Episode 116– War with Denmark (Part 2)

The Hanseatic League is first and foremost an organisation driven by commerce and commerce rarely sees the necessity of war. But in 1360 the organisation that had only just transitioned from a community of merchants to an alliance of cities found itself in gridlock with Waldemar Atterdag, Waldemar Dawn, king of Denmark..

Waldemar’s objective throughout his 35-year reign was to rebuild the kingdom of Denmark that had virtually disintegrated under his predecessors. And for that he needed money. That money he got from the two sources of wealth of the state of Denmark, taxing the trade in herring and the tolls for passing through the Oresund. The Hansards who dominated the herring trade and the traffic through the Oresund were the ones who were supposed to pay for that.

If that had not breached the tolerance levels of even the most sober Hanseatic merchant, the attack on Gotland and occupation of the Hanseatic city of Visby did. A fleet leaves Lübeck in 1362 to put the Danish tyrant back into his box…

Hello and Welcome to the History of the Germans: Episode 116 – The War with Denmark Part 2

The Hanseatic League is first and foremost an organisation driven by commerce and commerce rarely sees the necessity of war. But in 1360 the organisation that had only just transitioned from a community of merchants to an alliance of cities found itself in gridlock with Waldemar Atterdag, Waldemar Dawn, king of Denmark. Waldemar’s objective throughout his 35-year reign was to rebuild the kingdom of Denmark that had virtually disintegrated under his predecessors.

And for that he needed money. That money he got from the two sources of wealth of the state of Denmark, taxing the trade in herring and the tolls for passing through the Oresund. The Hansards who dominated the herring trade and the traffic through the Oresund were the ones who were supposed to pay for that.

If that had not breached the tolerance levels of even the most sober Hanseatic merchant, the attack on Gotland and occupation of the Hanseatic city of Visby did. A fleet leaves Lübeck in 1362 to put the Danish tyrant back into his box…

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Last episode we looked at the impact of the Black death on the Hanseatic League which, despite a third or more of the cities’ population dead had no material adverse long-term effects. As it happened, the four great scourges of the 14th century, war, plague, spiritual disorientation and climate change did not stop the League from hurtling towards its economic and political zenith. Arguably it was the challenges of the 14th century that allowed for this alliance of trading posts on the edge of Europe to rise to the prominence it still retains.

Two things helped the Hanse to manage the plague.

Firstly, cities remained an attractive place for ambitious young men and women keen to escape the confines of village life. Throughout the 14th century peasants migrating into the cities made up for population lost to the regular outbreaks of Pestilence and Typhoid.

Secondly, the plague brought about a material rise in average incomes across Europe as workers exploited the persistent labour shortages. I found a statistic by the Bank of England that tracked real -not just nominal- GDP per capita on a consistent basis from 1270 to 2016. There you can see that there was only one sustained increase in real GDP per head for 500 years and that happened between 1350 and 1400. Economic activity per head moved from around £800 in today’s money to £1,100.

And just for anyone who dreams of living in the Middle Ages, today the average GDP per head in the UK is ~£29,000, a cool 25 times the levels after the boost to wages during the plague. Or to put it another way, the annual average wage in 1400 bought you just one iPhone Pro Max.

But luckily for us, the guys in the Middle Ages did not waste their money on electronic gadgets that fried their brains, but on magnificent churches, sturdy city walls, wooden ships and the occasionally tight leggings that left little to the imagination.

And it is of wooden ships not leggings we want to talk today.

We left the narrative last week with the Burgermeister Johann Wittenborg setting sail for the Oresund. The aim was to bring the king of Denmark, Waldemar Dawn back into line. He had taken over the strategic island of Gotland and had captured the Hanseatic city of Visby. There was no more room for compromise left.

The Wendish and Pomeranian cities, that means Lübeck, Hamburg, Rostock, Wismar, Lüneburg, Stralsund, Greifswald as well as Anklam and Demmin met and decided that war was inevitable. Each city committed to a full embargo on trade with Denmark and offered support in the form of ships funded by a war tax on all exports from their harbours.

The cities were not willing to take on Waldemar Dawn all by themselves though. They brought in the sworn enemies of the Danish king of which there were many. Waldemar’s policy of rebuilding royal power had taken away lands and privileges from many of the leading powers in the Baltic, the counts of Holstein, the kings of Sweden and Norway as well as many of the Danish nobles. Even the Grand Master of the Teutonic knights signed up to the alliance.

