Hanseatic League Research Paper

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In the mid-twelfth century, without navies to protect cargoes or international agencies to regulate tariffs, northern German cities formed the Hanseatic League in an effort to ensure that ports were safely maintained and tariff agreements set. The league controlled increasingly wide trading routes but declined in the early sixteenth century with the disappearance of local herring fisheries and the growth of English and Dutch merchant marines.

The Hanseatic League was a federation of merchant cities that formed in northern Germany during the middle of the twelfth century and dominated trade in northern Europe for the next two centuries with its economic policies. The league derived its name from the German word hansa, an association or group of merchants who specialized in trade with foreign cities or countries. The unstable and dangerous nature of mercantile life in the late medieval period, combined with the lack of organized protection provided to merchants by their own government, encouraged traders to work together for safety. These alliances, which originally started out between merchants from the same town, soon grew into larger associations and leagues between neighboring towns.

In antiquity, the most cost effective way to transport commercial goods was over water, and cities located on rivers or the coast had a natural advantage over interior cities. In the late eleventh and early twelfth centuries, cities in northern Germany became important commercial centers due to their position on trade network routes that allowed them to serve as conduits for commercial goods traveling to and from southern Europe over the North and Baltic seas. This trading network soon increased in scope to include goods moving west to England and east into Russia. The weak and decentralized government of Germany during the eleventh and twelfth centuries was able to provide little assistance or protection for its traders, and this lack of governmental support forced individual merchants and commercial cities to create their own ties and associations for mutual protection.

In 1241 Lubeck and Hamburg strengthened the existing commercial ties linking the two cities with a treaty designed to protect their mutual commercial traffic. Lubeck’s chief industry in the twelfth century was the exportation of herring caught at nearby fisheries. Due to existing religious dietary restrictions on eating meat on certain days, fish had become an integral part of the Christian diet, and Lubeck had capitalized on a growing demand for its fish in central Europe. Hamburg was essential to Lubeck’s fishing industry, since it provided Lubeck with the salt needed for salting and drying of the herring, which allowed it to be safely transported without spoiling. To facilitate this trade between their cities they constructed a canal that connected the two cities. To protect this trade, they further reinforced their economic ties with the treaty.

This initial association between Lubeck and Hamburg slowly grew into a larger league as other cities joined. While the majority of the league’s members were from northern Germany, it did include cities in Holland and Poland. At the height of its power, the federation consisted of over 165 member cities. The league originally functioned only to facilitate common commercial ventures, not for political or religious purposes. Each member city’s merchant association could send delegates, if it wished, to the league’s formal meetings (diets), which were held at Lubeck to discuss economic policies. The attending delegates took the diet’s economic decisions back to their city for their local merchant association to accept or reject. The Hanseatic League’s economic strategy was designed to protect the trading privileges of its members, to open new markets for exploitation, and to create monopolies wherever possible. The economic success of the league’s members soon led it into political conflict with the king of Denmark, Valdemar IV, over control of local herring fisheries. After an initial setback, the league defeated the king and forced him to sign the Treaty of Stralsund in 1370. This treaty made sweeping economic concessions to the Hanseatic League and gave the member cities privileged trading rights, including free trade in Denmark. This control over trade in northern Europe continued into the fifteenth century until an unsuccessful war with Holland forced the Hanseatic League to sign the Peace of Copenhagen in 1441, breaking the league’s hold on the Baltic Sea.

By the beginning of the sixteenth century, the league had begun a slow decline in both its power and membership. The disappearance of the local herring fisheries and the growth of the English and Dutch merchant marines resulted in increased competition, which the league was unable to overcome, and soon led to the loss of exclusive trading markets for Hanseatic members. While the league was never formally dissolved, its last official meeting was held in 1669.


  1. Dollinger, P. (1970). The German Hansa. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.
  2. Lewis, A. R., & Runyan, T. J. (1985). European naval and maritime history 300–1500. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.
  3. Samsonowicz, H. (1975). Changes in the Baltic Zone in the XIII– XVI centuries. The Journal of European Economic History 4(3), 655–672.
  4. Schildhauer, J. (1985). The Hansa: History and culture (K. Vanovitch, Trans.). Leipzig, Germany: Edition Leipzig.
  5. Unger, R. W. (1980). The ship in the medieval economy 600–1600. London: Croom Helm.

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