But before we start let me tell you that the History of the Germans Podcast is advertising free thanks to the generous support from patrons. And you can become a patron too and enjoy exclusive bonus episodes and other privileges from the price of a latte per month. All you have to do is sign up at patreon.com/historyofthegermans or on my website historyofthegermans.com. You find all the links in the show notes. And thanks a lot to Cory M., Daniel R., Christopher W., and William S. who have already signed up.

A history of the Hanseatic League normally begins with the story of the foundation, destruction and refoundation of Lübeck. This series will not do that. For once, we already had a whole episode of the Foundation of Lübeck. If you want to check it out, look for episode 105 of the History of the Germans Podcast.

But more importantly, the foundation of Lübeck, is still just the foundation of a city. Do not get me wrong, Lübeck is a stunning city and its Rathaus and the magnificent churches, including the astounding Marienkirche tell us about the wealth and the civic pride of its inhabitants. But then, Burges is an even more astounding merchant city, as are Antwerp, Amsterdam, not to speak of Florence or Venice.

What I mean is that if Lübeck, Bremen, Hamburg, Gdansk and Riga had just been successful trading cities in the Middle Ages, the city of King’s Lynn would not remind everyone of their old business relationship.

It isn’t the size and beauty of its cities that that makes the Hanseatic League special, it is the way they co-operated. And that does not begin with the foundation of Lübeck, but with something that happened shortly afterwards, in 1161.

Being a merchant in the 12th century isn’t a job for sissies. These traders aren’t spindly bespectacled men passing their days making long entries in their accounting book or piling up gold coins in the counting house.

Merchants in the 12th century are part trader, part adventurer and part pirate. At that stage most of them cannot write but are a dab hand with the sword. Their life is incredibly dangerous. If the risks associated with sailing the Baltic seas at the outer edge of the seasons isn’t going to get you, the locals may take a sudden dislike to you, robbers may steal your wares, or some greedy local ruler may decide it is time to levy some new tolls or some toes.

You may remember that when we talked about Frederick II’s law code in Sicily where he banned the carrying of weapons. Well, he banned everyone, including his nobles from going about town with swords and knifes. The only civilians exempt from the rule were the merchants, because they really needed them.

These guys were hard as nails. Only a bunch of merchants can come up with the concept of the Carroccio, the ox-driven war cart the Italian communes used as a rallying point during their battles. These machines were far too heavy and ungainly to flee the battlefield forcing the merchant citizen warriors to fight until the very bitter end whilst their knightly opponents ran away as soon as the bannerman had fallen or turned tail.

Travelling within one of the more settled political entities like say Sicily or the Contado of one of the major Italian city republics was already a challenge. But going about in what used to be the Stem duchy of Saxony where imperial power was non-existent, and the central ducal power disappeared in 1180 was a lot more challenging. Now going across the Baltic where the largest power, Denmark was caught up in almost incessant civil war, large parts of the coast were still occupied by Pagans with little sympathy for Western merchants and your target is Novgorod whose ruler is only loosely connected to the Western monarchs, that is way up the “maybe not such a good idea” scale.

Plus the distinction between honourable merchant and freebooter was rather fluid. Imagine you are a merchant and you have set out to buy cloth and currants at the great fairs of Champagne. But the winds were distinctly not in your favour or something broke on the boat. So you get there late, or you know that you will be late. All the good stuff will be gone, and if you come home empty handed, you face ruin.

What do you do? You place your ship at the mouth of the Rhine or Schelde Rivers and wait for the next colleague who comes up, board his ship, take his goods and be off. The only other alternative is, well you press on to somewhere nobody from your corner of the world had yet gone and if very lucky, bring back some fabulous new products everyone will pay top dollar for.

There were some people who were up to this task, and that were the inhabitants of Gotland. Gotland is hat large Swedish island halfway up the Baltic and according to many the original home of the Goths. Gotlanders are tough people and had been trading across the Baltic since time immemorial. By the 12th century their ships had gained almost a monopoly of the transport of wax and furs from the far north of the Baltic to Schleswig and from there to western Europe.

