EPISODE 127 – Art and Culture of the Hanse

Our history of the Hanse has come to an end, not with a bang but with a whimper. Of the things that have remained we have already talked a lot, the ideal of the honourable Hanseatic merchant, the cultural and political links to Scandinavia and the stories. The stories of the famous pirates, Klaus Störtebecker and Hans Benecke, the heroics of the wars fought with Denmark and the antics of Jurgen Wullenwever.

But there is something that reminds us of the days when traders speaking low German fed Europe fish, beer and grain. And that are the cultural achievements, the town halls, weighing houses and stores that became symbols of civic pride, the artists whose works adorn churches and palaces across the Baltic sea and last but not least the brick churches that shaped the way these cities still appear..…let’s have a look.


Hello and welcome to the History of the Germans: Episode 127: The Art and Culture of the Hanse.

Our history of the Hanse has come to an end, not with a bang but with a whimper. Of the things that have remained we have already talked a lot, the ideal of the honourable Hanseatic merchant, the cultural and political links to Scandinavia and the stories. The stories of the famous pirates, Klaus Störtebecker and Hans Benecke, the heroics of the wars fought with Denmark and the antics of Jurgen Wullenwever.

But there is something that reminds us of the days when traders speaking low German fed Europe fish, beer and grain. And that are the cultural achievements, the town halls, weighing houses and stores that became symbols of civic pride, the artists whose works adorn churches and palaces across the Baltic sea and last but not least the brick churches that shaped the way these cities still appear..…let’s have a look.

And since podcasting is a most unsuitable medium to talk about visual art, I have added a few images to the episode webpage which you can find at historyofthegermans.com/127-2

But before we start it is my privilege to thank all the patrons who have signed up on patreon.com/historyofthegermans or on my website, historyofthegermans.com. Your help is much appreciated. And for those of you who are still on the sidelines, come and join. You can become a knight of the realm for the price of a cappuccino per month, equally stimulating, less calorific and much more prestigious. And here are the names of four amongst your number who have already taken the plunge: John C., Ole S., Luis-Felipe M. and Edward B. Thanks you guys so much.

Now back to the show. The Hanse ended officially in 1669 with the last Hanseatic diet. But for centuries afterwards the cities of Hamburg, Lubeck and Bremen were the caretakers of the remaining tangible possessions of the institutions, specifically the Kontor Buildings in London, Bruges and Antwerp. The three cities would also maintain joint embassies and consulates abroad and after the unification of Germany in 1871 maintain a Hanseatic representation in Berlin that lasted until 1933.

Thanks not only to this cooperation but multiple other factors, the three cities weren’t integrated into territorial states until the 20th century when Lubeck became part of Schleswig-Holstein. Hamburg and Bremen are still city states with their own state government and a seat in the Bundesrat, something the other great free imperial cities, Frankfurt, Nurnberg, Augsburg and Cologne to name just a few, did not achieve.

So, in a way one of the legacies of the Hanse is the existence of the city states of Hamburg and Bremen. But beyond the political, what is left today?

Let’s start with the language. One of the defining factors and some of the glue that kept the Hanse network together was the common language spoken by merchants from Novgorod to Bergen, Low German. As you may have noticed by now, I am no linguist and every time I comment on this topic, I find myself in hot water. So, I will not go into a detailed analysis of Low Middle German, Low Saxon and Low Franconian. There were clear differences between these languages/dialects but one important point was that they could understand each other easily, much more easily than they could understand people living south of a line from Cologne to Frankfurt an der Oder who spoke a version of High German. Whether this linguistic gap was a function or a cause for the great rift between the Emperors and the Saxons that dominated the 11th to 13th century, I am not qualified to comment on.

Low German-speaking area before the expulsion of almost all German-speakers from east of the Oder–Neisse line in 1945. Low German-speaking provinces of Germany east of the Oder, before 1945, were Pomerania with its capital Stettin (now Szczecin, Poland), where east of the Oder East Pomeranian dialects were spoken, and East Prussia with its capital Königsberg (now Kaliningrad, Russia), where Low Prussian dialects were spoken. Danzig (now Gdańsk, Poland) was also a Low German-speaking city before 1945. The dialect of Danzig (Danzig German) was also Low Prussian.

