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

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

In this episode we will touch upon the Livonian Sword brothers and we take a first glimpse at the Teutonic knights, but this is the history of the Hanseatic League and so what we really focus on are the merchants, specifically the merchants from the “Society of German merchants who frequently travel to Gotland”, the Gotlandfahrer who we have met last week. Because the tale we hear today adds the other important streak to the structure of the Hanseatic League, its willingness to use military force in the pursuit of profits.

Hello and welcome to the History of the Germans: Episode 110 – The Livonian Cities

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

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

In this episode we will touch upon the Livonian Sword brothers and we take a first glimpse at the Teutonic knights, but this is the history of the Hanseatic League and so what we really focus on are the merchants, specifically the merchants from the “Society of German merchants who frequently travel to Gotland”, the Gotlandfahrer who we have met last week. Because the tale we hear today adds the other important streak to the structure of the Hanseatic League, its willingness to use military force in the pursuit of profits.

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 Spencer B., James K., Atlas M and Kate R.-S. who have already signed up.

When we left the emerging Hanse last week, they had just established themselves on the island of Gotland, had founded the city of Visby and convinced the Gotlanders to take them to Novgorod, the great entrepôt of all the goods the wide steppes of Eastern Europe could offer. There they had established a trading compound to buy the beeswax Europe needed to bathe its churches in divine light and the furs the fine lords and ladies of the splendid medieval courts craved. And last but not least Novgorod stood at the end of that vast system of interconnected rivers that allowed the Varanghians to travel from Scandinavia to the Black Sea, and on to Constantinople. On those same rivers thick, dark fir tree honey went south, and silks and spices came up north.

Thanks to the friendship or naivety of the Gotlanders, the Lübeck merchants had wrangled themselves into this trade. They brought up cloth from Flanders and Westphalia to the shivering Northerners as well as their valuable salt needed to preserve food for the winter.

Getting to Novgorod was however a challenge. It involved sailing roughly 800km or 500 miles from Gotland to Kronstadt, the island off St. Petersburg where the wares had to be moved to another set of ships. Then they had to go 130km up the Neva River into the Ladoga sea, most of that whilst being under constant threat from raiders. In Ladoga there is another change of vessel for the last 200km trip again upriver to Novgorod.  

There had to be a quicker and simpler way. Geographically there is one – absolutely. There is the Daugava, Dvina or Düna River that flows into the Baltic a mere 400km or 193m east of Gotland. The Daugava is quite a useful river. If you track it upstream you get to Vitebsk where you have portage links to Smolensk where one can pick up the Dnjepr down to Kyiv and Karkiv and the Black Sea. Or you can go further to Tver where there is another Portage link to Novgorod.  And if that wasn’t enough, from the mouth of the Daugava/ Düna you can pick up a land route directly to Novgorod which may be long drag, but along an established route.

So, why are the Gotlanders and their Lübisch friends not going there? Well, they were. As our new fried, Henry the Livonian said at the very beginning of this podcast, the German merchants were familiar with this route as early as the 1180s.

But there was a minor problem with it. The people who lived at the mouth of the Daugava were pagans. And not any pagans, but a Baltic-Finnish peoples the Germans called Letts or Livonians in Latin. The Livs were however not the only ones living in the area. There were other groups, the Semigallians, the Selonians, the Latgalians, the Curonians and the Lithuanians who controlled large areas to the soouth.

All of these groups saw no reason to change their religion or their way of life. So when Meinhard of Segeberg, the German missionary arrived in 1184, he had an uphill struggle. He settled on the lower Daugava at a place called Uexkuell/Ikskile and surprisingly converted a few locals. But progress was slow.

In 1185 the Lithuanians attacked the Livonians and burned the village of Ikskile. Meinhard and the other inhabitants fled into the woods where the missionary came up with an idea how to accelerate the conversion process. If he were to build a modern stone fort to protect the local population, the Livonians would see the superiority of the Christian faith and gratefully join his flock. So he made a deal, if the Livonians were to convert, he would get some specialists from Gotland who would build them some brand new fortifications. Deal done, a modern fort was rising up in Ikskile. After it prove its worth in an attack from the Semigallians, the people of neighbouring village of Holm asked for the same, and again the holy bishop called upon the masons of Gotland to help.

But bribery turned out not to be a successful method to instil spiritual devotion. As soon as the last stone was laid, the ungrateful Livonians took a bath in the Daugava something they believed would wash off the stain of their baptism.