On paper this looked like a walk in the park. But as the Germans say “Papier ist geduldig” which translates as paper is patient. Makes no sense but then it still does.

The first crack appeared because the agreement bound only the Wendish and Pomeranian cities. There had not been a general Hansetag, a gathering of all the members of the league that had decided to go after Waldemar.

Because it was only one part the cities that had signed on the dotted line, other members of the Hanse were free to continue supplying the Danes. The Dutch cities, in particular Kampen on the Ijssel, then one of the largest trading centres in the low countries saw no reason to toe the line laid down by Lübeck. Kampen traders kept bringing the salt of Bourgneuf to Skane so that herring could still be pickled and could still be shipped to Europe.

Kampen (much later during the little Ice Age)

Even more irritating than the breaking of the blockade was the gradual backing out of the princely allies. Initial commitments to provide armies and undertake separate attacks were watered down into mere financial support. Only the count of Holstein still promised to attack Jutland and the King of Sweden promised an army for the siege of the great new castles built on the Oresund.

In April 1362 a fleet of 52 ships, of which 27 were the larger cogs set off for Copenhagen. Up to this point any military activity of the Hanseatic League had been undertaken in the context of a larger war. The cities provided auxiliaries, transport and occasionally warships. But they would usually operate under the command of an aristocratic general. This time there is no territorial lord who takes command. The expedition is led by a merchant, the Bürgermeister of Lübeck, Johann Wittenborg.

Wittenborg was typical for his class. His father had already been a citizen of Lübeck and a member of the city council. The family’s wealth came from trade and Johann had cut his teeth on the classic route from the Northern Baltic to Flanders and England.

That means he is likely to have received a thorough education in how to defend himself with a sword and lance, a skill eminently necessary for survival in the wilds of Finland or Russia. He would also have become a proficient sailor and leader of his ship’s company. The merchants of the Hanse fall broadly into two categories, the shippers and the traders.

A shipper would usually own a share in the ship, normally about 15 to 25% and would be in charge of the vessel and the crew. There would also be a Steuermann, a sailing master who would be in charge of the more technical aspects of sailing. Alongside the shipper were the normal merchants who would also own a share in the ship but would be simple passengers during the voyage. Being the shipper was generally the more lucrative position.

The shipper could bring both his own goods and goods from other traders who did not come along for the journey. Freight rates were generally very high given the risks and uncertainties of sea travel and depended on the value of the cargo. For instance, freight rates for grain from Danzig to Bruges were 48% of the value of the merchandise, Rye 68%, Salt 66% and wood 79%. For the even more perilous and long journey bringing salt from Portugal to Bruges it was 85%. Freight rates for luxury goods like wine, cloth and spices were more like 10%, still a good deal for the shipper given the much higher value of the merchandise.

So, if you wanted to be rich, you wanted to be a shipper. We do not know whether Johann Wittenborg was a shipper, we only know that he was rich. But these things go together so it is likely he had a lot of experience in running and managing large vessels full of valuable cargo.

But what he is unlikely to have received is the kind of thorough education in military strategy and tactics the sons of lords and princes received. That was the reason why the mayors of the Hanseatic cities had until now let others take command in war.

In the 1362 campaign there were no others, or it may have been that both Wittenborg himself and his fellow councillors and city mayors believed that it was time for the Hansards to step out of the shadows and take control of military operations themselves.

So Wittenborg, 41 years old and brimming with confidence sets off to tear down the fortresses Waldemar had built on the Oresund. His 27 cogs and 25 smaller ships were merchant vessels just marginally altered to carry soldiers.


We are still in a period where there are no guns on ships. Therefore, there was no need to have warships with much stronger hulls and openings for cannons. Sea-battles where they were fought involved ramming and then boarding the enemy vessel.

Bows and crossbows were the only distance weapons available, meaning engagements were taking place at very close quarters. It is likely that this form of naval warfare resulted in ships with ever higher constructions on the bow and stern  from where bowmen could rain arrows down on the enemy’s deck.  

The 1362 campaign did not envisage any major naval battles, mainly because Waldemar had no navy. For the last century the Hanseatic and other merchants had monopolised the Danish sea trade, meaning there were few Danish merchants and even fewer Danish sea-going ships.