The Gotlanders were merchants in the style of the Vikings or more precisely, they were Vikings. That meant they spent most of the year as farmers with the seafaring activity more of a side hustle. They lived on their farms and during the season took their Viking ships called Knarres up to the great trading city of Novgorod, picked up what they needed and then returned either home or somewhere where there was a market for it.

Where a merchant would go with his wares depended on two things, firstly, whether there would be willing buyers prepared to compensate you for your troubles. And secondly whether you are likely to make it out of there with all your cash and all your limbs.

Henry the Lion, duke of Saxony and Bavaria who had just wrestled the site of Lübeck from the count of Holstein seems to have understood this very well. If he wanted for this new settlement to grow and produce lots of fine gold, he needed to the Gotlanders to come here. And for that he needed to create both, a source of demand for goods and a guarantee for the safety for these foreign traders.

The former was created relatively easily. South of Lübeck lay his great duchy of Saxony and beyond it the rest of the Holy Roman Empire. All that he needed was people willing to use this new route. But as he was the duke of Saxony, his power stretched all the way to Westphalia and the two great trading cities there, Soest and Dortmund. He invited merchants from there to trade in Lübeck, and if they wanted to, settle there.

Now he needs the second leg to that trade, the Gotlanders. And it seems things there had gone badly pear shaped. In 1161, just three years after the re-founding of Lübeck. At that time Henry the Lion wrote to the Gotlanders:

Quote: “In the name of the holy and undivided trinity. Henry, by divine benevolent grace, duke of the Bavarians and the Saxons. All present and future faithful of Christ should learn, in their wisdom, how out of love for peace and respect for the Christian religion, but especially out of contemplation of eternal retribution, we have resolved the discord that has long been bad between the Germans (‘Teuthonicos’) and the Gotlanders (‘Gutenses’), stirred up by the spirit of evil. We re-established the ancient unity and concord. And also how we resolved the many evils, namely the hatred, enmities, and murders that arose from the discord of the two peoples, with the helping grace of the Holy Spirit in an eternal stability of peace, and afterwards kindly accepted the Gotlanders into the grace of our reconciliation.”

Clearly things had escalated quite badly. Hatred, enmity and murders are not conducive to the establishment of a thriving trading city.

So, Henry goes and personally guarantees their safety. He writes:

“The Gotlanders should have a firm peace throughout the entire dominion of our power, so that they should obtain full justice and amendment from our judicial power whatever the loss of their property or injuries suffered within the borders of our rule, with the added benefit that they should be exempt from tolls in all our cities.”

He then lists all the various ways he would punish any of his subject should they harm any of the Gotlander.

So far so good. He now has solved the problem of getting the Gotlanders to come. But that does not yet get him what he really wants. Because since he has just freed the Gotland traders from paying taxes and tolls, he now needs his own merchants to undertake lucrative journeys to faraway lands, merchants that he can ask to line his pockets.

And so he puts in another last cause that reads rather innocuously as follows:

“And last of all, the same benefits and rights, namely this treaty, that we have decreed for our merchants, we stipulate faithfully in perpetuity also for all Gotlanders, and should maintain it inviolably, as long as they in grateful reciprocity grant the same to us, visiting us and our land more frequently and our port in Lübeck more often.”

It basically says, all this protection applies only if you grant the same level of protection to our merchants when they visit Gotland and please come often. Several historians have suggested that this passage was only added later, namely in 1225, the date of the oldest remaining copy of this document, which by the way is called the treaty of Artlenburg.

And maybe that is true. Because in 1161 Henry was in no position to demand anything from the Gotlanders. He needed them, they did not need him. They could continue trading via Schleswig. A bit slower but not really a problem.

But even if it was not written explicitly, the Gotlanders knew that if they wanted to trade through Lübeck and get their Beeswax quicker down to the great monasteries of Westphalia, it would not be helpful slaughtering German merchants arriving on Gotland and nicking their stuff.