Meinhard now minus a great deal of money and reputation had to return to the piecemeal missionary approach of one soul at a time. Despite the setback, back home in Germany the archbishop of Hamburg-Bremen got very excited about Meinhard’s attempts to convert the Livonians.

He elevated Meinhard to bishop of Livonia and the modest churchlet of Ikskile to the rank of Cathedral. That elevation did however do nothing much to foster Mienhard’s efforts. In fact he kept been taken to the cleaners by the Livonians. This began to irritate the holy man to the point that he made plans with the German merchants who kept coming up the Daugava to trade fur and beeswax. The merchants promised to take Meinhard back to Gotland where he was to muster an army to forcibly convert the obstinate Livonians. Meinhard, who – spoiler alert- will become Saint Meinhard followed Saint Bernhard of Clairvaux in the doctrine that cold hard steel is a surefire means to implant the Apostle’s Creed.

At the last minute the Livonians – afraid of the military confrontation- convinced Meinhard not to go, promising to get baptised again and become good Christians after all. Meinhard went back to Ikskile, only to find his recent converts splashing about in the Daugava again. That is when he sends one of his monks to go to Rome and ask pope Celestine III to sanction a crusade against these duplicitous  Livonians. Before the answer made it back to Meinhard, he died surrounded by his monks, but only very few parishioners.

The ball was now in the court of the archbishop of Hamburg-Bremen. As you may remember from last series, the archbishops of Hamburg-Bremen have been hankering for a role as the highest church authority in Scandinavia and the Baltic since, well since there was Christianity in Scandinavia and the Baltic. And you will also remember that at avery junction, their hopes were dashed. The pope established an archbishopric in Lund that took charge of all Danish and Swedish churches. Then the emperor Barbarossa gave his rights over the bishoprics of Oldenburg, Mecklenburg and Ratzeburg to Henry the Lion, who made them effectively his fiefs.

This Livonian opportunity really excited the archbishop who was at the time our old friend Hartwich, the last of the counts of Stade. He and his family were the perennial losers of the late 12th century. His elder brothers lost the March of Brandenburg to Albrecht the Bear, well and their lives too. His sister was murdered in her bed by men of the bishop of Hildesheim after she had previously been ousted as queen of Denmark and Hartwich himself, well, he had tried to give the county of Stade, his family inheritance to the see of Bremen, but failed when Henry the Lion effectively stole it from under his nose. Hartwich was a frustrated old man who desperately needed a success.

So he chose one of his associates, a man called Berthold to go to Livonia and make it his, or theirs. Berthold is a proactive man and since the papal patent for a crusade in Livonia had arrived, he could recruit knights, thugs and anyone able to hold a sword and in dire need of forgiveness. These men promised to go on crusade with him and that is what they did. Well that is also all that they were prepared to do. They came along with Berthold, burned, broke and baptised, but once the time of their penance was up, they got on the next available ship and sailed home. Berthold would probably have done the same had his horse not run away with him straight into the midst of a Livonian army who tore him limb from limb.

Enter stage left the third bishop of Livonia sent by Hartwich. This time Hartwich digs deep into his most precious possessions, the members of his ever-dwindling clan. Albrecht of Buxtehude is the archbishop’s nephew. And he is not the kind of man who falls for a Livonian’s ruse. When he arrives with 500 men in 23 ships, the Livonians promise to get baptised, as per standard procedure. But this time Albrecht does not leave it at that. He invites the leaders of the Livonians to a drinking party. Once they are all seated, he has the doors bolted and tells them that they will not get out until they provide suitable hostages that ensure their future good behaviour.

Albrecht is then shown a site a bit further downriver from Ikskile that he judges to be a more suitable location for his cathedral city. As it lay along a tributary called the Riga, the city he founded in 1201 is called Riga. Riga was not intended as a city for the Livonians. It was a place for Christian religious institutions and the bishop’s allies, the crusaders and the merchants. He moved the seat of the bishopric from Ikskile to Riga. He founded several monasteries that took their place inside the new settlement, and he offered it as a place for German and other merchants to live and trade.

