Rise of the Hansa Merchant Union Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

The Hansa, a loose union of merchants in northern Germany, evolved into an association of cities that dominated the region’s maritime trade for three hundred years.

Summary of Event

“Hansa” is the Latin form of the German hense, a very old word designating a group of warriors. In thirteenth century England, this term came to mean a tribute paid by merchants from abroad. At various times the word also referred to a tax on commerce as well as to an entrance fee imposed on members of the Hanseatic League, a term that has been rejected by some scholars who prefer to refer to the confederation as the Hanseatic Community. [kw]Rise of the Hansa Merchant Union (c. 1150-1200) [kw]Hansa Merchant Union, Rise of the (c. 1150-1200) [kw]Merchant Union, Rise of the Hansa (c. 1150-1200) Hansa Trade;Germany Germany;trade Germany;c. 1150-1200: Rise of the Hansa Merchant Union[1950] Economics;c. 1150-1200: Rise of the Hansa Merchant Union[1950] Government and politics;c. 1150-1200: Rise of the Hansa Merchant Union[1950] Organizations and institutions;c. 1150-1200: Rise of the Hansa Merchant Union[1950] Trade and commerce;c. 1150-1200: Rise of the Hansa Merchant Union[1950] Transportation;c. 1150-1200: Rise of the Hansa Merchant Union[1950] Ethelred II, the Unready Henry II (1133-1189) Henry the Lion

This confederation of merchants began roughly with the rebuilding of Lübeck Lübeck in 1158-1159, which had been destroyed in 1138 and had evolved into a trade association of towns by the fourteenth century. The confederation expired in the seventeenth century. Although individual hansas were common in the Baltic region, the general use of the term hansa for a specific association of merchants and towns was not adopted until 1370.

Merchants who traveled abroad faced many hazards during the Middle Ages. Many of the early traders in the Baltic and North Seas were hardly better than pirates seizing cargoes at will. The crews of wrecked ships could be enslaved, and the flotsam and jetsam of shipwrecks were fair loot for anyone on shore, often providing considerable wealth for some of the monasteries. Besides these threats to the safety of their wares, traders were the frequent prey of noblemen greedy for exorbitant tolls. Given the hardships and the dangers they faced in foreign travel—and these early merchants were not deskbound, but quite the opposite—mutual protection on foreign shores was important right from the start in the rise of the Hansa.

As early as 978, under the reign of the young Ethelred II, the Unready Ethelred II, the Unready , English law granted equal protection to the merchants from across the North Sea. These rights were expanded under Henry II Henry II (king of England) to allow traders from Cologne to sell wine under the same provisions accorded the French. Moreover, a grant made around the year 1157 provided protection for the Cologne merchants, who by this time had their own London Guildhall. King John John (king of England) (r. 1199-1216) contributed to England’s importance in the early history of the Hansa by enforcing his predecessors’s liberal policies during his own reign, and Hansa merchants were freed from their annual tribute of two shillings in 1194. The continued strength of the feudal system in England, however, prevented the development of rich cities served by a powerful middle class of English merchants.

During the reign of Frederick I Barbarossa Frederick I Barbarossa , German merchants fared much better. Seeking allies in his quarrels with the nobles, Frederick supported the middle class and then extracted money from it to finance his foreign interests. From one point of view, Frederick’s support of this merchant middle class was shortsighted, since their independent power weakened Germany’s political unity. Nevertheless, the freedom that merchants enjoyed fostered trade and encouraged the growth of the Hansa. Powerful, flourishing cities began to spring up in this period, and the Hansa emerged as a crucial factor in the decline of feudalism and the relative triumph of the middle classes over their crowns.

Once the merchant bourgeoisie received some support from sympathetic royalty, they effected many practical improvements in promoting maritime law, improving and charting the waterways, building lighthouses and digging canals, and introducing order and security into the mercantile traffic of northern Europe. For centuries, the Baltic Sea had been the main trade route between eastern and western Europe. The traders from the West did not themselves sail the Baltic but simply received goods from the Scandinavians and Slavs who came to Schleswig on the eastern shore of the narrow neck of the Danish peninsula. The overland journey from Schleswig to Hollingstedt on the Eider River leading to the North Sea was only 10 miles (15 kilometers). One prominent theory contends that the establishment of the city of Lübeck on the Trave estuary south of Schleswig in 1158-1159 opened up the first stage of the growth of the Hansa by giving Western traders direct access to the Baltic in their new “cogs,” slender ships better for commerce than the northerners’s vessels. Whatever Lübeck’s precise role, few scholars deny its central importance in the growth of the Hansa. The spread of German commerce north and east brought German language and culture along with it into the regions of Estonia and Prussia.





