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.

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.

Hello and welcome to the History of the Germans: Episode 126 – A brief History of Bremen

The initial idea for this episode was to draw this season to a close with a talk about the art and culture of the Hanse. But then, when I started drafting, I realised that I have almost entirely omitted one of the great Hanseatic cities from our narrative, Bremen. And that isn’t right. One cannot have a 20 episode podcast series on the Hanseatic League and not talk about Bremen. But it wasn’t that I skipped Bremen on purpose. The reason Bremen barely featured in our narrative is that Bremen had a very ambivalent relationship with the Hanse.

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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Back to the show. When I said Bremen hadn’t featured much in the History of the Germans, what I meant was the city of Bremen, not its archbishops. Those we have met many times. In Episode 96 we talked about Ansgar, the 9th century archbishop of Hamburg who had to retreat to Bremen in the face of Viking raids.

From the 10th century onwards the archbishops of Hamburg-Bremen kept clashing with the great Saxon nobles over the treatment of the Slavs on the other side of the Elbe. The archbishops wanted to convert them so that their bishopric could expand into Scandinavia and the Baltic States. The dukes and counts mostly just wanted to plunder. You may remember the story of Adalbert, one of Bremen’s most formidable archbishops and Gottschalk, the prince of the Abodrites in episode 101.

The reign of Adalbert in the 11th century was the highpoint of archepiscopal influence. He had been the almighty chief minister of Henry III and later the young emperor Henry IV. Adalbert had been offered the papacy by Henry III but turned it down, preferring to build out his archepiscopal see in Bremen and Hamburg. That ended in 1066 when the emperor had to dismiss Adalbert under pressure from his court, an event that led ultimately to a hardening of the imperial position, which led to the Saxon revolt which contributed to the Investiture controversy and Canossa, basically most of Season 2 of the Podcast.

After Adalbert it went sharply downhill with the archbishops of hamburg-Bremen. They kept faith with the imperial side during the wars between the Saxon nobles and the emperor and supported him in his conflict with Pope Gregory VII. That put them straight into the crosshairs of the dukes of Saxony. The dukes, supported by their friends amongst the Saxon nobles and even emperor Henry V constantly degraded the power of the archbishops. The archbishopric was at one point the metropolitan see for all of Scandinavia from the Faroer islands to Uppsala, but that ended when the pope elevated the bishop of Lund to archbishop. At which point the archbishopric had only three subordinate bishoprics, Oldenburg, Ratzeburg and Schwerin.

One last moment of hope came when Hartwig, the heir of the wealthy county of Stade became archbishop and proposed to make the archbishopric the heir to his fortune a story we looked at in episode 108. That could have made a huge difference to this archdiocese which was now by far the poorest and least significant archbishopric in the empire. But that was not to be. Henry the Lion coveted the lands of Stade and being best mates with the emperor Barbarossa, managed to expel Hartwig from his ancestral lands. And as a final nail in the coffin, the emperor also removed the three remaining suffragan bishoprics from Bremish control, handing them over to Henry the Lion.

That is the situation in the 12th century when the Hanse is getting going. Bremen, an ancient city is the seat and only possession of the poorest archbishop imaginable.

The archbishop may have become poorer and poorer in the 300 years from 900 to 1200, but the city and its burghers had prospered in the medieval economic boom.

Bremen is in a very attractive geographical position. It sits near the mouth of the Weser River, roughly 50 km from the North Sea. That sounds like a long way, but the river is still tidal down to the city which allowed even larger ships to come up all the way. Moreover, the city sits on the highest point of a 23km long ancient sand dune that gives it a mighty elevation of 15.2m above sea level. Not exactly alpine but given the vast marches between Bremen and the sea averaging an elevation of just 3.3m, the significance of this dune becomes clear. Bremen was one of the few places for miles around where your feet remained dry even in High Water.

The Weser is one of the three main German rivers going into the North Sea. The largest and commercially most important is the Rhine, which gave rise to the wealth of Cologne. The next significant is the Elbe which comes all the way from beyond Prague and through its various tributaries connects Dresden, Leipzig, Erfurt, Halle, Magdeburg, Berlin and Luneburg to Hamburg.

The Weser is the shortest of these three, less than half the length of Elbe and Rhine. But still the river connects some important medieval trading centres with the North Sea, namely Hannoversch Munden, Eisenach, Hameln, Minden, Hannover, Celle and foremost of all, Brunswick.

Being able to collect products from such a large hinterland, Bremen embarked on fruitful trading relationships with England, the Low Countries, Norway and Scotland well before the Hanse and Lubeck in particular got going.

Bremen traded in many of the wares other Hanse cities traded in. Grain, Wood and most importantly Beer were great exports going North. One of Bremen’s beer specialities was Grut-beer made without hops but with a variety of herbs, which made it stronger and more aromatic. Bremen was the first of the German cities that exported beer into the Low Countries. But that position did only last until the early 14th century when Hamburg took over. The difference was that the council in Hamburg maintained strict quality controls in beermaking, whilst Bremen did not. Unscrupulous makers of cheap beer eroded the Bremen beer brand. For the avoidance of angry mail, let me assure you that this problem has been resolved by now and Bremen hosts Becks, one of Germany’s most famous and most delicious brands of beer.

The Wine trade seems to have been of huge importance too. The Bremer Ratskeller, technically a restaurant in the vaults under the Rathaus but in reality one of the preeminent distributors of quality wine in Germany was first mentioned in 1342. One key export market for wine from Bremen was Scotland, a rather unexpected pairing.

In the other direction Bremen merchants brought fish from Norway and Denmark as well as cloth from England and Flanders up the Weser River into what is today Lower Saxony, Thuringia and Hesse.

One trade that would start much later in the 17th century was Coffee. Bremen had the first coffee house in Germany and still today some of Germany’s best known coffee brands like Jacobs, HAG and Eduscho come from Bremen.

So, in many ways Bremen was a perfect fit for the Hanse. Similar products and similar target markets in Flanders, England and Norway.

But in many other ways it wasn’t. Bremen was oriented on a North-South direction, similar to Cologne. The Hanse’s focus on the Baltic and the trade between East and West had little interest for Bremen. In fact, many of the Hansards provided unwelcome competition to the traders in Bremen.

Beyond the differences in economic conditions, the city of Bremen was also politically in a very different position. Bremen lay at the outer edge of the Hanse territory. The closest Hanse cities were Stade and Buxtehude, both more than 80km away. Instead, their neighbours were to the south the powerful dukes of Brunswick, the descendants of Henry the Lion. To the West and North were the Frisian chieftains and the counts of Oldenburg, powers who played little role in imperial politics but had a habit of devastating each other’s lands with a sheer incessant set of feuds.

The major flashpoint between Bremen and its neighbours was the control of the Weser River all the way to the sea. The city tried to reduce attacks on shipping in the river by first building castles along its banks. When that failed, they tried to wrestle the whole territory from their rulers, which made Bremen one of the few, if not the only Hanse city with serious territorial ambitions.

And the social structure is different too. The ruling families, at least until the mid 14th century were landowners and rentiers who had become rich in the service of the archbishops, not the successful merchants. In 1304/5 a first crisis was caused by the murder of a member of that city aristocracy. The subsequent feud ended with the creation of a new statute for the city that reduced the power of some of the Geschlechter, the great aristocratic houses. The story repeated itself in 1349 when an aristocrat accidentally murdered a merchant member of the council, creating another armed conflict that ended with the expulsion of another batch of aristocrats. The council is reorganised in 1308 and 1330 and now recruits from three separate groups, the first are members of the 30 patrician families, the second, the Meenheit, are representatives of the upper middle classes, the artisans and smaller merchants  and finally the Wittheit, a sort of assembly of experts.

And finally, there was still the archbishop, technically the overlord of the city.

These differences may explain why Bremen had been expelled from the Hanse on multiple occasions. The first time in 1285 when the Hanse was forcing the king of Norway to accept the privileges for the Kontor in Bergen. Bremen had been trading with Norway and exporting stockfish from before Lubeck was even re-founded by Henry the Lion. They hence saw no reason to support the Hanse interlopers in their embargo. Their calculation was that if they would support the Norwegians, they would gain all the privileges the other Hansards were trying to gain by force. Let’s just say it did not work out and Bremen took a long time to get back into the Stockfish trade.

One of the problems with a history of Bremen is that material and secondary sources are much thinner on the ground than elsewhere. Why that is I have no idea, but even the simple question of whether Bremen was involved with the Hanse after the expulsion of 1285 seems hard to answer.

If they were, they were at best a junior partner. But maybe they were just ploughing their own furrow for the next 70 years. Because the next confirmed interaction with the Hanse in in 1358 when Bremen is begging to be admitted back in.

In 1358 Bremen is on its knees. A whole host of night soil men had decanted their commodities over the heads of its unsuspecting citizens. 

It started with what should have been a routine affair. The old archbishop, Otto I was gravely ill and had left the administration of the archbishopric to his nephew, Maurice of Oldenburg. When Otto died in 1348, Maurice was duly elected by the cathedral chapter to get the title for the job he was already doing. But he wasn’t the only candidate.

Godfrey of Arnsberg, the bishop of Osnabruck also wanted to be archbishop and so he bribed the pope Clement VI in Avignon to make him archbishop, which he duly did. The city council initially supported Maurice of Oldenburg. But when Maurice was out of town on business, Godfrey came in and managed to get the city council to accept him.

As was entirely predictable Maurice returned with his supporters and besieged the city. The walls were strong, but the attackers were many. As the battle was waving back and forth, people started to complain about unusual symptoms. Many reported fever, abdominal pain and bleeding. Their skin and tissue had turned black and shortly after the first symptoms appeared, most fell over dead.

The Black Death had arrived. It raged much more ferociously on the Weser than in any other Hanse city. Somewhere between half and two-thirds of its 15,000 inhabitants perished. Warfare had to stop, and the two combatants decided that Godfrey would get the title and Maurice would get the job.

Once the plague had subsided the city needed to rebuild its population. The council therefore opened its gates to anyone, including serfs to come and live in Bremen as free men and women.

That sat increasingly awkward with the count of Hoya who had become archbishop Godfrey’s strongest supporter. The count whose lands lay south of Bremen was losing tenants and serfs by the busload, something he could ill afford since half of his labourers had died as well and the land lay fallow. So, he demanded, in the name of the archbishop, that the serfs and tenants were to be sent back to him. In an unusual act of mercy and compassion, or out of fear the city could simply empty out, the city council refused.

At which point the parties decide to resolve the problem of depopulation by resuming hostilities. Things do not go well for the city and Bremen loses a battle in which several members of the council are taken hostage. The cost of the war and the ransom for the captured councillors ruin the already fragile finances of the city.

In an attempt to restore their fortunes, the citizens of Bremen beg the Hanse for admission after having tried to go it alone for so long. They are admitted and the burghers are preparing to get ready for some much-needed uptick in trade activity.

But no, bad timing. Just as Bremen was joining up things in Bruges had hit boiling point. 1358 was the year the Hanse issued one of its embargoes against Flanders. Trade with one of Bremen’s most important markets had to stop.

The desperate Bremer merchants say sod this for a game of soldiers. So, they break the embargo. At which point the Hanse comes down on them like a ton of bricks. Stick with the embargo or you are expelled and blocked from all Hanse ports. So, they go along, join the embargo taking even more pain.

Meanwhile on the enemy’s side things aren’t going well either. The count of Hoya also spends a lot of cash on war and weapons, cash he does not have. So, he looks for help and finds it in the form of the duke of Brunswick. But the duke’s help has a price. You guessed it, that price is the archbishopric of Bremen.

The count had to get his ally Godfrey to surrender the archbishopric and pass it on to the son of the duke of Brunswick, Albrecht II. A deal is made, Albrecht is confirmed by another bribeable pope and hey presto, we now have three archbishops. Maurice, Godfrey and Albrecht. But thanks to the superior weapons of the duke of Brunswick we find ourselves in 1362 in a situation where there is only one archbishop left, Albrecht II. Albrecht II brokers a peace agreement between the count of Hoya and Bremen. The embargo against Flanders had ended in 1360. Everything should now be fine.

It should, but it wasn’t. The city was still broke from paying the ransom for the captured councillors. Hence a special tax was introduced to repay the debt.

I guess we all know about what happens when special taxes are levied on the artisans and middle classes for projects that provide them with few or no benefits. If paying for the Stecknitz canal caused a large rebellion in Lubeck, guess what happened in Bremen when they asked the little people to pay the ransom for the moneybags on the City Council.  

The lower classes gathered together in what they called the Grande Cumpanien first to vent their grievances about the tax but that soon turned into demands to overthrow the 30 families, to have elected council members and just generally freedom!. On the morning of September 16, 1365 a large crowd assembled for a demonstration that quickly got out of hand. Leaders of the Grande Cumpanie raised the city banner and armed their followers. They broke into the homes of prominent council members, pushed and shoved them around and said very rude things about their mothers. But they did not apprehend or seriously harm anyone.

The retaliation of the patricians came swiftly. Remember that a wealthy city councillor lived a lifestyle not very different to a knight in the countryside. Most of them were trained in all the knightly arts, namely in the art of killing. These guys put on their armour, closed the gates and rode out to slaughter the insurrectionists – successfully as you would imagine. By the evening 18 leaders of the rebellion have been captured, convicted and executed.  The surviving insurrectionists fled in the night. Their possessions are seized and used to repay the city’s debt.

Ok, that was painful, but now things should be ok, right?

Ah, no, still not. There is our archbishop, Albrecht II, who turns out to be a bit of a bad egg. Albrecht’s biggest problem was that he liked to spend money, including money he did not have. Well, mostly money he did not have.

And the need for money made him do some odd things, including becoming a pirate. The archbishop had an accomplice, Johann Hollemann, the black sheep of family of Bremen patricians. Hollemann had been a successful pirate since the 1350s causing no end of problems for his hometown. But they couldn’t really do much about him since he lived in a fortified castle inside the city of Bremen and had lots of money and connections. Archbishop and noble pirate kept plundering ships that had taken the ground at low tide, claiming they were subject to salvage.

Given this level of financial urgency, archbishop Albrecht was very excited when the surviving insurrectionists from Bremen knocked on his door, a group that included his pirate buddy, Johann Hollemann. Together they came up with a plan to get hold of the city of Bremen and seize the wealth of its great patricians. The archbishop was to hire some mercenaries and Hollemann and the others would organise another uprising.

In the night of 28th to 29th of May the conspirators opened the gates to the archbishop’s soldiers. They quickly take the strategic positions inside the city. The Patricians had erected a wooden statue of Roland, the paladin of Charlemagne and by some warped logic the representation of the city’s independence. That statue was burned. And the usual murdering and settling of scores occurred. Now it was the turn of the patrician members of the Council to flee the city.

A new constitution was introduced that granted the artisans and their guilds the deciding vote in the selection of the members of the council. Bremen was to become a city ruled by the Middle classes under the benign overlordship of the archbishop-pirate Albrecht II.

That experiment in church-sponsored democracy was cut short. The exiled old council, much like their opponents had done only a few months earlier looked round for support. The Hanse immediately expelled the rebellious city. But Konrad of Oldenburg was the man to bring the old order back. After just 4 weeks, the regime of the lower classes, led by the pirate Johannes Hollemann collapsed. The Oldenburger’s army entered Bremen with the help of those who did not want to return under archepiscopal control. The insurrectionists were caught and killed on the spot. Johannes Hollemann was besieged in his castle in the city and once the soldiers had entered, they hanged him and his men in front of the house, or according to other accounts had him broken on the wheel.

Only after that does calm return to Bremen. The patricians accept that to avoid future rebellions the artisans and their guilds need to get better representation on the council. The archbishop Albrecht II is forced to give up most of his rights in the city, apart from a small district around the cathedral.

The role of the bishop in the city’s affairs diminishes even further when Albrecht II’s money problems compound after his capitulation. He offers rights like coinage and market rights as security for loans from the city. When he cannot pay back the city seizes these rights and mints coins until 1862.

And there is a final humiliation left for Albrecht II. In 1376 a member of his cathedral chapter claimed the archbishop was a Hermaphrodite. Albrecht II had to counter these claims by submitting to a public examination of his private parts, not something that increased his standing much.

The subsequent period of peace and independence from the archbishop brings about a huge improvement in the prosperity of the city. Bremen conquered the lands on the left and right bank of the Weser going down to the mouth of the River.

Its most famous monuments date from that time. The City Hall was built in 1405 to 1410. And obviously the mighty Roland, symbol of the city is rebuilt in stone. He looks straight at the front gate of the cathedral on the other side of the market square as a sign of defiance of the independent city from the archbishop. The merchants erect their guildhall, the Schutting on the market square. The current splendid building dates from the 16th century but there was a great assembly hall there since 1444.

Despite the economic improvement social tensions remain. Bremen’s history in the 15th and 16th century is punctuated with regular uprisings. In 1427 they kill their patrician Burgomaster which results in a renewed expulsion from the Hanse and even an imperial ban  that lasted until 1438.

The reformation came in 1524 and the city quickly converted. In 1532 Bremen saw a populist uprising similar to the Wullenwever episode in Lubeck but without the foreign policy lunacy that followed there. Bremen oscillated between Lutheranism and Calvinism for nearly 120 years. In 1563 Bremen declared for Calvinism and was expelled from the Hanse for it, but just 13 years later was re-admitted without having changed its religious position.

In 1599 Bremen begins the construction of extensive fortifications. The change in military technology required a fundamental rethinking of the way a city could withstand attacks. The works lasted all in until 1664 but by the time the 30-years war comes around, Bremen is one of the best defended cities in the German lands. In fact, the same is true for Hamburg and Lübeck. Thanks to these enormous walls and bastions the three Hanseatic cities survived the catastrophe largely unscathed. In fact even the inland members of the Hanse did manage comparatively well with the exception of Magdeburg that suffered one of the most famous atrocities of this brutal conflict.

But their survival wasn’t enough to revive the Hanse. Sweden and Denmark have become the dominant territorial states in what used to the naval monopoly of the Hanse. Many once great Hanse cities have accepted Swedish control, like Riga, Visby and Tallin. Wismar and Stralsund too were taken over by the Swedes, whilst Rostock was incorporated into Mecklenburg. The archbishopric of Bremen had become a duchy that was held by the king of Sweden, surrounding the city and incorporating Stade. Denmark stretched to Altona once a town outside the gates of Hamburg and now a part of the city. Many of the inland cities too have finally succumbed to the constant pressure from their territorial overlords, with Cologne and Brunswick the notable exceptions.

In 1629 the Hanseatic diet proposed that only three cities, Bremen, Hamburg and Lubeck were to represent the Hanse from now on. There were more Hanseatic Diets in the 40 years thereafter. In 1669 the last gathering took place.  At that diet no major decisions were taken. It is likely that most participants despite the gloomy atmosphere and meagre attendance realised this was the last time.

There was never a formal decision to dissolve the Hanse. It simply vanished from the political scene. The three cities, Bremen, Hamburg and Lubeck remained legally in charge of the Hanse assets, namely to Kontor buildings most if which were barely used and no longer held any privileges. Weird traditions continued. Lubeck would for example send an emissary to the now entirely empty beach where once the great herring market of Scania had taken place and declared the privileges of the Hanse of the Merchants of the Holy Roman Empire. Only the gulls were listening.

As for Bremen, the city found a new trading destination, the United States. From 1783 Bremen became the #1 port for ships going from Germany to North America. The main export goods were people. Between 1832 and 1960 about 7 million Germans emigrated to the US via Bremerhaven, the port Bremen had built on the mouth of the Weser. 

Bremen and Hamburg survived the tides of history as independent city states until today. That status changed only twice. During the time of the Napoleonic Bremen became part of the French department of the Bouches de Weser and Hamburg of the Bouches d’Elbe. And during the Nazi Regime Bremen and Bremerhafen were incorporated into the Reichsgau Weser-Ems whilst Hamburg was extended to become Gross-Hamburg.