Low German was not only the language of the common people, but also the language of business and of law. Since most of the Hanse cities on the Baltic had adopted the law of the city of Lubeck, the court cases were held in the dialect of that city. Likewise, the cities who had adopted Magdeburg Law often adopted that dialect for their legal procedures.

In the 14th century Low German, in particular the version spoken in Lubeck, replaced Latin not only in the local courts but also as the language of diplomacy and politics. The records of the Hanseatic diets had originally been kept in Latin. But from 1369 onwards, i.e., from the time of the victory over the Danish king Waldemar Atterdag, the Hanse kept their records in Low German. Not only that, the Hanse was in such a powerful position, it could insist on the use of Low German even in correspondence with the Scandinavian rulers and the Flemish cities. This transition to the common tongue instead of Latin happened somewhat earlier in the Hanse than for instance in France, where Francois 1 declared French the official language only in 1539. Why that is we can only speculate. One reason may be that many city officials who had spent their life trading, simply never learned enough Latin. Equally, some of the smaller Hanse cities could not or did not want to pay for a scribe proficient in Latin. And finally, the church and its Latin-speaking clergy played a much smaller role in the world these men and women inhabited than they did in the rest of Europe.

Low German may have become the language of business, law and politics, but did not gain much traction as a literary language. Most of the literature of the time, like the Minnelieder and chivalric Romances were written and read in Middle High German. The one literary works that gained national significance was Reineke Fuchs, the story of the wily fox who escapes from an ever-mounting pile of evidence of his wrongdoings by framing his archenemy, Isegrim the wolf. The story of the clever fox is just one iteration of a well-known tale that goes back the Aesop and the Roman de Renart in the 13th century and continued well into the Fantastic Mr. Fox. But Reinecke Fuchs was the most successful version in the German lands and after translation into High German was even picked up much later by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe.

Reynke de vos: Incipit der Lübecker Inkunabel von 1498

Really great literature from the Hanse cities came in the 20th century, to name just the giants, there is the Mann family, Thomas, Heinrich, Erika, Klaus and Golo probably the most gifted literary family in the German language. Gunther Grass you already met. Wolfgang Borchert is another one of my favourites. I could go on. They all wrote in High German.

Though the belletristic literature wasn’t exactly the late medieval Hansards cup of tea, history was. From very early on the cities or the patrician societies sponsored writers to record the past of their cities, which is why we have a fairly uninterrupted record of historic events all throughout the Middle Ages.

The use of Low German in commercial and political communications declined almost exactly in line with the decline in the influence of the Hanse. In part that was due to the Lutheran church that emphasised Luther’s translation of the bible into high German and from 1530 published all church communications in high German. At the same time the southern German traders like the Fugger took an ever-larger role as counterparts to the Hanse merchants and they insisted on High German. The reforms of the imperial administration and legal system by Maximilian I and Charles V shifted the legal language to High German. Finally, the Renaissance led to a revival in the use of Latin.

By 1631 even Lubeck had changed the language of its announcements to the general population from Low German to High German. Low German became the language of the lower classes whilst the patricians and university educated professionals spoke High German. The same process took place in the Hanse cities along the Baltic Coast, in Gdansk, Riga, Tallin and East Prussia. Since the late 19th century efforts have been made to rehabilitate Low German. Authors write in the language and one of Hamburg’s largest parks is called Planten un Blomen, a forthright description so characteristic for Northern Germany.  Today Low German or Plattdeutsch is recognised as a regional language and submissions in low Germans have to be accepted by courts and authorities.

Plamnten un Blomen – Hamburg

A rather unexpected element of Hanseatic culture was a love for chivalric romances and their heroes. As we mentioned before a couple of times, the patricians despite most of them being in trade, saw themselves the equals of the knights and lower aristocracy. They did engage in aristocratic pastimes like hunts and tournaments. Moreover, they did get very fond of the nine great heroes or nine worthies. This is rather motley crew comprising three heroes of antiquity, Hector, Alexander and Julius Caesar, three chivalric heroes of the Old Testament, Joshua, David and Judas Maccabaeus, and finally three Christian heroes, King Arthur, Charlemagne and Godfrey of Bouillon. Nobody can explain what drove this choice, but we find them most beautifully depicted in the Hansa hall of the Rathaus of Cologne and the Beautiful Fountain in Nurnberg.

