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1. The Vikings

2. The Nobel Prize

3. The Wolf and the Man

4. Fairy Tales

5. Viking Science

6. Beer

7. The North Sea

8. The Hanseatic League

9. The Weather

10. Commodities and the Stock Exchange

11. The Declaration of Human Rights


The Hanseatic League

From about 1300 until around 1600, merchants in several Northern European cities formed a trading company which came to be known as the Hanseatic League (the name comes from the German word Hanse, meaning ‘trading company’). The League engaged in extensive trade. Cities like Brügge, Lübeck, Hamburg, Copenhagen, London and Bergen, and even far away places like Novgorod in Russia bought and sold commodities such as English cloth, French sea salt, oriental spices, Prussian corn, Swedish iron and Danish horses.

The merchants in the League met on a regular basis at the so-called ‘Hansedays’, which were usually held in Lübeck. They gathered to make trading agreements and to work out issues of common interest. As a result of these meetings, the member cities became highly influential politically. Member cities could force their will on non-members, for example through organized trade embargoes, in which the members halted the supply of goods to an uncooperative town.

Around seventy cities were regular League members, and in addition, around one hundred more were passive members without actual decision-making power. Membership and alliances varied from time to time; cities joined forces depending on what they were selling and to whom. League merchants often set up offices near each other, for example on the Tyskerbrygge in Bergen in Norway. There, the north German cities and their merchants controlled the iron and copper trade via Stockholm, while also selling German beer and Lüneburgsalt on the Nordic markets.

Intensive trading in the Baltic Sea region encouraged many Germans to move to Scandinavia and the Baltic states. Stockholm had quite a large German population so large, in fact, that a city law was enacted in the fourteenth century to prevent Germans from gaining a majority in the city council. One of the most important commodities was herring, which was sold from the market in Skåne in present-day Southern Sweden. The Dutch took French sea salt to the market and bought herring, corn and timber. Gradually, however, North Sea fishing reduced the importance of the Skånemarket herring. Furthermore, Dutch merchants’ free access to the Sound reduced the influence of North German member cities like Lübeck and Hamburg. This led to a trade war between the Dutch and the North German Hanseatic cities from 1438 to 1441.

Another example of the decreasing power of the League occurred when Lübeck tried to control the English cloth trade from Brügge in present-day Belgium. The English chose to trade with Antwerp instead, and Brügge lost its influence. This had serious consequences for the Hanseatic League, because Antwerp was not a member.

In a further blow to the League’s influence, the Brügge harbour the Zwyn River - silted up, making it impossible for large ships to dock there.

Toward the end of the 1400s, the golden period of the Hanseatic League was drawing to a close. The Novgorod office was closed in 1494, as a result of the city being taken over by Muscovite rule. The power and influence of the Bergen office was broken by about 1560, and in 1598 the English king closed the London office. Finally, other Hanseatic cities lost their power because of the increased influence of the Polish kings and other European princes.

300 years of trading power had ceased and the Northern European cities had to look around for new trading partners.