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.

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

Hello and Welcome to the History of the Germans: Episode 105 – The Foundation of Lübeck

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

But before we start let me tell you that the History of the Germans Podcast is advertising free thanks to the generous support from patrons. And you can become a patron too and enjoy exclusive bonus episodes and other privileges from the price of a latte per month. All you have to do is sign up at patreon.com/historyofthegermans or on my website historyofthegermans.com. You find all the links in the show notes. And thanks a lot to Catherine van B., Mr. F, Victor O. and Rudi.

Last week we took a good look at the County of Holstein and the beginnings of the great migration from the western part of the empire into the lands north and east of the Elbe River. 200,000 people packed their bags and left the overcrowded cities and villages of Flanders, Holland and Westphalia to settle in territories that were either empty wasteland or inhabited by hostile Slavic peoples. In many way these treks resembled the Westward Expansion of the United states in the 19th century. The counts bishops and margraves who controlled the lands in the east sent out agents, so-called locators to recruit settlers willing to go east. The Locators organised the transport and when the settlers arrived, allocated each an equally sized strip of land to cultivate. Sometimes the land needed to be first drained dykes being built or forest had to be cleared. In other cases the settlers took over villages where the Slavic population had been expelled or they were given land next to existing settlements.

One of the magnates who was most active in this process of colonisation was the count of Holstein, Adolph of Schauenburg and his successors who had the decency to be all called Adolph, which makes life a lot easier for your podcaster.

This process of settling peoples from the west in their land was however not limited to the establishment of villages and the development of fields. There was also a big drive to establish or expand cities. There were four different types of city foundations (in inverted commas). The first one was simply to establish a city from scratch in a suitable location. That was actually fairly rare occurrence. As one would imagine, after hundreds of years of settling in the area the Slavic peoples had already identified and occupied the most attractive sites for their cities. So there would usually be at least a Slavic fortification already there. The lord of this fortification would invite tradesmen and merchants to establish a separate town nearby. These towns would have separate fortifications and its population was often a mix of Slavs, Germans and Scandinavians. Then we have the situation where an existing town changed from Slavic to Saxon control and its population and infrastructure would be completely altered. For instance Oldenburg in Holstein had been the main town of the Wagrier. Just as an aside, I have called them Wagrarier in the last episode, which I understand is simply wrong. In german they are called Wagrier and in English I will now call them by their Germanified name. Wagrier. In any event, they will soon exit stage left so it is a bit late for that. Apologies.

Anyway, Oldenburg in Holstein had been taken over by the Saxons when the Wagrier had been comprehensively defeated in 1143 and the town was taken over. Churches were built and settlers were invited to move into the city, marginalising the original population.

And last, but not least you have double and triple cities. That means the original settlement remains its own entity. Then say a town of German merchants is established next to it. Shortly afterwards the bishop sets up his compound with cathedral and bishops palace, again not connected to the other two townships. It was like Buda,  Pest  and Obuda in Hungary that had been separate cities until they were joined together as Budapest in 1873.

The story of Lübeck is a mishmash of all these four processes.

You are well aware that there had already been a place cold Liubice, long before the counts of Holstein were even thought of. This settlement was quite old, founded in 819 by the Abodrites who had been invited to settle here by Charlemagne. Liubice was built on a peninsula formed by the Trave and Schwartau rivers, a few kilometres downriver from where Lübeck is today and 9km from the mouth of the river. Liubice was off to a good start. A road was built south to Bardowick, linking Liubice to the emerging trade network inside the empire. Archaeologists have found evidence that Liubice had trade connections all across the Baltic Sea. However, by the 10th century the settlement had shrunk and may have even been abandoned. A recovery set in during the middle of the 11th century when Gottschalk has new fortifications and a church built. His son, Henry would make Liubice his main residence from where he controlled a territory stretching from Rügen to Holstein. Henry built not just large fortifications, he also invited merchants to settle. The trading route south to Bardowick and north onto the Baltic was resurrected.

