Hanseatic League

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Hanseatic League

Hanseatic League (hănˌsēătˈĭk, hănˌzē–), mercantile league of medieval German towns. It was amorphous in character; its origin cannot be dated exactly. Originally a Hansa was a company of merchants trading with foreign lands. After the German push eastward and the settlement of German towns in the Slavic lands of the Baltic, the merchant guilds and town associations led (13th cent.) to leagues. Most notable was the company of German merchants with headquarters at Visby; pushing east, they founded a branch at Novgorod. In London, where German merchants had traded since the 11th cent., the privileges granted to Cologne merchants were extended to other Germans, and a Hansa of German merchants was formed (see Steelyard, Merchants of the). A major impetus to the league's development was the lack of a powerful German national government to provide security for trade. In order to obtain mutual security, exclusive trading rights, and, wherever possible, trade monopoly, the towns drew closer together. In 1241 Lübeck and Hamburg concluded a treaty of mutual protection. Other cities joined this association, and a strong league grew up led by Lübeck. Ports and inland towns from Holland to Poland entered the league, but the north German cities remained the principal members. The league vigorously extended its operations, founding principal foreign branches at Bruges and Bergen. The Hansa towns reached their summit in their victories over Waldemar IV of Denmark, gaining in the Treaty of Stralsund (1370) a virtual trade monopoly in Scandinavia. Their Baltic hegemony continued through numerous wars until their defeat by the Dutch in 1441. Despite its success, the league suffered from lack of organization. Although assemblies of the league met irregularly at Lübeck, many towns did not send representatives, and decisions were subject to review by the individual towns. The number of members fluctuated, probably from less than 100 to over 160. By the 16th cent. internal dissension, curtailment of freedom by the German princes, growth of centralized foreign states and consequent loss of Hanseatic privileges, advances of Dutch and English shipping, and various changes in trade all operated against the league. The last diet was held in 1669, but the league was never formally dissolved. Lübeck, Hamburg, and Bremen are still known as Hanseatic cities.


See P. Dollinger, The German Hansa (tr. 1970).

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The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.

Hanseatic League


a commercial union of North German cities, lasting from the 14th to the 16th century and headed by Lübeck; it existed formally until 1669.

The Hanseatic League became the successor to the German merchant partnerships and associations that had had as one of their principal centers the city of Visby (on the island of Gotland). In the second half of the 13th century, agreements were concluded among Lübeck, Hamburg, Stralsund, and other cities; final formalization of the league occurred in 1367-70 during its victorious war against Denmark, which ended in the Peace of Stralsund (1370). The heyday of the Hanseatic League came in the second half of the 14th century and beginning of the 15th. Its membership included as many as 100 cities (among them the Baltic cities of Revel [Tallinn], Dorpat [Tartu], and Riga), but its framework was not rigorously defined. The Hanseatic League played the economic role of monopolistic middleman to the producing regions of Northern, Western, Eastern and to some extent Central Europe and even the Mediterranean area. Cloth came from Flanders, England, and northern Germany; metals from Central Europe, England, and Scandinavia; salt from northern Germany and the western coast of France; silks and textiles from Italy; mainly furs and wax and, beginning in the 16th century, grain from Eastern Europe; copper from Sweden; and fish from Norway. The German merchants took over the function of commercial middlemen by using the successes of German colonization in the Slavic countries of Eastern Europe and in the Baltic and by relying on the military forces of the German knightly orders (primarily the Teutonic Order).

The system of Hanseatic commercial relations rested on several Kontore (trading offices) in the chief producing regions of Europe—the Kontore in Bruges (Flanders), Novgorod, London, Bergen (Norway), Venice, and others. The center of trade with the inland regions of Europe and the main transshipment point on the land and river route between the Baltic and North seas was Lübeck—the political head of the league. It was there that the general assemblies of the Hanseatic cities convened. The inner organization of the Hanseatic League was notable for its amorphousness. Its military forces consisted of the navy and troops of the individual cities. The interests of particular groups of towns often failed to coincide. Power in the Hanseatic cities was in the hands of a merchant patrician class (guild rebellions against its authority at the end of the 14th century and beginning of the 15th were suppressed).

While stimulating the development of textiles and mining in Western and Central Europe, the Hanseatic League retarded the development of these industries in Eastern Europe; on the other hand, thanks to Hanseatic trade the eastern regions obtained raw materials for metalworking and the manufacture of jewelry. By concentrating trade in the hands of German merchants, the Hanseatic League impeded the activities of local merchants. The development of national economies and consolidation of the position of the local merchants in England, the Scandinavian countries, and Rus’ around the end of the 15th century and beginning of the 16th sharpened Hanseatic conflicts with trading-partner countries. In 1494 the German settlement in Novgorod was closed; the Kontore in Bruges gradually lost its importance (in 1553 it was transferred to Antwerp), and in 1598 the Hanseatic representatives were deprived of all privileges in England. By the middle of the 16th century the place of the Hanseatic League had been taken by Dutch, English, and French merchants.


Lesnikov, M. “Lübeck als Handelsplatz für osteuropäische Waren im 15. Jahrhundert.” Hansische Geschichtsblätter, 1960, vol. 78.
Hansische Studien: Heinrich Sproemberg zum 70. Geburtstag. Berlin, 1961.
Neue Hansische Studien. Berlin, 1969.
Dollinger, P. La Hanse (XIIe-XVIIe siècles). Paris, 1964.
Bruns, F., and H. Weczerka. Hansische Handelsstrassen. Weimar, 1967.
Samsonowicz, H. Póžine średniowiecze miast nadbałtyckich: Studia nad dziejami Hanzy nad Bałtykiem w XIV-XV w. Warsaw, 1968.


The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.

Hanseatic League

a commercial association of towns in N Germany formed in the mid-14th century to protect and control trade. It was at its most powerful in the 15th century
Collins Discovery Encyclopedia, 1st edition © HarperCollins Publishers 2005
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