What is the Hanseatic League

Hanse

The Hanseatic League was an alliance of merchants in the Middle Ages. Cities were added later. The 200 or so cities were able to achieve more together to protect the merchants. Today there are still cities that used to be part of the Hanseatic League and proudly call themselves Hanseatic cities.

Merchants traveled from place to place to buy goods cheaply and sell them dearly. The journeys were very dangerous in the Middle Ages because there were no real police. That is why merchants formed associations or alliances.

Today we don't know exactly how the Hanseatic League came about. The word means something like company or allegiance. Around the year 1150 there was probably a Hanse of merchants, especially in the north of Germany.

A hundred to 200 years later, cities also became members of the Hanseatic League. They too wanted to protect one another, and in many cities the wealthy merchants were in charge anyway. There were also Hanseatic Days, which were large gatherings of merchants and cities. The Hanseatic League was not a real association or state. The cities were left free to do what they thought was right.

At the end of the Middle Ages, the Hanseatic League became less and less important. On the one hand, it was because the Europeans discovered America. Trade in the north of Germany, with the Baltic Sea, was therefore no longer quite so important. Above all, however, the princes became more powerful at that time. It was then a duke or bishop who could rule in an area.

What did the Hanseatic League do?

The Hansekontor in Antwerp, on a picture from a later time. Today Antwerp is in Belgium.

Merchants preferred to sell their goods where they were needed. That is why they founded so-called offices. An office is a house or place where merchants could stay and meet other merchants.

Germans set up the first office in Flanders, in the wealthy trading city of Bruges. Kontors were also set up in London, and later even in Norway and Russia. Such cities were far away for the time. It was very helpful for a merchant if he could spend the night in the office and was there safe from robbers.

In addition, the Hanseatic League made sure that the paths were safer. Anyone who traveled by ship across the Baltic or North Sea always had to be afraid of pirates. Hanse merchants and cities gave money to fight pirates. Ships from Hanseatic cities have even waged wars, for example against the King of Denmark.

What is a Hanseatic city?

If a city wanted to join the Hanseatic League, it had to pay something. This money was also called "Hanse". But there was no list of exactly which city belonged to the Hanseatic League. No treaty stipulated what the Hanseatic League was or what it did. That is why it is not known exactly which cities were actually Hanseatic cities.

The town hall of Tartu, the second largest city in Estonia. Here is a picture from 2005: Hansetag is celebrated, a meeting of people from Hanseatic cities in Europe.

The most important cities were in northern Germany, on the coast or on large rivers. Most of all, one thinks today of Lübeck on the Baltic Sea, but also of Hamburg, Bremen and Rostock. Cologne was a Hanseatic city, but also important for other reasons. Some cities are no longer in Germany, such as Danzig in Poland or Kaliningrad in Russia.

Are there still Hanseatic cities today?

Until 1990, only three cities in Germany called themselves Hanseatic cities: Hamburg, Bremen and Lübeck. Since then it has grown to over twenty. The "Free and Hanseatic City of Hamburg" and the "Free Hanseatic City of Bremen" are even federal states. Meanwhile there is the "New Hanseatic League". It's a partnership of cities that would like to work together more.

Nowadays a city is called a Hanseatic city because it is proud of its history. It also sounds good: it is hoped that this way more tourists will find out about the city. Otherwise it doesn't matter, they don't have more rights than other cities. Large cities in particular, such as Cologne, Duisburg or Arnhem in the Netherlands, often do without the title of Hanseatic city.

Incidentally, a single person can also be a “Hanseatic”. Somebody like that feels very connected to his Hanseatic city. A Hanseatic also considers himself a man of the world who is interested in other countries - like the wealthy merchants of the Hanseatic League.

  • Georg Gisze was a wealthy merchant from Danzig who worked in the London office

  • In the city center of the Hanseatic city of Bremen

  • A warship of the city of Lübeck from the end of the Hanseatic period