9 gute Helden im Hansasaal des Rathauses Köln

One of those, King Arthur seemed to have struck a particular chord with the citizens of Prussia. The cities of Danzig, Elbing, Riga and Stralsund all had Artus Courts where the patricians met and pretended they were the knights of the round table. Chivalric heroes were pressed into service as defenders of citizens’ freedoms. Reinold of Montauban, one of the four sons of count Aymon became the patron saint and defender of Dortmund whilst statues of the mighty Roland proliferated from Bremen across the Hanse world.

Chivalric heroes were pressed into service as defenders of citizens’ freedoms. Reinold of Montauban, one of the four sons of count Aymon became the patron saint and defender of Dortmund whilst statues of the mighty Roland proliferated from Bremen across the Hanse world.

Reinoldus – patron saint of Dortmund

Painting and sculpture is something that rarely comes to mind when talking about the Hanse. Many great museums in Germany are today in the cities that had once been the capitals of powerful princes with huge budgets for representation, rather than in places dominated by sober merchants. Berlin, Munich, Dresden inherited and then expanded these princely collections. Others like Cologne and Nurnberg had been made centres for the great national collections in archaeology and art. But Hamburg, Bremen and Lubeck do not often feature on the bucket list of art lovers. A bit unfairly I have to say since for instance the Kunsthalle in Hamburg houses very interesting exhibitions.

That does not mean that there weren’t some astounding artist active during the heyday of the Hanse. Like everywhere in Europe the congregations in the Hanse cities did their utmost to fill their churches with great pieces of art. Wooden sculptures and monumental altarpieces were their preferred donations. There are a few names of artist we know, like Bertram of Minden and Master Francke from Hamburg. If you want to see works by the latter, there are some in Hamburg, but the largest, most complete work is in the Finnish National Museum. It got there because it was in a small church in a place called Kalanti, today part of modern town of 14,000 people that I cannot pronounce. Seemingly Kalanti was a large enough trading post in the 14th century to order a piece of art from a Hamburg master.

The greatest of these Hanse artists was probably Bernt Notke (1440 to 1509). He had travelled extensively, learning his craft in the Netherlands and in Italy, where he got heavily influenced by Mantegna. He set up shop in Lubeck stayed in Sweden for 15 years where he became the master of the royal mint before returning back to Lubeck. His works can be found in many Hanse cities, including in the church of St. Mary in Lubeck. But again, if you want to see his masterpieces you need to take a ship or plane. Though he was a renaissance artist he remained in many ways wedded to medieval themes and imagery. That is most visible in the Totentanz or Dance Macabre. A Totentanz is a motif that had emerged after the Black death and shows the whole of society from the emperor down to the lowly peasant dancing with grinning skeletons, reminding the viewer that the worldly joys of beauty, health and wealth are temporary and that the grim reaper is waiting for us all. Exceedingly cheerful I know. But Notke manages to depict the skeletons with so much verve and joy, one is almost compelled to join them in their pogo. There used to be two versions, a short one with 13 figures in Tallin and a 30 metre long and 1.9m high high freeze in the Marienkirche in Lubeck.

The Lubeck version had already deteriorated badly by 1701 and was replaced with a faithful copy that was much admired. In 1942 the authorities had a wooden cover built to protect the image against bomb damage. The Royal Air Force attack on Lubeck was the very first of the WWII bombing raids and the city was ill prepared. In particular the use of firebombs was unexpected. As the firestorm raged through the Marienkirche, the wooden cover caught fire and the Danse Macabre came to its long prophesised end.

Fortunately Notke’s greatest work survived World War II and it isn’t in Germany either. It is the altar of St. George in the church if St. Nikolai in Stockholm, the Storkyrkan. I have only seen pictures of it and if I ever get a chance to go to Stockholm this is #1 on the list. Commissioned by the Swedish regent Sten Sture who had made a solemn promise to honour St. George before the battle of Brunkeberg. That was the battle that threw out king Christian I of Denmark and led to the collapse of the Kalmar Union. Episode 123 if anyone wants to refresh your memory.