So Gotlanders and German merchants enjoyed safety and support in each other’s ports. As time went by not only did Gotlanders come to Lübeck, merchants from the Holy Roman empire also came to Gotland. They founded something they called “The society of Germans who frequently sail to Gotland”, the Gotlandfahrer.

The purpose of this society was threefold. The first and most prevalent reason that merchants pooled together was safety. If they travelled in a convoy, pirates and even hostile states would find it more difficult to capture and rob them. It is a system that is as old as trade. Every caravan trundling along the Silk Road is based on this logic. The members of the convoy or caravan pledge each other support in case of an attack. And since the Gotlandfahrer went several times a year on the same route, the structure was more institutionalised, and the mutual assurances were likely given in the form of elaborate oaths.

These arrangements are however only useful when they can be enforced. There is no point to have a member of the society who takes flight as soon as the pirate fleet appears leaving his fellow merchants to fight the battle. And what can also not be tolerated is that a member brings the society into disrepute by cheating his negotiation partners or making himself a nuisance on Gotland. So the society had likely rules of behaviour and means to enforce them.

The treaty of Artlenburg has a side letter where Henry the Lion appoints a certain Olderich as his bailiff or representative and gives him the right to adjudicate between the members of the Guild. Olderich is likely an alderman that the merchants had themselves elected and who now possessed the right to sit in judgement over his fellow society members, even allowed to order physical punishments in the duke’s name.

As the organisation consolidates further, they become a legal entity. We know that in 1226 they had their own seal showing a lily as a symbol of royal protection.

In many aspects the society of Gotlandfarer resembles the Italian communes in the Middle Ages. In Italy too, the roads were dangerous, and the merchants were ganging up to protect themselves. As their system of mutual support became more and more institutionalised these Communes gradually took over the management of the cities where they were based in. In the end the term commune went from meaning a group of merchants to meaning the citizens of a specific town.

And that is where the Gotlandfahrer and its successor organisation differed from the Italian communes and most other societies, guilds or other merchant organisations of the Middle Ages. The Gotlandfahrer were not exclusively from Lübeck. The society was open to all merchants from the empire. Why they were so open is relatively easy to understand. The city of Lübeck was only a few years old and many of its inhabitants had come from elsewhere. Moreover, the capital needed to fund the building of ships and the purchase of goods to trade had to come from somewhere. Certainly not Lübeck which was still in ruins from the fire. It came from established trading cities like for instance Dortmund and Soest in Westphalia. In Italy the great cities like Milan, Cremona, Pavia, Venice and Genoa already had a sizeable population when long distance trading started out in earnest. Out here on the Baltic shore, everything was new and everything was in flux.

The Gotlandfahrer society did not enforce restrictions based on whether an applicant was a citizen of Lübeck. Anyone could join, after having been properly scrutinised. In fact even though the society was explicitly called a society of Germans, they did admit Gotlanders to their ranks. Seemingly the initial quarrels and murders were quickly forgotten.

German merchants settled on Gotland, in the city of Visby. For a time there were two cities with separate councils and seals, one for the Gotlanders and one for the German merchants, but they soon merged. The council of the unified city of Visby was still elected separately by each of the communities though.

The Gotlander merchants had initially lived on their farms all across the island, but now Visby became the centre. The city grew rapidly and in the middle of the 13th century acquired 11,200 feet of city walls enclosing 90 hectares. Inside were at least 18 churches, more than in any other Swedish medieval city, the biggest of which was the church of St. Mary of the Germans.

What made Visby rich was the trade with Novgorod, a city lying about 200km south of modern-day St. Petersburg. Novgorod was the entry point into the markets of this vast landmass that is today Russia, Ukraine, Belarus, Georgia and beyond. The main exports from Novgorod were fur and beeswax.

Beeswax was in high demand in the west, mainly because the monks and bishop’s chapters needed it to light their churches during their nightly prayers.

