Society and Government Middle Ages

The Hanseatic League: The First Whispers of the European Union?

There’s a phrase that says “money talks.” 

It means that even when there are differences between people, a little cash can go a long way. 

In the Middle Ages, politics were…challenging. 

The Holy Roman Empire dominated much of Central Europe. But this was more of a mega alliance between the many powerful aristocrats of the time than it was a true empire. 

Sure, there was one person at the top, the Holy Roman Emperor. But power was largely decentralized, with many kingdoms even achieving independent status. This meant they didn’t really need to listen to anyone telling them what to do. 

This general lack of formal authority meant that people were left to organize themselves and cooperate in ways that made the most sense for them. 

There wasn’t anyone at the top with some grand plan for bringing the empire together. Instead, there were just lots and lots of smaller kings and nobles trying to do the best they could for their people and themselves.

And there’s perhaps no better example of this than the Hanseatic League. 

What Was the Hanseatic League?

Formed in the 12th century, the Hanseatic League was a coalition of various cities from across Northern Europe. It was formed to help promote trade in the region and encourage mutual prosperity.

In other words, it was a group of cities that decided to get together to help each other get rich. 

Thanks to geography and political maneuvering, the League was able to establish a monopoly on trade in Northern Europe. This made the region rich. But it also laid the groundwork for modern  international cooperation in Europe.   

The Origins of the Hanseatic League: Connecting Lubeck with Novrogod

Although there is no official “birthday” for the Hanseatic League, a good place to start is the formation of a trade route between the German city of Lubeck and the Russian city of Novgorod.  

Located on opposite ends of the Baltic Sea, the two cities developed a fruitful trade relationship throughout the Early Middle Ages. 

The dense forests surrounding Novgorod had a rich supply of wood, wax, resins, and furs, amongst other natural resources that were desired in Germany.  The Germans could send wheat, wool, cotton and more back to Russia. 

Two cities, working in harmony, scratching each other’s back. Don’t you just love to see it?

Eventually, merchants from Lubeck were traveling to Novrogod so frequently that the rulers there started saying, “Hey! Why don’t you stay a while?” The presence of these merchants gave the people of Novgorod consistent customers, so there was value in encouraging them to stick around.

The Novrogod leadership gave these merchants places to stay, offices were set up to make it easier for them to do business, and they were afforded certain protections and accommodations while in and around the city. 

For example, ships from Novrogod would sail out to meet incoming Lubeck merchants to protect them as they made their way into port. 

Seeing the benefit of this type of arrangement, the merchants of Lubeck and other cities in Northern Europe began seeking these types of relationships in other trading ports.

The concept of the Hanseatic League was born. 

The Hanseatic League

The Growing Importance of “Low German” Cities

For the entirety of human history, including the present day, it’s easier to move things across the water than the land. It’s a whole lot easier to load up a ship with a bunch of stuff and float it using the power of the wind than it is to try and carry it or push it on carts using wagons. 

Therefore, cities and towns located next to bodies of water often benefited from trade. They became ports where goods could be exchanged. 

In Central Europe, particularly in the region of the Holy Roman Empire, this gave the “Low German” cities increased importance. Low in this sense means “low elevation,” as in close to the sea. 

Anyone wanting to trade their goods, either agricultural or industrial, to parts of Europe outside the Holy Roman Empire would need to first send their stuff to one of these cities along the North or Baltic Seas. 

From this situation, cities such as Lubeck and Hamburg in Germany, as well as Riga in Latvia, Gdansk in Poland, and Gotland in Sweden, rose to regional prominence.

Working Together Is Always Better

Seeing their own power, these cities began to band together for mutual benefit. Given that they controlled trade throughout the North and Baltic Seas, they could use this power to win favorable trade conditions elsewhere in Europe. 

Most of these efforts were spearheaded by individual guilds. These were groups of people operating in similar industries that would work together to help improve market conditions for the products they made and sold. 

Think of a group of blacksmiths working together to set the price of horseshoes so that they could guarantee themselves a certain profit level. Some guilds were even able to wield political power, which they could use to require people to only buy goods from certain guilds. This gave guild members a significant advantage over their competition. 

The role of guilds can be seen in the name Hanseatic League. Hansa comes from the German word for guild. 

But the power of the Hanseatic League was that it could influence trade conditions in faraway lands.

For example, they were able to win exemptions from tariffs in London, which gave them free access to the massive market of England. 

They also managed to secure protections from the Kingdom of Portugal, which gave them access to distant markets on the Iberian Peninsula and even North Africa. 

The routes from Northern Europe to these lands passed by the coast of Portugal. Staying safe from pirates and other dangers required help from other kingdoms, which Hanseatic League cities got by working together. 

A Loosely Formed League

When combining forces, merchants of the Hanseatic League managed to win quite favorable conditions for themselves and their friends .

However, this wasn’t an official organization. 

Sure, they had a logo and a flag, which merchants would fly on their ships to let people know they were part of the League and under its protection. But that was about it. 

The group met from time to time, though there was no regular schedule. And it didn’t have an appointed leader. In fact, when the group did meet, no one was ever really sure who was going to show up. 

Nevertheless, even without a rigid structure and more formal organization, the League was quite successful in achieving its aims of improving trade and making its member merchants a lot of money. So much so that they wound up changing the political landscape of Medieval Europe. 

Economic Cooperation Turns into Political Power

Most of the cities and/or kingdoms that were part of the Hanseatic League were also part of the Holy Roman Empire. This was a political entity of mainly German states that defined the political order of the Middle Ages. 

However, the central authority of the Holy Roman Emperor was relatively weak. The emperor was elected by his peers, but he lacked the support and bureaucratic administration to govern all the lands in his empire, So he often delegated to the local nobility. This emboldened these nobles and allowed them to resist the authority of the Empire.

How would a noble become powerful enough to resist the emperor himself? 

In a word: money.

The richer a noble was, the bigger an army he could field. He could also use his wealth to persuade other members of the nobility to support him, or, if he was feeling nice, the emperor. 

In some cases, a noble would become so rich and powerful in their own right that they would be designated as “Free and Independent Cities.” 

Technically still part of the Holy Roman Empire, these cities did not have to respond to imperial authority and were instead free to govern themselves. 

This made them a real thorn in the side of the emperor. But emperors often had no other choice. Granting this status was the only way to prevent an outright rebellion. 

Many of the cities of the Hanseatic League wound up achieving this status. And those who didn’t were able to use their wealth and power derived from trade to exert considerable influence on the empire and its administration. 

Again, money talks. 

A Model for Cooperation

By the 15th and 16th century, the political landscape of Europe had changed. Sweden, Denmark, and Norway had all grown powerful in their own right. Because of this, they no longer had interest in cooperating with German cities across the Baltic Sea and instead preferred to work amongst themselves to improve trade. 

Members of the Hanseatic League also had a habit of using their armies, mainly their ships, to influence decisions. A series of losses in the 16th century left them quite weak and no longer relevant as a unit. 

However, the success of the League demonstrated that economic cooperation could help individual cities and kingdoms work around larger political structures to gain independence and autonomy, not to mention wealth.

In fact, it demonstrated it so well that modern Europeans decided to copy the idea. Though developed much later, the European Union, which itself started as a trade union, is very much the child of the centuries old Medieval cooperative we now call the Hanseatic League.

Written by Matthew Jones

Illustrated by Jean Galvao