But after Henry had died and the land of the Abodrites descended into chaos and civil war, Liubice was burnt to the ground by the Wagriens in 1138.

As we heard last week the Wagriens were defeated and moved into reservations in 1143. And that same year, Adolph of Schauenburg realised that if he could rebuild the trade network of Old Liubice, he would make a nice wad of cash in tolls and duties.

Upon closer inspection it became clear that the location of Old Liubice was not ideal, or more precisely, that there was a more promising location a bit further upriver. This new location, at the confluence of the Trave and the Wakenitz was not only large enough to hold a sizeable city, it also had the great advantage of being part of the count’s personal property.

He built a castle in the north of the peninsula and established a merchant city with a marketplace a bit south of there. This settlement was an immediate success. It is quite likely that the merchants who had lived in Liubice before its destruction in 1138 moved into this new location. But who also came were the merchants who used to trade out of Bardowick. Since Lübeck was now a city under the protection of a Saxon count and not a Slavic prince, there was no need for a separate trading post on the Saxon/Slavic border.

But then the success of the new city became its downfall. Bardowick was part of the personal property of the duke of Saxony, Henry the Lion. And as its trade and its people disappeared off to the upstart town of the count of Holstein, the duke found himself short of cash. The once plentiful tolls and market fees of Bardowick had not just disappeared, but are now finding their way into the count’s purse.

And that cannot be. Remember that the Counts of Holstein had been enfeoffed by Lothar when he was duke of Saxony. The new duke of Saxony is his grandson, the self-same Henry the Lion who just lost a neat little income stream.

Henry the Lion now pulls rank. He suggests to Adolph of Schauenburg that they should share the income from this new city. And as he was at it, why doesn’t he hand over the lucrative salt mine in Oldesloe as well. The count refused, assuming quite rightly that if he agreed, he would lose his share of Lubeck soon enough.

Henry the Lion now prohibited the market in Lubeck and forced all merchants to bring their wares to Bardowick. This edict was effective, and Lubeck emptied out almost as quickly as it had grown up. And in 1157 the remaining building caught fire after which the location was abandoned.

The merchants who had stayed in Lubeck went to Henry the Lion and said that given they weren’t allowed to hold a market in Lubeck and there was hence no point in rebuilding the city, would he be happy to designate a place where they could hold a market. Henry the Lion tried one more time to convince the count to hand him the now empty and devastated city of Lubeck, but he still refused. So Henry established the Lionstown, somewhere upriver on the Wagnitz. And that is where the merchants moved.

But they quickly found that this location was not suitable. The larger trading ships could not get up the Wagnitz River and it even prove difficult to set up good defences. So Henry went back to his count and this time, in exchange fore some fine gold, the count handed over the site.

In 1159, the merchants, tradesmen and other inhabitants returned and -for the third time in 20 years- rebuilt their town. The bishopric of Oldenburg was moved to Lubeck and Henry the Lion granted it city’s rights. From then the city grows at an astounding pace and by 1300 it was the second largest city in kingdom. Only the mighty and ancient city of Cologne was bigger.

How was that possible? Lübeck was on the Trave River, a river that connected to the still largely empty set of interconnected lakes of Holstein, Mecklenburg and Brandenburg, but not to the great centres of trade and commerce of the south. Downriver was the Baltic sea, a sea whose trade was dominated by Scandinavians, in particular the inhabitants of Gotland. Lübeck was part of the Holy Roman empire, but in the duchy of Saxony, a part where the new emperor, Frederick Barbarossa had not enough influence to protect the burgers against the overreach of the magnates.

So, what was the secret?

For Fritz Rörig (1882-1952) the conclusion was evident. The German merchants in Lübeck were simply smarter than their competitors. They designed a new type of ship, the Cog, that could take larger loads, was made from sawn rather than split timber, hence cheaper to build and were easier to steer than the Knarr, the preferred vessels of the Danish traders. And then, according to Rörig, they were better organised. Rörig established the thesis that this third rebuilding of Lübeck was organised by a consortium of Rhinish and Westphalian merchants. They had been given free rein by Henry the Lion to create the city layout and set the laws for the new settlement.