Bremen the smallest of the German Länder maintains many of its historic traditions. The Haus Seefahrt is one of Europe’s oldest charities looking after retired captains and their wives and widows since 1545. They will hold the annual Schaffermahlzeit a splendid dinner for up to 500 people in the great hall of the Rathaus for the 480th time in February 2024. Standing at the windows the guests can see the mighty Roland that still staring defiantly at the gates of the Cathedral from where a higher authority once unsuccessfully tried to suppress the city’s independence. On the right they see the Schutting with the merchant guild’s motto embossed in gold – Buten un Binnen, Wagen un Winnen, away and at home we risk and we win.

We may have reached the end of the Hanse’s history, but that is not yet the end of the series. You have been here long enough to know that the History of the Germans does not close a series with the demise of its subject. Everything in German history has an afterlife, and the Hanse is no exception. So next week we will take a look at the tangible and intangible remains of the Hanse. I hope you will join us again.

And as always let me thank all the patrons who have signed up on patreon.com/historyofthegermans or on my website, historyofthegermans.com. Your support is what has kept this show going for 2 and a half years and should keep us moving forward for many years to come.

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….

Hello and Welcome to the History of the Germans: Episode 125 – The Rise and 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….

But before we start, I would like to thank all my patrons and those of you who have made a one-time contribution. It is not just the monetary generosity that I find so humbling, it is also how much you care about the podcast. The other day one of you, Michael B, an almost excessively generous patron sent me a book I would have almost certainly overlooked. This book, J.K. Dunlop’s history of Hamburg from 800 to 1952 was originally written for British officers stationed in Hamburg to help them familiarise themselves with the place they were now administrating. First up, the book itself is a fascinating artefact of that period, but it is also charming and written in a crisp and concise, almost military style I enjoy enormously. Quite a bit of it features in today’s episode. So, thanks so much Michael. And I also would like to thank Hajo G., Kristi S., Timothy K-H and Brian C who have kindly signed up on patreon.com/historyofthegermans.

Last week we left the Hanseatic League, or more precisely Lübeck the city that had so often taken the lead in the political ambitions of this merchant’s association defeated and humiliated. Its populist dictator, Jürgen Wullenwever had dragged the city into the wars over the Danish succession following the deposition of king Christian II. In that war Wullenwever had pursued an impossible objective, forcing the Danes to close the Oresund to all Dutch shipping, something no Danish king could ever grant. Without the Oresund tolls a Danish ruler would have been too weak to control his powerful aristocrats who for centuries had not only chosen their king, but also deposed a few of them.

Following his military and political defeat, Wullenwever left Lübeck and was quickly apprehended, not by a party to the conflict, but by the archbishop of Bremen and his brother the duke of Brunswick who had him tortured and finally executed.

After the defeat the reconstituted patrician council of Lübeck quickly made peace with the king of Denmark, the Protestant Christian III. That wasn’t quite the end though. Emperor Charles V had another go, supporting another candidate for the Danish throne. That conflict lasted until 1544 and ended with a peace treaty giving the Dutch free access to the Oresund. Lübeck did not get involved at all.

Lübeck made one last attempt at military dominance of the Baltic during the Nordic Seven year’s war or sometimes called the war over the three crowns. That war was a bust-up between the successors of Christian III of Denmark and Gustav Vasa of Sweden. Though formally fought over the question whether the king of Denmark could carry three crowns on his coat of arms, behind it stood a set of much more tangible issues. Ivan IV, known to us as Ivan the Terrible had, before he was consumed by paranoia and madness pursued a successful expansion policy that gained him most of Livonia. The Teutonic Knights who used to rule the territory were pushed back to just Kurland and its last Landmeister, Gotthard Kettler dissolved the ancient order of the Livonian Swordbrothers and became duke of Kurland as a vassal of the king of Poland.

Ivan the not yet Terrible had sponsored the city of Narva as his preferred harbour for the export of fur and beeswax. Narva had not been allowed to join the Hanse thanks to the opposition of Reval, modern day Tallin. Narva became a great success and Lübeck merchants travelled there instead of going to Tallin where they had been subjected to protectionist rules for the last century. At the same time Tallin sought protection from Russians and Lubeck under the mighty arm of Sweden so that when war broke out, Sweden seized 32 Lübeck ships.

Lübeck had to respond. It declared war on Sweden and tried to gather support amongst the other Hanse cities. But again, nobody followed suit, in part because Lübeck had supported the city of Narva over its fellow Hansards at Tallin. Seems you cannot call for Hanseatic solidarity when you have failed to live it first. Lübeck found itself again as isolated as it had been under Wullenwever.

Lübeck then had to double down and built the largest warships of its time, the Adler of Lübeck. 78m or 257 feet overall, 68 large cannon spread over three decks, made it one of the earliest ships of the line. But it did not help. When the ship was commissioned in 1567 the naval war had already gone terribly badly for the city on the Trave. Its main fleet including its flagship and the commanding grand admiral had been lost in a storm off Gotland. So, when the Adler was splashed it could no longer be deployed successfully. So, no shot was ever fired in anger. In 1570 the war was over.

In the peace agreement Lübeck got its trading privileges in Narva reconfirmed. But that wasn’t worth anything. Because in the meantime Ivan the Terrible had gone full on mental, killing people on a near industrial scale, which made it difficult for him to hold on to Livonia. Sweden conquered the province and took over Narva. At which point Lübeck merchants no longer held any special trading rights in commerce with what is slowly becoming Russia.

It is also the last time Lübeck embarked on any kind of military adventure.

For the Hanse as a whole the decline in the fortunes of Lübeck was a clear indication that the world had changed. They began to arrive at the correct analysis of why that was. Not the Dutch and English merchants were the problem, but the change in the political landscape. Other traders could count on the support of powerful states opening up trade routes and protecting their wares. The kings of England were sponsoring the Merchant Adventurers who received patents to form the Muscovy company, the Levant company and most famously the East India Company. The Dutch had the support of Charles V and the Swedish, Danish, Norwegian and Russian rulers had shaken off the monopolistic powers of the Hanse. What the Hanse cities knew they needed was a powerful sponsor.

The natural supporter of what used to be the Hanse of the Merchants of the Holy Roman Empire would have been the emperor himself, Charles V and later his brother Ferdinand I. But both of them were Catholics which made them suspicious, and far away which made them ineffective. Denmark was close and its ruler protestant but having fought a war too many against Copenhagen made that impossible. Danzig kept proposing the Polish Lithuanian Commonwealth whose territory kept growing and growing, but that was a long shot for Cologne or Brunswick.

Nothing came of this. Instead, the four lead cities, Cologne, Brunswick, Lübeck and Danzig did the next best thing. They gave up their ancient tradition of being a loose federation and became a real organisation. They initially agreed an alliance for 10 years but that was extended multiple times. The main tenets of the agreement were that each city would contribute towards a common budget that should fund the maintenance of the Kontors, joint provision of security for transports on land and at sea, dispensation of justice and if needed military retaliation against breaches of the peace.

And for the first time the Hanse was to be given its own bureaucracy. The role of the council of Lübeck as general secretary of the Hanse that calls the Hanseatic diets and sets their agenda was given to the newly created Syndicus of the Hanse. A Syndicus is an ancient Latin word denominating someone tasked with defending the rights of an association or organisation, but not necessarily leading it. In modern German parlance, a Syndikus is the general council of a company.

Most of the Hanseatic cities had a Syndicus whose job it was to represent the city in negotiations with other cities or in court, whilst the major political decisions were taken by the city council and the Burgomaster.

So, the role of Syndicus of the Hanse wasn’t designed to create a CEO, but to be a go-to person for foreign powers who would discuss issues that he could then propose to the Hanseatic Diet for resolution. The first Syndicus was Heinrich Sudermann, a merchant from Cologne. An excellent choice. He had the social standing necessary as his family was one of the great families of Cologne. His father had been Burgomaster. And he had the necessary qualifications. A Doctor of Law from one of the great Italian universities who had been on diplomatic missions for his hometown several times before.

Sudermann stayed in post for an impressive 35 years. Still his megaproject turned out to be a disaster. Having seen the Kontors in Novgorord and Bergen going under, Sudermann was intent on not letting that happen to the other two remaining ones, in London and Bruges.

Bruges was the one that looked most at risk. Trade in the city had declined sharply since the end of the 14th century. Many of the foreigners who had made Bruges such an important centre of trade had moved to nearby Antwerp. That also included the Hanse merchants.

Despite this shift the Hanse kept insisting on the continued existence of the Kontor in Bruges. The reason was that in Bruges the Hanse had received and was able to maintain a vast set of privileges, whilst in Antwerp they had few such rights. But the economic reality was such that trading in Antwerp even without special conditions was a lot more lucrative than seeking clients in the declining town of Bruges. And as oversight from the Kontor was a lot laxer in Antwerp than in Bruges, the more entrepreneurial traders flaunted the rules openly, setting up trading businesses together with their Dutch colleagues.

Sudermann believed that to rebuild the power of the Hanse in Flanders, they needed to move to Antwerp. And not only that. The Hansards had to be forced to live together in a Kontor as they had done in Bergen and Novgorod, so that discipline could be restored. Only with discipline could the Hanse force the powers in Antwerp to grant them new privileges, as the leaders of Bruges had done in the 14th century.

So Sudermann had an enormous trading Kontor built, near the harbour of Antwerp. The Kontor covered 5000 square metres, its façade stretched for 80 metres, it allegedly had 365 windows, 23 storage rooms, 133 luxury bedrooms, 27 cellars plus communal dormitories, dining halls and several kitchens. The plan was that all Hansards active in Antwerp were to live here at the Kontor, tightly supervised by the aldermen. But take-up was limited. Many of the Hansards in Antwerp had moved there permanently, had married and bought property. When asked to move themselves and their families into the new building, they refused, preferring to be excluded from the Hanse privileges.

Still some Hansards did agree to move in and Sudermann felt that things might eventually work out after all..

But already by 1566 when the Kontor was under construction, the first signs of religious trouble appeared. A wave of iconoclasm overshadowed the grand opening. Antwerp shifted towards Calvinism which brought about a sharp response from King Philipp II of Spain, now overlord of the Low Countries. In 1576 the Spanish troops sacked the city. In 1584 the city was besieged again, in 1585 the Schelde river was blocked by the Protestant Netherlands which further reduced the amount of trade going through it. Because of the declining commercial activity, the Kontor could not service the debt taken on when it was built. In 1591 a special tax was levied on the cities to pay off the debt. Still the Kontor gradually emptied out. It was still owned by the Hanseatic cities of Lübeck, Hamburg and Bremen when Napoleon restructured Antwerp harbour which left the building surrounded by water on all sides. It became a warehouse and later barracks. In 1893 it burned down and what remained was removed. In May 2011 the Museum am Stroom opened on the site, displaying the art and culture of the port and city of Antwerp.

For Sudermann the failure of the Kontor in Antwerp was a major setback. That was followed shortly after by the closure of the Stahlhof in London. The English had been enraged by the lack of reciprocity in the trading relations with the Hansards. The German merchants had been insisting on their privileges that dated back as far as the 12th century, giving them free access to the English market. Meanwhile the English traders travelling into the Baltic were hindered at every junction. As the Tudor monarchy consolidated power into a more modern state, these medieval oddities became harder and harder to take. One of the few acts of the short reign of Edward VI, the son of Henry VIII was to recall the Hanse privileges. A few months later his sister and successor, Mary I, bloody Mary readmitted the Hansards but only on paper. The merchants were still being harassed. The Hanse responded with a trade embargo, but could not make it stick, so the situation remained challenging for the remaining Hansards in England.

When fellow protestant Elisabeth I came in, the situation improved a bit, but then the Kontor’s support for England’s allies in the Netherlands was lukewarm, so that Elisabeth resumed her predecessor’s position. The English merchants started trading through the town of Emden, which wasn’t a member of the Hanse. Hansards who wanted to sail to England had to do something, so first Stade and then Hamburg signed an agreement with England, letting the Merchant Adventurers in.

Sudermann tried to keep the Hanse together and form a unified front against the English, but to no avail. He tried to force Hamburg to call off the deal with the English, but the organisation was no longer able to enforce such kind of discipline internally. Nor could they stop Elbing and the Danzig to open their doors.

Lübeck obtained a decision by the imperial court that the English had established an illegal monopoly in the Baltic. Oh, the irony! The English took one look at that and at the probability of emperor Rudolf to leave his cabinet of curiosities in Prague to fight them on the beaches and laughed heartily. Going one further, as they pursued the Spanish back into Cadiz in the year after the Spanish Armada, they burned 60 German ships before Lisbon.

Now the emperor orders the Merchant Adventurers expelled from Germany sanctioning anyone who harbours them with the imperial ban. Elisabeth I reacts immediately, she throws the remaining German merchants out and seizes the Stahlhof. In 1598 the Hanse privileges in England end for good. The Stahlhof is returned 20 years later but never recovers.

As far as the great Kontors and trading privileges in the main international ports are concerned, the Hanse is finished. Their internal organisation may be tighter and more efficient than in the past, but fewer and fewer cities are prepared to pay the levy to fund it. For what? There were few benefits when travelling abroad. And even when trading with other Hanse cities, they did no longer provide much preferential treatment to their fellow members. As we go forward, the Hanse keeps shrinking until the very last Hanseatic Diet in 1669.

This all sounds terribly depressing, doesn’t it. Lost wars, closed Kontors, aggressive Dutch and English competitors, dwindling finances. All these Hanse merchants must have walked around with their heads in their hands bemoaning their lost fortunes, right?

As it happened, they did not. Sure, the fall of Hanseatic power in the Baltic is unlikely to have been something that cheered them up. But on the other hand, business was great. Not just great, really, really great.

One of the reasons for that was the same reason that led to the fall of the Kontor in Antwerp and the loss of the Stahlhof – the Eighty Years war. What was the Eighty Years war you may ask, that is if you are neither Dutch nor Belgian. In that latter case you probably know very much what the Eighty years war was.

Fun thing about the 80 Years’ War, nobody can agree when it actually started. One date could have been the Beeldenstorm the iconoclastic uprising in Antwerp that interrupted the construction of Sudermann’s great Antwerp Kontor. It was definitely under way in 1572 when Dutch rebels against Spanish rule captured the undefended port of Den Briel in South Holland.

The 80 Years’ War or the Dutch Revolt as it is also called was the long and arduous struggle of the Low Countries against the government of the Habsburg Netherlands. Habsburg rule had become unpopular due to its push for centralisation, curtailing the ancient privileges of the cities, its demands for taxes and the local governors aggressive drive to keep the Netherlands in the Catholic Faith.

At the end of this war the Low Countries were divided into the Spanish Netherlands, broadly speaking modern day Belgium and the Dutch Republic, modern day Netherlands.

The war breaks down into two phases, the first was from these unknown beginnings to a truce in 1609. The truce lasted 12 years. Hostilities resumed and continued alongside or as part of the 30-Years’ War. It ended in 1648 with the peace of Westphalia that also ended the 30-Years’ War.   

The Dutch Revolt completely changed the structure of Northern European trade. The rebellious Dutch provinces fought a war for survival on two fronts. One was the military struggle, the other the economic struggle.

Militarily the Spanish kept besieging one city after another. If they succeeded, they sacked them, most famously Antwerp in 1574, if they did not succeed, they devastated the surrounding territory. The Dutch side was gaining the upper hand roughly 30 years in when Maurice of Orange reformed the army and created modern warfare.

All that was great and heroic, but the foreign merchants who preferred not be caught up in sieges or having their goods plundered by unpaid soldiers left Antwerp. As the war continued, the Dutch cities tried to hit the enemy where it hurt most, in its wallet. A large part of the wealth of Habsburg Spain came from the spice trade the Portuguese had opened up when they sailed around the cape of Good Hope. That is where the Dutch now directed their ships, the spice islands of Indonesia. These are the beginnings of the Dutch East India Company, the first joint stock company in the world and a source of enormous incomes, making it the other reason why these few provinces on the edge of the sea could fend off the greatest empire Europe had seen since the Fall of Rome.

For our Hanseatic cities, this reset of the political environment was a huge boon. Both the Dutch and the Spanish had a near inexhaustible demand for things like wood, ash, tear, flax, metals and saltpetre to build their ships and cannons and make sails and gunpowder. All of this could be got from the Hanseatic cities, in particular from Danzig. As a neutral party, Danzig could supply both sides. And it was now part of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth which stretched all the way from the Baltic almost to the Black Sea, encompassing some of the most fertile lands in Europe.

Which gets us to the other great business, food. As the climate was hurtling towards the true depths of the Little Ice Age, grain became a hugely important commodity. And again, Danzig was in pole position to supply the world with the wheat, rye and barley of Ukraine and Poland that came down the Vistula River.

What made it even more lucrative was that the Dutch were restrained from taking the grain much beyond their homeland. Grain that used to travel to Spain, Portugal and the Mediterranean on Dutch ships was now transported on Hanse ships because as neutrals they were allowed to enter these ports. The Spaniards even ordered their Italian allies not to accept grain from Dutch traders during a major famine. Which created a situation where the grand duke of Tuscany and even the pope had to send embassies to Hamburg and Danzig to purchase much needed grain. Trade with the Mediterranean increased rapidly throughout the late 16th end early 17th century mainly bringing down grain, metals and wood and returning with wine, spices and luxury goods. The trade gained such an extent that Hamburg established an admiralty to protect their ships from North African pirates. They had to set up a special budget to buy the freedom of Hamburgers who had been captured and enslaved on the barbary coast. One captured Hamburg captain converted and spent his life as a Muslim pirate called Murat.

The good relations between Hamburg, Lübeck and Danzig with Spain and Portugal meant they could sail even further with Several Hamburg merchants establishing trade with Brasil.

The scale of the expansion of trade is truly impressive. In 1497, the earliest year we have a complete record, 795 ships passed through the Oresund. It stays around the 1,000 number for the first half of the 16th century. Then it rises quickly. During the period 1557 to 1569 the average was 3,280, by the 1590s it had increased to 5,036 journeys and by the end of the century peaked at 6,673 more than 9 times the number of ships than a century earlier. Part of the increase in the number of journeys were advances in marine technology. The Dutch had invented a new type of ship, the Fluite which could do two journeys from the Netherlands to the Baltic and back in one year. And then these ships were much larger than they had been in the 15th century. Economically the Hanse had grown at least factor 5 during this period of its political decline.

What had also changed was the composition of the Hanse cities. During the heyday of the Hanse in the 14th and 15th century the cities were populated by merchants speaking Middle Low German. The cities were happy to take in people from other Hanseatic cities and give them citizen rights, but they did not grant those rights to traders they regarded as foreigners. In particular not the English, Portuguese and Italians.  The Dutch were also seen as foreigners even though at least in part lived in the Holy Roman empire, some of whom had been members of the Hanse in the past and they spoke Middle Low German.

By the middle and late 16th century the picture had fundamentally changed. Portuguese and Italians who had fled the war in the Netherlands had found refuge initially in Cologne. But that lasted only a relatively brief period, so they moved north to Hamburg, which despite being a Protestant city was happy to accommodate them. The same was true for the Dutch who not only travelled to Hamburg and Danzig on their swift freighters, but they also settled in these places.

And finally, there are the English. The Merchant Adventurers sponsored by the Tudor monarchs had been searching for a safe port on the German coast. Emden had been their first base but when the ancient port of Stade on the Elbe River allowed them in, they took the opportunity to get closer to the main waterways and roads south. They stayed in Stade for 20 years but after the defeat of the Armada the city of Hamburg who had so far been hesitant opened its doors to the English, even if that meant heavy repercussions from Lübeck and other Hansards.

The English did not only bring the now dominant English cloth to Hamburg for further distribution, the friendship with England also meant Hamburg merchants could ship their goods through the channel, even goods going to Spain or the Mediterranean. Other Hansards had to take the Northward route over the top of Britain and west of Ireland to escape English privateers in the channel. Going round Britain and Ireland is not fun as anyone who ever did the Round Britain and Ireland race can attest.

Foreign merchants in Hamburg were free to trade on exactly same terms as the locals. They could form companies with other merchants. There were no guilds that restricted certain routes to its members. They were free to practice their religion. 

Not everyone shared Hamburg and Danzig’s attitude towards foreigners. The official Hanse policy, shaped by Lübeck remained strongly protectionist, insisting that guests could only trade with approved local intermediaries, could not create companies with Hansards and had to leave after a prescribed period of time. Some cities tried to enforce these protectionist policies, others like Hamburg and Danzig ignored them.

