Note:  Do not rely on this information. It is very old.


Hansa, or Hanseatic League, a commercial federation of the North German towns, formed in the Middle Ages. Its original aims were to facilitate the transit of goods by checking piracy at sea and the attacks of robbers on land, and to protect the interests of merchants belonging to the various confederate towns in foreign countries. But, as its power grew, it became more ambitious and sought to obtain a monopoly of trade in the Baltic and the German Ocean. The literal meaning of hansa is a band of men; it also denoted a tax imposed for some common object, and may have been applied to commercial leagues in either of these senses. The organisation of the Hansa appears to have originated among the German traders at Wisby on the island of Gothland (q.v.). Here there was a common treasure-house, keys of which were placed in the hands of representatives from Wisby, Lubeck, Soest, and Dortmund. From this centre the organisation spread till it included the ports on the south of the Baltic from Denmark to the Gulf of Finland and the inland towns as far south as Cologne. The Hansa first appears definitely under that title about the middle of the 13th century. The power of the Hanse towns greatly increased after their successful struggle with Waldemar, King of Denmark, resulting in the treaty of Stralsund (1370). In this war they were led by Lubeck, which henceforward figures as the chief town of the League. Bruges was the great emporium at which the products of northern and eastern Europe were exchanged for those of the west and south as well as for Eastern spices and perfumes. The men of Cologne had a house in London as early as the middle of the 12th century, but before the close of the 13th it had been absorbed in the general factory of the League, which became known as the Steelyard. In England, as in other countries, the German merchants formed an independent community; they were not subject to the law of the land, but were governed by an alderman and council of their own who enforced a rigid system of discipline. Residents were not allowed to marry, and other precautions were taken to prevent all intercourse with the English and preserve the exclusive privileges of the league intact. There were also depots at York, Hull, Bristol, and other towns. The League continued to thrive during the 15th century, and tightened its hold on the Baltic shores. But its commercial supremacy was now threatened by the Dutch and the English, and early in the 16th century combination of adverse circumstances hastened on its decay. Another mark of the times was the growth of national sentiment which now displayed itself in Denmark and Sweden, very much to the League's disadvantage. The former country formed a commercial alliance with the Netherlands, and a war carried on by the League in the hope of maintaining their privileges, in which Lubeck was very ill supported by the other towns, ended in a Danish victory (1535). The want of union among the cities was partly due to the religious dissensions occasioned by the Reformation and the social strife which accompanied it. This movement injured the League in another way by greatly diminishing the demand for salt herrings and wax tapers. The discovery of a route to Archangel round the North Cape was followed by a commercial treaty between England and Russia (1555). The greater part of Livonia fell into the hands of Ivan the Terrible, and most of the remainder was seized by Sweden and Poland. The ports of the East Baltic were thus lost to the League, and the route to Novgorod was either entirely closed or became extremely difficult. The factory at Antwerp, which had taken the place of Bruges as a commercial centre, was reduced to a state of bankruptcy during the struggle between the Netherlands and Spain. The prosperity of the Steelyard outlived that of most of the other factories, but the Tudor sovereigns gradually transferred their patronage to the Merchant Adventurers, and the Hansa merchants were finally expelled by Elizabeth in 1598. The last blow was given to the League by the Thirty Years' War (1618-48). Lubeck, Hamburg, and Bremen, the only cities which remained to the League after this contest, kept on the old title till within recent years; but as their policy of free trade was opposed to the protective system of the German Empire, they have been obliged to renounce their commercial independence.