Though you still find this and other of his hypotheses even in relatively recent books, most of it is now debunked. Cogs have been around since the 10th century and were known to all peoples along the Baltic and North Sea coast. In any event, these designs were relatively easy to copy, so if there would have been some material advantage in the Cog, competitors could and did copy them.

As for the planning consortium, there is simply no evidence for it anywhere. Rörig based his theory on the names of the families living on the main square by the Marienkirche in the 14th century.

And finally, Rörig has become the subject of intense debate over his affiliation with Nazi ideology. Clearly the idea of the German clever Cogs fit very neatly into the fascist world view.

So, if it wasn’t clever Cogs, was it the involvement of the great duke Henry the Lion.

For a long time German historians believed that Henry the Lion had pursued a deliberate policy to sponsor and strengthen the development of cities in Germany. After all he is the founder of Munich and arguably of Lübeck. But more recent biographies like the one by Joachim Ehlers suggest that there was no great master plan. And why would there be. Medieval rulers rarely sat down to strategize with their chancellors or major vassals and certainly did not leave behind strategy papers. Decisions were often driven by who was in the room at any given time, sometimes with long lasting effects. Think of the citizens of Lodi bringing their grievance before Barbarossa in 1153 that kicks off the involvement in Lombardy and determined the imperial position against Milan.

But not having a grand plan does not mean that actions cannot have great impact. We hear that Henry the Lion sent messages to Denmark, Sweden, Norway and Russia personally guaranteeing their merchants protection should they sail to Lübeck. He established a mint and a customs post in Lübeck and granted the city the freedoms that many other great trading places like Cologne, Dortmund and Soest enjoyed. The set of rights and privileges for Lübeck, the Stadtrechte were modelled on those of the city of Soest, at this time one of the most important trading hubs on the route from the Rhineland and Flanders to the North and East.

How important the support of Henry the Lion was became apparent as early as 1161 . In that year the merchants of Gotland and Lübeck had a major falling out. What about is unclear but it was henry the Lion who resolve the issue by guaranteeing the Gotlanders safety and freedom to come to Lübeck whilst at the same time demanding protection for his merchants when they are in Gotland. There had been German merchants present in Gotland before 1161, but after that, we hear of a veritable German trading city springing up in Visby. 

In the middle of the 12th century, the island of Gotland, today a part of Sweden and located halfway up the Baltic Sea had been the centre of Northern European trade for hundreds of years. It had its origins in a great shift in European trading routes during the 8th century. As the Mediterranean came under Muslim control, goods from Byzantium destined for Northern Europe had to be shipped via the great Eastern European river systems from the Black Sea to Baltic Coast. Nowgorod became the great Baltic Port from where the goods were shipped along the Swedish coast to Gotland and then to either the Danish port in Haithabu, near modern day Schleswig where they crossed the Jutland peninsula by land or further up to the Limsfjord which allowed the ships to get into the North sea without having to round the Skagarag. Gotland not only provided a safe harbour en route, but also provided the ships on which the goods travelled. Archaeologists have found literally thousands of Byzantine coins on Gotland.

By the middle of the 12th century the trade with Byzantium via Russia and Ukraine had slowed down dramatically. The eastern luxury wares are now travelling via Egypt and Venice to France, England and Germany. But there are still goods from Russia in high demand. Fur was of particular interest as well as honey and beeswax. Enterprising merchants from Lübeck appear in Nowgorod in the 1170s, apparently in large enough numbers that Henry the Lion signs trading agreements with the prince of Nowgorord. That way the Gotlander were cut out of the trade and Lübeck gained direct access to the lucrative Russia trade.