The Baltic island of Gotland Gotland , a customary stopover for merchants headed east, was at first oppressed by Henry the Lion Henry the Lion , duke of Saxony. Later, in 1161, he enforced a peace between Germany and Gotland and won German merchants the right to trade in Gotland. A community of visiting German merchants grew up in the Gottish town of Visby and were often influential in founding churches. Of the six churches that can be traced to the late eleventh century, the German merchant church of Sancta Maria Teutonicorum became the warehouse and registry of the Gotland Company. The group created its own constitution featuring rule by four aldermen elected from the merchants of Visby, Lübeck, Soest, and Dortmund.

Parallel with the growth of Gotland’s importance was the German entrance into the lucrative herring fishing industry thriving off Skania on the southern tip of Sweden. For Catholic Europe, salted fish was a sought-after commodity. Fishing provided great wealth, and the herring came in great numbers to the coasts of Skania and Pomerania during the twelfth through fifteenth centuries. The city of Kolberg became famous for its salt fish, and salted herrings were a common medium of exchange and an acceptable tax offering. For the Germans trading in herring, Visby became the center of their extensive commerce. Traders enjoyed the protection of the city, for the law held that it was bound to help any merchant devastated by robbery or shipwreck.

The Russians also had a presence in the Baltic, as evidenced by churches in Gotland and other cities. Merchants in Novgorod, an old trading port in northwestern Russia, carried on business in the Church of Holy Friday, built in 1156. Germans eventually arrived in the area from Gotland and by 1184 were competing successfully against the Russians from their trading post, the Peterhof, on the Volkhov River east of Novgorod.


At its peak of power, the Hansa reached from Bruges (now in Belgium) in the south, over the English Channel to the eastern cities of England, north to Bergen in Norway, around the coast of Sweden and north to southern Finland and Novgorod. The heaviest concentration of Hansa cities clustered around the big centers of Bremen, Cologne, Hamburg, Lübeck, and then north up the Baltic coast to Danzig and Riga. The Hansa cities grew steadily in power until the middle of the fourteenth century, when the diverging interests of the Hansa merchants hurt their unity. From then on, the Hanseatic Community dwindled in importance, bleeding from its wars with the Dutch, the Danes, the English, and the Castilians, until the final Hanseatic diet was held at Lübeck in 1669.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Corley, Brigitte. Painting and Patronage in Cologne, 1300-1500. Turnhout, Belgium: Harvey Miller, 2000. This study of the Cologne school of painting emphasizes the effects of trade and commerce on art and includes significant discussion of the Hanseatic League.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Dollinger, Phillipe. The German Hansa. Vol. 1 in The Emergence of International Business, 1200-1800. Reprint. New York: Routledge, 1999. The standard work on the topic, stressing the evolution of the Hansa of Merchants into the Hansa of Towns.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Durant, Will. The Age of Faith. Vol. 4 in The Story of Civilization. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1950. A brief account of the Hansa’s importance is included in a chapter that places the development of the Hansa in a broad context.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Lloyd, T. H. England and the German Hanse, 1157-1611: A Study of Their Trade and Commercial Diplomacy. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1991. Authoritative study of England’s role in the history of the Hansa.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple"> ye, Ingvild. “The Hansa in Europe.” In European Cultural Routes, edited by Giovanni Mangion and Isabel Tamen. Croton-on-Hudson, N.Y.: Manhattan, 1998. An essay on the cultural history of the Hansa.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Schildhauer, Johannes. The Hansa: History and Culture. Translated by Kathleen Vanovitch. Leipzig, Germany: Edition Leipzig, 1985. Beautifully illustrated with detailed chapters on such topics as “The Hanseatic Townscape” and “Hanseatic Culture.” Contains an excellent map, but its bibliography largely consists of German-language works.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Zimmern, Helen. The Hansa Towns. 1889. Reprint. New York: Kraus, 1969. A romantic narrative approach dates this study, which is nevertheless informative and extremely readable.

Categories: History