The plan was to take the castles on the seashore. In the absence of guns, taking a castle, even one right on the seashore, meant that the ship’s company would disembark and then pursue a siege pretty much like any land army would do.

The ships’ job was to block attempts to resupply the besieged from the sea. When Wittenborg arrived at the Oresund he had counted on his ally, the king of Sweden to bring along his army so that the combined forces could take either Copenhagen or one of the other big castles, Malmo, Falsterbo, Skanor or Helsingborg.

For the Swedes Helsingborg was the best option as it was on the eastern, that means on their side of the Oresund and furthest away from the other three castles.

For Wittenborg it was the least attractive, being the furthest away from his position and required him to pass the Danish defences in Copenhagen, Malmo and Falsterbo before getting there.

But the need for Swedish troops trumped the concerns of the league commander. Helsingborg it was to be.

Imagine Wittenberg’s disappointment when he finds that the king Magnus of Sweden too had softened in his determination to take revenge on King Waldemar Dawn. What kept the Swedish ruler from keeping his promise was probably that Visby had thrown out the Danes in the winter of 1361/62 which removed the immediate threat to Sweden. And at the same time duke Albrecht of Mecklenburg was stirring up trouble at home which two years later would result in an uprising, an invasion and the removal of said king of Sweden.

King Magnus Ericsson

So, the Swedes did not show, leaving Johann Wittenborg carrying the can. The sensible thing would have been to sail back and curse the treacherous swedes all along the way. But in this case the oh so sober Hanseatic merchants did not do the sensible thing. Instead, they did a silly thing.

They disembarked the majority of the soldiers and commenced a traditional siege of Helsingborg. The siege lasted 12 weeks until Waldemar staged a daring raid on the poorly guarded Hanseatic warships in the Oresund. He gathered his men, rowed across the barely six miles from Zealand to Helsingborg and captured 12 of the precious vessels laden with supplies and weapons.

That put an inglorious end to this first military expedition of the Hanseatic League. Johann Wittenborg signed an onerous armistice with Waldemar and returned his much-diminished fleet to Lübeck.

The blame for the debacle was squarely put on Wittenborg. He was thrown out of the city council as soon as he arrived. Then he was brought before the court. What specifically he was accused of is not reported. His conviction was for letting the ships be captured and for “other reasons specific to him”.  He was beheaded “pour encourager les autres”

The defeat took literally the wind out of the sails of the Hanseatic League. The negotiations for a permanent settlement with Waldemar dragged on until 1365 and left both sides deeply dissatisfied.

The cities squabbled over the cost of the failed campaign and the lost ships. There was serious concern the unity of the “common merchants of the empire” could fall apart. But it did not.

Despite the defeat there was still a lot left the alliance provided to its members, first and foremost the Kontors. In 1366 the cities got together in another assembly, a full Hansetag in Lübeck and fundamentally reorganised the Kontors.

Instead of individual merchants, the Kontors were now to be run by representatives of certain cities on behalf of the whole. That gave these cities an important stake in the well-being of the organisation whilst at the same time bringing them under a degree of supervision from their peers.

And another thing helped. King Waldemar Dawn, otherwise an incredibly astute politician fell victim to the sin of pride.

He was now 43 years old and had been on the throne of Denmark for 23 years. In that time he had almost single handedly rebuilt his kingdom from literally nothing into the dominant power in the Baltic. He had expanded Danish rule into Oland and Gotland effectively controlling all the trade that came west. He had forced the citizens of Visby to fill up three barrels one with gold, one with silver and one with jewels and taken this treasure home in triumph.

And last but not least he had defeated a menacing alliance of his enemies, including the immensely wealthy Wendish and Pomeranian cities.

Between 1362 and 1367, Wldemar Dawn acted as the lord of the Baltic, charging taxes and tolls as he liked. When captains refused to pay or even just protested, he had their ships confiscated. He did that not just to the his former enemies, but also to his former allies the Dutch merchants as well as  the ships of the Teutonic Knights who were an entirely different kettle of fish.

These harassments pushed the Hanseatic cities and the Teutonic knights closer together. Meanwhile Albrecht of Mecklenburg had replaced the unreliable Magnus on the throne of Sweden, with a bit of help from some Hanseatic cities.