Riga became the basis from where the new arrivals began their conquest of what is today the countries of Latvia and Estonia. The timing was pretty much ideal. Emperor Henry VI had died in 1197 in the midst of the preparations for a huge crusade. Now this crusade is not happening, but vows had been made. Many of these armed pilgrims were diverted to Livonia. The subsequent civil war between Philip of Swabia and Otto IV created many opportunities for murder, maiming and the breaking of oaths that required the cleansing powers of a crusade. That alone provided a steady flow of thugs ready to come fighting. Beyond that the merchants from Dortmund, Muenster, Soest and Lübeck, to name just a few knew that there were enormous riches to be made in the trade with the East and the key to those lay in the mouth of the Daugava. All Albert and Hartwig had to do was to go around Germany once a year and drum up support for the colony in the far north.

Riga filled up and many of those who came saw their hopes for wealth and power fulfilled. From this time onwards until 1918, the countries of Latvia and Estonia were split into two social groups, the Latvians and Estonians who spoke their languages and a German-speaking ruling class that controlled the land, the church and the government. The most successful amongst those new arrivals were members of Alberts and Hartwig’s extended family. Their brothers, cousins and brothers in law swamped the newly conquered country. The dynasties they founded, the Uexkuells, the Tisenhusen and the von der Ropp played an outsized role in the history of Latvia and Estonia. So good old Hartwig, after all his ordeals finally saw some of his ambitions fulfilled, at the expense of the inhabitants of a far-away land.

One institution that Albert created had become particularly famous, the Livonian brothers of the Sword. This was a knightly order, like the Templars, the Hospitallers and the Teutonic Knights, though they were specifically designated for the Nordic crusade in Livonia. Its members were not just noblemen, but they also admitted merchants.

Which finally gets us back into the story of the Hanseatic League. What role did they play in all this? A very large one indeed. The 23 ships Albert’s first warband arrived on, well they had been provided by the Society of German Merchants who frequently travel to Gotland, the Gotlandfahrer we heard about last week. And then there is the question of why the crusaders headed to the mouth of the Daugava. There is no shortage of pagans along the Baltic coast, so if the purpose of all this had been to convert them, Riga would not have been an obvious destination. The Prussians and Lithuanians were a lot closer and even more fiercely opposed to Christianity and books. The chronicler Henry of Livonia says quite explicitly that it was the merchants who had brought Meinhard of Segeberg to Livonia. All in, though other players were important, the crusade into Livonia was at least partly organised and initiated by the Gotlandfahrer who were looking for a shorter route to Novgorod and the markets of the east.

This may also be a good moment to talk about the social background of these merchants. Merchants, and what we mean here are long distance merchants, not local traders. They came from three different groups.

The first were men who had started out as Ministeriales, these unfree serfs who received a full knightly or ecclesiastical training to serve their lord as soldiers or administrators.

These were quite common amongst the merchant class in cities that had been seats of bishops or major princes. And that is not a surprise. They were often in charge of markets, tolls, taxes etc., and hence had both understanding of and access to finance. In 12th century Cologne there was a man called Gerhard Unmaze who became immensely rich as a merchant and banker financing his lord’s wars against Henry the Lion.

The other group were free landowners who had a base in the city from where they sold their produce and then gradually shifted to trading not just their own but third-party wares.

And finally there are the people who came from all walks of life, entrepreneurial artisans, the administrators of ecclesiastical or princely manors and sometimes just men or women who had a small amount of capital and turned it into a large pile by placing their bets right.

One thing they all had in common was access to capital. To trade beeswax and fur with Novgorod, wine with England or grain and fish with Norway required the funds to charter a vessel and fill it with goods to sell. It would then take months to get to the destination, sell the goods and buy others before returning and selling those wares. Only then would there be a profit. Hence in the initial phase of the Hansa, becoming a merchant required some start-up capital, something only the Ministeriales, the free landowners and some artisans and some commoners had. Later there would be financing options that opened the profession up to others who had toiled in the counting house of a merchant or trained on the ship of a successful captain.

What is interesting is that until the end of the Middle Ages these long-distance merchants once admitted to their cities guilt would not experience much social differentiation with the nobility. Their lifestyle was almost identical. Whether you fight in a king’s army or undertake arduous journeys, in both cases military prowess is a crucial part of your life. The luxuries you use and display are the same. Knights who became merchants did not take a step down in their social ranking, at least not in the 12th and 13th century.

Hence it is no surprise the Livonian brother of the Sword admit merchants into their ranks and merchants from Bremen and Lübeck were instrumental in setting up the Teutonic Knights in Akron..