And Henry helped the city of Lübeck in another way. As you may remember from last episode, the Wendish crusade ended in a resounding mehh. The Abodrites had remained pagan despite some pro forma conversions and a peace agreement between Niclot, the prince of the Abodrites and the Saxon nobles.

As far as Henry the Lion was concerned, this was an unsatisfactory outcome. As duke of Saxony he was also in charge of the Mark of the Billungs, that territory we now know as Mecklenburg-Vorpommern. But as long as Niclot ruled, he had little influence in these lands. In fact the counts of Holstein had closer relationships with Niclot than Henry the Lion. So in 1160 he finally found time to resolve what he regarded as a problem. He called all his vassals, Saxons and Slavs to an assembly in July 1060. As Niclot did not regard himself as a vassal, he did not show. That was the justification Henry needed He announced Niclot to be an unfaithful follower and called for a campaign in the autumn. Niclot tried again to pre-empt the attack and made an attempt to destroy Lübeck which ahd only been rebuilt the year before. That attempt however failed.

The campaign was well organised and Henry arrived with such overwhelming force that Niclot vacated all forward defences and sealed himself into his largest fortress at Werle. There he was besieged by Henry the Lion. Niklpot led a desperate attempt at breaking the siege during which he was captured. His severed head was paraded to Henry’s tent. Upon the news the sons of Niklot, Pribislav and Werislav burned the castle in Werle and disappeared into the woods.

Henry immediately reorganised the land of the Abodrites. Other than in previous campaigns, this was not a raid. Henry intended to fully incorporate the land of the Abodrites into his duchy. He placed his Ministeriales and minor vassals into key positions as counts of Quetzin, Malchow, Ilhow and Schwerin. I guess only the latter name means something to you. Schwerin is today the capital of Mecklenburg-Vorpommern and site of one of the most photographed castle in Germany. I am sure you have seen it a hundred times in tourist guidebooks or on Facebook posts. What you may not know is that the enormous statue that towers over the main gate of the castle depicts none other than our friend, the now headless Niclot.

Why is there a statue of Niclot in Schwerin? Didn’t I just say that Schwerin was given to one of Henry the Lion’s vassals an enemy of Niclot. Welll, that has to do with the second part of this story.

The sons of Niclot had escaped and as part of the post-war settlement were given their destroyed castle of Werle back. But that was clearly not enough for them. They came back in 1163 to regain their ancestral land, supported by the duke of Pomerania. We will talk about Pomerania in more detail soon, so just leave it here that the duke of Pomerania was a Slavic ruler based east of the land of the Abodrites.

They waged a brutal campaign, directed in particular at the German settlers Henry’s men had called to live in this new territory. Pribislav burned down Mecklenburg killing everybody there and moved on to the castle of Ilow. There he hoped the Slavic population inside the castle would help him. However the German commander had all the women and children brought before him and threatened to burn them as a last act should Pribislav overcome the walls. Pribislav was unable to take the castle. He was more successful in Quetzin and Malchow where he promised the garrison free retreat if they surrender immediately.

Only Schwerin was still held by Henry the Lion when he appeared in Malchow in 1164. He had mustered a fresh army and also secured the help of king Waldemar I of Denmark. To show how serious he took this, he had the brother of Pribislav hanged for all the defenders to see.

In  the early morning of the 6th of July 1164 the army of the Saxons and Danes is woken by squires running into the camp announcing the arrival of the Slavs. Rising from their beds without time to put on armour or mount their horses the Saxons face up to Pribislav and his allies. Count Adolph of Holstein and count Reinhold of Dithmarschen try to hold the gat of the camp but are overthrown and trampled into the dust. Their sacrifice did allow two other counts to muster 300 armoured knights who rode at full tilt into the camp breaking the Slavs’ attack. When Henry the Lion finally appeared on the battlefield the fighting was almost over. The Saxons had won, but at a horrendous price. Henry and his much diminished forces followed the enemy to Pomerania, but did not force them beyond Stolpe. Henry claimed that he had to go back as a delegation from the emperor in Constantinople had arrived in Brunswick – yeah, absolutely. That is the reason to leave. Henry and Waldemar signed peace agreements with Pribislav, the Poemranian duke and other Slavic lords. As a result of this peace the Danish king gained several vassals in Pomerania whilst Henry was put back to the status quo ante. Pribislav was even allowed back into Werle.