As the Eighty Years war comes to an end in 1648, the great economic boom that had lasted almost its entire length came to an end. Merchants from the United Provinces were free to sail and trade with everyone again. And thanks to the success of the Dutch East India company they had become the dominant maritime power in Europe. And as that happened, the routes down towards Iberia and the Mediterranean were again serviced by the Dutch making life harder for the Hansards.

It was in particular Lubeck traders found it hard to adjust to these changed conditions. They had kept up with Hamburg and Danzig during the 80 Years’ war. They had founded a guild of Traders going to Spain that had excluded foreigners from taking part. This had prospered but was now caught in a struggle for survival.

Lübeck, always the largest city in the Hanse now fell behind Hamburg and Danzig in terms of population. Hamburg, which had 15,000 inhabitants in 1500 grew to 50,000 by the beginning of the 17th century, making it Germany’s largest city bigger than Cologne and Lubeck.

Its merchant fleet became larger than any other thanks to the addition of many Dutch shipping firms who had relocated to the Elbe. It built mighty warships to protect its convoys. Its foreign traders, in particular the Portuguese had made Hamburg the centre of trade in sugar and spices. The Italians and Portuguese established commercial banks clustered around the Lombardsbruecke. A bourse was opened in 1558, in 1619 the Hamburger Bank became its central bank modelled on the Bank of Amsterdam 10 years earlier.

In 1609 the council of Lubeck accused Hamburg before the Hanseatic Diet that “barely a 100th of its trade is in the hands of its own citizens, but handled by the Dutch, the Southern Germans, French, Portuguese, English and others.” In 1609 Lubeck reconfirmed its right of the staple, requiring everyone trading through his harbour to offer their wares to Lubeck merchants and only to buy from Lubeck merchants. This ordinance remained in force for 150 years, at the end of which Lubeck had become nothing more than Hamburg’s harbour on the Baltic in the same way 300 years earlier Hamburg used to be Lubeck’s harbour on the North Sea.

Trade, as it happens is one of the few things where 1 plus 1 is 3. To say it with good old Adam Smith:  “In general, if any branch of trade, or any division of labour, be advantageous to the public, the freer and more general the competition, it will always be the more so.”

Openness to competition and willingness to accommodate foreigners is why since the middle of the 17th century Hamburg is one of the richest cities in Europe. Today it has 1.8m inhabitants, whilst Lübeck which stuck to its protectionist approach until the very end has 217,000 a mere tenth of its rival.

Let me close with a quote I found in the book by J.K Dunlop. Dunlop had found letters by a certain Dr. Thomas Nugent, a fellow of the London Society of Antiquarians, who visited the city in 1766.

Dr. Nugent visited the English Merchant Adventurers at their “factory” as their counting house in Groningerstrasse was called. There he visited the factory’s bowling green, which was quote “situated near the new church of St. Michael’s in very good air, with a convenient house, surrounded with tall handsome trees, where they frequently meet for recreation and exercise. At the same place there is a regular weekly assembly at which the gentlemen and ladies of Hamburg intermix with those of the factory, amuse themselves with chit-chat, cards and dancing.” End quote.

Nothing illustrates better the Hamburg approach to foreigners coming there to trade than granting them an English bowling green next to the most significant new church in the city. The place where it used to be is still called Englische Planke, after the boards they had set up around the bowling green.

Next week I guess we will conclude our narrative. We will follow through to the last Hanseatic diet in 1669 and take a last look at what the Hanse left behind. The society it created, its culture and architecture. I hope you will join us again.

And as always I want to thank my patrons who have signed up on patreon.com/history of the Germans or have made a one-time contribution on historyofthegermans.com/support. Thanks so much. For sources for today’s episode please check the shownotes.


J.K. Dunlop, Hamburg 800-1945, Published by the Anglo-German Club E.V.

Philippe Dollinger, Die Hanse, 6. Auflage, 2012

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”.

Hello and welcome to the History of the Germans: 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”.

But before we start, enjoy this moment of Zen when you are undisturbed by your presenter extolling the benefits of online mental health services, recruitment companies or beard trimmers.  I am unsure what is more painful, the humiliation of the presenter pretending to like things he or she is clearly never going to use or the embarrassment of hearing someone who you have grown to respect debasing himself or herself. Luckily that does not happen here on the History of the Germans. istoruy of the  This podcast is entirety funded by the generosity of our patrons who have signed up on Patreon.com/historyofthegermans or on my website, historyofthegermans.com/support. And thanks a lot to Kevin C, Carl T, Tim B, Carlos Alonso C. and his son Eduardo A, for his patience or, should I say, lack of it. I suppose it would be easier to draw attention from youngsters if I discussed modern day German kaisers, like Tony Kroos”.

Last week we surveyed the lay of the land in the early 16th century in preparation for the dramatic events that led to the fall of Lübeck from queen of the Baltic to wealthy but ultimately no longer significant imperial free city.

And as we are squatting in the 16th century, we should do as the Romans do, which can only mean that this episode should take the structure of a Shakespearian tragedy with a sheer innumerable set of characters, complex plotline a dazzling switch around of locations.

Let’s begin with the dramatis personae:

The Lübecker

Jürgen Wullenwever, moderately successful merchant, by force of circumstance and oratory the de facto ruler of the city of Lübeck – protestant.

Marx Meier, former smith, now commander of the army and navy of Lübeck, a sharp dresser, protestant

The Danes

Ex-King Christian II, perpetrator of the Stockholm Bloodbath, Exile in the Low Countries, brother-in-law of the emperor Charles V. Catholic for political reasons only.

Frederick I king of Denmark and Norway. Successor of Christian II and current ruler thanks to election by the Danish Council of the Realm and support the city of Lübeck. Catholic but lenient on the spread of Protestantism.

Christian, count of Holstein and duke of Schleswig. Son of Frederick I. Ardent protestant.

John, younger son of Frederick I, a minor

Christopher, Count of Oldenburg, a mercenary general, distantly related to the Danish royal house.

Other Princes

Charles V, ruler of Spain, Austria and the Low countries, Holy Roman Emperor and master of an empire where the sun never sets. Brother-in-Law of Christian II. Ardent Catholic

Gustav Vasa, leader of the Swedish revolt against Danish rule following the Stockholm Bloodbath. Now King. Owes his crown and a lot of money to Lübeck. Protestant

Duke Albrecht of Mecklenburg, prince, catholic

Henry VIII, King of England

Act 1, Scene 1,

Summer of 1531, Schloss Gottorp, Schleswig-Holstein, favourite residence of king Frederick I.

News arrive that Christian II, the ex-king of Denmark and Norway after 8 years of plotting and scheming has finally convinced his brother-in-law, the emperor Charles V to give him an army to regain his crown. Initial reports indicate Christian had hired about 6-7,000 mercenaries in Northern Germany and was negotiating with the merchants of Amsterdam over the shipping to Denmark.

Frederick I is concerned about this, not just because of the size of the army that is about to be unleashed, but also because he knows Christian still has support in Denmark. Christian II had aggressively suppressed the nobility, which endeared him to the peasants and even to a degree the burghers of the major cities, Copenhagen and Malmo.

Frederick I deploys his army to Jutland, where he believes his nephew will land his troop and kick off the peasant rebellion.

And he searches far and wide for allies in this struggle. He tries to convince the emperor and the Dutch to abandon Christian II whose catholic convictions he argues are paper thin and who had proven to be a brutal tyrant. But as a plan B, he looks for direct naval support. There is a Danish navy now, but still vastly inferior to the forces of the Hanse and the Dutch. So, he writes to the various Hanseatic cities asking for help.

The response he gets is broadly positive. Lübeck under its new populist ruler, Jürgen Wullenwever is most supportive. They promise to send a fleet in exchange for restraints on Dutch shipping through the Oresund.

Messengers are going back and forth between Gottorp and Lübeck as both sides try to hammer out a deal.

Act 1 Scene 2,

October 24th,1531 the flagship of Christian II heading out of the port of Amsterdam.

Christian II has indeed indeed mustered an army of 7,000 German mercenaries, the legendary Landsknechte. The city of Amsterdam, pressured by their overlord, the emperor Charles V, have given him a dozen or so ships to bring his troops across to Denmark.

Christian II, for all his faults was no fool. He knew that his uncle had garrisoned all the major towns and fortresses in Jutland and that an attack there, this late in the year would be doomed to failure, even if the peasants would rise up for him.

Once the ships were out of Amsterdam, Christian II revealed his grand plan. Not to Denmark, but to Norway, specifically to the Norwegian capital Oslo was their convoy to go. Instead of a 300 mile sail to Jutland, they were now meant to go nearly twice as far and far out into the North Sea.

The Dutch sailors were anything but best pleased about this change of plan. But they were out at sea with 7,000 armed men, so they went along with it.

But they did not have to go far. The autumn storms that regularly batter the North Sea in October and November hit them on day 2 of the journey. The fleet split up and ships were blown far and wide. Some returned home quickly, others sought refuge in English ports but many sank, including the ship that carried the soldiers wages. As the storm raged the captains had to order the heavy cannons to be thrown overboard, so that the 4 ships and 1,000 men who made it to Oslo at the beginning of November arrived without money and without siege weapons.

But the burghers of Oslo welcomed him warmly. They had little love for Frederick I who had never bothered even to visit his Norwegian kingdom. And Norway was still staunchly catholic growing concerned about the spread of the Lutheran ideas across Denmark and the Baltic. So, on November 29 1531, Christian II was crowned king of Norway.

That was nice, but he did not control much of Norway beyond Oslo. Without cannon and just a sixth of his original force, Christian had no chance to dislodge the garrisons of the main castles in Norway.

But otherwise, he was in good shape. He had a major bridgehead in his lost kingdoms. Winter was coming and that meant any form of retaliation by the Danes would have to wait until the spring. That was enough time for the emperor Charles back in the Low Countries to muster another army and send them across to resume the original plan.

Act 1, Scene 3

March 1532, Copenhagen

Frederick I had been completely surprised and shocked by Christian’s daring move on Norway. He now needed the help of the Hanse cities even more than before. Their navies were the only ones who could prevent a landing of imperial troops in Norway. And he needed them to bring his own forces across to besiege Oslo and capture his obstinate nephew.

So, he invited representatives of the major Hanse cities to Copenhagen to discuss terms for their support. Lübeck, Wismar, Rostock, Stralsund, Danzig and the Livonians all showed up. The leader of Lübeck, Juergen Wullenwever dominated the discussions. He insisted that any major support would be predicated on a Danish commitment to close the Oresund to Dutch shipping.

The Hansards lined up behind the Lübeck position but insisted that they have privileges of free passage for themselves and all their wares. Wullenwever does not support these proposals. In fact, he gets increasingly insistent that traffic through the Oresund should be constrained as far as possible. Wullenwever thought he smelled a rat. If for instance Danzig has free transport rights across the Oresund, what stops their Dutch associates from hoisting the Danzig flag as they approach Helsingborg, pretending they are sailing on behalf of a Hanse merchant.

The other cities too believe there are darker forces at work. As they see it, Lübeck wants as little traffic through the Oresund as possible because that traffic would then have to go via their own harbour and the river route to Hamburg and out from there.

Frederick I gets more and more exasperated with the debates and delays. He needs the Hanse navies now or it would be too late.

By early May the other Hansards leave the negotiations as they cannot see how any of this could come to a fruitful conclusion.

Only Lubeck is left at the negotiation table. Frederick I is forced to concede a full blockade of all Dutch shipping, no ifs no buts in exchange for the city’s help. Wullenwever scored his first great diplomatic victory.

Act 1, scene 4

May 1532, Schloss Gottorp, The secret office of Frederick I

Frederick I is not just exasperated but also a much better tactician than our blustering friend Wullenwever.

All throughout this period Frederick had remained in touch with Charles V and the Dutch, looking for a way to reconcile their differences. And now that had become even more urgent.

Lübeck’s demands had been completely impossible to agree to. The toll on the Oresund and the trade in Copenhagen and Malmo that was associated with it were the main sources of income for the Danish crown. Closing the Oresund, pretty much for everyone would have been economic suicide for the kingdom. No Danish king could ever agree to such conditions. And Frederick I hadn’t, at least not in writing. And he had always made clear that any such commitment would require the consent of the Council of the Realm.

So legally Frederick I was able to do what he did. He made a deal with the Dutch. In exchange for them withdrawing support for Christian II, he would keep the Oresund open for their shipping. That deal meant there were no imperial troops coming across to support Christian II in Norway.

Act 1, Scene 5

Summer 1532, the Kattegat

Wullenwever and his great warrior friend, Marx Meier did not know anything about the deal Frederick I had made with the Dutch – obviously.

So, the navy of Lubeck crosses the Oresund and sets up the blockade of Oslo. And they bring the 6,000 troops in the pay of Frederick I across. There was a bit of fighting back and forth, but on July 1st Christian II accepted defeat. He was offered safe passage and boarded a ship for Denmark. There he was immediately arrested and put in jail in Sonderburg castle. The Danish succession crisis was over.

Act 1, Scene 6

Late summer 1532, Lübeck, the office of Jurgen Wullenwever

Success in war would usually results in celebrations and given Lübeck’s role in the wine and beer trade these could have been quite fun. But I am afraid the finest Sancerre Wullenwever was gulping down at the festivities got stuck in his throat when his captains told him that they saw many a Dutch ship sailing unimpeded past the great fortresses of Helsingborg and Helsingor. 

It became clear that Frederick I had tricked him, it also became clear that there was little he could do about it. Frederick I was firmly back in control of Denmark and Sweden. Christian II was in jail and the emperor had lost interest in the Scandinavian mess.

Wullenwever was nothing if not stubborn. The Dutch were the cause of the decline of Lubeck’s fortunes. Therefore the Dutch had to be thrown out of the Baltic and if nobody was going to help, then it would be Lubeck on its own that would do the deed, cost what it may.

A war intended not just to harass Dutch trade but to bring it to a complete halt meant it wasn’t enough just to send out privateers to capture Dutch ships. Privateers are businessmen who would make rational calculations about the risk and return of attacking a large, well-armed Dutch merchantman.

What Wullenweber wanted was to attack all the Dutch ships, including the large merchantmen, including the convoys and even including their large warships. We are now in a period where we have purpose-built warships carrying cannons. If you want to see an impressive example go to Portsmouth marine dockyards and visit the Mary Rose, launched in 1511 and able to fire a broadside with its 78+ guns. 

If Lübeck wanted to attack those, they needed their own warships and navy commanders who attacked not for profit but for glory. And these were expensive.

Fortunately, the treasury of the city of Lübeck had recently been replenished with all the gold and silver from the church decorations. That popish frippery amounted to 48 tons in total, enough to keep the war going for a while.

Act 1, Scene 7

Stockholm, the Royal Palace

As so often, at the end of the money there was still a lot of war left. 48 tons of gold and silver sound a lot, but even that can run out quickly when waging major naval operations. Wullenwever needed other sources of cash. And guess what, there was one.

You remember Gustav Vasa, king of Sweden. When he was fighting for his crown in 1522, he had called upon the city of Lübeck for help, help they were willing to provide, but at a price. That price had not yet  been paid, largely because Sweden was a mess of smouldering ruins and slaughtered civilians after Christian II’s invasion.

But now, 8 years later, sure Gustav Vasa could pay them back. Wullenwever in his famously diplomatic manner, wrote a harsh letter to Gustav Vasa asking for his cash – now.

The Vasa family are famous for their temper and Gustav was no exception. Getting a condescending letter from a grubby merchant asking for money was just the thing that could send Gustav Vasa into a rage. And rage he did. Instead of sending money to Lübeck he ordered all their privileges in Sweden revoked and opened his harbours to Dutch shipping.

And that is the End of Act 1

Just look at how far we have travelled in these just 36 months. At the start of the play, Lübeck had it all. The king of Denmark and the King of Sweden were friends, owed them their crown and were firm allies. The Hanse was functioning as a coordination mechanism commanding at least some basic loyalty between the cities. Now all these relationships have become fragile, teetering on the verge of open hostility.

Let’s start Act 2 and see what Wullenwever can do to turn it all around.

Act 2, Scene 1

April 10, 1533, Schloss Gottorp

Frederick I, 61 years of age, victorious in the struggle with Christian II lay dying.

BY his bedside are his two sons. The oldest was Christian, duke of Schleswig-Holstein, 30 years old. He had been at the diet of Worms and had heard Martin Luther speak. And he liked what he heard. He introduced the new faith in his lands and made Lutheranism the state religion in Schleswig Holstein in 1528.

The younger was John, just 12 years old and so far, a blank Canvas.

The Danish Council of the Realm did not want Christian the protestant duke of Schleswig Holstein to succeed his father. The members of the council were of the highest nobility in Denmark and wanted to retain the old faith if not for reasons of theology, then because their younger brothers were the bishops and the abbots of the rich monasteries. But if Christian of Schleswig-Holstein was out, who should be king.

They would have elevated little John, who with a bit of encouragement could be made a good Catholic. But that wasn’t easy given the boy’s formidable mother and his older brother both of whom could have demanded guardianship over little John.

So, the council decided to go it alone. Denmark was not to have a king at least until John was grown up.

Act 2, Scene 2

Late spring 1533, Lübeck, Offices of Jurgen Wullenwever

The death of king Frederick I, the man who had double-crossed him was the second bit of good news for Wullenwever. The other was that he had finally been formally elevated to Burgomaster.

What made it even better was that the death of the old monarch came with a neat little succession crisis built-in. Clearly the ardent protestant Christian of Schleswig-Holstein would not allow the Danish Royal Council to bypass him and put a catholic pretender on the throne in his stead.

Christian must be a natural ally of the city of Lübeck.  This would frankly not be the first time the city on the Trave had selected a Scandinavian ruler.

But Christian did not respond to Wullenwever’s letters. No, he made it abundantly clear that he would rather forsake the crown of Denmark than owe it to Wullenwever and the city of Lübeck.

Wullenwever could not understand why Christian was so adamant. He offered him his crown and he was a protestant to boot.

What was it that stopped Christian from asking for Lübeck’s support? Did he regard Wullenwever as an untrustworthy oik who behaved like an elephant in the proverbial China shop? Possibly.

But most importantly, what Wullenwever had again not understood was that no Danish ruler could ever accept the price of his support, a closure of the Oresund for most shipping. Any king who did that would be removed after a short period, because without the tolls from the Oresund there was no money in the Danish treasury and so no chance to keep this unruly kingdom together.

Act 2, Scene 3

Summer of 1533, The city of Rye, England

Whilst all this is going down, the war against the Dutch was still raging. The fight had moved beyond the Baltic and disrupted shipping all over the North Sea.

Marx Meier who had made his first appearance as a mercenary in the army that fought king Christian II in Norway had now risen to the command of one of Lübeck’s largest warships in the North Sea.

Fortuna had been smiling on him, and Marx Meier had managed to capture a Spanish and two Dutch ships. But now he had run out of food and drink. So, he decided to go into the harbour of Rye on the South Coast of England.

Swollen with pride over his success he entered the town on horseback with his men all wearing the fanciest clothes he had taken from the captured enemy ships. It took little time for the citizens of Rye to find out that what these privateers were wearing were mainly English rather than Dutch or Spanish goods. Marx Meier was arrested and brought to the Tower in London.

The Hanse merchants in the Steelyard intervened with king Henry VIII on Meier’s behalf and the king asked to see this man. We are in the year 1533 which for you English listeners is the year when Henry VIII officially married and crowned Anne Boleyn which kicked off the Reformation in England.

Marx Meier, representative of a Protestant power in the Baltic that was at war with the subjects of the emperor Charles V, who was his enemy, suddenly seemed more useful at court than in jail. Moreover, Marx Meier is a man who likes to dress up and to party, something that endeared him to that massive codpiece that was Henry VIII.

By the end of the year Meier returns to Lübeck claiming to have made an ally in England and that things should brighten up soon.

Act 2, Scene 4

Early 1534, Schleswig Holstein

Marx Meier wasn’t a man hanging about doing nothing. The whole winter of 1533/34 he was devising plans how to foster Lübeck’s position. And he came up with the possibly worst one imaginable.