The sword brothers as they are often called were never particularly numerous. Estimates are of 80 to 120, though in battle they would weigh in at about 1,000 to 1,500 with all their attendants, squires and infantry support. They were also a bit of a disgrace. They had been given the same statute as the Templars, but their background and general demeanour was a bit tougher. The first master was killed by one of the brothers with an axe and there was almost no crime these guys had not been accused of. Their military usefulness was also limited since the terrain was not really suited for heavily armoured knights. Where they excelled was in organising the crusades and building and defending forts.

If the Sword brother’s weren’t the secret weapon, what really accounted for the bishop’s success was that the local peoples were divided. All these different tribes were regularly at each other’s throats plus the Lithuanians and Russians were a constant threat. Smart diplomacy and inducements provided by the German merchants were ways to gradually wear down the opposition and taking hold of their lands.

In the 25 years following the foundation of Riga, the bishop and his allies, the merchants, the sword brothers and the crusaders subdued the various peoples who lived along the Daugava and north up into what is now Estonia. The Danish king Waldemar also showed up in the region and Albert and Valdemar agreed on a separation of zones of influence. The Russian prince of Polotsk, the nominal overlord of Livonia, was forced to accept the changed circumstances.

Nevertheless the situation for the bishop and the Swordbrothers remained fragile. The land was found to be poor and war was expensive. The brothers tried to fill this gap by first increasing levies on their serfs, then by demanding a bigger share of the spoils from the bishop and finally by attacking Danish positions in Estonia. In 1230 they tried to merge with the Teutonic Knights who were based in Prussia, a few hundred miles south on the other side of Lithuania. The Teutonic knights turned them down saying that the Sword brothers were quote “people who followed their own inclinations and did not keep their rule properly”. Basically a rough and unruly lot whose reputation was so damaged, they tried to use the good name of the Teutonic knights to get back in the saddle.

In 1236 the Sword brothers suffered a devastating defeat where their master and almost half of the brothers died. The different local peoples immediately revolted, and the colony was reduced to Riga and some of the better defended forts and towns. The Sword brothers were taken over by the Teutonic knights, the lands they had taken from the Danes in Estonia were returned and the bishop, now archbishop of Riga had to grant half of his lands to the Teutonic Knights. That done the grandmaster Hermann von Salza sent an army and by 1250 the situation had stabilised. The lands south of Riga and along the Daugava were recovered. But again peace did not hold for long. In 1259 the Samogitians rebelled and again the knights and the bishops were pushed back into their strongholds. This time it took 4o years of fighting before the land was finally subjugated.

We will talk a lot more about the Sword brothers and the wars in Livonia when we do the series on the Teutonic knights. What we are interested here are the Hanseatic merchants and their role in all this.

Their main interest lay in access to the markets along the Daugava and the land route to Novgorod. On that front they had their first success in 1212 when the ruler of Polozk is forced to allow German merchants to trade freely along the river as far as Vitebsk and Smolensk. In 1229 the prince of Smolensk grants wide ranging privileges to the German merchants upon reciprocity with the Russian merchants. There is relief from tolls and taxes, the right to adjudicate their own affairs and the right to appeal to the court of the prince over the local courts and various rules about weights and measures, priority treatment at portage and markets and the obligation to help merchants whose boats have stranded.

What is interesting about this document, apart from the fact that 13th century German merchants are opening a trading post in a city halfway between Moscow and Minsk and closer to Odessa than to Berlin, is the list of signatories. There are the prince of Smolensk, the bishop of Riga, the master of the sword brothers but also: Regenbode, Dethard and Adam, citizens of Gotland, Friedrich Dummom from Lübeck, Henry the Goth and Ilier, both from Soest, Konrad Bloedauge and Johann Kinot from Muenster, Bernek and Volkmar from Groningen, Arembrechta nd Albrecht from Dortmund, Heinrich Zeisig from Bremen and four citizens of Riga. That list illustrates how the Hanseatic League and the Gotlandfahrer had remained an organisation open to traders from across the Empire. They worked together and it seems also fought together to open and defend their markets.

The Kontor in Smolensk was however short-lived, which is unsurprising given the political instability in this territory. But once the situation stabilised under the Teutonic knights, trade thrived. Riga became one of the key members of the Hanse. Though the Teutonic knights did not allow them to adopt Lübeck law and thereby be even more closely associated with the emerging Hanseatic League, they were given Hamburg Law, which by agreement between Hamburg and Lübeck was identical.