By 1167 as Henry the Lion is getting under pressure from the other Saxon magnates, he enters into an alliance with Pribislav. Pribislav formally converts and becomes a vassal of Henry the Lion. In exchange he becomes the prince of Mecklenburg, Kessin and Rostock. His descendants became the dukes of Mecklenburg who regained Schwerin in 1358. They rebuild the castle in a weird and wonderful mixture of styles between 1822 and 1851. The great statue of Niklot was added in 1855, still waving his sword in the general direction of Lübeck.

because the great beneficiary of all this malarky was Lübeck. Finally the city was no longer surrounded by hostile Slavic peoples who had attempted and sometimes succeeded in burning down the city at least four times in the last 40 years. Instead their neighbours are now followers of their great benefactor, the duke Henry the Lion.

To go back to our initial question, why did Lübeck grow to become the second largest city in the kingdom, arguably, Henry the Lion clearly had something to do with it.

But making sure you can travel safely across the Baltic and being safe from attack by immediate neighbours were necessary, but not sufficient conditions for the astounding expansion of the city on the Trave River.

That next big leg up came not from a German, but from a Dane.

In 1180 Henry the Lion had lost the duchy of Saxony, not necessarily because of his refusal to support the emperor Barbarossa, but more because of strong opposition from the other Saxon magnates, namely the Ascanier, descendants of Albrecht the Bear and the archbishop of Cologne who split the old duchy amongst themselves. As we know, Barbarossa did not gain much in that final dismemberment of the mightiest of German duchies. Well except for one thing, the city of Lübeck. Lübeck had initially supported henry the Lion, but when the emperor appeared with his army before the walls of the city, they had second thoughts. They surrendered and Barbarossa made Lübeck an imperial fief. That gave Lübeck an elevated status as a free imperial city. Plus, because Barbarossa and his successors were spending most of their time down south, they could pretty much do what they wanted. In 1201 they even went so far as to falsify the charter Barbarossa had given them, adding a few more rights and privileges they fancied. That they later presented to Frederick II who reissued the charter confirming all sorts of entitlements they never actually had.

But before that happens, something else is going on. And that has to do with the golden age of the Waldemars. Denmark had faded into the background in our narrative, largely because the country had spent almost fifty years in a constant succession crisis. They went through 8 kings in succession, who spent most of their time fighting cousins and half-brothers for the throne and usually died a violent death. All this ended with king Waldemar I, the great (1154-1182) who brought peace to the kingdom thanks at least partially to the good offices of his best friend, Absalon, the bishop of Roskilde. Waldemar was the son of Knut Lavard who we have met in passing when he was prince of the Abodrites. This is not the place to go through all of his achievements. Go to the Scandinavian History Podcast if you want to know more. What matters for us here is that Waldemar gained a foothold in the land of the Abodrites during Henry the Lion’s campaign of 1160. Other than Henry, Waldemar remains engaged in the Wendish lands. In the 1170s he invades and occupies Ruegen. Then he extends his power to Pomerania. His son, Waldemar II, the Victorious builds on his father’s success. He is massively helped by the succession crisis in the empire when Philipp of Swabia and Otto IV fight over the crown. Waldemar sides with Otto IV and attacks Holstein whose Count, we are now at Adolph III, had sided with Philipp. At the battle of Stellau in 1201 Adolph is defeated and captured. In captivity he renounced the county of Holstein and is released. He goes home to Schauenburg, never to return.   

Holstein was now Danish, as was Hamburg which Waldemar had occupied after one of his cousins and a claimant to the Danish throne had become archbishop. In 1216 he became duke of Pomerania, courtesy of emperor Frederick II. And Lübeck, Lübeck recognised Waldemar in 1201, as soon as the Count of Holstein had lost his battle.

