The Hanseatic League and freedom of trade.

Author:Liggio, Leonard P.

The Hanseatic League was an unusual entity. It was embedded in the Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation (founded in 800 AD and ended in 1806 AD). But, there were many kings, princes, dukes, barons, bishops, abbots, and free cities under the cloak of the Holy Roman Empire. In fact, free cities were a very important part of the Holy Roman Empire. The free cities held charters of self-government from the Emperor, after payment of a fee.

The German Hansa began as associations of north German merchants, and in the mid-fourteenth century developed into a unique entity, an association of cities. Merchant senates ruled the free cities. The Hansa comprised almost 200 maritime and interior cities (along rivers). It extended from Bruges and Ghent in Flanders and London in the west to the Republic of Novgorod in western Russia and Tallinn on the Gulf of Finland in the east; from Bergen in the north to middle Germany in the south. But, Hansa activities extended to Venice where there was the famous German fondacio (factory) where German merchants lived and warehoused their goods. The Baltic (East Sea) and the North Sea were at the center of the Hansa. In the context of the merely formal nature of the Holy Roman Empire, the Hansa conducted its own diplomacy to maintain its access to trade and its own naval strength (armed merchant vessel) to protect its commerce against unrestrained governments. The Hanseatic League had no finances, army or fleet of its own. There were no Hanseatic officials, only the officials of the member cities. There was a diet or Hansetag that rarely met. Philippe Dollinger (1970, pp. xvii-xviii) declared:

But in spite of these structural weaknesses and the conflicting interests inevitable in an association of towns so different and so distant from one another, the Hansa was able to hold its own for nearly five hundred years. The secret of its long life is to be found not in coercion, which played no appreciable role, but in the realization of common interests which bound the members of the community together. This sense of solidarity was founded on the determination to control the commerce of northern Europe. The historical function of the Hansa was in fact to furnish western Europe with those products of eastern Europe which it needed and in return to provide eastern Europe with some basic necessities, above all cloth and salt, from western Europe. As long as this economic interdependence continued the Hansa survived. Europe in the Middle Ages was a frontier expanding society. Settlers and colonists cleared forests and marshes internally and then expanded to the east. German settlements went beyond the Holy Roman Empire: along the Baltic coast, or into Poland and...

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