As soon as the weather allowed, Meier with a small contingent of soldiers headed out to Schleswig Holstein, the lands of count Christian and engaged in the usual plundering, raping and pillaging.

That was the last nail in the coffin of a potential alliance between Christian and the free and imperial city.

Act 2, Scene 5

Spring 1534, Hamburg

Despite the splendid adventures of Marx Meier in London, the naval campaign against the Dutch was going badly. The whole thing was extraordinarily expensive, and the city had run out of money. Plus the merchants of Lübeck had to watch their fellow Hansards from Danzig and Livonia doing great business in Flanders whilst they were banned from going there. Even Hamburg, usually joined at the hip with Lübeck refused to participate in the Dutch embargo.

Wullenwever was dragged, kicking and screaming to the negotiation table. He as well as many of the other Hanse cities had gathered in Hamburg to discuss possible solutions with representatives of the Dutch cities.

Wullenwever displayed his usual diplomatic finesse. In complete disregard of the actual situation, he demanded an apology and tons of silver in damages from the Dutch. The other council members and burgomeisters of the Hanse cities were flabbergasted by Wullenwever’s behaviour.

His colleague from Stralsund said to him: quote “I have been to many a negotiation in my life, but I have never seen anyone acting like you do. If you keep banging your head against the wall, you will leave here on your posterior” end quote. Well, he did not say posterior, but this is a family show.

As it happened Wullenwever did not leave in the manner just prescribed, but on the fastest horse he could get his hands on, because he had news from back home.

Act 2, Scene 6

Still spring 1534, Lübeck

As news of Wullenwever’s outrageous behaviour reached Lübeck, the remaining patrician voices on the council demanded an end to all this un-hanseatic nonsense. The city was broke and this war was going nowhere.

Crowds were gathering and Wullenwever’s rule would have been over, had he not suddenly appeared on his exhausted steed.

For all his faults, Wullenwever was a great orator and by promising the world and demanding adherence to the teaching of Martin Luther, he managed to turn the tide. The masses who had just hours earlier asked for his head are now demanding that the last members of the Old Council leave their posts. It is from now on the Wullenwever becomes a full-blown dictatorial ruler of the city.

Act 2, Scene 7

Sometime in 1534, the home of count Christopher of Oldenburg

One has to assume that the mercenary general count Christopher of Oldenburg was seriously surprised when emissaries of the free imperial city of Lübeck show up at his doorstep with a truly wild plan. They are asking him whether he wants to recruit a mercenary army and conquer Denmark on behalf of the City of Lübeck and – drumroll – the deposed king Christian II.

Sorry, say this again. The city of Lübeck that had fought against Christian II in three wars was to ally with this man who was locked up in the castle of Sonderburg rendering him largely useless? And just to clarify, this Christian II was a catholic who would be brought back to the throne by a protestant city, a member of the Schmalkaldic League?

How exactly was that supposed to work?

Well, the Lübeckers explain. Here is how this works:

Denmark has no king at the moment. The power sits with the Council of the realm which is stacked  with members of the high nobility. Nobody likes those.

The peasants in Jutland would happily rise up against their aristocratic oppressors to bring back their champion, king Christian II. Christian, they believe is a man of the people and a good catholic, something the peasants appreciate.

Then the emissaries say they have commitments from the cities of Copenhagen and Malmo to help in the fight. They too do not like the Council of the Realm because they are Catholics. The burghers have all been taken in by the teachings of Martin Luther. Christian II is their champion because as everyone knows he isn’t really a catholic but secretly sympathises with the protestant faith.

And let’s not forget that Christian II is the brother-in law of the emperor, which must count for something. And have we mentioned that Henry VIII of England is a mate?

Finally, there is the navy of Lübeck that still has control of the Baltic Sea. Nobody has more ships except maybe if the other Hanse cities combined with the Danes and the Swedes. But that would never happen.

Finally, the commercial terms. Christopher and his cousin, the ex-king Christian II get to rule Denmark and Norway. Lübeck was to be paid 400,000 guilders in compensation, is to be given the Oresund castles in perpetuity, 2/3rd of the tolls and Gotland, Bornholm and Bergen to boot.

Christopher of Oldenburg, at this point a mid-sized mercenary general sees that the plan may be bonkers and may also be the greatest opportunity that had ever crossed his desk. Christopher of Oldenburg is in.

The war is on.

Act 3, Scene 1

August 1534, Jutland

The war had begun. The incursions by Marx Meier into Holstein had expanded into a larger campaign. Christopher of Oldenburg had landed in Seeland and Copenhagen and Malmo had declared for Christian II. Peasants all across Denmark are in revolt.

The Danish council of the Realm now stands with its back against the wall. They did not want Cristian of Schleswig Holstein to be king, but with the realm in such turmoil they could neither elevate the 13-year old John nor continue with the interregnum.

In their distress they offer the crown to Christian who from now on is Christian III of Denmark and Norway. At least technically. Because he holds just parts of Denmark and nothing of Norway.

But he is an experienced general and administrator and so he gradually gets his act together. He convinces both catholic and protestant Danes to fight under his command against the invaders. Slowly but surely his army moves down the Jutland peninsula, recovering one stronghold after another.

Act 3, Scene 2

Stockholm, palace of Gustav Vasa

The king of Sweden is watching things closely. The idea that Denmark would become some sort of vassal of Lübeck is not much to his liking. He may hate the Danes and owe the Hansards for their help in the war of independence. But at the same time, having these ruthless merchants so close and demanding not just their money back but also even more access to the mineral wealth of his kingdom, that cannot be a good idea.

Gustav Vasa joins the fight on the side of king Christian III of Denmark.

Act 3, Scene 3

November 1534, Lübeck

King Christian III’s army has appeared before the walls of the city. Cannonballs are flying into the streets and on to the church roofs. How could that have happened?

The war was going so well just a few moths ago. Copenhagen and Malmo are in the hands of the Lubeck armies. But now their own homes are on fire.

Christian III had done the unexpected. Rather than gathering his troops to retake his capital, he had led them straight to the heart of his enemy, Lübeck.

The citizens of Lübeck had enough. They tell Wullenwever to go out to the Danish camp and agree a ceasefire. Either that or they go themselves and he should find himself a swift horse to get out here quick.

On November 11h, 1534 Wullenwever agrees to hand back all the places held by his own troops on condition that the siege is lifted. Christian III accepts since this gives him a free hand to regain Funen and Seeland.

Inside the city, Wullenwever isn’t removed as Burgomaster. But the main institutions no longer support him. He is isolated in his office, no longer able to raise funds or send fresh troops.

In his desperation he writes to Henry VIII and offers him the Danish crown if he would send him troops. And since he does not have the time to wait for an answer, he does the same with the duke of Mecklenburg. Neither responds.

Act 3, Scene 4

June 1535, Helsingborg

Despite the ceasefire, the war isn’t over. Christopher of Oldenburg still has Malmo, Copenhagen, most of Seeland and Funen. And he holds Helsingborg, the most important Danish fortress on the Oresund.

That is where he concentrates his troops, his own mercenaries and the Lübecker, which include the troops of our friend, the flamboyant Marx Meier. And it is here where the Swedes under Gustav Vasa are headed.

The two sides set up for battle. Christopher of Oldenburg and Marx Meier have decided to face the challenge head on, rather than hide behind the walls of Helsingborg. The commander of the fortress city was a loyal supporter of Christian II who had set up the large cannons on top of the city walls, aimed at the Swedes.

The smaller cannons of Helsingborg are prepared by the Danes and brought down to the battlefield, all set up and ready to fire.

As the Swedes appear within cannon shot, the German Landsknechts fire their Danish guns. The guns had been loaded with double charges so that they explode when fired killing not just the gun crew but many other men nearby. The extent of the treachery became clear when the aim of the cannons on the city walls is lowered. The Helsingborg garrison fire one devastating barrage after another at the Lubecker and Oldenburger below. Squeezed between the walls of Helsingborg and the advancing Swedes there was only one thing for the Landsknecht to do, run, run as fast as you can. 

Christopher of Oldenburg makes it to Copenhagen where he holds out until the end of the year. Marx Meier is captured and despite a valiant attempt to not only flee but also take the fortress he was imprisoned in, ends up being tortured, beheaded and quartered.

Meanwhile the Lübeck fleet too is defeated, and not just by Danes and Swedes, but by their old Hanseatic allies, the Prussians and oh yes, the navy of Danzig.

Act 3, Scene 5

August 1535, Lübeck, Rathaus

Once the news from Helsingborg reaches the city, Jurgen Wullenwever’s days are numbered. He resigns as Burgomeister and the members of the old council that had left the city in 1531 return and take their old seats.

And as before, they do not execute the man who had created so much chaos. They offer him a role as a clerk within the city’s administration and the opportunity to live out his days in peace.

Act 3, Scene 6

September 24 1537, Wolfenbüttel

Did Jürgen Wullenwever end his days as a clerk shuffling paper in a darkened office inside the splendid Rathaus of Lübeck? You bet.

Just a month after his ousting he is back on the road, seemingly in search of new allies to support his friend Christopher of Oldenburg who still holds out in Copenhagen.

He did not get far. Men of the archbishop of Bremen recognise him and take him prisoner. He is brought to Rotenburg castle where he undergoes a first round of torture. Then he is sent over to the Archbishop’s brother, the duke of Brunswick. Neither the archbishop not the duke had been involved in the conflict but hey, that does not mean they like a populist rabblerouser.

Wullenwever admits to all and everything his torturers accuse him, including being having stolen 20,000 guilders from the church treasury, wanting to unseat the new government of Lübeck and to support the anabaptism faith that was whipping Münster into a religious frenzy. None of that is true and as soon as the screws were off, Wullenwever denied all these allegations.

Still, on September 24, 1537 on the main square in Wolfenbuttel, Jurgen Wullenwever, the most politically ambitious Burgomaster of Lubeck was hung, drawn and quartered.

The End

Well, that is the end of our little play, but not really the end of the story.

The end result of the Wullenwever years was a massive decline in the influence of Lübeck in the Hanse itself. The Dutch can now sail freely into the Baltic Sea. Denmark consolidates into a strong centralised protestant kingdom after the last peasant uprising is suppressed. Sweden is heading to become a major European power whose king Gustavus Adolphus will rampage through the German lands in the 30-years war.

As for Wullenwever he becomes one of the more unusual figures in German historiography in as much that everyone claims him. The nationalists see him as an uncompromising defender of the German rule over the Baltic against the Danes and Swedes. The communist see him as a liberator of the lower classes whose attempt to bring democracy and freedom is thwarted by the conservative establishment. And it seems the German bourgeoisie is also in the Wullenwever fanclub. One of the finest restaurants in Lübeck is named after the man.

Only Thomas Mann and pretty much most historians take a dim view of him. Mann was particularly irritated because the Nazis renamed the house his patrician family had occupied for a couple of hundred years as Wullenwever Haus. In I think 1942 he said: quote:

“The stupid rabble does not even know that a house that bears the stamp of the eighteenth century on its rococo gable can not well have anything to do with the audacious mayor of the sixteenth. Jürgen Wullenweber has done a lot of damage to his city by the war with Denmark, and the people of Lübeck have done with him what the Germans might do one day with those who led them into this war: they have executed him” end quote.

As for my view, I think he was surely an awful diplomat, but his biggest fault was that he put all his efforts behind a political goal that was both unachievable and ineffective. Closing the Oresund against the natural interests of the Danes and their fellow Hansards would never have worked for more than a brief period. Moreover, as we have already seen in the late 14th century the Dutch weren’t the problem. In many ways they were the solution that brought about the economic boom in the second half of the 16th century.

That means the Hanse story isn’t over. There is still at least two more episodes to come. Because even though the political unity is cracked the cities aren’t. The political leaders may clash with each other over ludicrous plans of world domination, the merchants on the ground keep ploughing along, building their network, expanding the reach of their trade and making money. The cities, in particular Danzig, Hamburg and Bremen are flourishing as Lübeck and its protectionist leaders fade into the background.

As usual, I would like to thank my wonderful patrons who have signed up on patreon.com/historyofthegermans or on my website historyofthegermans.com/support. Your help is really, really appreciated.

As for the bibliography, see the shownotes.

Rainer Postel: Der Niedergang der Hanse in Hanse, Lebenswirklichkeit und Mythos: RI OPAC (regesta-imperii.de)

Jahnke, Carsten: Die Hanse | Reclam Verlag

Philipp Dollinger: Die Hanse

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?..

Hello and welcome to the History of the Germans: 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?..

But before we start let me do my ritual prostration before all of you who are supporting the show. To quote Steve Young, Quarterback for the San Francisco 49ers: “In medieval times artists had patrons that supported them and this is a similar thing …We’re basically saying, Wouldn’t you like to be part of this”. And here are four of you listeners who have signed up on patreon.com/historyofthegermans because they wanted to be part of it, Walt B., Max B., Devri K. O. and Thomas N. Thanks to you all.

Last week we hurtled through the 15th century a time often seen as the high point of Hanseatic power, wealth and influence. The cities may stand like a victorious prize-fighter over the crumbled bodies of their opponents, but what few can see is that the contest had taken its toll. Many of the inner organs are damaged. The flow of goods and money had shifted from the land route between Lubeck and Hamburg to the sea route around the Jutland peninsula. As a consequence, the interests of the Livonian and Prussian cities had begun to deviate from those of the Wendish ones, in particular from those of Lubeck.

Lubeck still held the upper hand within the Hanse organisation, not because it was some sort of capital or head of the Hanse, but thanks to its role as the general secretary who sets the agenda for the Hanseatic Diets.

During the 15th centuries the frictions could be glossed over with feats of naval warfare and a huge dose of potluck. But we are now entering the 16th century and that is a very different kettle of fish.

The 16th century is the time when Europe changes fundamentally, politically, socially, culturally and spiritually

In 1477 Maximilian of the house of Habsburg married Mary, heiress to the duchy of Burgundy and the County of Flanders. In 1496 their son, Philip the Fair married Johanna of Castile, the sole daughter and heiress of the kingdoms of Aragon and Castile, Spain to you and me. Within just a few decades a pan-European empire had emerged that combined the wealth of the New World with some of the richest lands in Northern Europe and held the imperial title to boot.

The Kingdom of France too is on a roll. First, they take back the duchy of Burgundy that Maximilian struggled to hold on to. Then the marriage with Anne de Bretagne brings this once independent duchy into the kingdom. Provence and the south of France gets integrated in 1480 when Rene, the last of the Anjous had died.

In 1485, August 22nd to be precise Richard III loses the battle of Bosworth Field, bringing an end to the War of the Roses. From that time until the British Civil war that starts in 1639, the country or now countries are largely at peace. Conflicts are either minor or short-lived allowing the king, parliament and the people to focus on useful things, like building a commercial empire. The Muscovy company was founded in 1555 by royal charter giving some English merchants the monopoly to trade with what was to become Russia. In 1592 we get the Levant company and by the very end of that century the British East India Company.

What few remember today was another great dynastic marriage, the marriage in 1386 between Jadwiga, heiress to the kingdom of Poland to the grand duke of Lithuania, who changed his name from the pagan Jogaila to Wladyslaw Jagiello. This was the beginnings of the personal union between Poland and Lithuania that resulted in the Polish Lithuanian commonwealth in 1559. This political entity would grow and grow until in 1619 it stretched all the way from Ukraine to the Baltic states and from Smolensk to Krakow.

Another future world power too was stirring in that period. Ivan III, ruler of a rather modest principality that used to pay tributes to the Mongol Khans expanded far and wide, laying the foundations of what would after some exceedingly bloody convulsions turn into Russia.

The Margraves of Brandenburg that we had not mentioned for a while, they too got busy. Well first they got busy dying out. In 1320 the last of the Ascanier Margraves, the descendants of Albrecht the Bear had died without offspring. The territory first went to the House of Wittelsbach who made a right old mess of it and in 1374 it came to the then reigning imperial family, the Luxemburgers. They too had a bit of a tough time so that the whole thing was handed over to Frederick of Hohenzollern, the Burgrave of Nurnberg. He came in, initially as some sort of governor but prove to be so successful that by 1415 he became the Margrave. Despite the poverty and chaos of the Mark, this was an important role because the Margraviate was one of the seven electors who chose the emperor. Frederick and his successors prove to be proactive and smart rulers who leveraged their status as electors and the meagre resources they had inherited into an expanding state that gradually reached out for the Baltic Sea.

And then there are the most important neighbours of the Hanse, the kingdoms of Danmark, Sweden and Norway. These three kingdoms had come together thanks to the efforts of Margaret of Denmark in the Kalmar union. The union established that all three kingdoms are ruled in a personal union by one monarch. That monarch was Eric of Pomerania, initially as a tool of Margaret but when she had died in 1412 on his own. As we heard last week, this ended in a bit of a disaster and Eric was expelled in 1439 ending his day in the tiny duchy of Pomerania – Rugenwald. After that the Kalmar Union did not vanish. An imperial prince, Christopher of Bavaria became king of all three kingdoms. But the Swedes had established a much stronger autonomy for themselves. No longer were they obliged to bear Danish soldiers or officers on their territory and their obligations to fund Danish wars was much reduced. Let’s leave this here. We will look at the next steps in this story towards the end of this episode.

Whilst these new or enlarged entities were growing in strength and importance, the long-time ally of the Hanse, the Teutonic Knights went downhill.

The latter, without telling too much of what we will discuss next season had become a shadow of their former selves after the battle of Tannenberg in 1410. Their new neighbour, the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth gradually picks them bare until only East-Prussia and Livonia is left. The former ends up as part of the Margraviate of Brandenburg and gives its name, Prussia, to the new state. The Livonian possessions of the knights come under pressure from Russia and Sweden and are ultimately reduced to the tiny duchy of Kurland.

These new powers had little tolerance for city freedoms. One of their main objectives was to consolidate power within their kingdoms or principalities. That meant to end the perennial feuding between their subjects and between the subjects and themselves. To bring those to an end they had to break the power of all intermediaries, be that counts, knights or cities. What they could not tolerate in particular was that anyone in their lands engaged in their own foreign policy. And that meant by extension that they could not tolerate their cities to engage in the Hanse as a political project. They could probably tolerate it when the Hanse was standardising trading and organised a reliable system for judicial redress. But they took a very dim view of Hanseatic wars against other princes, princes they may have friendly relationships with.

Cities therefore came under increasing pressure from the princes to limit their involvement with the League. The Brandenburger Margraves were at the forefront here. They had several Hanse cities in their territory, including the two interconnected cities of Berlin and Coelln. Yes, that is Berlin, as in the capital of Germany. We are in episode 123 and this is the first time the place gets talked about properly. That tells you something about the difference between Germany and say France, England or Italy. No history of these countries could get to the 16th century without talking extensively about Paris, London and obviously Rome. Germany’s capital remained in the shadows for a very long time. It was founded in two steps. In 1251 there was a city called Berlin, located on the right bank of the Spree around the church of St. Nikolai. Its twin city was Coelln, founded probably 10 years later in the Spree Island today called the Museum Island.

This dual city was a member of the Hanseatic League and like other Hanseatic cities enjoyed a lot of autonomy within the margraviate. They elected their own council and had their own city laws. How economically significant the two cities were, is still somewhat in dispute. If you go around the quaint Nikolaiviertel today you may conclude that they weren’t. Historians disagree and place Berlin-Coelln amongst the mid-range of Hanseatic cities.

In 1440 Frederick of Hohenzollern as part of his consolidation drive decided to force the city into submission. He initiated the construction of a castle that dominated the bridge between the two cities. The citizens revolted and in 1448 flooded the construction site. Finally, a compromise was found and Berlin-Coelln agreed to leave the Hanse. The castle was built and later became the Stadtschloss, the primary residence of the Margraves, later the kings in and then of Prussia and finally the German Kaisers. Most of it was destroyed in the Second world war and the East Germans replaced it with the Palast der Republik, which the post reunification government decided to demolish and now in an astounding development has been replaced with a reconstruction of the former residence of Kaiser Bill.

The fall of Berlin-Coelln encouraged more and more princes, in particular those in Westphalia and Saxony to go after the cities’ autonomy in their lands. Gradually only the largest and most powerful cities could retain the freedom to set their own policies and follow through with the decisions of the Hanseatic diets. In the end the Hanse had to establish different tiers of cities, excluding some from participation in confidential discussions at the Hanseatic Diet because they could not be trusted to keep the information from their overlord.