Waldemar then became a great supporter of the city. He confirmed the city’s rights and privileges, the ones they had all made up themselves. We hear that the city now has a council that determines its affairs, passes its laws and passes judgement.

But not only that. Waldemar helps the Lübeck citizens to set up another trading post within the city of Riga that he had just conquered during one of the earliest Baltic crusades. That boosts the city’s trade with Russia.

Then there is the herring trade. Given that lay piety had been on the rise for a century or more, the population of europe took to eating fish of Fridays. But where do you get enough fish to feed say a city like Cologne or Regensburg that are a long way from the sea. The answer was salted or dried fish. And one of the richest fishing grounds was Scania in Southern Sweden. The herring who can be caught there had to be salted to be preserved, and that is where the traders from Lübeck come in. They are bringing the salt from the rich salt mines in Luneburg, Salzwedel and Oldesloe to Scania and take away the salted fish to sell down south.

Which gets you to the billion dollar question. Why did Waldemar, who at that point controlled Scania and Lübeck allowed that trade to happen. Denmark already had a great trading city, Haithabu, which by now had migrated to Schleswig. Why not use this harbour, unload the herring, transport it across the Jutland peninsula and put it back on a ship that takes the fish down the Rhine and Main to the landlocked masses craving their Friday fish.

It is one of those questions for which we have no real answer. All that we know is that during the reign of Waldemar more and more trade is diverted from Schleswig to Lübeck.

One reason that could explain the relative decline of Schleswig could be the closing of the Limfjord. If you look on the map you can see that just at the top of the Jutland peninsula is a system of lakes and rivers that allows boats to pass from the north sea to the Baltic without having to go through the Skagerak, the dangerous narrows at the entrance of the Baltic sea. This connection is open today and was open until the 12th century. Just around the time we find Lübeck ascending the Limfjord closes. Though I understand most of Schleswig’s trade was by land across the peninsula, some of it may have been seaborn, destined to go via the Limfjord. That may have been what made Schleswig more attractive and its loss made it more of a straight fight.

The other advantage the Danish merchants had was privileged access to the English market. When Canute had been king of England, Danish traders were granted the same rights as local merchants, paying the same fees and duties. Foreigners paid more. When Lübeck became part of Denmark, these privileges extended to them and hey presto, another relative advantage of Schleswig gone.

So by the middle of the 13th century Lübeck has grown to occupy the whole of the river island.  

Beautiful furs are coming in from Russia, beeswax and Honey from Nowgorod, Amber from Prussia, Fish from Scania and by now rye and wheat from the Baltic shores. All these are bought by Luebeck merchants and sold on to their end customers. The goods are taken off the cogs they came on and transported by road to the Elbe River, either to Lueneburg or to Hamburg. Then they are again put on ships and either go north along the North Sea coast to the mouth of Rhine River, to Flanders or to England. Or they go south on the Elbe to Magdeburg where they are loaded on carts and go on to the Hellweg, which connects across Westphalia from Paderborn via Soest and Dortmund to Duisburg where one can find shipping to Cologne or further south. But the trade isn’t just one way. Cloth from Flanders, wool from England, wine from the Rhine and Mosel, weapons and metal goods from all over Germany come up on the way back. Lübeck ends up in the middle of all of this and becomes richer and richer.

In 1227 Lübeck again ditches its master who had lost a crucial battle against the Saxons. From then on the city remains free and independent, able to join others in what we call the Hanseatic League.

But before we get into the meat of the story of the Hanseatic league we still have to finish off the story of the duchy of Saxony. So next week we will spend a bit of time on the Margraviate of Brandenburg, how it came about and why this time the Slavic ruler does not found the dynasty that rules it. And, if I am well organised, we will get at least the first half of the story of Henry the Lion in.

I hope you will come along for the ride.

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