Interestingly the honey that came from the same source as the beeswax was not sent westward, but south to Constantinople and then down the Silk Road. The bees had fed on the vast forests of pine, spruce and fir that covers large parts of Russia. The honey they produce is hence dark and viscous, features much valued in the Orient. The honey went along the great river systems down to Constantinople and from there east along the Silk Road as far as Baghdad and China. This export was seemingly so lucrative that Novgorod would replace its honey with imported honey from the Baltic that was usually much lighter.

It still astounds me that relative commodities like honey and beeswax could be transported over thousands of miles to their end users in the 12th century when roads were terrible or non-existent and there was constant danger from robbers and local rulers. This is the same time where journeys to the Holy Land were always preceded by the making of wills and generous donations to the church. And still many did not survive the trip. Taking such a long journey not for a guaranteed ticket to paradise but for the mark-up on a half-ton of honey, and doing it not once in life, but annually takes a particular kind of person.

The traders who took the honey down to Constantinople came back with spices, silks, and other luxuries from the east which they would then sell to the German and Gotland traders who took them westward. So, when king Henry II had his mutton generously peppered and the lovely Eleanor clad in the finest silks, that pepper and that silk was as likely to have come via Kyiv, Smolensk and Gotland as via Venice and Bruges.   

Fur was always popular, partly as a luxury but also as a day-to-day necessity in winter. The furs came down from further north as hunters travelled up to Karelia, the white sea and even the Barents Sea to hunt the most beautifully pelted quarry. The moist valuable was the sable where 100 pelts sold at 82 ducats in Venice, martens came in at 30 ducats. Beaver and ermine much cheaper at 12-14 ducats. Then it gets even cheaper with lynx at 5 ½ ducats, otters and weasels at 5 and then the different types of squirrels at usually 3 to 4 ducats. The most desirable of the squirrels was the grey arctic ground squirrel whose coat could go for up to 7 ducats. I wonder what they would have paid for the pelt of one of these grey tree rats that have overrun the UK and nearly exterminated the lovely red squirrels ever since they were introduced in the 1800s.

Novgorod’s first main import, apart from the honey, was cloth. Cloth was always in demand. The great cloth cities of Flanders: Bruges, Ghent, Ypres and so forth wove English wool into the Middle Ages’ most popular traded good. There was also linen coming up from Westphalia.  

The second equally important import was salt, needed to preserve food. Fish as well as meat caught in the summer needed to be preserved so that there was something to eat in the winter when the rivers were frozen and the fields and woods empty of fruit.

And salt may be the reason for what happens next. The Baltic Sea is not very salty. To be precise, salination is just 7 grams per litre of water compared to 35 grams in the major oceans. That makes it one of the nicest places to spend a beach holiday but one of the worst places to generate salt from evaporation. To make things worse, underground salt deposits in Europe occur mainly in a strip going from southern Poland across Northern Germany, Denmark and into the North Sea.

Crucially, there are no mineable salt deposits in the Baltic north of Denmark, specifically not on Gotland. That looks to me as the main reason the Gotlanders started to make common cause with the merchants coming in via Lübeck. The Gotlanders knew the way to Novgorod and its lovely beeswax and furs. The German merchants could provide the Salt so desperately needed up north. There were the large salt mines in Lüneburg and Oldesloe, both not far from Lübeck. So they allowed the German merchants to sail on their vessels all the way to the top of Finland. Later the Germans would fit out their own ships, mostly the more modern cogs, and sail there on their own transports. For that journey they did not create a new “Society of Germans who frequently travel to Novgorod”. The Gotlandfahrer society as a legal entity was a one-time affair. From now on what we will later call the Hanseatic League will be a much looser entity, much harder to grasp, with limited statues and institutions.

But they would still altogether travel in a convoy. And for good reason. As I mentioned before, Novgorod lies almost 200km inland.

So the merchants from Gotland, Lübeck and later from many cities along the Baltic coast would sail up in separate convoys and then congregate on the island of Kotlin or Kronstadt, just off the coast at what is today St. Petersburg. Kronstadt would later become the headquarter of the Russian Baltic Fleet. But since St. Petersburg would not be built for another 500 years, Kronstadt was just a port where goods could be moved on to lighter vessels to sail up the Neva River.