The battle of Brunkeberg was a hugely important event, but hey did Notke do it justice. Depictions of St. George are one a penny in European art, but I have not seen one before where St. George is sculpted in Wood, and including horse and Plinth is 20 feet tall, his sword raised, his horse rearing up in fear before the dragon. And what a dragon it is, not one of those cute little salamanders you normally see cowering at the feet of the saint, ready to be pierced by some dainty lance. No, this is a real dragon, a terrifying monster whose gargantuan mouth could easily swallow a horse’s head in one gulp. The animal has captured the lance and only a well-placed hit with the sword raised high can save St. George and the damsel in distress who praying nearby.

This was made at the same time as the much more famous early equestrian statues of Bartolomeo Colleoni in Venice and Gattamalata in Padova but as Wilhelm Pinder said, it stands up to them as their Nordic counterpoint.

As amazing the St. George is, or seems to be, given I have never seen it in the flesh, painting and sculpture isn’t the most important legacy of the Hanse.

When we think of the great artistic achievements of the Hanse, we think of the humble brick and what could be created with it.

Now before we go into the whole topic of brick gothic, let us not forget that the Hanse comprised more than the towns on the Baltic and North Sea. The inland cities of the Hanse, Cologne, Dortmund, Muenster, Soest, Braunschweig did not build in brick, but in stone and boy did they create some amazing things. The city of Cologne is proud of its history as a free city and conveyed that pride in its town hall and the Gurzenich, a sort of party house with the largest dance floor in the Empire. And since the citizens of Cologne are a sensible bunch, they put a market hall on the ground floor. Muenster too has an impressive Rathaus dating back in parts to the 13th century and famous as the place where the peace of Westphalia was negotiated.  Dortmund has one of the oldest town halls amongst the stone-built cities, and Brunswick one of the most beautiful.

The cities in what art historians called the Hausteinzone or quarried stone area differed not just in terms of material from the brick-built cities from Riga to Bremen. The inland cities were much older than the Hanse cities east of the Elbe River. Not all have roots as deep as Cologne, but Brunswick, Muenster, Soest and Dortmund date back to the conquest of Saxony and featured Romanesque cathedrals and palaces that had already shaped their structure when the Hanse got going.

The cities of the brick-zone, with the exception of Bremen, did not have much if any stone buildings in the 12th century. Some were entirely new settlements like Riga and Tallin or grew up alongside Slavic settlements like in Danzig or Stettin. That left the merchant elite with carte blanche to build cities that reflected their idea of beauty and functionality. And by coincidence, just as they got going, a new architectural style was created back at the Abbaye of St. Denis in France, Gothic. And what added to the sense of consistency in the Hanse cities was that the Gothic style largely persisted well into the 16th century, after which many of these places declined in wealth and importance precluding major rebuilding projects.

The Hanse cities were often planned as rectangles with a market square in the middle. And that market square was to be fronted by a town hall, offering a place to trade, to meet your fellow citizens and to engage in politics. Most often the actual city hall was built on the first floor above the cloth hall whilst the cellar held the wine stores.

The Rathaus in Lubeck became the blueprint for many other brick-built town halls. It initially consisted of two separate comparatively modest buildings, one was the cloth hall and the other a place for social and political gatherings. These two buildings were connected and given a new joint facade. In the 14th century a new wing was added on the eastern side of the market square. And then in the 15th century a further extension was built, and all of that was built in brick.

One of the important things to know about brick is that it is a terrible material if you set your heart on decorating your brand-new town hall with statues, capitals and gargoyles. Brick just cannot really do that.

But still they did want some decoration and came up with a unique way to impress the importance and wealth of their city upon its visitors. They created monumental facades before the actual buildings that also reached well above the level of the roof line behind, serving no other purpose than decoration. The architects designed large round or pointed gothic openings that they then decorated with quatrefoils, rosettes or more intricate designs. They added finely chiselled gables and columns to add even more decoration. Stralsund is probably the most successful of these designs.

Beyond the town hall, we find similar features on other public buildings like the weighing houses, exchanges and city stores for salt, grain etc. And then the city’s merchants and artisans would compete to have the most impressive guildhall on the best spot on the market square.