If the Hanse did not have enough problems with strengthening powers on their doorsteps, state-sponsored capitalism in England and Holland and the princes nibbling away at the membership list, there was also the most significant development of the 16th century to consider, the Reformation.

The reformation kicked off in 1517 when Luther nailed his 95 theses on the doors of the palace chapel at Wittenberg, as well as several other churches in the town. Luther was excommunicated in 1521 and cited to the diet of Worms in 1522. Events accelerated from there. Johannes Bugenhagen was one of the most important figures in the reformation of Northern Germany and Denmark. Bugenhagen had joined Luther in Wittenberg in 1521 and had become his parish priest and confessor. In 1533 he became one of first Protestant doctors of theology and an important preacher and practitioner of biblical interpretation.

Aside from that he was also a great organiser, setting up Lutheran churches Brunswick in 1528, Hamburg in 1529, in Lübeck in 1531, In Pomerania in 1535 and in Denmark in 1537. Little shows the speed with which the reformation spread across the German speaking world than the conversion of the Grand Master of the Teutonic Knights, Albrecht von Brandenburg to Protestantism in 1525, just 8 years after a minor theologian in a smallish university city in Germany wrote up his thoughts and publicised them to his fellow academics.

That gets us to events in Lübeck itself. There too the news of the reformation and the events at the diet of Worms spread like wildfire. The Patrician Council was opposed to what they called the Lutheran Heresy. They feared repercussions from emperor Charles V who after all ruled the Low Countries and they were simply conservatives who did not want to upset the existing order. An order under which many of their relatives enjoyed ecclesiastical honours and incomes.

The Council banned Luther’s writing, introduced penalties for anyone who possesses these books and expelled two Lutheran preachers.

But by 1531 the council crashed into its perennial problem, they were running out of money. And again, they had to call a committee of this time 64 non-patricians. Those were partially artisans but also upper middle-class merchants, shippers and other professions. The committee of 64 quickly moved beyond matters of taxation and demanded the return of the expelled Protestant vicars  and the right to “preach the gospel” in all the churches in the city. From there it took only a few months before Bugenhagen arrived and the city became Protestant. Church property was confiscated, and the monasteries were dissolved. The committee ordered the churches to be stripped of all its popish frills, yielding a cool 48 tons of gold and silver for the city treasury.

Bugenhagen also created a new constitution for the city which limited the power of the council. From now on any alliances, ordinances or borrowing by the council required the consent of the committee of 64 as well as that of another committee of 100 formed by representatives of the parishes.

By 1531 Lübeck was a fully Protestant city. The city joined the Schmalkaldic League, the military alliance of protestant princes and cities established to protect each other against a backlash from emperor Charles V.

For the Hanse as a whole the Reformation caused some serious problems. Whilst some important member cities like Lübeck, Wismar, Rostock and Brunswick had embraced the Reformation, some like Cologne did not want to and others again were restrained by their catholic overlords, for instance Danzig which was now part of Catholic Poland-Lithiuania.

If the political situation was already precarious with territorial princes encroaching on to the Hanse world and the Reformation undermining solidarity of the cities, their economic position was also threatened.

In 1492 an Italian navigator in the pay of Ferdinand and Isabella of the newly formed kingdom of Spain had discovered what he believed was a sea route to India. The discovery of the Americas was one of the reasons that trade shifted towards the Atlantic ports. The other, arguably commercially more important one was the discovery of an actual route to India via the Cape of Good Hope by Portuguese navigators. These events did create a whole new set of trading routes that partially replaced existing channels and partially brought previously unknown goods onto European tables, leaving aside the avalanche of precious metal that created wave upon wave of inflation.

The Hanse as an organisation did not directly participate in these new trade routes. But they still benefitted from the huge amount of wealth that was created. The growing cities of not just Amsterdam and London, but also smaller ones like Bordeaux, Nantes, Rouen and Bristol demanded grain and beer as well as vast amounts of wood to build their ships. The volume of trade of the Hanseatic cities kept growing strongly all throughout the 16th century.

So, whilst the shift in global trade did not negatively affect the Hanse overall, it did impact the relative importance of the Hanse members. Danzig became the main export harbour for grain and wood to the Low Countries, France, England and at times Spain and Portugal. Hamburg and Bremen, located on the North Sea were closer to where the action and became larger, richer and more important.

Lübeck on the other hand declined not in absolute, but in relative terms. They were in the wrong place and had the wrong products.

Since the very end of 15th century the copper that was brought into Lübeck from Sweden faced competition from the copper king of Europe, Jakob Fugger. Jakob Fugger was a merchant and banker from Augsburg who made his fortune by lending to the perennially skint emperor Maximilian a relationship he levered into a pan-European commercial empire nobody had seen before. Some people claim that Jakob Fugger was the richest man who ever lived, though he had some serious competitors like Mansa Musa, Marcus Licinius Crassus or John D. Rockefeller. But a place in the top 10 is probably a fair assumption. He was definitely the richest man the Holy Roman empire ever produced.

Jakob Fugger spread his tentacles deep into the Hanseatic world, showing up in Lübeck in 1494 and a few years later in Livonia, trading not just in copper, but in all and everything the Hanse had believed to have had a monopoly in.  The appearance of the Fuggers was a bit like the arrival of Amazon in the world of general retail. His business model was that of a modern corporation with branches, double bookkeeping, huge financial firepower and close links to government. And facing him were mid-sized Hansards with shoddy accounting and reliant on a network of friends and relatives.

The Hanse retaliated with good old-fashioned piracy. They seized several Fugger ships and refused to hand them back. Jakob Fugger was a formidable opponent who could mobilise not just vast amounts of money but also the emperor himself if that was in his interest.

The copper issue and the antagonism with Jakob Fugger was a challenge, but not the only one. Salted herring and Stockfish, two of Lübeck’s mainstays were already less in demand in the Protestant world that scrapped all these 140 fast days where one could only eat fish, alligator and beaver. The same could be said of beeswax, which again was not as much in demand in protestant rites as it is in Catholic ones. And that comes on top of the dwindling stock of herring in the Baltic and the attempts of the other Hansards and Dutch to bypass the Lubeck-dominated Kontor of Bergen.

And then there is the other important leg of its economy, the link between the Baltic and the North Sea via Hamburg. As we heard last week, the trade in grain and wood was moving more and more onto the route via the Oresund and Kattegat into the North. As shipbuilding and navigation skills advanced, this once dangerous trajectory had become manageable and much cheaper than the land and river route that had allowed Lübeck to flourish.

This route via the Oresund was used not just by the Hanseatic traders from Livonia or Prussia, but also by the Merchant adventurers from England, Soctland and Holland. Their trade had grown for a while now.

The English were still hampered by the imbalance in trade privileges. In 1474 the then king of England, Edward IV had agreed that the Hanse could retain its vast privileges in the Steelyard in London but did not have to grant similar privileges to Englishmen who wished to sail into the Baltic.

The Dutch on the other hand had much less impediments to deal with. Some had initially been members of the Hanse, including Amsterdam, but by now they were outside the association. What they had instead was an enormous market for Hanse products. This market was not just the low countries themselves but all of Western Europe that traded first through Antwerp and later through Amsterdam. Many a merchant was tempted to give up solidarity to his fellow Hansards in exchange for a good relationship with such important customers.

I think it is fair to say that neither the English nor the Dutch constituted a mortal danger for the cities in the Hanseatic League. As we will see, cities like Hamburg and Danzig/Gdansk benefitted enormously from the co-operation with the foreigners. But that is not how the population of Lubeck, in particular the lower classes saw it.

They were convinced that all the relative decline was down to the pesky Dutchmen who kept supplying the Danes in the regular conflicts the city had with its neighbour to the north.

It was just simpler to blame it all on the Dutch and the Danes, because the problems with the Fuggers, the herring, the Bergen Kontor, the Reformation, the princely oppression, all that is complex. The Dutch and the Danes, that is pretty simple. Everybody understands that.

“Cometh the Hour, cometh the Man” as your run of the mill cricket pundit would say. And that man was Jürgen Wollenwever, and his sidekick, Marx Meier.

Wollenwever managed to weave all these strains together into one near unbreakable pike he pointed at Denmark, only to find himself and all the ambitions of his adopted hometown kebabbed on it.

Jurgen Wollenwever came from a successful family of merchants who had settled in Hamburg. He was probably born in 1488. We know little about his career, apart from the fact that he settled in Lubeck in 1526 and became a citizen there in 1531. We do not hear much about his commercial successes which suggests there weren’t many even though his family was growing in prominence in Hamburg. This lack of success may well have fuelled his disapproval of the patricians on the council.

As we mentioned before, the years 1526-31 is when Lübeck converts to Protestantism. Wullenwever and his family have wholeheartedly embraced the reforms Martin Luther proposed. Because of his sincere conviction and a substantial dose of demagoguery, Wullenwever became a key figure in this transition.

He joined the committee of 64 that represented the artisans and lesser merchants who were all staunchly protestant, forcing the city to change course. His moment came when the new constitution that Bugenhagen had drafted is announced. Immediately afterwards two patrician Burgomasters leave the city, and they are followed within a week by the majority of the old city council.

As it happened in 1408, the council is then replenished with members of the committee of 64. This time the difference is that all these new members are in one way or another beholden to Jurgen Wullenwever. This trader of modest success had managed to become the undisputed dictator of the Empire’s second city within just 5 years of arriving at the city gates. 2 years later his position was confirmed when he was elected as Burgermeister.

Pope Leo X, the one who excommunicated Martin Luther had famously writtento his brother Giuliano on the day he was elected: “God gave us the Papacy, let us enjoy it”. Not sure how much he did enjoy it in the end. In any event, by 1531, 18 years later, such a sentiment was no longer appropriate. Wullenwever did not see himself as a dictator who could now enjoy the fruits of his scheming. He believed that he had to enact “the will of the people”. And the will of the people was to get rid of the Dutch and hit out at the Danes, because the Danes and the Dutch were responsible for everything that has gone wrong.

Specifically, his main policy objective was to compel the king of Denmark to close the Oresund for all Dutch shipping.

And he believed he was in a good position to get this done. Because for the umpteenth time, Denmark and with it the Kalmar Union were in a succession crisis. Two competing Danish kings were slugging it out, Frederick I and Christian II. Wullenwever’s plan was to offer the support of the city of Lübeck to Frederick I in exchange for a complete closure of the Oresund.

That sounds sensible but to understand what it really meant we have to go back to 1448. In 1448 King Christopher of Bavaria died. Christopher was that imperial prince from the Platinate who was plucked out of a hat by the Danish Royal Council to become king instead of the hapless Eric of Pomerania.

The intended successor of Christopher was another German prince, Christian of Oldenburg. That is Oldenburg in Oldenburg, not Oldenburg in Holstein. Christian was one of those guys who won the inheritance lottery. From his father he had inherited the county of Oldenburg somewhat of a backwater in Frisia, surrounded by floodplains and tribal chieftains. Don’t get me wrong, I love Oldenburg and even lived there for a period. But I would not have wanted to live there in the 15th century. Nor did our friend Christian. He grew up at the court of his uncle, Adolphus count of Holstein and duke of Schleswig. That uncle was childless which may have been a good reason for little Christian to be extra special nice. Christian was extra special nice, and his uncle made him the heir to Holstein and Schleswig.

When King Christopher of Denmark, Sweden and Norway died in 1448, the Danish royal council looked round for any suitable prince to become the new king. Denmark was as you know an elective monarchy and in the absence of a natural heir the royal council was free to choose whoever they liked.

They offered the crown to Adolphus of Holstein, him being the most important noble in the region and bringing Schleswig Holstein to the Danish crown. Adolphus declined citing old age, but put forward his nephew and heir, Christian of Oldenburg. Only condition, he had to marry the previous king’s wife, Dorthea of Brandenburg.

With that Christian, son of an obscure count from the foggy North Sea shore became king of Denmark. That was great, but he also wanted to be king of Sweden and king of Norway like his predecessor.

But the Swedes are now fed up with Danish kings who are in fact German princes picked out of a hat by the Danish Royal council. The Swedes elect one of their own, Karl Knudsson as king Charles VIII. Because anything the Danes can do, the Swedes can do too. Karl was an important noble and during his term as head of the Swedish Royal council had become a very wealthy landowner. In this role he had ruled Sweden as an independent kingdom, even at a time when king Christopher had still been alive. Crowning him in 1448 was just a natural progression in Sweden’s exit from the Kalmar union. 

Christian and Charles would fight it out, first over who would get the third kingdom, Norway. Charles won this one. But in 1457 Charles loses support in Sweden and get deposed. Christian takes over but in 1464 Charles is back. In 1470 Charles dies and the kingdom of Sweden is then ruled by Charles nephew Sten Sture. Sture defeats the Danes in 1471.

After that the Kingdom of Sweden is ruled by various protectors of the realm, occasionally interspersed with brief periods where the Danes force their way into Stockholm.

Meanwhile in Denmark itself the family of Christian of Oldenburg rules. Christian’s son John takes over in 1481. Apart from his fight over Norway and Sweden, John’s main focus was to strengthen Denmark commercially and militarily. He supported Danish merchants in their competition with the Hansards and built a navy, partially to use against the Swedes, but also to counterbalance the power of the Hanse.

John died in 1513 after a long and ultimately fruitful reign. He might not have been able to suppress the Swedes and even suffered a defeat by the peasant republic of Dithmarschen. But his rule materially improved the economic position of Denmark and strengthened the royal position by suppressing the power of the rebellious nobles.

John’s son, Christian II takes over in 1513. Christian II continued his father’s domestic policies, supporting the commoners against the nobility. What he became famous for though was his brutality. Even before he succeeded his father, he had become viceroy in Norway and was considered tyrannical in his attempts to reduce the power of the local nobility.

Once king, he made a large-scale attempt on Sweden. He was supported in this effort by his brother-in-law, the emperor Charles V, pope Leo X and Jakob Fugger. Christian II had remained Catholic, whilst the Swedish protector of the realm, Sten Sture the Younger and his privy council were leaning towards Protestantism. That explains the support from the pope and the emperor. Jakob Fugger who had funded the dowry and a big chunk of the war was after the great copper mine at Falun Grove. That in turn explains the involvement of the Hanse in this war. The Hanse, and Lubeck in particular did not want to let the copper mines fall into the hands of the Fugger. And if that meant war with Denmark, well than it is war with Denmark.

In 1520 Christian II and his army of mercenaries from France, Germany and Scotland, paid for by the Fuggers, takes Stockholm.  On November 4th 1520 Christian II is crowned king of Sweden. Three days later he organises a party at the palace and by the stroke of midnight soldiers enter the great hall and arrest several nobles. A prescription list is produced by the archbishop of Uppsala that includes all the opponents of Danish rule in Sweden and even some who were supportive of the Kalmar union, just enemies of the archbishop. The day after, November 8th, a court headed up by said archbishop convicts all 82 accused, including fellow 2 bishops, of heresy. On November 9th they are led out to the grand square before the palace and beheaded or hanged.

One of the executed was Erik Johannsson Vasa. His son, Gustav Vasa swears revenge and within days Sweden is ablaze with war. Vasa inflicts a first major defeat on the Danes in April of the following year. The Hanse, namely Lübeck join Gustav Vasa’s efforts in 1522 and by June 1523 Christian II had to withdraw completely. Sweden was free and its king owed the city on the Trave for their support.

When Christian II returned to Denmark, defeated and broke, the Royal Danish council was not best pleased. Also, the Reformation was gradually taking hold in Denmark making Christian II even more unpopular.

What needed to happen happened fast. Christian II was deposed and his uncle, Frederick I became king instead. Christian wasn’t killed, he was just sent into exile in Holland, where his brother-in-law, Charles V was the ruler.

Frederick I was now king of Denmark. He was a more measured man than his nephew. Though he remained Roman Catholic, he allowed Lutherans to preach in his kingdom and encouraged the publication of the first Danish translation of the bible. And he continued his predecessor’s policies of supporting economic growth and the build-out of a navy.

In 1531, the old king Christian II tried to come back. Again, with help from his brother-in-law the emperor Charles V and the pesky Dutch merchants he mustered an army and landed in Norway.

Now the stage is set:

This is the same year, Juergen Wullenwever becomes the de facto ruler of Lübeck. He believes that Christian II’s landing in Norway is the opportunity for Lübeck to regain its control of the Baltic Sea, to push out the Dutch and to advance the Reformation.

His idea is that the Hanse, led by the city of Lübeck, should support Frederick I and in exchange Frederick would close the Oresund to Dutch shipping for good. Gustav Vasa, who still owed them for the support in the Swedish war of independence would do the same. The Hanse monopoly on Baltic trade would be recovered. Protestantism would flourish. Everything will be great!

But will it? That we will find out next week. I hope you will join us again.

As usual, I would like to thank my wonderful patrons who have signed up on patreon.com/historyofthegermans or on my website historyofthegermans.com/support. Your help is really, really appreciated.

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….

Hello and welcome to the History of the Germans: 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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Last week we talked about the constitutional crisis of 1406-1418 when the city of Lübeck was incapacitated by tensions between the ruling patricians and the upper middle class and the artisans. The old leadership emerged victorious from the conflict, leaving the city council as dominated by the wealthy as it had been before.

Though the uprising had failed, the conflict left a mark on the Hanse. The patricians who had defended their position in many of the member cities agreed to make the Hanse an instrument in the preservation of their power. The Diet of 1418 instituted the right of the League to interfere in the internal affairs of the cities, specifically to expel any city that had overthrown their patrician rulers. Merchants who wanted to partake in the Hanse privileges now had to prove that they were a resident of a current member city, not just that they were from the Holy Roman Empire

With that the Hanseatic League moves one step further on its trajectory from a largely voluntary association driven by mercantile interests to a more structured, political entity though it is still a long way from a league of cities with its own institutions, bureaucracy and army. Proposals by Lübeck to go down that route had been rejected.

Lübeck, though still not the capital of the Hanse became its general secretariat. Most Hanseatic Diets took place in the city on the Trave River, the city council maintained the Hanseatic archives and disputes between members of the Hanse were settled here.

Most importantly, Lübeck was in charge of the agenda for the Hanseatic Diets. The Diets weren’t parliamentary debates as we know them where – at least in principle – the members could change their minds. The delegates of the different cities usually arrived with explicit and detailed instructions from their home towns. And these instructions were based on the agenda and proposals set out in the invitation, which was drafted by – the city council of Lübeck.

The cities who received this agenda were in practice limited to a yes/no decision on the proposals from the Baltic shore. If they had an alternative proposal, their delegate could initiate a debate. But the proposal could not really be agreed upon on the same diet because few of the other delegates had discussed it with their councils back home, so they would not have the power to vote in favour. So, even if the majority of delegates agreed to an alternative proposal, these would still have to go back to their hometowns for ratification. Therefore, the Diet usually went with the Lübeck proposal.

Another constraint was that very few of the 70+ members and 200 associate members actually went to the Hanseatic diet. It was usually just the most important ones and those with a strong interest in the matter at hand who shouldered the expense of sending a delegation. The smaller cities left their representation to the large cities who led their Regional Hanse association. These were Cologne for the Rhenish cities, Brunswick for the Saxon ones, Gdansk for the Prussian and Westphalian ones and Lübeck for the Wendish cities. Other regular attendees were Rostock, Wismar, Stralsund, Magdeburg, Hamburg, Bremen and Lüneburg. Usually, there were only about a dozen delegates. Even the important diet of 1418 counted only 35 participants which still made it one of the largest gatherings on record.

This set-up put Lübeck into the driver seat. And mostly they made proposals that benefitted all of the cities. The Hanseatic Diet spent a lot of the 15th century standardising and simplifying the laws of commerce. Rules about shipping, contracts, sharing of risks and the like were very much in line with the main purpose of the effort, removing barriers to trade.

So the city fathers were serious about making the Hanse a success but in the end the shirt is closer than the jacket. When interests diverged, the interest of Lübeck was the one that prevailed.

It did not take long after 1418 for the imbalance of the system to become apparent.

