The Hanseatic League (1143-1669)


The music for the show is Flute Sonata in E-flat major, H.545 by Carl Phillip Emmanuel Bach (or some claim it as BWV 1031 Johann Sebastian Bach) performed and arranged by Michel Rondeau under Common Creative Licence 3.0.


The Hanse of the Merchants of the Holy Roman Empire described itself as neither a corporation, nor an organisation nor any definable entity at all.

But still it existed and it dominated the Baltic Sea for centuries, not only economically but also militarily and politically. They chose kings and mad eothers disappear. They opnened trade routes and forced cities and rulers to grant them privileges.

But underneath ran a network of medium sized merchants who helped each other out with information, trading and storing each other’s goods and handling their finances. The Hanse is unique in not one but every conceivable way….


Episode 105 – The Foundation of Lübeck

This week we will look at one of the great mysteries of German medieval history, how Lübeck could become the second largest City in the Holy Roman empire within just 100 years from its foundation. Lübeck lies on a small river, the Trave that goes into a small Sea, the Baltic. Not only is the Baltic comparatively small, the peoples who live on its shores are no slouches. They have been famed for travelling as far south as Constantinople and as far north as Greenland for centuries. So how did the future capital of the Hanseatic League manage to grow so fast? We will go through the different theories and maybe we can find out…

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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.

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Episode 110 – Livonian Cities

“In the monastery of Segeberg there was a man of worthy life, and with venerable gray hair, Meinhard by name, a priest of the Order of Saint Augustine. He came to Livonia with a band of merchants simply for the sake of Christ and only to preach. For German merchants, bound together through familiarity with the Livonians, were accustomed to go to Livonia, frequently sailing up the Daugava River.”

So begins the chronicle of Henry of Livonia, a German missionary who tells about the foundation of the bishopric and city of Riga, the conversion of the pagan population of what is today Latvia and Estonia, and the cruel antics of the Livonian brotherhood of the sword.

In this episode we will touch upon the Livonian Sword brothers and we take a first glimpse at the Teutonic knights, but this is the history of the Hanseatic League and so what we really focus on are the merchants, specifically the merchants from the “Society of German merchants who frequently travel to Gotland”, the Gotlandfahrer who we have met last week.

Because the tale we hear today adds the other important streak to the structure of the Hanseatic League, its willingness to use military force in the pursuit of profits.

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Episode 111: Hewing and Herring

“on its eastern side the sea breaks through and cuts off the western side of Skaane; and this sea commonly yields each year an abundant haul to the nets of the fishers. Indeed, the whole sound is apt to be so thronged with fish that any craft which strikes on them is with difficulty got off by hard rowing, and the prize is captured no longer by tackle, but by simple use of the hands.” So writes the the late 12th century Danish chronicler Saxo Grammaticus about Zealand, the island he believed to be the most delightful province and heart of Denmark.

In the year 1400, 550 ships arrived in Lübeck, bringing 65,000 barrels of salted Herring to the city at the mouth of the Trave River. But that was only a fraction of the total that is estimated to have been as much as 300,000 barrels of herring a year that were caught in the narrow sound between Copenhagen and Malmo and then processed in a giant temporary market town on the Skanör peninsula. All these vast quantities of fish were needed to feed the European population who had not only acquired a good dose of piety but also as many as 140 fast days per year when the consumption of hot-blooded animals was banned.

How the trade in Baltic Herring became a monopoly of the Hanseatic league and the backbone of its trading network is what we will discuss in this episode. No worries, it is not just about salting techniques and the difficulties of shipping a load of fish over thousands of miles. There will be a battle with knights and everything…..and an extended detour into the largest copper mine in Europe that funded the 30-years war. I hope you will enjoy it.

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Episode 112 – Grain and Beer

This week we will kick off with the string of cities along the Baltic Coast from Lübeck up to Königsberg (modern day Kaliningrad). Who founded them and why? And why so many? Who were the people who came to live there, how did they organise themselves and most importantly, what did they produce and what did they trade?

We will dwell on the most splendid of those, Gdansk or Danzig in German, the one city in the Baltic that could give Lübeck a run for its money, a place that developed as six separate cities and only became one entity in the late 15th century. And as we talk about Gdansk, we will also talk about the Vistula River, Europe’s nineth longest that connected Gdansk not just to many of Poland’s great cities, but also to the agricultural wealth of the Prussia of the Teutonic Knights, to the Ukraine and to ancient Lithuania.

And all that foodstuff is put on ships and goes to the growing cities of Flanders, the Rhineland, England, Northern France and even Spain. For the first time since the fall of the Roman empire do we hear about large scale grain shipments that sustain urban centres, urban centres that couldn’t otherwise exist.

But grain is not the only thing that the Hansa become famous for. The other is Germany’s most popular drink and best-known export, beer. The economics there are even more fascinating, since people did not only drink vast quantities of beer in the Middle Ages, they also cared a lot about where it came from, and Einbecker was Europe’s favourite beer.