But overlooking all of these were the churches. And that is another way in which the Hanse in the north differs from most cities. With the exception of Bremen there is no mighty cathedral that exceeds all other churches in size and splendour of decoration. Even in the cities that had their own bishop like Lubeck, Riga or Tallin, it was the parish church funded by the merchants that was the largest, the most sumptuously decorated and the one featuring the tallest tower.

The Hansards had a thing about having very tall towers. 125 metres seems to have been the standard to beat which keeps Lubeck, Riga and Tallin in the top 20 of highest churches in the world to this day, all taller than Salisbury Cathedral.  Allegedly St. Mary in Stralsund was even 151m high, which would have made it the highest building in the world until it was hit by lightening in 1549. These towers had a specific Hanse-related purpose. They could be seen from miles out at sea or downriver and as sailors returned from long journeys, they are cheered by this first glimpse of their hometown.

Brick architecture remained a key identifier of Hanse architecture, even though many masterpieces of brick gothic like Chorin monastery or the Teutonic Knights castle in Malbrok had little or no connection to the Hanse. When Hamburg reconnected culturally and architecturally with its Hanse roots, they chose visible brick to build the Speicherstadt and then in the 1920s developed an architectural style called Brick expressionism that gave us the Chile Haus, that rises like a curved red ocean liner out of the mass of houses near the Elbe.

It is this reconnecting to the Hanseatic traditions in the 1880s that did not only materialise in the architecture of Hamburg.

When Georg Sartorius sat down in 1802 to write the very first modern history of the Hanse, he did so because he sought refuge from the upheavals of the French Revolution and the Napoleonic wars, believing that nothing could be further from contemporary politics that this “half-forgotten antiquity”.

But he was quite thoroughly wrong. As a faithful listener to the History of the Germans you know that right around this time historians and pseudo historians began combing through Europe’s past in the hope of finding some German hero stories that could be woven into a new national narrative.

And what could be better than a story of a maritime empire that once controlled the Baltic Sea, beat the Kings of Denmark and England in war and left behind magnificently romantic cities. Quickly the Hanse, that famously had nor organisation, no army and, crucially, no desire to go to war when it could be avoided, was painted as an expansionist united maritime power that rivalled the English and French and was only prevented from conquering the new world by the lack of a strong German state.

Now I initially wanted to go into this in a lot more detail. But as it happened, I may have secured an interview with the person who has literally written the book about the perception of the Hanse in the 19th, 20th and now the 21st century. So, I do not want to forerun this interview, which may come out in mid-December.

And that gets me to the plan for the next Season, the Teutonic Knights. I will probably need as usual 2 to 3 weeks of preparation for that. That might mean no episodes until the end of November, except for maybe some short pieces on little gems I came across along the way.

And just to keep you guys excited about coming back, let me tell you what comes after the Teutonic Knights. We will get back to the chronological narrative. We will resume the story of the Holy Roman empire where we left off, at the death of Konradin. We will wade through the blood-soaked decades of the interregnum that brings one Rudolf von Habsburg to the throne, just in time for him to gain his family the duchy of Austria with well-known consequences. But before the Habsburgs get to settle on the imperial throne for good, history has granted us the Luxemburgers, Henry VII, Charles IV and Sigismund, fascinating figures who shaped Europe from their capital in Prague. I hope you will come along for the journey.

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1 Comment

  1. I just came upon your podcast, which I am enjoying very much. History became a hobby, as I started to investigate the origins of my family some years ago, which even led me to write a small somewhat insignificant book. So I am already looking forward to your coverage of the 18th-19th centrury, which is the Era that interests me the most. In the meanwhile, I do have a question about the Hanseatic cities. During my research of my family history, who in the 18th-19th century were wealthy merchants along the Elbe and Havel, I came upon the town of Werben, on the shores of the Elbe, where a main branch of my family came from. Well, Werben is apparantly a Hanseatic city. So my question is: were these smaller towns full members of the league? were they then independent of the ruling Duke? Werben would belong to Stendal and the Alt Mark, I suppose… Best wishes, Guilherme d’Orey

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