Once the fleet had gathered, they would elect two aldermen for the term of this trading expedition. One was the Alderman of the Yard, who was the overall responsible and the Alderman of St. Peter who managed transport and was in charge of security.

They then proceeded along the Neva River, the river that flows past St. Petersburg as it makes its way from the Ladoga Sea to the Baltic. Along the shore waited Karelian and Swedish raiders trying to steal their goods. Once through the Neva River the traders reached the town of Ladoga at the mouth of the Volkov River. Here again the goods had to be moved to new transports as there were impassable rapids. And to cap it all off, they travelled another 200km on the Volkov River until they finally reached Novgorod.

Novgorod was by then one of Eastern Europe’s largest cities. When the Kyivan Rus began to disintegrate in the 12th century, the princes of Novgorod became the dominant force in what is today Russia. The city itself was however almost independent, its politics led by local noblemen, Bojars, who lived in the city usually inside fortified compounds, but merchants and artisans also had a say. Population in the 14th century reached 15-20,000, very much on par with the largest cities of the Hanseatic league and not far short of Cologne with 25,000.

The Gotlanders had been trading with Novgorod for probably centuries and had acquired their own fortified compound inside the city, called the Olaf yard, after saint Olaf, king of Sweden. There they hosted their new German friends and neighbours. These trading yards were effectively small fortresses. The merchants were well aware that they were in enemy territory and that the locals could at any time come and burn down their establishment. It had strong walls, much stronger than the walls of the local aristocratic compounds and even featured a watchtower. As the trade with Novgorod grew the “Merchants of the Holy Roman Empire” established their own yard, the yard of St. Peter in Novgorod. It centred around a church which was used not just for worship but also as a storeroom for the trading goods. Each night two men, who must not be related nor working for the same merchant company were locked up inside the church to guard the goods.

The Alderman’s main job was to ensure the community stayed safe. That meant posting guards and maintaining good relationships with the city authority, which I am sure include the occasional bribe. But even more importantly he had to ensure discipline amongst his fellow merchants so as not to provoke their hosts. Misbehaviour, such as brawling with locals and chasing girls was strictly forbidden. But it also involved making sure that the merchants maintained good standards of probity. Wax was the good most prone to fraud. Sellers and traders would often mix in some other fats made from acorns, peas or resins. Neither the sellers, nor the traders were prepared to guarantee the quality of the product and complaints were widespread. The yard therefore maintained various forms of quality control mechanisms including a wax examiner to ensure goods bought and sold were meeting minimum standards.

For a long time the community of merchants bore collective responsibility for the debt of any of its members. Each merchant was also limited to buy and sell no more than the equivalent of 1,000 mark. That was a demand from the Novgorod authorities who wanted to avoid becoming dependent on one or few importers for their crucial supplies, but still have the recourse to a large capital base. Though meant as a restriction, it also worked for the foreign traders. The constraints limited the volume of imports and kept prices high, making the arduous journey to Novgorod lucrative, even for mid-sized merchants.

Another provision the authorities in Novgorod insisted upon was that no trader stays in the city all year around. That forced the merchants to break up into two groups. There were the winter merchants who came down in early autumn, just before the rivers were freezing over and stayed until the spring. Staying over the winter allowed them to acquire the best furs that were mostly hunted in the snow when the prey was easier to spot. Just as they left, the summer contingent would arrive, bringing fresh supplies of salt and cloth and buying beeswax and oriental luxuries.

Because the winter and summer merchants were completely separate, they also had separate financial arrangements. When say the Winter merchants returned in spring, they took with them their strongbox that contained the money collected for the maintenance of the St. Peter yard and the expenses such as bribes etc. This strongbox was then deposited in the church of St. Mary in Visby until the fleet would gather again in early Autumn to go to Novgorod again. The strongbox only opened when four keys were present and these keys were held by the representatives of Lübeck, obviously, but also Visby, the main settlement on Gotland, Soest near Muenster in Westphalia and Dortmund. Yes, Dortmund. Today best known as a major city in the Ruhr and a world power in Football, but Dortmund was also one of the founding members of the Hanseatic League and one of its leaders.

