LÜBECK. With a population of 25,000 at the end of the Middle Ages, Lübeck was one of the great cities of northern Germany, located at the crossroads between the Baltic and the North Sea. It lived from international trade, and its central position had brought it leadership of the Hanseatic League. By the end of the eighteenth century, its population was still at the same level, its international trade was dwarfed by foreign competition, and its regional position was overshadowed by Hamburg. Lübeck's decline was comparatively gentle. At times, its merchants reached the Mediterranean, the Iberian Peninsula, and the eastern Baltic, particularly in the later sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Lübeck's decline was accompanied by the slow dissolution of the Hansa itself as contrasting commercial interests drove a wedge between its members, and the once favorable trading conditions offered to Hanseatic merchants by foreign rulers were withdrawn. Meetings of the Hansetag still took place frequently in the city, and its burghers occupied many of the organization's most senior posts.
The Reformation came comparatively late to the city, in 1531. From then on, Lübeck was strictly Lutheran. Religious change was accompanied by political upheaval in the early 1530s, when a reform group, led by Jürgen Wullenwever, responded to Lübeck's growing political and economic weakness by unsuccessfully making war on Denmark in order to restore the city's former position.
The importance of long-distance trade throughout the period was reflected in the strong presence of seagoing merchants among the city's elite. Sharing power first with a small group of landowners and later with lawyers and other professionals, they ran the city's affairs, occupied the central quarter around the Rathaus (Town Hall), St. Mary's Church, and the marketplace, and maintained a close-knit network of relatives and business associates around the shores of the Baltic. Among the most famous of mercantile aristocrats was Thomas Fredenhagen (1627–1709), whose ships sailed into the Mediterranean and the West Indies. Commercial decline in the sixteenth century was accompanied by artistic decline. Lübeck's earlier reputation as a printing center was sustained during the Reformation but faded as Low German became less popular. A strong tradition of painting and wood carving (especially of altarpieces) made famous by Berndt Notke (1435–1509) also lost its wider importance. There was little continuing patronage of foreign artists. Only the organ music of Dieterich Buxtehude (1637–1707) and Franz Tunder (1614–1667) reached a wider audience.
Lübeck retained its medieval street plan. There was little rebuilding of town houses and public buildings until the eighteenth century, with the noted exception of the Rathaus, which was given a new Renaissance facade incorporating an impressive outside staircase during the sixteenth century. Instead, the appearance of the city was transformed from the outside. New and more extensive fortifications were constructed during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries in response to the increase in military threats. These included the renewal and redecoration of Lübeck's main gates. While financial constraints prevented a complete overhaul of the city's fortifications, they proved to be a major deterrent to passing armies. Lübeck paid a high price for its neutrality during the Thirty Years' War, however. Gustavus II Adolphus levied a large sum of money as his price for leaving the city alone.
The ideas of the Enlightenment were first brought to eighteenth-century Lübeck from the universities of Jena and Göttingen. The literary society established in 1788 went on to develop into an organization for reform, bringing together men of many different interests and backgrounds.
See also Buxtehude, Dieterich ; Hamburg ; Hansa .
Grassmann, Antjekathrin, ed. Lübeckische Geschichte. 2nd ed. Lübeck, 1989.