Albrecht was unsurprisingly interested in the reconquest of Skane and its herring market that Waldemar had taken back in 1360. The counts of Holstein did not need an invitation, nor did the Danish barons who were all still smarting from the loss of their land, power and influence by Waldemar’s hand.

But this time Lübeck and its allies had learned from their mistakes in 1362. This time the city alliance needed to be acting as one. No more blockade runners would be allowed. And this time the fleet needs to be of a size and power that can get the job done without having to rely on unreliable Swedes.

In 1367 the representatives of the Hanseatic cities gathered for a general Hansetag in Cologne. The first and only time a Hansetag took place in Cologne.

This Tagfahrt as the Hansards called their negotiations has over time gained a near mythical status in Hanseatic history. Apart from the unusual location, the participants were also much broader than on previous and future occasions.

The Dutch cities, including Kampen that spearheaded the smuggling of contraband during the first war against Waldemar made an appearance. But not only them but also other North Sea cities including  a famous pilgrimage site where one could see a holy host that had been vomited up and burned but had still remained intact. That city, founded in 1300 or 1306 and whose fortunes were dependent upon the 90,000 pilgrims who came to see this piece of unleavened and undying bread was none other than the city of Amsterdam.

Still today on the night of the 15th of March the Catholics of Amsterdam gather for the Stille Omgang, the silent procession around the place of the former pilgrimage church to venerate the now lost proof of divine presence.

But what the Hansards wanted from Amsterdam was not just the help such a holy relic could certainly provide, but also their and their fellow North Sea dwellers commitment to respect the blockade. Getting this commitment prove difficult to get, even from Bremen and Hamburg, mainly because they had no beef with king Waldemar. The negotiators had to resort to the threat of Verhansung, the expulsion from the association to get them in line.  

What the cities agreed in 1367 was a true change in the nature of their organisation. Until now they were a loose cooperation focused mainly on maintaining the privileges in the Kontors and mutual support against pirates, raiders and other unpleasantness.

What they ended up with now would be come known as the Cologne Confederation, a true league of cities. Something that was actually prohibited by imperial law, but in 1367 nobody north of the Main River cared much about the emperor.

The resolution issued at the end of the assembly was exceptionally detailed to avoid these internal squabbles that happened after 1362. Every city committed to a specific number of ships and soldiers. An elaborate system of taxation was set up that closed the loopholes in the previous export tax regime. They set the dates and places where and when the armada should assemble.

What sets the Cologne confederation further apart is the last clause. This agreement was not made just for this campaign but was to remain in place for 3 years after the conclusion of the war. As it happened the Cologne Confederation was prolonged several times and held until 1385.

To ensure full cooperation between all the cities, the months following the deliberations were taken up by negotiations with those cities that had not participated in the general assembly in Cologne. Every single city of German merchants from the Gulf of Finland to the mouth of the Rhine agreed to enforce the blockade and support the campaign.

The Teutonic knights signed up as well and the enemies of Waldemar made firm commitments that this time, they would actually fight.

The only significant player in the northern theatre that sided with Waldemar was Haakon VI, king of Norway and son in law of Waldemar. Haakon had married Margaret, Waldemar’s younger daughter. The elder one was married to Henry of Mecklenburg, brother of the king of Sweden and son of the Duke of Mecklenburg.

The allies were getting ready for war and the Hanseatic cities were even sending embassies to the pope, the emperor and other powers far and wide to gain approval for their plan.

The only one who appeared completely unconcerned by all that activity was Waldemar himself. He left Denmark literally at the time the Hanseatic fleet set off for Seeland. Waldemar’s plan was to gather allies amongst the princes of Northern Germany. For that purpose he had taken along vast amounts of cash and whilst abroad demanded more to be sent to him.

I do not want to spread conspiracy theories about long dead Danish heroic figures, but this looks to me more like Waldemar knew exactly what was going on, did a quick calculation of the odds and smart cooky he was, scarpered with as much cash as he could carry to retire on the French Riviera.

In the absence of their military and political leader, Denmark did not stand a chance. The counts of Holstein and the Danish insurrectionists took Jutland, King Albrecht of Sweden reconquered Skane. The Dutch cities attacked Waldemar’s ally, the king of Norway who caved almost immediately.