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Episode 113 – Bergen and Bruges

Today we will talk about the Bryggen, the famous Hanseatic Kontor or trading post in Bergen in western Norway. Bergen itself was never a member of the Hanseatic League, but like The St. Peter’s yard in Novgorod, the steelyard in London and the Kontor of Bruges, the Bryggen in Bergen was a key element of the Hanseatic trading network.

The trade in stockfish from Bergen was never on the same scale as the herring trade off Scania or the trade in beeswax and furs from Novgorod, but it was an important springboard for members of the lower classes to join the long-distance merchants. And the way the Hanse was able to gain a stranglehold over the proud Vikings of Norway is a cautionary tale of failed macro-economic policies.

If you think the Norwegians are unique in falling prey to aggressive Hanseatic trade policies, think again. Even the mighty Bruges, the warehouse of the medieval world” was made to grant these merchants from the Holy Roman empire far reaching privileges.

Some have considered these events as the beginnings of a long process of specialisation in Europe that condemned the East to become the giant breadbasket that fed the industrialising West. I doubt things are that simple, but let’s have a look at the different arguments….

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Episode 114 – The London Steelyard

If like many of you, you are listening to this podcast on your morning or evening commute and you happen to live in London, you may be one of the 20 million souls going through Cannon Street Station every year. Few of them will be aware that under their feet lay the vestiges of the great Hanseatic Kontor in London that goes back to 1176. If people know about the Steelyard, it is mainly through the portraits of merchants painted by Holbein between 1532 and 1536 at a time when the Kontor had only about 60 years left.

But there is a lot to tell about this now vanished building, its inhabitants and trade. It is a story of infighting between the various cities that were still to officially form the Hanseatic league, of trading privileges granted to fund first a crusade and then the hundred year’s war, andit is also a great opportunity to introduce the oldest, largest and richest member of the Hanseatic League, the city of Cologne.

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Episode 115 – The War with Denmark Part I

By the end of the 13th century the key foundations of the Hanseatic League are laid. The trade routes that connect the Baltic to Western Europe are largely under the control of merchants who had come from Northern Germany and settled along the Baltic shore. Four great Kontors in Novgorord, Bergen, Bruges and London have been set up. The cities that make up the League, from Tallin to Cologne have gained city laws, built their walls and selected their city councils.

We are now entering the Calamitous 14th Century, a time of war, spiritual disorientation, plague and deteriorating climate. These four riders of the apocalypse devastate formerly flourishing lands and cities across Western Europe, delivering a sucker punch that brings 300 years of economic expansion to a screeching halt. But, as they say in Asterix, “all of Europe is occupied with the challenges of the 14th century. Well not entirely. There is a corner of the world where a league of merchant cities is heading for the zenith of its economic, financial and military power…”

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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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Episode 117 – Embargoes

The Hanseatic League undergoes a fundamental transformation in the second half of the 14th century. It turned from a guild of merchants trading across the Baltic and the North Sea into an alliance of trading cities. An alliance that has proven that it can fight and win wars against major territorial powers. That sits quite uncomfortably with the existing European rulers who wonder what to do with this alien inside their body politic.

The Hanse had acquired a wide range of trading privileges in their main Kontors in England, Flanders, Norway and the Republic of Novgorod. These privileges did not only disadvantage the locals who were unsurprisingly hostile but also challenged the authority of the princes. That was just about bearable as long as this was just a community of grubby merchants from the Empire. Now that these merchants had built formidable cities, commanded great navies and toppled kings, it became an entirely different ballgame.

Furthermore, the legitimacy of the Hansa was fragile. The Hanseatic Cities, apart from Lübeck and Dortmund weren’t free imperial cities, making them at least formally subject to their territorial lords. As such they could not form an actual league of cities as the Northern Italian republics had done a hundred years earlier. Nor were they allowed to conduct foreign policy against their territorial lord, though they sometimes did.

These fault lines will become ever more apparent as we go forward with our history. This week we will get a first glimpse at what will lead to the ultimate demise of the League as we get into the year 1388, a year when the cities face off against three of the most powerful political entities in Northern Europe, the kingdom of England, the county of Flanders and the Republic of Novgorod.

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Episode 118 – Pirates

In 1878 workmen building the Speicherstadt, the magnificent city of warehouses in the harbour of Hamburg made a gruesome discovery. In the mud of the Grasbrook, an island at the entrance of the medieval harbour of Hamburg emerged two piles of wood connected by a wooden bar. An ancient beacon guiding ships. What made it so special was what was nailed on to the bar, human skulls. Whoever these men were, they had been decapitated and their heads displayed as a warning. One of these skulls was quickly identified as that of Klaus Störtebecker, the notorious pirate.

The skulls were brought to the Museum für Hamburgische Geschichte, the Museum for the history of Hamburg. There they reconstructed the facial features of Klaus Störtebecker so that vistors can get a better picture of what Hamburg’s greatest nemesis looked like.

If you leave the museum and turn right you quickly get to Simon von Utrecht Strasse, named after the man who captured Störtebecker on his agile small cog, the Bunte Kuh, the painted Cow.