The issue that brings it out in the open goes back to 1370 and the peace of Stralsund. The victorious Hansards were given not just the fortresses on the Oresund for a period of 15 years, but also effective control of the great herring market in Scania for an indeterminate period.

The Hanse used these powers to expel their Dutch and English competitors from Falsterbo and Skanoer. As you may remember, the herring market was much more than a market for herring. Traders came from all over to sell their wares, cloth from Flanders and England, spices and luxury items from Italy, fur and beeswax from the North, grain and wood from Prussia and Livonia. Everything and anything was traded there.

But when the English and Dutch were banned from the fair, their cloth and spices did not get there. Hanse merchants who might have bought them in Scania now picked up these wares in London or Bruges. Within a short period of time the once huge fair was reduced to just a fish market, an enormous fish market, but just a fish market.

The ban from the herring market had an obviously detrimental effect on the Dutch and the English. They still wanted to trade in salted fish, grain, beeswax and the like. So once the Oresund was open again, they sailed past Scania all the way to the source of these goodies, to Livonia and to Prussia.

They also found a solution to the exclusion from the fish market itself. The Dutch started fishing for Atlantic Herring on the Dogger Bank. Atlantic herring may be less desirable than the Baltic subspecies, but in the end it came down to price and availability. Atlantic herring was cheaper and available, whilst Baltic herring was no longer as abundant as it had once been. The gradual cooling of the sea and more importantly, the intense overfishing of herring who had not yet spawned led to a gradual decline in the stock of Baltic herring.

There were widely divergent views on how to address this issue of intensifying competition on their doorstep. Some saw opportunities in working with the newcomers, whilst others argued for protectionist policies. The Livonian and Prussian cities initially preferred a collaborative approach, granting the English and Dutch traders a place at the table, even admitting some to the Artushof. But when the English abused the hospitality granted, Gdansk expelled them. But the Prussians and Gdansk in particular kept a close relationship with the Low Countries where they sold a lot of their wood, ash and grain.

Lübeck and the Wendish cities were more consistently protectionist against both the Dutch and the English but were more open to admitting Southern Germans.

Protectionist measures usually included a blanket ban for foreigners to trade with other foreigners, to contact the producers, the strict enforcement of staple rights and the prohibition of joint companies with foreign merchants.

Things got more heated when war with Denmark breaks out again. In the meantime, the great Margaret had passed, and her successor was Eric of Pomerania, a much less accomplished political operator.

Eric had supported the patrician old council in the constitutional crisis and had expected the grateful senators to return the favour by helping him in his conflict with the counts of Holstein. The counts of Holstein had become dukes of Schleswig as vassals of the Danish crown. As it happened they weren’t exactly as faithful a vassal as the Danish king would have liked. Or maybe the king just wanted Schleswig full stop.

The Lübeck Patricians weren’t quite so convinced they owed that much to Eric. Their primary concern was to keep the land and river route between Lübeck and Hamburg open. Remember that they had spent vast amounts of money on the Stecknitz canal that provided a direct shipping connection between the Baltic and the North Sea. And that money that had been the trigger for the civil discontent that had brought the Hanse to the brink of extinction. No way they would risk a war with the count of Holstein whose lands lay between the two cities and who could cut the connection any time he wanted.

Eric was to say the least, a bit disappointed and he was the sort of man who did not like to be disappointed. He retaliated by inviting the Dutch and the English to trade with his vast territories, which included not just Denmark but Sweden, Norway, Iceland, Finland, Faroer and Shetland.

He also supported the Poles and Lithuanians in their struggle with the Teutonic Knights. At the risk of spoiling the next season I have to mention here that at the battle of Tannenberg in 1410 many knights had fallen, including their grand master, Ulrich of Jungingen.  Even though they negotiated a favourable peace treaty the Teutonic knights were no longer the force they once were. In the subsequent decades they would lose more territory to the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, including the city of Gdansk.

And then Eric introduced a new toll for passing through the Oresund, a serious impairment to the Hanse trade.

The Burgermeister of Lübeck Jordan Pleskow, the same who had engineered the return of patrician rule in the city was able to maintain peace despite these constant provocations. But once he had died, the hawks on the city council got their way.  The Wendish cities declared war on Denmark and closed the Oresund.

They quickly realised why their shrewd old Burgermeister had counselled against war. Only the Wendish and Pomeranian cities were prepared to support the war. The Prussian and Livonian cities, in particular Danzig, Riga and Tallinn were outraged by the blockade.

The reason was economic, which should not be surprising in an association run by merchants.

There were only two trade routes to ship goods out of the Baltic. One was the land route between Lübeck and Hamburg. The other was via the Oresund. The route via the Sund had gained in importance as time went by. The grain, wood and ash that made up the majority of the exports from Prussia and Livonia was extremely bulky. As a consequence, ships got bigger and bigger. Unloading them in Lübeck and putting the wares on smaller vessels to go via the Stecknitz canal and the Elbe River to Hamburg and reloading them on another ship there was very expensive and time consuming. So expensive and so time consuming that the route through the Sund and around the tip of Jutland became more and more attractive, even if it involved spending days in harbour waiting for fair winds.

Gdansk, Riga, Tallinn and many other cities on the Northern end of the Baltic were now shipping their goods through the Oresund and around Jutland. A war with Denmark closed that route and forced them to use the Lübeck route.  

On top of that Eric’s provocations were much less harmful to the Prussian and Livonian cities. They did not mind the Dutch and English as much as the Lübecker. And the war against the Teutonic Order was even welcome to an extent since the Knights had suppressed city freedoms and had a commercial operation that competed directly with the merchants.

Renewed war with Denmark was therefore a blow to the trade of Danzig, Riga, Reval, Elbing etc., a blow that they could have accepted had it been for a purpose they supported. But as things stood, it looked almost as if Lübeck was trying to restore its overstretched finances by provoking a war that forced their fellow Hansards to use their harbour and their canal.

Things weren’t helped when the Hanse fleet was beaten by the Danes. The fleet had protected a large convoy of ships coming with salt from Bourgneuf destined for Prussia. That salt was now filling Danish barrels that went to London and Bruges on Dutch and English ships.

News of the disaster were badly received at home. The population blamed the recently reinstalled patrician governments in Wismar, Rostock and Hamburg for the failure. Heads had to roll.

The war went on in this manner for 9 long years during which the Prussians and Livonians grudgingly paid their fellow Hansards for services they did not want to use in the first place. And by the way, because the salt did not get through from Bourgneuf, everyone had to buy the expensive salt from Lüneburg adding to the frustration.

But it gets better. The Wendish cities did win their war, not thanks to their prowess, but thanks to Eric’s total incompetence. His long war with Holstein and lack of sensitivity towards the interests of its different kingdoms had left him in an increasingly precarious situation. In 1434 Engelbrekt Engelbrektsson, a mine owner of German extraction led a rebellion of Swedish peasants against what they believed was Danish overreach within the kingdom. The rebellion forced Eric not only to make wide-ranging concessions to his Swedish subjects but also to end the costly war with Holstein and the Hansards. The counts of Holstein were confirmed as dukes of Schleswig and the Wendish cities were confirmed in their extensive privileges in Scania and elsewhere. These privileges included a relief from paying the recently introduced toll for the use of the Oresund. This latter exemption only applied to the Wendish cities who had fought the war with Eric, meaning the Prussian and Livonian cities still had to pay it, forcing them to use the Lübeck Hamburg route

The next leg makes things even worse for the traders from Gdansk, Riga and Tallinn. In 1438 king Eric is deposed in Denmark because of his failures in war, general incompetence and debauchery. The Danish Royal Council offered the crown to the last descendant of Waldemar IV, Christian, the count Palatinate, a German imperial prince they called Christian of Bavaria. Christian knew nothing about Scandinavia and was supposed to be a puppet monarch whose impressive titles belied a rather weak position. The Wendish cities, on whose support he had relied, were given further privileges and the castle of Helsingor. Lübeck then completely blocked the Dutch from entering the Baltic.

Another blow to the Prussian and Livonian cities. The Wendish cities’ war had cut them off from their preferred trading route and their business partners in Holland. When the Prussian cities claim that Lübeck is acting mainly in its own interest rather than the interest of all Hansards, they do have a point.

Hanse solidarity starts breaking down in other areas as well. The trade in grain in Livonia kept growing with growing demand from the Low Countries. Much of that trade was going through foreign merchants, Dutch and Southern Germans in particular. When these traders were starting to buy their wares directly from the owners of the estates the council of Riga had enough. They banned anyone, not just the Dutch and Southerners, but also their fellow Hansards from buying directly. That hurt the Lübeck traders hard and they went to the Teutonic knights who ruled Livonia and asked them for help against the unruly city. That was a serious breach of protocol. Asking a foreign power to solve an internal Hanse conflict was an admission that the association was unable to serve its main purpose, facilitating trade.

Riga retaliated by confiscating all Lübeck assets in its harbour. The conflict remained unresolved, and Riga persisted with its strict protectionism.

Having such a rift between the Livonian cities and Lübeck was not helpful when the Kontor in Novgorod got under more and more pressure. In 1424 150 German merchants were incarcerated as retaliation for what the authorities believed was an act of piracy committed by Hansards on Russian ships. 36 of these merchants died in captivity. Ownership of the Kontor was restored to the Hansards, but less and less merchants were willing to take the risk of suddenly getting locked up and rotting in a Bojar’s jail, just for some squirrel’s pelts.

Gradually it was mainly Livonians who came down and they took control of the Kontor and they squeezed out the others. In 1471 Ivan the Great, the ruler of the principality of Muscovy, and grandfather of Ivan the Terrible conquered Novgorod. He had no liking for foreigners in general and – more importantly –  wanted to shift trade to his own territories around Moscow.

Lübeck and the other Hansards saw little reason to come to the protectionist Livonian’s aid and so the Kontor was closed. Over the coming century the trade in furs shifted away from the Baltic Route to the Land route that ended in Leipzig, where a great fair had been established by the Wettiner Margraves of Meissen in 1165 and 1268. Episode 107 if you are interested.

Another Kontor that got hurt in this Hanse infighting was Bergen. Here Lübeck, Rostock and Wismar took sole control in 1446. That led the other Hanseatic cities, including the Dutch members of the League to bypass Bergen and procure the Stockfish directly from Iceland and elsewhere.

In London the situation was even more complex. London was the place where two main Hanse trading routes came together, the East West route from the Baltic bringing fish, grain, beeswax and wood and the South/North route bringing wine from the rhine valley and increasingly from France into England. Traders on these two routes did have little in common. As you may remember there used to be initially two Kontors in London, one for the Cologne merchants and one for the Easterlings.

Things get difficult when the Wendish, Prussian and Livonian cities find themselves in conflict with the King of England. The source of this conflict is the issue of reciprocity. The English merchants are irritated that their German counterparts can trade more or less freely in England whilst they face all sorts of obstacles when they try to get into the Baltic. That sounds fair enough and the English kings, when they are not preoccupied with the 100 years war or the war of the Roses are giving their support to the Merchant Adventurers. Support that goes as far as capturing a fleet of nearly 100 Hanse ships, which results in a declaration of war. Lübeck is again the most bellicose and intransigent warmonger, but there is some support from the Prussian cities on this one. This is by the way the war during which the privateer Paul Beneke captured the galley of Tommaso Portinari (episode 118).

The ones who have no stake in this game and would very much prefer to remain neutral are the merchants of Cologne. They have been welcoming English traders for centuries and their close links go back to the days of emperor Henry V and the empress Matilda, if not beyond.

Still their fellow Hansards insist that Cologne even if they are not willing to fight alongside them, should at least join the trade embargo against England. But that is too much for Cologne. On balance Cologne decided that membership in the Hanse is not worth cutting the trade connections with England. In 1471 the city of Cologne, one of the four leading cities of the Hanse is excluded.

This war between England and the Hanse lasted 3 years and was part of the much larger war of the Roses. Alliances were swapped like crazy and the Hanse was sometimes attacking English shipping, sometimes French or Burgundian. King Edward IV was restored to the crown with the help of ships from Danzig but soon after turned against the Hanse.

In 1474 this episode of the conflict was over. The Hanse was party to the peace of Utrecht which granted them extensive privileges whilst giving minimal right to English traders in the Baltic. The biggest loser in all this was however Cologne. Edward IV had agreed to boycott the Cologne trade as part of his reconciliation with the Hanse. The great Rhenish city was completely isolated and cut off from its most important market. In 1474 it had to beg to be re-admitted to the Hanse.     

Given all these internal tensions, the question is why the Hanse kept going not just during the 15th but well into the 16th century. The answer is that despite all of these tensions, the networks between the individual merchants remained intact and valuable. The patricians on the city councils may gradually turn into land-owning aristocrats seeking honour and glory on the battlefield. But the upper middle classes, the merchants like Bernd Pal kept their business relationships with colleagues in the other cities. To a degree the protectionist measures made such networks ever more important. If you wanted to trade in Livonia, the restrictions meant that a Lübeck merchant needed a local partner to get around these measures. Maybe Bernd was sent up there at the tender age of seven for exactly that reason.

At the same time the standardisation of law and commerce that came in the wake of the Diet of 1418 facilitated trade and was generally regarded as beneficial to all traders.

So, there was still a lot of value in this organisation which is why it persisted. And from the outside it still looked extremely successful. The Hanse had won two great wars, against Eric of Pomerania, the ruler of all of Scandinavia and against England. The tensions were hidden under the surface, invisible to the outside.

What was more visible though was the change in the environment. The rise of the Hanseatic League, the association of the Merchants of the Holy Roman Empire had coincided with the disintegration of that self-same Holy Roman Empire. And other kingdoms, Denmark, Sweden and Norway weren’t in much better shape. England and France were at each other’s throat for a century. But as we head towards the 16th century these medieval principalities are stabilising and becoming pre-modern  states. New powers, like Russia and the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth appear on the Hanse’s doorstep adding to the tensions inside and between the cities. That we will discuss next week. I hope you will join us again.

Before I go just one more big thank you to our patrons who have signed up on patreon.com/historyofthegermans or on my website, historyofthegermans/support. Your generosity is really, really appreciated.  

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But when these problems hit Lübeck the situation became precarious.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Before I go just a big thank you again to all my Patrons who kindly keep this show on the road. I really, really appreciate your generosity. And if you want to join, there is still a chance to grab one of the unlimited patron subscriptions at patreon.com/historyofthegermans or historyofthegermans.com/support.

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!

Hello and welcome to the History of the Germans: 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!

But before we start, let me thank all of you Patrons and one-time supporters out there. I really, really appreciate that supporting a show you can listen to for free is an act of immense generosity. To say it with the author Roman Payne: “Of all public figures and benefactors of mankind, no one is loved by history more than the literary patron. Napoleon was just a general of forgotten battles compared with the queen who paid for Shakespeare’s meals and beer in the tavern.” You see, there is a chance to outdo Napoleon for a mere £2 a month, less than a chocolate croissant. All you have to do is go patreon.com/historyofthegermans or historyofthegermans.com/support. And thanks so much to Mary Teresa H., Raphael F., David C. M. and Michael S. who have already signed up.

Last week we talked about how the Hanse worked, or more precisely how current historians believed the Hanse worked. Because the interactions between the merchants and cities are so multifaceted that for the last 200 years each generation of writers picked elements of the story and wove their own narrative, curiously matching contemporaneous political or economic developments.

So, for now the prevailing story is that the Hanse was a complex network that allowed both information and trust to be exchanged so that merchant could send bulky goods to exactly the right place at exactly the right time over vast distances.

Each trader would have a number of associates in each of the main ports. And these associates would send not only the merchandise ordered but also regular reports about the goings on in their own location, as well as what they heard from elsewhere. These letters would contain things like: prices for squirrel pelts are up because winter has come early, the abbot of the local monastery has decided to build a new church and needs wood and other building materials, old Hinrich Warendorp has died and his company is being dissolved, people are gossiping that Jan de Waal is in financial trouble…etc., etc.,

This information is crucial because the goods the Hansards traded in were usually bulky and meant for consumption. Once the ship full of grain had reached Bruges, the grain would have to be sold in Bruges, because shipping it elsewhere was very costly. Knowledge of the likely prices this grain would fetch at Bruges made the difference between a handsome profit and a crippling loss.

Having multiple associates in each city also kept one’s business partner honest. The business community, even in a place like Lubeck was small enough that many people would know if a merchant was taking advantage of one of his partners abroad. Information about that would quickly find its way back to the injured party who could take corrective action.

One success factor I had not mentioned last week, despite its crucial importance was language. The Hanse merchants, from Narva to Bruges, from Cologne to Bergen all spoke the same language – Middle Low German. Middle Low German had developed from Old Saxon, spoken in the duchy of Saxony and is most comparable to modern day Dutch. This was the language not just of the people, but also the written language. All these letters the merchants wrote to each other were written in Middle Low German, not in Latin. This was a crucial advantage, as it meant business partners could understand each other across the whole of the Hanseatic world, along the 2,500km from Narva to Bruges and the 1000 miles from Westphalia to Bergen. They held their court sessions in Middle Low German and even the recesses of the Hanseatic diet changed from Latin to Middle Low German in 1369. There were various dialects of Middle Low German, though Lubeck, thanks to its role within the Hanse managed to dominate. Even the Scandinavian courts would maintain diplomatic communication in Lübeck dialect. Middle Low German was the Lingua Franca of Northern Europe. As it happened that state of affairs lasted only for a short period. By the 16th century Low German was gradually replaced by High German spoken by the protestant preachers who used Luther’s bible. This  linguistic development mirrored the political development, as the largely separate history of the North we have followed in the last 25 episodes was converging with the history of the south.

A tight network of traders who shared information, trust and a common language sounds very neat and efficient, leaving only one question, a question some of you have asked and I have clearly overlooked last week. What about the money?

Oh, such a grubby word. No honourable Hanseatic merchant would talk about money. Or as my grandfather used to say, money is no object since it is non-existant.

And he wasn’t so far off the truth. 14th century moneybags had no money. At least no ready cash.

There weren’t even any banks in the Hanse before two Florentines, Ludovico Baglioni and Gerardo Bueri founded one in 1410. They were associates of the Medici, presumably sent out into this frontier market to test the waters. The waters prove to be rather cold, and the bank closed when Bueri died in 1449. A few years later a group of Hamburg merchants led by Godeman von Buren tried again but that experiment also failed in 1472. After that there were occasional attempts, including by associates of our friend Bernd Pal from Tallin to set up banking operations, but they never gained much traction and by the 16th century the competition from southern Germany, from Nurnberg, Augsburg and Ravensburg took charge of these activities.

Moreover, the Hanseatic diet banned merchants from borrowing on several occasions, namely in 1401, 1411, 1415, 1417, 1418, 1423, 1434 and 1447.

Does that mean the Hanse was some sort of commercial paradise of honest brokers who traded on fair terms and shunned excessive leverage, never touching the filthy lucre?

Obviously not. They liked a bag of cash as much as the next man. They just did not think that Uncle Scrooge’s Money Bin was the best way to manage wealth. Their wealth was in constant circulation.

One of the reasons the merchants no longer travelled around with their goods but had become fixed in one location, was that it allowed for a much more efficient investment of cash. Goods they had sent to one place were sold there and turned into other wares that would then travel to the next place, where again, they would be sold and replaced with something else.

Take our friend Bernd Pal, the merchant from Tallin we met last week. He had partners in Lübeck, Narva, Gdansk and Antwerp, but he himself mainly stayed in Tallin. He would ask one of his associates to procure furs from Novgorod via Narva. Those he had shipped to Lübeck where another associate would sell them on his behalf. The proceeds of that transaction would then be used to buy English cloth as per Bernd Pal’s instruction and send back to him in Tallin. Meanwhile he would do the same for his associates and partners who wanted to buy or sell goods in Tallin.

As a consequence, Bernd Pal’s warehouse was full of stuff belonging to his trading colleagues, whilst the goods he owned were in someone else’s cellar. The same goes for the money. The money in Bernd’s strongbox were mainly the proceeds of the sales he had made on behalf of his business partners, whilst again, money he owned was somewhere else in the network. A full reconciliation and payout only happened when Bernd Pal died, and his inheritance was settled.