Riga was not the only Hanseatic city in the area. The other important port was called Reval at the time and is today known as Tallin. Its story is slightly different. The crusades into Estland were led by the Danes and it was the Danes who expanded an existing Estonian settlement and trading station. The Danes left in 1227 due to a serious defeat back home and the Livonian brothers moved in. With them came 200 German merchants who quickly settled in the town. The sword-brothers did not stay beyond their defeat in 1236 and the Danes returned. But the Hanseatic merchants stayed in Tallin. They convinced the Danish king Eric Ploughpenny to grant them the city laws of Lübeck and the Tallin quickly gained a high degree of independence from the Danish crown. Tallin is even closer to Novgorod than Riga and became a key harbour for the trade with fur, beeswax, cloth and salt.

Two other places became important. One was Narva, even further along the coast and closer to Novgorord. Despite its attractive geographic position, Narva never really thrived. The citizens of Tallin did not very much like the competition and cut them off from trade flows and even from participation in the Hanseatic League.

The other important Hanseatic city in Estonia and still Estonia’s second largest city is Dorpat/Tartu. Tartu is deep inland on the road to Novgorord and had been a trading post since at least the 11th century. The sword Brothers conquered the place in 1224 and made it the seat of the bishop of Estonia. Dorpat/Tartu became a member of the Hanseatic League and a rich trading city.

As the Danish kingdom went through its darkest time in the 14th century, the Teutonic Knights bought Estonia off the Danes and held it until the 16th century.

Riga, Reval/Tallin and Dorpat/Tartu played a major role in the Hanseatic League history. The Kontor of Novgorod that was so crucial to Lübeck and Visby in the 12th and 13th century came more and more under control of these Baltic cities. Within the Hanseatic League the Livonian cities together with Visby formed one of its regional divisions, its Drittel or thirds. And that made sense. The trade with Novgorod and along the Daugava was almost entirely in their control and hence the cities involved in it formed their own special interest within the League.

Another group of cities that may have been part of this Drittel were the Swedish cities, Stockholm, Kalmar and Nykoping. Those and the role of German merchants in Sweden during the Middle Ages will be subject to the next episode, as will be the other important trade, the trade in fish. That is when we will finally get to talk about the city of Bergen and the pier that was called Tyske Bryggen for centuries and is now called just called Bryggen. I hope you will join us again.

And now, before I go and before I thank all of you who are supporting the show, in particular the Patrons who have kindly signed up on patreon.com/historyofthegermans, let me tell you about my latest plan.

I am like you a great fan of narrative history podcasts and I do listen to quite a few. What I noticed is that I find them often quite difficult to navigate. It is ok if you are a hardcore fan, because then you have listened to all previous episodes and just wait for the next one to drop. But sometimes I let things slack and suddenly there are 20 new episodes I have missed. Or I discover a new podcast that is now on episode 177 and I feel a bit intimidated.

So, my idea is to publish this and all future episodes of this series twice. Once here in the main feed and then – a day later- in a separate podcast, called The Hanseatic League – A podcast by the History of the Germans. So for you guys, who are committed listeners to the History of the Germans, nothing changes. You still get your episodes as normal. You will not miss anything on the other feed. And please, if you suddenly come across a separate podcast about the Hanseatic League, do not get angry when it turns out to be almost 100% the same episode you just listened to.

On the other hand, if you know someone who might be interested in the History of the Germans, and most specifically in the Hanseatic League, but may be put off by believing he needs to listen to 108 other episodes first, just send him there.

If this turns out to be successful, I may repurpose some of the back catalogue into separate Podcasts as well. Let’s just see.

I will explain all this in the show notes and on social media, specifically on Twitter @germanshistory and my Facebook page History of the Germans Podcast. Ah, and still a big thank you to all my Patrons. Your support is so important to keeping the show on the road.    

And last but not least the bibliography. For this episode I relied heavily on:

Philippe Dollinger: Die Hanse

Die Hanse, Lebenswirklichkeit und  Mythos, curated by Jürgen Bracker, Volker Henn and Rainer Postel

Rolf Hammel-Kieslow: Die Hanse

Eric Christiansen: The Nordic Crusades

And since we are at it, I came across a really interesting article about the trade in beeswax in the Middle Ages by Dr. Alexandra Sapoznik titled “ Bees in the medieval world: economic, environmental and cultural perspectives – King’s College London (kcl.ac.uk). A bit niche and geeky but quite fascinating.