HANSA. The Hansa was a league of northern European cities that emerged in the fourteenth century. Along with other town leagues that predate the Hansa, such urban leagues became a common means for townsmen to extend their influence and establish favorable trading conditions at a time when broader state authority was generally too weak to provide needed assistance. The extremely loose Hanseatic confederation was made up largely of towns in the Holy Roman Empire, which enjoyed a great deal of political autonomy. The Hansa acted in concert to protect and promote the commercial position of the members. Lübeck was the leader and often the site of meetings of the assembly of town representatives, the Hansetag. It began to take joint action certainly by the late thirteenth century, gaining concessions in Flanders and Norway. The league developed its enduring organization during the 1367–1370 war against Denmark. After that it was a major political force in the Baltic and North Seas. A tax voted by the towns on their trade paid for a fleet, which brought naval victory and, with the subsequent Peace of Stralsund, special trading rights in Danish markets. The Hansa had "factories" (trading centers) in Bruges, London, Bergen, and Novgorod. Merchants from member towns could trade and live there, enjoying immunity from local taxes and laws, important concessions won by the Hansa. In the fifteenth century internal divisions became clear as the towns of the Rhine Valley led by Cologne and the Prussian towns led by Gdańsk (Danzig) did not always find their commercial and political interests coinciding with those of the Wendish towns in northeastern Germany and especially with the most powerful one, Lübeck. Wars against the dukes of Burgundy, ending in peace in 1441, and against England, ending in peace in 1474, illustrated these divisions as many towns refused to follow the lead of Lübeck. Conscious of the disadvantages to domestic merchants and to their own incomes from concessions forced on them by the Hansa, sixteenth-century centralizing monarchs from England to Russia and everywhere in between worked to undermine the power of the confederation. The factories were closed, tariff advantages were rescinded, and then the naval power of the Hansa—which meant that of Lübeck and a few nearby towns—was broken as the navies of Denmark and Sweden became much more powerful. The Hansa shrank in numbers, and its political influence declined. Though most Hanseatic towns were Lutheran, the league played little role in the religious wars and could not form a consistent policy. The prosperity of the Hansa was based on the export of a limited range of primary goods, grain but also forest products and salted herring from the Baltic to western Europe in exchange for manufactures and for silver. Already by 1400 western Europeans were gradually supplanting production of beer, a major export of Bremen and Hamburg, and production of salted herring, a major export from Scania in southern Sweden. As western Europeans found themselves able to meet their own needs for food grains in the second half of the seventeenth century, the economic advantages of the Hanseatic towns were further eroded. After a hiatus of thirty-nine years, the last meeting of the Hansetag was held in 1668. It ended indecisively and after that the Hansa in effect no longer existed. Despite the end of its political influence, the towns that belonged or had belonged to the Hansa still enjoyed in the eighteenth century a level of prosperity as great as or greater than in the past.
See also Commerce and Markets ; Hamburg ; Lübeck ; Shipping .
Dollinger, Philippe. The German Hansa. Translated and edited by D. S. Ault and S. H. Steinberg. Stanford, 1970.
Glete, Jan. Warfare at Sea 1500–1650: Maritime Conflicts and the Transformation of Europe. London, 2000.
Hammel-Kiesow, Rolf. Die Hanse. Munich, 2000.
Unger, Richard W. Ships and Shipping in the North Sea and Atlantic, 1400–1800. Aldershot, U.K., 1997.
Richard W. Unger