Störtebecker was brought to the Grasbrook where he and his 72 companions were beheaded on October 20, 1401. As his last wish, Störtebecker asked that all the men he could walk past after his head had fallen should be freed. That wish was granted, but when the headless pirate had passed 11 of his shipmates, one of the members of the city council tripped him up and in the end all of his men were killed, including those he had walked past.

Hundreds of books have been and will still be written about Störtebecker and Simon von Utrecht. Some of those I have devoured as a child and this is why it hurts so much to have to tell you – all a lot of nonsense. Störtebecker lived and robbed until 1413, 12 years after his execution, which is a long time for a headless corpse. And Simon von Utrecht was just a lad when he allegedly seized Hamburg’s greatest adversary.

The story may be a tall tale, but piracy and the Victual Brothers were real and they were a real threat to the Hanse, or at least I believe it was.

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Episode 119 – What is the Hansa?

That was the question king Edward IV asked the representatives of the Steelyard in 1469. And he had a good reason to ask, because tensions between the English and the Hansa had escalated, ships were captured, and people got killed. He wanted to know who to negotiate with and in particular, who could sign a binding agreement that would put an end to this.

The answer he got was not very satisfactory….

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Episode 120 – Money, Money, Money

This was supposed to be an episode where we talk about the challenges the Hanse was facing after the victory over the Danes and the Peace of Stralsund. But that is not to be. Listeners Mehmet and Nina pointed out a few gaps in what I had been talking about last week and now these need to be filled.

It is all good talking about the trading network and the flow of goods across the Baltic and northern Germany. But what about the opposing flow, the flow of money? How do the Merchants get paid? How can they pay for all the goods they, or their agents, are buying way down in Flanders and England? How do they cope with the sometimes erratic monetary policies of late medieval rulers?

After all, it is money that makes the world go round!

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Episode 121 – A Constitutional Crisis

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

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

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Episode 122 – Calamitous Victories

In 1435 the Hanse can look back at a string of successes. Another war with Denmark won, the patrician regime in Lübeck and elsewhere restored, conflicts with Burgundy and England settled in their favour. But as Winston Churchill once remarked,

The problems of victory are more agreeable than those of defeat, but they are no less difficult.”

And these problems are raising their ugly heads….

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Episode 123 – Decline and Fall (Part 1)

1474-1531 was a time of immense change and upheaval for the Hanseatic League, and not just for them. The Habsburg empire is bedded into being, England’s war of the Roses is over, in the North the Polish-Lithuanian commonwealth stretches all the way from Kyiev to Gdansk. The kingdoms and princes are getting stronger. Columbus tries to sail to India and Vasco da Gama actually sails to India. Luther nails his 95 theses on the doors of the churches of Wittenberg. All is in flux, and so is the Hanse and Lübeck, its most important city.

Well, is it still the most important city? What about Danzig/Gdansk and Hamburg who take advantage of shifting trade flows whilst Lübeck finds itself on the sidelines. Who do they blame? The Dutch and the Danes. Cometh the time, cometh the man – his name is Jürgen Wullenwever and he has all the solutions, or does he?

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Episode 124 – Decline and Fall (Part 2)

1531-1535, a period of just 4 years is enough to capsize Lübeck’s position as the diplomatic heart of the Baltic Sea, general secretary of the Hanse, ally of both the king of Denmark and the king of Sweden and early member of the Schmalkaldic League. How can that happen?

As Edward Gibbon would say: History, in fact, is no more than a list of crimes of humanity, human follies and accidents”.

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Episode 125 – The Rise of Hamburg

The last two episodes may have left you with a sense of gloom and foreboding about the great Hanseatic cities. But here is the counterintuitive fact, the Hanse may continuously loose political power and economic relevance, but the cities that make up the association are flourishing. Not all of them but some, Hamburg and Danzig in particular.

Why it is that the Hanse declines, but the Hansards are doing mightily well is what we are looking into this week. So, let’s see….

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Episode 126 – A Brief History of Bremen

Bremen was geographically and politically quite different from the other cities, ploughing its own furrow. In response the other Hansards did not trust the citizens of Bremen. There is also the minor issue that Bremen sheltered a lot of pirates. Still as the Hanse declined politically, Bremen took on an ever-larger role until becoming one of the last three Hanseatic Cities that kept that long-dead medieval relic plodding along until the late 19th century.

A story of rebellion, stubbornness, piracy and emigration to America, I thought worth telling.

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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.

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An Interview with Carsten Jahnke

Professor Carsten Jahnke, one of the leading historians on the Hanse has kindly granted us an interview where we discuss how the Hanse network functioned and how the perception of the Hanse has changed dramatically over the last 200 years, a story that almost as interesting as the history of the Hanse itself.

As listeners of the last season of the History of the Germans might have noticed, I have been relying heavily extensively on Carsten Jahnke’s work. many of the episodes discussing the economic structure and the way money transfers worked in the network are based on his research. So if you liked those episodes, you will certainly enjoy this interview. Listen in!

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