As long as these transactions operate on a bilateral basis, there is not much need for financial instruments. But the trade had grown a lot more sophisticated than that. Let’s say Bernd Pal has an associate in Lubeck he wants to sell his furs but does not trust to get him a good deal on the English cloth. In that case the money raised by selling the furs needs to go to the broker who will procure the cloth. The way to do that was a bill of exchange.

A Bill of Exchange works is as follows. Bernd Pal wrote an instruction to his fur dealer to pay the cloth dealer an amount of 100 Lübeck Mark at Michaelmas, which is September 29th. This document will be sent to the cloth dealer who would then go to the fur dealer and ask him whether he would honour this instruction. If the fur dealer accepts this Bill of Exchange he becomes the Payor, meaning that at Michaelmas he has to pay the cloth dealer 100 Lübeck mark, no ifs or buts. Now the cloth merchant has a claim against the fur trader who lives in his town and who he could take to court if he fails to pay on time. There is a shortened court procedure for bills of exchange, meaning that he could send the bailiffs round in no time. And if the fur merchant is bankrupt, he could still claim the money from Bernd Pal.

From the cloth merchant’s perspective this Bill of Exchange is almost as good as cash, which means he is happy to find Bernd Pal some English cloth and send it across to Tallin.

Bills of exchange are very common in the Hanse world, as it is in many other trading systems. What the Hanse merchants also use are bearer bonds, which are less common elsewhere.

A bearer bond works as follows. Let’s take again our friend Bernd Pal in Tallin. Assume he wants to buy English cloth for 200 Lübeck mark, but the fur he is sending is worth only 100 marks. He also does not have 100 marks in ready cash to send along with the furs to make up the difference. So, what he can do is issue a document that says he would pay anyone who presents this document back to him the sum of 100 mark. This he sends to the cloth merchant, together with the Bill of Exchange.

The cloth merchant is a long-standing associate of Bernd Pal’s so he knows that Bernd is good for a 100 marks. However, Mr. cloth merchant is unlikely to go to Tallin any time soon to collect the 100 marks. That issue is overcome by the fact that Bernd Pal promised to pay to whoever shows up with this bearer bond. So, cloth merchant can take the bearer bond and swap it with someone else who needs to pay 100 marks in Tallin. In return he receives either cash or another bearer bond or Bill of exchange, for instance in London where cloth merchant gets his cloth from.

Normally bearer bonds do not work very well between individual merchants engaged in long distance trading for the simple reason that they normally do not know each other well and more importantly have no current information about their creditworthiness. In the Hanse with its tight network of information exchange and social control, bearer bonds can work between individual merchants.

Bills of exchange and bearer bonds are not only means to facilitate payments, but they also have a short-term credit element. Bernd Pal knows that it will be several weeks before the bearer bond he issued to pay for the cloth will make it back to Tallin. The 100 marks he will need to pay out once the bond returns in say 6 weeks can be used to finance some short-term investment. In practice this makes the bearer bond a short-term loan. So is a Bill of Exchange. These instruments cover a big art of the liquidity needs of Hanse merchants.

But there are financing needs beyond covering liquidity. For instance, our other Tallin trader, the ambitious Hans Selhorst needed to borrow money to buy himself a large and representative house in the centre of town to convey his new status as a member of the Great Guild. The funds for that he seems to have borrowed from fellow merchants.

We find that some of the large merchants ran a financials business alongside their wholesale franchise. What they mostly did was extending credit to their suppliers of wares. The burghers of Tallin would for instance extend credit to owners of the large Estonian estates, who were also their suppliers of grain and other agricultural produce. They would even lend large sums to bishops and the Teutonic Knights themselves. The reason for these loans was mainly to tie the suppliers to the traders. In Bergen this was an integral part of the business model as the Hansards linked their lending to the exclusive right to purchase the fishermen’s catch at a predetermined price.

Another major finance activity was money exchange. Currencies across the Baltic differed considerably. The silver mark of Lübeck was a key reference currency but most of the large cities, like Riga and Gdansk had their own currencies. The Scandinavian rulers as well as the German princes were minting coins and tried to enforce their use in the cities belonging to their territories. Burgundy and England too had important currencies, which meant that traders were constantly obliged to use foreign exchnage. To avoid having to ship vast amounts of gold and silver in various denominations around the place, a lot of this was done through Bills of Exchange. Say Bernd Pal in Tallin would issue Bill of Exchange, drawn on himself in Riga Mark of silver. That could be exchanged into a Bill of exchange drawn on a Lübeck merchant in Mark of Lübeck at an agreed exchange rate. The exchange rate was also often use to hide the interest on the loan element of the instruments.

Again, the people who would do that were Hanseatic merchants, rather than banks. Once a merchant has risen through the ranks and joined the city council, he will have to spend a lot of time on political issues, sometimes even go on long missions abroad. Unless he has an excellent setup with great apprentices or a competent successor, it will be difficult for him to keep all the different balls in the air, making sure goods arrive on time, payments are made when due etc., That makes finance and real estate more attractive. Lending money or renting out houses requires less oversight and leaves room for political passions, which is why most creditors tend to be the most senior and most powerful people in town.

Bottom line is that there was a lot of banking activity in the Hanse, just that it wasn’t performed by banks. In the same way that the network system precluded the emergence of large trading firms, it also prevented the creation of large banks.

In most markets banks can offer loans on commercial terms superior to individuals. That is down to three reasons. First, they make a spread on the difference in the interest rate they pay on deposits and the interest they charge on loans. The second element is diversification. Banks have large portfolios of loans so that if one borrower fails, the bank can sustain the loss. And third, at least in principle Banks have superior information and sophisticated tools to assess the probability and severity of default.

When the Hanse was at its height, none of these advantages cut through. Deposits were quite rare in a system where merchants kept running their business literally until they dropped dead. They never cashed out. Diversification too was of limited benefit given that the market was comparatively small and major events, such as wars or climate effects led to correlation between defaults. And finally, the network was a much more efficient information and risk mitigation model than a medieval banking house.

Only in the end markets of the Hanse, in London and Bruges did a banking model have a major advantage over the individual merchants, and that is exactly where you find the great banking houses operating. The victim of the privateer Paul Beneke was a banker, Tommaso Portinari, main representative of the Medici bank in Bruges. These banks would offer loans secured by bonds or Bills of exchange. For instance, it allowed a German merchant to use a Bill of Exchange drawn on another Hansard back in Hamburg to purchase goods from a Catalan. The Catalan would not accept the Bill of Exchange on a guy he had never seen or heard of, but the bank would.

We know from English records that the Hanse merchants were some of the most prolific users of lending services in 15th century London.  One example of such a heavy user of banking services was Hildebrand Veckinghusen.

The largest set of papers relating to the business of a Hanse family is the Veckinghusen archive consisting of 12 account books and 600 letters, today part of the UN World Heritage. They trace the career of Hildbrand Veckinghusen whose ambition exceeded many of his contemporaries. He had based himself in the Hanse Kontor in Bruges from where he rapidly expanded, trading not just in the classic Hanseatic markets but down into Southern Germany and even Venice. The scale of his business was impressive. In 1411 he claimed to have bought goods worth 70,000 ducats after having sold wares for 53,000 ducats. He traded in everything, including luxury goods like amber from Prussia and furs from Novgorod. But also bought salt in vast quantities. To fund this expansion, he turned to Italian bankers. But he was just not lucky enough to play in that league. His associates lost goods and one defrauded him, the figs he ordered from Italy arrived rotten, as did some rice. When the economy tanked in the early 15th century, leverage ended up biting him back and in 1422 he was arrested for not paying his bills and was put into debtor’s prison.

All the way into the 20th century historians had dismissed Veckinghusen as the exception that proves the rule. Hansards, so the story goes, were sober, calculating traders who refrained from speculation and excessive risks. In particular Hansards allegedly did not like credit, in fact they had it banned.

And indeed, there were explicit decisions by the Hanseatic Diet banning the use of credit in 1401, 1411, 1415, 1417, 1418, 1423, 1434 and 1447. Does that mean the Hanse was opposed to lending in principle? Most people believed that until the 1980s when Stuart Jenks took a close look at the background of these bans on borrowing issued in the early 15th century.

What came out was an utterly fascinating but extremely geeky story. So, if you are not particularly interested in the intersection of macros-economics, finance and politics in the 15th century, fast forward, wild guess 4 minutes and we will talk about more accessible topics.

The first official ban on borrowing was issued in 1401 and applied specifically to Bruges.

At that time Bruges, like the rest of Flanders was part of the duchy of Burgundy. The duke of Burgundy was Philipp the Bold a man much engaged in war. As such he was always short of the gold he needed to pay the troops. That seems surprising since he was the ruler of the most active commercial and financial markets in Northern Europe, Bruges, Ghent and Antwerp and should hence be immensely rich.

Being the overlord is great, but the problem was how to extract the money from the rich burghers of these cities. He could have increased taxes again, but that had been done already. Plus, it tended to affect the poor more than the rich and these wretches had a tendency to revolt.

If not by tolls and taxes, another way territorial lords funded themselves during this period was by manipulating the currency. Territorial lords, like a state today had the right to determine what was legal tender in their lands. Specifically, they could declare that new coins are being issued and that everyone had to come and exchange their old coins for the new ones. The way the lords made money from that was by handing back less gold or silver than they had received in the exchange.

The victims of this cash extraction could only avoid a loss by two means. Either they melt their coins down and send them abroad. Or they could simply hoard them and wait for better days.

To prevent the former, the lord would issue a ban on all exports of gold, silver or coin upon severe punishment. Whether that works depends a lot on their ability to enforce the ban. And quite frankly a high medieval prince did not have the means to check every transport of grain, cloth or wool for some gold ingots.

A territorial lord who had gone through a couple of rounds of these kinds of devaluation finds himself confronted with a simple question. Is the reason that so few coins are presented at the mint down to either, that there is no more gold left in the country, or is it down to people hoarding precious metal.

In 1399 the duke of burgundy came up with a way to find out. He ordered that from now on all transactions had to be made in cash. That was a shock to the system. We may be in the 14th century, but as we have seen with the Bills of Exchange and the Bearer Bonds, a lot of commercial transactions were already cashless. That was even more the case in Bruges, the financial centre of Northern Europe.

The citizens of Bruges were as unwilling to walk around with the equivalent of hundreds of thousands of pounds then as we would be today. A merchant coming to Bruges would set up an account with a Bruges banker, often the host he was staying with. This banker in turn had accounts with most other bankers in Bruges, so that any transaction could be settled account to account. Alternatively, the parties could use bills of exchange, bearer bonds or banker’s drafts. If the merchant was creditworthy, he may also be granted an overdraft on the account or could borrow funds to pay for the merchandise.

That way nobody ever saw any gold or silver coins.

But the duke was convinced they existed, based on the irrefutable evidence that these moneybags seemed to be literally coining it. So, to lure out these elusive florins, livres, pounds and marks, the duke made the city of Bruges demand that all transactions have to be done in cash.

So, instead of handing over a Bill of exchange in lieu of payment, the buyer would have to cash his paper and bring the coins to the seller. Or if the buyer was buying in credit, he needed to get the banker to give him the funds in coin and then hand them to the seller. At that point it was clear who had what coins at home and the duke’s men could come and demand them to be swapped into the inferior specie.

Somehow the grand plan backfired, and badly. Because the duke, great warrior that he was, was no economist, let alone an expert in how money is created. I guess nor are you, so let me take you through a little game.

Imagine there was only one bank in the world with a capital of $100,000 and that is all the money that exists. If I were the luckiest man in the world and was allowed to borrow these $100,000 from this bank, I would receive $100,000 in cash from the bank. The bank now books a claim of $100,000 against me on their balance sheet. I take the $100,000 dollars and buy a house. The person I buy the house from receives the $100,000 in cash and puts it into his bank account with the same bank. The bank now has the $100,000 in cash that they can lend that out again. If you are the second luckiest person in the world and allowed take this $100,000 loan and buy a house, the same thing happens. The Bank books another $100,000 loan as an asset on its books. The seller of the house puts the coins back in the bank, so that there are now loans and deposits of $200,000 in the world, whilst the total number of coins is still only $100,000.

By 2023 we have gone through a couple of iterations of that process so that today the amount of USD cash in circulation is about 2.4 trillion and the paper amount, the so-called M2 is almost 10 times that, 21 trillion.

I think we can forgive our friend the duke of Burgundy for not getting it.  How could he have known that there was a whole wall of totally legitimate money without any coins? When he demanded settlement in cash for every credit transaction, Bill of exchange etc., the financial system in medieval Bruges went into meltdown. There was already so much more paper money than cash in circulation that there was no way this could be covered. Demand for coins went stratospheric and the nominal price of goods crashed. To get an idea what happens when you do that, google Plano Collor, a more modern equivalent of a similar policy in Brazil in the 1990s.

So, this is the background to the Hanse ban on borrowing. There is financial chaos in Bruges. Coins are hard to come by, which creates hyperdeflation. Merchants who bring in goods to Bruges will get paid a lot less for their goods than they had hoped for. At the Kontor in Bruges it is panic stations.

Remember how the bill of exchange works. Our friend Bernd Pal is sending beeswax to his partner in Bruges for sale as well as a bearer bond for him to cash so that the company can buy some cloth. What he does not send is coins, silver or gold.

His partner in Bruges now has a problem. He has to turn the Beeswax and the bearer bond into local currency and not just into money as an accounting measure, but into actual coins. Even if he manages to do that, the exchange rate is likely absolutely terrible. He then goes and takes the coins to buy the cloth. Cloth prices too have fallen thanks to the deflation, but that is unlikely to be enough to make up for what has been lost on the exchange rate.

That causes a heavy loss to Bernd Pal for which he will blame his partner. Now imagine if Bernd Pal had issued his Bill of exchange in local Bruges currency, in Pound Grote. At that point the associate in Bruges is really in the dumps. Either he accepts the Bill of exchange and pays out the Pounds Grote which means he takes the loss on the exchange rate, or he refuses the Bill of exchange, at which point his own and Bernd Pal’s credit is utterly destroyed.

The merchants at the Hanse Kontor in Bruges realise that something needs to be done urgently. They need to stop this flow of Bills or exchange and other credit instruments coming in from Cologne, Danzig, Riga or Lübeck, at least until this madness is over. The Kontor writes to the Hanseatic diet in Lubeck and asks for them to ban the use of credit in Flanders. Initially the participants in the diet did not quite understand why this was such a big issue. But in the second round they realised that they may lose either the Kontor in Bruges or the good credit of the Hanse merchants in Flanders. So, they reluctantly issued an order to block the issuance of credit. Once the madness is over, the ban is lifted again, and things return to normal.

The duke of Burgundy tried the same stunt again 2 or three times and the Hanseatic diet responded again with a ban on the use of credit. These bans were again lifted once the issue was over.

And that means the Hanse had no problem or objection to credit or cashless payments at all. They blocked its use in circumstances where princely shenanigans caused serious harm to some of the merchants.

So, banking and the use of financial instruments was an integral part of the Hanseatic trade. There was nothing unusual about the way they operated.

However, there was one significant difference between Hansards and their Italian, English, Flemish and Spanish counterparts. They did not use double bookkeeping. The trading records we have from this period suggest that accounting was a complete mess. A Hansard merchant literally had no idea whether his assets and liabilities were balanced, nor did he have a reliable cash forecast. It often took years to work through the collection of letters and order books to reconcile the accounts of a company once one of the partners had left.

Not knowing how much equity a business has is not something that one would want to disclose to the bank when looking for a loan. That may be another reason that there were no banks and that Hanse firms never grew to the size of a Fugger or Ravensburger. They simply could not handle it.

I actually struggle to imagine how they even managed what they had. As we have seen with Bernd Pal, even relatively small merchants would be involved in 3 or 4 different companies whose goods and finances he had to keep separate from his own. Some of his Bills or exchange or bearer bonds were issued in his own name, some in the name of the company, all with different due dates. Cash had to be kept separate and tracked. It really is mindboggling.

And finally, a word about all these currencies. Having all these different coins and frankly mad monetary policy must have been a major problem. A large part of banking in the Middle Ages was foreign exchange. Either direct exchange of foreign coins into local currency or by issuing some sort of traveller cheques which allowed a crusader or merchant to draw funds in lands far away. In both cases the foreign exchange banker would make a handsome profit, usually about 5%.

This made trade more expensive than strictly necessary which is why the Hanse tried to resolve the problem. Many cities had acquired the right to coinage during the 12th and 13th century. The cities did not try to turn their currency into money-making schemes the way the dukes of Burgundy and pretty much all princes were doing. They wanted their currency to remain stable. Cities would form currency clubs that attempted to regulate the quality of the coinage. The most important one was the Münzverein of the Wendish cities. This was formed immediately after the peace of Stralsund and included Lubeck, Hamburg, Wismar and Luneburg as well as a number of associated members. They committed to rules about the minimum silver content in the mark, they had ordinances about how the mint and its personnel, and they would procure the precious metal together from Bohemia. This did help a bit, but even within this club discipline was sometimes lax and it took until the 16th century before they issued their first joint coin, a large silver 1 mark containing 18g of sterling silver.

Having a stable currency would have been a huge benefit to the Hanseatic League and Northern and Eastern Europe in general. But the currency clubs operated outside the context of Hanseatic diets, which did slow down financial integration across the association so that there never was a common currency across the region.

How important this could be is shown by the example of England, the great rival of the League in the 15th century and the emerging world trading power. England had one currency, pound sterling that was legal tender across a sizeable territory, and – most importantly – could not be used as an ATM for the royal purse. Since the 12th century the quality of the English coins is checked every year by the Chancellor of the Exchequer, financial leaders, representatives of the Royal Mint and the Worshipful Company of Goldsmiths. And this is not a joke, the process happens every year and once the Assay office has confirmed the accuracy of the coins, the verdict is read out by the clerk of the Goldsmith’s company on behalf of the Senior Master and Kings Remembrancer, a title going back to 1154…..only in England.

Which is where we will be going next week. We are now in the period where the Hanse begins to notice the unintended consequences of its success in the war with Denmark. Taking control of the herring market in Scania and banning the Dutch and the English from access sets off a sequence of events that turns the great victory into a smouldering calamity. I hope you will join us again next week.

Before I go just a big thank you again to all my Patrons who kindly keep this show on the road. I really, really appreciate your generosity. And if you want to join, there is still a chance to grab one of the unlimited patron subscriptions at patreon.com/historyofthegermans or historyofthegermans.com/support.

And finally, bibliography. This episode relied heavily on:

Jahnke, Carsten: Die Hanse | Reclam Verlag

Jahnke, Carsten: Netzwerke in Handel und Kommunikation an der Wende vom 15. zum 16. Jahrhundert am Beispiel zweier Revaler Kaufleute. Netzwerke (hansischergeschichtsverein.de)

Stuart Jenks: War die Hanse kreditfeindlich? on JSTOR

Historical documents of Hanseatic League added to UNESCO archival heritage list | Tallinn

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:

Quote: “the Hansa Teutonica is not a societas: (a company) for it knows neither a common ownership of goods nor shared ownership of the good, since in the Hansa Teutonica there is no joint ownership; nor is it a company formed for certain commercial transactions, since in the Hansa Teutonica each individual makes transactions for himself, and the profit and loss falls on each individual…

It is also not a collegium (a college)….since it is formed from separate cities. It is also not a universitas (a corporate body), because…for it is required that it has property, a common treasure, a common seal, a common syndicus and a recognised leader.

“the Hansa Teutonice is … a firm alliance of many cities, towns and communities for the purpose of ensuring that commercial enterprises on water and on land have the desired and favourable success and that effective protection is provided against pirates and highwaymen, so that the merchants are not deprived of their goods and valuables by their raids.”

Yep, me neither. And for most of history, historians have remained as befuddled as king Edward IV about the nature of the Hansa.

This being the History of the Germans Podcast, ambiguity is nothing we are afraid of. Let’s step into the debate and be wrong on every count…

Hello and welcome to the History of the Germans: 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:

Quote: “the Hansa Teutonica is not a societas: (a company) for it knows neither a common ownership of goods nor shared ownership of the good, since in the Hansa Teutonica there is no joint ownership; nor is it a company formed for certain commercial transactions, since in the Hansa Teutonica each individual makes transactions for himself, and the profit and loss falls on each individual…

It is also not a collegium (a college)….since it is formed from separate cities. It is also not a universitas (a corporate body), because…for it is required that it has property, a common treasure, a common seal, a common syndicus and a recognised leader.