The Hanseatic fleet, led by Lubeck’s new Burgermeister, Brun Warendorp gathered as planned between the 9th and 16th of April 1368 at the Gellen off the island of Hiddensee. From here they sailed to Copenhagen. The city fell on June 16th, its defences flattened, and the castle taken over as the headquarter for the next phase of operations.

In cooperation with the Swedish allies all castles along the eastern shore of the Oresund fell. Only the mighty fortress of Helsingborg, the site of the terrible defeat of the Hanse in 1362 held out for almost another year.

In November 1369 a delegation of the Danish royal council led by Henning von Putbus, the lord of the island of Rügen came to Stralsund to sue for peace.

This, the second naval campaign of the Hanseatic League had been a complete success. 

Putbus and his colleagues knew that the war was lost for good but hoped that by negotiating with the Hansa directly, they could avoid the complete annihilation of Denmark. Remember that barely 25 years earlier the kingdom had been divided up between the Swedes, the Holsteiners and the rebellious nobles and the king lived in a hovel on Lolland. And these guys are still around, are the allies of the League and intent to go right back to the situation before the recovery that had started in 1340.

The stakes for the Danes could not have been higher. And their fearless leader, Waldemar, dawn of the Danish kingdom, was nowhere to be seen. Probably a good thing, because what happens next is a masterclass in diplomacy only matched by Talleyrand recovering France’s role as a major European power at the Congress of Vienna.

Sadly no image of Henning von Putbus survived

Putbus needed to split the enemy alliance. And to do that he had to play on the fundamental differences in his opponents’ objectives.

90% of what the Hanseatic League cared about was commerce. The cities had no interest in acquiring and then administering large territories. Politically they had had only one big concern, they did not want to see the emergence of a dominant territorial power in the Baltic.

On the flipside, the kings, princes and lords who had allied with the Hanse were 90% focused on politics, namely on the acquisition of territory. Commerce was something they cared little about.

The Hanse’s fear of an all-powerful king in the Baltic was entirely rational. Such a ruler could roll back the various trading privileges the merchants had patiently acquired not just in the Kontors but also in the hinterlands of the cities, in Sweden, in Mecklenburg, Pomerania, Denmark and Holstein. Worse, the cities themselves were in a precarious situation as most weren’t free imperial cities but still nominally subjects of a territorial lord.

That is why in 1340 the Hanse supported Waldemar against the mighty Count Gerhard of Holstein and the Danish nobles and once Waldemar had become dominant in 1360, turned against him. Following the defeat of the Danes, the power that caused the most headaches for the Hanse was the duke of Mecklenburg and his dynasty.

Albrecht II had been duke of Mecklenburg since 1329 which made him the theoretical overlord of Rostock and Wismar. He had married Euphemia of Sweden and in 1364 he had managed to put his son, Albrecht III on the throne of Sweden. Albrecht II then married another one of his sons, Henry, to the eldest daughter of Waldemar Dawn, and they had a son, confusingly also called Albrecht, this one taking the number IV.

In other words, if Waldemar was completely taken off the board, the family of the old duke of Mecklenburg were to become kings of Denmark, Sweden, Norway on top of being Dukes of Mecklenburg. That was a distinctly uncomfortable prospect for the Hanseatic League.

What made it even more uncomfortable was that the Mecklenburgers immediate objective was to take full control of Skane and its herring market. Meanwhile the Holsteiners insisted on the acquisition of territory in Jutland, making them even more of a threat to the important trade route from Lübeck to Hamburg.

Putbus saw this rift between the allies and began to systematically exploit it. Since the allies had agreed not to sign a peace treaty with Denmark unless all parties had agreed, the Danes proposed to negotiate secretly with the Hanse. The moment the cities decided to listen the alliance was broken.

Putbus then offered the Hanse all the commercial privileges they could possibly want, but none of the political concessions the Mecklenburgs and Holsteins were after. That was a major sacrifice that would deprive the crown of a significant chunk of income, but it meant that the crown of Denmark would continue to exist.