And here we are, back in Visby. The “Society of Germans who frequently travel to Gotland”, the Gotlandfahrer and the subsequent organisation of the St. Peter’s yard in Novgorod are the earliest forms of the Hanseatic League. And they bear many of the hallmark of the organisation that will gradually emerge.

It is first and foremost an association of long-distance traders who have got together to protect themselves against the innumerate dangers they experience on their journeys. But, other than the Italian medieval communes or the great cloth merchants of Flanders, access to their association or guild wasn’t limited to men from a particular place. It was open to all traders from the Holy Roman Empire. We have records of traders from the tiny townlet of Medebach in the Sauerland – to translate that for our US audience – that would be Muscogee/Oklahoma. These guys could travel all the way from the back and beyond in Westphalia to the arctic circle and return, all under the protective shield and using the trading privileges of the German merchants in St. Peter’s Yard Novgorod.

And we get another crucial element, the commercial discipline and branding. If you came to Novgorod on your own, assuming you made it at all, it would have been very difficult for you to sell your wares at a good price. Your clients will ask: Is that cloth you sell really the high-quality material from Bruges and not the cheap stuff from Ypres? That salt, could it be mixed with something? Where do I go when I have a complaint and you have gone home?

The members of the St. Peter’s Yard maintained or at least pretended to maintain strict discipline amongst their ranks and if one of their customers had found themselves cheated by one of these merchants, they knew where to go for redress. This created what we would today call a brand. Merchants who came with the that fleet became seen as trustworthy. They may be a touch more expensive, but you get what you were hoping to get.

Moreover, the discipline inside the Yard created a network of trust between the merchants. They had travelled together through the Neva River and up the Volkov. They had selected two amongst their number to be their aldermen and these men had proven to be unbiased, even though they may not have come from the merchant’s hometown. They saw fellow merchants who cheated or brawled being punished or even expelled, making you believe that all of those still inside the yard must be honourable.

And as you spent the long nights of the arctic winter, playing cards or chess with your fellow travellers, standing guard inside the church with a another trader, what are you going to talk about. The same stuff we talk about. Business, politics and kids. Why not get together on the next deal, maybe we can bring your son and my daughter together to see whether they like each other, maybe your boy would like to come as am apprentice to Stralsund? One of the most valuable economic commodities began to emerge – trust.

Gradually merchants began to believe that this system of justice they had created with elected aldermen who kept order was to be trusted, whilst at the same time the aldermen knew that their term was only for this journey and that biased decisions this year could backfire badly next year when someone else was alderman.

In 1468 the English King Edward IV demanded that the Hanseatic merchants declare what they are, a society, a cooperative or a corporation? And they answered that they are none of these things. They are a firm association of cities and merchants who cooperate to their mutual benefit. They did not fit any medieval roman law category, but we do know exactly what they were. They were a network, a trust-based network. They have more in common with ebay, etsi, Airbnb, Booking.com or Amazon than with European Union or NAFTA. Like on these internet platforms, the members trade goods based on trust in each other. Like we know that an AirBNB with many and consistently good reviews is going to be a decent place to stay, a medieval merchants in the Hansa would know that ordering his goods from such and such in Stralsund will result in a timely delivery in reasonable quality. The job of the network is to ensure the minimum quality standards by expelling merchants who consistently fall short and that it is an equal playing field with reliable processes for complaints and refunds. I know, the comparison is obviously not quite right because the Hanseatic League itself did not make astronomic profits from providing this network. But the fundamental components are the same – the system of mutual trust and the confidence in the process i.e., the rule of law.

That is my current theory why the Hanseatic League was so successful. Mutual trust and the rule of law are some of the strongest engines of economic growth. We will see throughout this series whether this theory holds.