“the Hansa Teutonice is … a firm alliance of many cities, towns and communities for the purpose of ensuring that commercial enterprises on water and on land have the desired and favourable success and that effective protection is provided against pirates and highwaymen, so that the merchants are not deprived of their goods and valuables by their raids.”

Yep, me neither. And for most of history, historians have remained as befuddled as king Edward IV about the nature of the Hansa.

This being the History of the Germans Podcast, ambiguity is nothing we are afraid of. Let’s step into the debate and be wrong on every count…

But before we…..ahhh, I can feel it. You have your finger over the 30 second forward button. Are you sure this is a good idea. Remember last week when you did that and found yourself in the middle of the horrific rendition of Oh Tannenbaum.  Just think about what else I could do. No, I won’t. I should probably apologize for that singing. It was cruel and like all real cruelty, somewhat unintentional. I knew it would be quite bad, but listening to it again once the episode had been published, I realised just how godawful it was.

At which point I have to express my gratitude to all of you who – instead of running away horrified – have decided to go to patreon.com/historyofthegermans or to historyofthegermans.com/support and contributed to the show. Your commitment to swap chocolate croissant for mental nourishment goes beyond what could reasonably be demanded. Your names will appear here soon, though for now I want to thank Stefan A. Ole F., Friso B. and Albert V. who have already signed up.

So, what is the Hanse?

To answer that it may be useful to look at the Hansa in comparison to other European trading organisations, in particular the world of Mediterranean trade, i.e., Venice, Genoa, Pisa, Florence etc.

Both operated in geographically closed oceans, the Mediterranean and the Baltic.  They transported goods over longer distances.

But pretty much everything else was different.

Mediterranean trade was mainly in high value, low weight goods, spices, silk, incense, carpets, glass coming into Western Europe in exchange for silver as well as more pedestrian goods like wine, salt, grain, olives and fish. The Baltic trade was predominantly in bulky everyday goods, herring, rye, stockfish, cloth. The only luxury items were furs and beeswax, though these were still quite bulky.

The med traders sailed on galleys who would be rowed wherever the helmsman pointed her at, whilst the Hansards sailed on sailing ships that could not really go upwind, making arrival times and sometimes even arrival locations somewhat unpredictable.

The cities around the Mediterranean were in constant competition with each other. The Venetians would attack a Genoese galley with the same fury as a Muslim one, or maybe with even more vigour. Within the Hansa the cities cooperated if they found common grounds. And those who did not agree would either not send a delegate to the Hanseatic diet or if the delegate was already there, the delegate would not vote. After that, those who had walked away would be left alone, unless they would proactively undermine the effort of the majority, at which point they could be excluded.

Venice and Genoa conquered their trading posts along the Mediterranean and incorporated them into their maritime empires. Some of these, like the islands of Corfu and Crete were sizeable in themselves. In the later stages, Venice would become a significant land-based sate as well as a maritime republic.

None of the Hanseatic cities pursued a similar policy. When they went outside their own territory, they did that through their Kontors, which were embedded into the trading centres of Bruges, London, Bergen and Novgorod. They did go to war, and as we have seen quite successfully. But they usually tried to avoid it. And it was never to gain territory, but to force the princely rulers to confirm privileges and trading rights.

Another major difference was the relative size of trading firms. In Italy great trading firms emerged with representatives in all the major centres, from Cairo to Bruges. The owners of these firms became immensely rich and dominated politics until gradually transitioning to princely rulers, like the Medici in Florence or the tight oligarchies in Florence and Genoa.

The Hanse world on the other hand was mainly one of medium-sized merchants where well-educated ambitious men could rise to the highest positions in their city, whilst sometimes the sons of successful merchants find themselves relegated to the lower ranks if they lacked the skills required.

This is the factual bit.

What the discussion has been about for the last almost 200 years is why it was what it was. A state like Venice is easy to understand with a modern mindset. The Hanse is not. As the English would say, it is a crocodile where you can only see a small part with the main body and the terrifying jaw is hidden from view. And that is why everyone has been interpreting this thing in their own way, reflecting more their contemporary perceptions than the reality at the time.

In the 19th century the Hanse was seen as German purely nationalist endeavour. Led by the mighty city of Lübeck the Hansards formed an organised military power that dominated the North Sea and colonised the Baltic all the way up to Estonia, Sweden and even Finland. That narrative fit neatly into Kaiser Bill’s idiotic ambition to building a German navy rivalling Britain. And on top of that it provided a bit of colonial tradition, another thing it was felt the nation sadly lacked.

This notion was then supercharged during the nazi regime, where the Hansards were painted as German Übermenschen who together with their fellow Teutonic Knights turned the people of Prussia and along the Livonian coast into slaves providing the foodstuff needed to feed the Germans back home.

After the war, two schools of thought emerged. In east Germany the Hanse was given the Marxist-Leninist treatment, setting them up as bourgeois proto-capitalist, constantly suppressing the uprisings from the lower classes.

In west Germany something rather weird happened. The Hanseatic archive of Lübeck had been brought to safety in east Germany and was later transported to the Soviet Union. That made it hard to access for western scholars. As a consequence, the research about the Hanseatic league in the West stagnated. In the absence of new research, the pre-war findings kept being repeated. I sometimes stumble reading books and papers from the 1980s and 90s about the Hanseatic League because they do sound a feel quite different, quite antiquated.

The archives returned to Lübeck in the early 1990s and gradually a new wave of research began to emerge. Many a beloved story was put under intense scrutiny, like the story of Klaus Störtebecker we talked about last week.

This research focused more on the cooperative and international component of the Hanse. In the public perception the Hanse turned from a German nationalist project to a predecessor of the European Union. Andrus Ansip, prime Minister of Estonia celebrated the country’s entry into the European Union by saying “the EU is a new Hansa”. A new Hansa was formed as a marketing association between Hanseatic cities from Belarus to the United Kingdom.

For what it is worth, the Hanse never had the equivalent of a European council, a European Parliament and the European Commission which makes all this as believable as the idea that Charlemagne was some sort of lovechild of Adenauer and de Gaulle.

Looking at the current iteration of historical writing, we are moving into the next stage, the Hanse as a network. When I first read that I thought – yes, this is inevitable. We have tried naval superpower, the Germanic Übermensch, Marx and Fukuyama’s end of history. The natural next step is the Hansa as an early ebay, amazon or Alibaba.

But let’s park the cynicism and let me take you through the logic of the Hansa as a Network. I rely here mainly on Carsten Jahnke, Justyna Wubs-Mrozewic and David Abulafia, the sources you find in the show notes.

Let’s begin with the challenges the Hanseatic merchants faced. The first one is simply distance. Let’s assume you are based in Lübeck and you trading between Novgorod and Bruges. That means you set off for Bruges to buy the cloth. Then you take the cloth to Novgorod where you sell it. You use the proceeds to buy fur which you then bring to Lubeck for sale. That is about 6,500km, which on a cog going at 3 to 4 knots per hour and not always in the right direction can easily take a year. Medieval ships could not go to windward so merchants could find themselves stuck in harbour or blown to places you never wanted to go to in the first place.

It was also extremely risky. On the one hand there are the risks of pirates, confiscation of goods by the local ruler, shipwreck etc. Plus, you have all your eggs in one basket, this one set of goods you are travelling with. If they are lost or damaged you will be destitute, and so will your family.

These extreme events are one thing, but there is also a of less dramatic but equally serious problems. What if the cloth you brought along from Bruges was not what the Novgorodians find fashionable anymore. What of you bring the furs to Lübeck just when a whole fleet is coming in with Norwegian furs, what if city of Bruges is on fire just when you arrive with the beeswax.

Around the turn of the 14th century the Hanse trade changed. Up and coming merchants were still criss-crossing the Baltic with their own wares. But established merchants would settle down in one place and trade across multiple markets. They would buy space on one ship going to Novgorod, on another going to Bergen, whilst buying goods coming in from Narva or Stockholm to be forwarded to London.

This system diversified the risk but had other challenges. The merchant could ask the shipper, the captain and owner of the ship, to sell the goods and buy new ones. But how would he be sure that the shipper will not screw him over. Alternatively, he could send an apprentice to travel with the goods. But the apprentice will ask for detained instructions which at the time of arrival may already be obsolete.

And this does not solve the problem of information discrepancy between the locals and the person trading into this port. You still do not know whether you have the fashionable colour of cloth.

But we do know that this system worked, because otherwise we would not have a podcast series about the Hanseatic League.

So, it may be worth to look at an individual merchant to understand how it might have functioned.

Bernd Pal was such a merchant. He had based himself in Reval/Tallin, though he was originally from Lübeck.  His father had been an important merchant in Luebeck who traded with England and Bergen. The Pal family had been in Lubeck for a long period of time and some had risen to become members of the city council. Amongst the wider family are merchants in Wismar and Dulmen in Westphalia.

He was born in 1437 and in 1444, i.e., at the age of just 7 he moved to Tallin to be apprenticed to a merchant in Tallin. He is likely to have already learned to read and write as well as some basic maths at one of the city schools that had been gradually replacing the monasteries as places of learning.

In 1454 he gets admitted to the society of the Black heads, the Schwarzenhäupter. That was the association of the unmarried merchants, which comprised those who had been born and bred in Tallin as well as foreign merchants. He is now 17 and his career is taking off.

He is a lucky guy because he has some seed financing. His father had remarried and under Lubeck Law he had to set aside some money for the children of his first marriage in lieu of inheritance. Having been admitted to the guild of merchants his guardians in Lübeck pay him the 800 Lubeck Mark he was owed.

And he gets going immediately. He trades in the classic Hanseatic merchandise, cloth and herring. Since nobody yet knows him as a honourable merchant, he needs to have guarantors, one of whom may have been the merchant where he had been an apprentice. And another connection is made. He is appointed as the representative of Thomas Grote, a member of the city council in Lübeck.

Three years later he goes to Novgorod for a season where he is likely to meet more Hansards from different cities. These connections seem to have come in useful when he gets going properly in around 1460. The size of his operations keeps going and so is his standing inside Tallin. He is made treasurer of the society of Black Heads.

His father died in 1469 and so Bernd Pal returns to Lubeck where he quickly gains a foothold. With the help of his extended family, he is admitted to the fraternity of St. Anthony and that of Saint Laurent. He is made the guardian of one of his nephews who had – like him – left for Livonia as a minor.

He keeps trading on the route from Novgorod via Tallin and Riga to Lübeck and then onwards to London and Bergen. In 1477 or 1488 he moves back to Tallin. He is now 32 and at that age he should have been married. But for whatever reason that never happens. Despite his promising start in Tallin, he does not progress to the upper echelons. Because he remained unmarried, he cannot be admitted to the Great Guild, the natural progress for a successful merchant. He also does not gain access to any of the other fraternities or societies where merchants get together. His business continues at roughly the same scale he had reached when he was in his late 20s. He died in 1503, aged 66, probably after having had a mild stroke a few years earlier.

When he died, the value of his inheritance came to 1,506 Lübeck mark.

In other words, Bernd Pal was an mid level merchant who did preserve the money he had inherited but failing to reach the level of success his father had achieved.

But despite his modest profile he had a number of companies with important partners as well as a dense network of friends and colleagues across the Baltic.

Thanks to his family connection he was close to the Greverade family in Luebeck who were a large and very successful clan of merchants. Bernd Pal had a merchant company with Hinrich Greverade II the head of that family group and the founder of one of the earliest banks in the Hanseatic market. This company traded herring and silver between Luebeck, Tallin and Narva.

Then he had a second company that did the whole route from Bruges to Narva which he ran with two other partners, one of whom was based in Bruges. Then he had a company with again another partner trading weapons, another serving the Danzig-Tallin route trading hops and butter and hemp. And finally a last company again with another cousin trading with Bergen.

But that was not all. Beyond the partners in his company, there were other merchants he was in constant contact with. And these were quite a few. When he was in Lübeck he had 15 trading associates in Tallin, 5 in Dorpat and 5 or 6 in Narva and smaller numbers in Danzig, Stockholm, Novgorod, Bergen op Zoom and Antwerp.

That kind of network meant that Bernd Pal was capable to procure pretty much any merchandise you could ask for from these various locations. That is great, but you have to remember that it was quite rare that a customer would go to a merchant and ask him to get a few tons of herring or wood or whatever shipped. That process was simply too time consuming given the distances.

What happened much more often was that merchants would send wares to a place in the hope that there would be demand. And that is where the networks like the one Bernd Pal maintained come in handy.

First up, it means you can send wares to your business partner in say Antwerp and have him sell it there on behalf of the company. Your partner is a local with local connection and a good understanding of what price can be achieved. So, he should be able to get a good deal on the merchandise.

But then Antwerp was a long way away and how could you be sure that your business partner kept his goods and the company’s goods neatly separated, professionally stored and selling them at the same price. That is where these various other associates come in. They re expected to keep an eye on your business partner, making sure he stays on the straight and narrow. And mostly that is what Hanseatic merchants did. The constant social control, the knowledge that if you let down your trading partner, he will hear about it worked.

The other thing that these associates and partners were extremely helpful with was the exchange of information. Every time a merchant would send goods to his partner or associate, he would enclose a letter. These letters would not contain just news about the other merchants in the town but also general information about the state of the market, whether there was a shortage of hops, whether the church of St. Mary urgently needed wood for repairs, whether there were pirates out in the sound, whether there is a new tax regime. And to close some gossip about family affairs, who is marrying who, who died, who was negotiating with who about marriage etc., etc. basically the content of the Financial Times with Hello magazine inside.

These letters produced a constant and robust flow of information. Hanseatic merchants were busy all-day collecting and processing information that they would then feed back into the network. The system had a lot of redundancy as the same information may be distributed by several members of the network. And that is exactly what made the system faster and more resilient. If Bernd Pal was waiting for news from Narva, there were six ships coming down to him in Tallin and whichever was the fastest would bring the information. And even if one of them was blown of course or God behold sank, the news would still get through. Yes – exactly like the internet. The information is copied and then sent though multiple routes to the recipient.

What that also meant is that the larger one’s network, the better the information, the higher the chance of making good money. So, every merchant was constantly trying to grow the network. And how do you do that?

If information is the currency that keeps the network going, you have to have good information so that people want to join your network. And as you grow your network, your information becomes better and so a forth and so forth.

But this isn’t Twitter. These guys do not just send messages back and forth for likes and retweets, they are traders. They want to see some business in return for all that letter writing. So, to maintain the network merchants also need to occasionally send trades to associates who are not their primary business partners.

Another way to increase the strength of the network was to join the various merchant clubs and fraternities. Being a member of the confraternity of St. Anthony or St. Laurentius does not just mean you get to worship in the church. It also means you are invited to the dinners and meetings where people will talk shop, because if you write letters all day, talking shop is second nature. Other famous merchant associations were the Artushof in Danzig and my personal favourite, the Circle in Lübeck. If you get in there you are made, but you have to have made it to get in.

Again, there is no free lunch, if you want to receive information, you also need to share information, and so it flows and flows.

The last leg to becoming a seriously successful merchant is to get on to the city council. That is where you get all the really juicy information. Will there be a naval expedition to put down pirates, has the King of England really decided to strike back, will the duke of Burgundy cave on the question of privileges in Bruges – that is the sort of information that makes and saves fortunes.

The difference that made was significant. Another Tallin merchant, Hans Selhorst who did make it all the way into the city council and became a major player in the Great Guild and all the other societies left behind 8,177 Lübeck Mark or 5.5x more than Bernd Pal when he passed away.

But it was still only 5.5x. If you think about the gulf in wealth between a Medici and an average Florentine trader or Jakob Fugger and his colleagues, then 5.5x does not appear a huge multiple.

The reason for the relatively small differential might have again been the structure of the Network. Because one needed more than one, ideally more than 5 associates in each city, even relatively small merchants would gain the occasional piece of business from the #1 trader in another city.

It also meant that an ambitious and aggressive player could not just open a branch in another city and thereby expand his share of the value chain. The branch manager would never be allowed into the important societies, let alone on the city council, meaning he would never get the juicy gossip. Plus, the existing associates would likely cut off any merchant who pursued such aggressive tactics.

That meant ambitious merchants could not build trading empires with branches everywhere from Venice to Bergen and Narva to Antwerp. It also forced a level of honesty amongst the merchants. Sending false information or mishandling your trading partners goods would be easily picked up by their fellow merchants and they would inform the other party. Such a merchant would be excluded from the broader network and his business would operate at a massive information disadvantage. The honourable Hanseatic merchant isn’t honest because he fears God, or because he has a conscience, he is honest because the downside of dishonesty is too large.

These particular features of the network explain a couple of other particularities of the Hansa too.

Because each merchant was in a symbiotic relationship with other merchants in other cities, the cities were prone to cooperate rather than fight each other. And where the co-operation would be harmful to an individual city the way to deal with it was by simply not coming on the Hansetag, the Hanseatic Diet where the issue would be discussed. And if that happened, the cities that were keen to take action would pretend nothing was amiss, at least as long as the dissenters did not proactively undermine the initiative.

There wasn’t an official list of Hanseatic cities, no capital, no foundation treaty, no common seal or permanent bureaucracy. Even the Hanseatic diets were only attended by a few dozen cities at best, never the famous 77 full members and 200 smaller members. Decisions of the Hanseatic Diet weren’t binding. And that wasn’t only in case the city had not sent a delegate. A delegate was completely within his rights to declare that he could not vote on this decision as he did not have an explicit instruction to do so from back home. Afterwards the city in question would convey its answer to the diet, which could be that they would not participate in whatever initiative was proposed.

Why such a loose structure? Imagine the diet chooses to go to war with England over the Merchant Adventurers breaking the rules of the game in the Baltic. That may be the right decision for Gdansk, Stralsund and the Wendish cities. But for Cologne or Bremen it could be fatal. They depend on the English trade and have no beef with the Merchant Adventurers in the Baltic. In the original Hanse system, they could just pretend nothing happened and that would be that. If they were forced to participate, the situation could quickly spin out of control ending with Cologne or Bremen leaving the League. Once key staging posts in the network are lost, the whole weakens until it finally collapses. And that is pretty much what happened when this situation arose in 1469.

It all links up. The network effect is what created the co-operative model of a loose federation of cities, cities that were inhabited by medium-sized individual merchants who had no territorial ambitions, a structure that was so fundamentally different to the situation in the Mediterranean which was dominated by city states that were themselves controlled by large international trading houses who slowly but surely turned into princes.

As I said before, I really like this theory about how the Hansa worked. The only thing that stops me in my tracks is that it sits so neatly in the historiography. Maybe we are again projecting our world onto the rather malleable word of trading in the Baltic during the High Middle Ages. Wouldn’t have been the first time.

From first time to next time, next time we will look at the years following the wars with Denmark and the Victual Brothers. The Hansa is at the height of its powers. But storm clouds are gathering, first all the way east in Novgorod, but then the herring moves…. I hope you are going to join us again.

Before I go just a big thank you again to all my Patrons who kindly keep this show on the road. I really, really appreciate your generosity. And if you want to join, there is still a chance to grab one of the unlimited patron subscriptions at patreon.com/historyofthegermans or historyofthegermans.com/support.

And finally, bibliography. I would like to add a few works to our usual list, in particular:

Jahnke, Carsten: Die Hanse | Reclam Verlag

Jahnke, Carsten: Netzwerke in Handel und Kommunikation an der Wende vom 15. zum 16. Jahrhundert am Beispiel zweier Revaler Kaufleute. Netzwerke (hansischergeschichtsverein.de)

Justyna Wubs-Mrozewicz and Stuart Jenks, eds. The Hanse in Medieval and Early Modern Europe. The Northern World: North Europe and the Baltic c. 400–1700 AD: Peoples, Economies and Culture 60. Leiden: Brill, 2013. vi + 296 pp. $171. ISBN: 978-90-04-21252-7. | Renaissance Quarterly | Cambridge Core

The Boundless Sea: A Human History of the Oceans The Boundless Sea (wolfsonhistoryprize.org.uk)