Specifically, the Danes were prepared to grant the following:

  • Free trade in Denmark and Skane for all Hanseatic cities that had joined the Cologne Confederation in exchange for a modest fixed tax.
  • That Merchants gain the right of salvage. It was so far common practice that if a vessel suffered damage and sank, any goods that could be rescued were property of the territorial lord. This was changed, allowing a merchant to salvage his own goods.
  • Third, the great herring market in Falsterbo came under more or less direct control of the Hanse. The cities were given individual plots of land, the Vitte, where they could maintain their business. They were allowed to trade from ship to ship, in all merchandise, wholesale and retail and could use their own barges and wagons for transportation, even could sent their own fishing fleet.
  • And fourth, the German merchants in Denmark were allowed to form their own communities, elect their representatives and exercise justice.

To back up these privileges and to allow the cities to regain the moneys lost, Putbus handed over the four great fortresses on the Oresund, Helsingborg, Malmo, Skanoer and Falsterbo for a period of 15 years. The Hanseatic League was to keep 2/3rd of the toll on all shipping going through the Oresund. And finally, the Danish council promised to make the election of a new king of Denmark dependent upon the consent of the cities.

In return Waldemar could return to his throne and Denmark would not be dismembered. Even Skane, at this point occupied by Albrecht of Mecklenburg, the king of Sweden, was to come back to Denmark.

These concessions granted the Hanseatic League a monopoly in the Baltic trade. Holding the Oresund castles meant they could block any foreign traders from getting into the Baltic Sea.

The wide range of privileges in the herring markets made it virtually impossible for anyone, including the locals to compete. And they were given the keys to the kingdom of Denmark.

In 1370 these clandestine discussions were brought into the open when Putbus arrived with 25 of Denmark’s most important nobles in Stralsund to sit down for final negotiations.

This meeting was all for show, since the terms had been agreed weeks if not months earlier.

The last obstacles were obviously the consents of the allies, the Holsteiners and in particular the Mecklenburgers. The Holsteiners could seemingly been bullied into accepting the terms. Long gone are the days of the mighty count Gerhard.

The Mecklenburgers were a bit more difficult. The agreement was quite obviously aimed against them. The duke would later claim that no attempt was made to gain his consent. But there was no real pushback. Sweden even handed over Skane to the Danes and Hansards.

What forced their hand was unrest in Sweden as the supporters of the exiled king Magnus conspired against Albrecht of Mecklenburg, a topic we will return to soon.

The fact that the Mecklenburger had to accept the peace of Stralsund shows how much the power of the Hanse had increased since the time of the Black Death. The league was now a serious European power. The confederation of Cologne had forged them together into an entity that could quickly raise a powerful navy able to project power anywhere in the Baltic and the North Sea. And as grain providers of last resort, they held a sword over the heads of even the mightiest kings, princes and lords.

Next week we will talk a bit more about this period when the League is riding high.

Great success does not always mean that life become more comfortable. The rise in Hanseatic power and their excessive privileges makes many kings and princes uncomfortable. In 1388 three of the most important powers in Northern Europe, England, Flanders and Russia challenge the Hanse simultaneously. If you want to know how that plays out, join us again next week.

Before I go, let me thank all of you who are supporting the show, in particular the Patrons who have kindly signed up on patreon.com/historyofthegermans. It is thanks to you this show does not have to do advertising for products you do not want to hear about. If Patreon isn’t for you, another way to help the show is sharing the podcast directly or boosting its recognition on social media. If you share, comment or retweet a post from the History of the Germans it is more likely to be seen by others, hence bringing in more listeners. My most active places are Twitter @germanshistory and my Facebook page History of the Germans Podcast. As always, all the links are in the show notes.    

And just to remind you, the sub-podcast The Hanseatic League is still running. So if you want to point a friend or relative towards the History of the Germans but want to avoid confusion, just send them there. The Hanseatic League is available everywhere you can get the History of the Germans.

And last but not least the bibliography.

For this episode I again relied heavily on:

The Peace of Stralsund by David K. Bjoerk, in Speculum, Vol. 7 No.4 (Oct. 1932) The Peace of Stralsund, 1370 on JSTOR

Erich Hoffmann: Konflikte und Ausgleich mit den Scandinavischen Reichen in Die Hanse, Lebenswirklichkeit und Mythos, herausgegeben von Jürgen Bracker, Volker Henn and Rainer Postel

Philippe Dollinger: Die Hanse

Rolf Hammel-Kieslow: Die Hanse

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