And when you see modern day companies branding themselves as Hanseatische Krankenkasse, Hanseatischer Lloyd, Hanseatischer Weinkontor, Hanseatische whatever, they try to tab into this notion that a Hanseatic merchant is a man or woman one can trust. Maybe even Kings Lynn hopes to gain a little bit of that cache when they call themselves a Hanseatic city.  It is in the end, just good business.

Next week we will talk about how this good business keeps growing. We will look at how a string of cities along the Baltic coast come into being, what they trade, who lives there and why some flourish and others disappear quite quickly. And maybe we can also cover the western leg of the trade. After all, trade is all about linking two or more places, and the places where the goods from the Baltic go are the empire, England and Flanders. I hope you are going to join us again.

And now, before I go and before I thank all of you who are supporting the show, in particular the Patrons who have kindly signed up on patreon.com/historyofthegermans, let me tell you about my latest plan.

I am like you a great fan of narrative history podcasts and I do listen to quite a few. What I noticed is that I find them often quite difficult to navigate. It is ok if you are a hardcore fan, because then you have listened to all previous episodes and just wait for the next one to drop. But sometimes I let things slack and suddenly there are 20 new episodes I have missed. Or I discover a new podcast that is now on episode 177 and I feel a bit intimidated.

So, my idea is to publish this and all future episodes of this series twice. Once here in the main feed and then – a day later- in a separate podcast, called The Hanseatic League – A podcast by the History of the Germans. So for you guys, who are committed listeners to the History of the Germans, nothing changes. You still get your episodes as normal. You will not miss anything on the other feed. And please, if you suddenly come across a separate podcast about the Hanseatic League, do not get angry when it turns out to be almost 100% the same episode you just listened to.

On the other hand, if you know someone who might be interested in the History of the Germans, and most specifically in the Hanseatic League, but may be put off by believing he needs to listen to 107 other episodes first, just send him there.

If this turns out to be successful, I may repurpose some of the back catalogue into separate Podcasts as well. Let’s just see.

I will explain all this in the show notes and on social media, specifically on Twitter @germanshistory and my Facebook page History of the Germans Podcast. Ah, and still a big thank you to all my Patrons. Your support is so important to keeping the show on the road.    

And last but not least the bibliography. For this episode I relied heavily on:

Philippe Dillinger: Die Hanse neu bearbeitet von Volker Henn und Nils Joern, 6. Aufl. 2012

Die Hanse, Lebenswirklichkeit und  Mythos, hrsg. von Jürgen Bracker, Volker Henn and Rainer Postel, 4.Aufl. 2006

Rolf Hammel-Kieslow: Die Hanse, 1.Aufl., 2000

And special thanks for the translation of the Artlenburg Privileg to Dr. Jenny Benham. Henry the Lion, the Gotlanders and the Treaty of Artlenburg, 1161 – War, Peace and Diplomacy in the Middle Ages (wordpress.com)

And special thanks to Dr. Justyna Wubs-Montzewicz whose research I found eye-opening: Dr. J.J. (Justyna) Wubs-Mrozewicz – University of Amsterdam (uva.nl)

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2 Comments

  1. Dear Mr.Hoffmann-Becking,

    Thank you for such a great podcast!
    I have one request concerning this particular episode (and probably also in general, since those placenames and topics will pop up here and there in the future episodes), if I may:

    Could you please spell the name of Ukrainian capital as “Kyiv” (“Kyjiw” in German pronunciation), as it is spelled in the English transliteration of an actual Ukrainian-Cyrillic placename.

    The “Kiev” spelling is a russian-Cyrillic spelling, and it’s domination in the English and German-speaking research and general publications (and overall in the German media as “Kiew”) is a result of the old domination of the russian-centered narrative in the public discourse and academia regarding the “east European” or “post socialist” history and affairs. Which itself was and still is a part of the russian imperialist imagemaking, to put it shortly.

    Thank you and again many thanks for a great podcast!

    Best regards,
    Igor Igor Tyshchenko

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