The Hanseatic League of the Middle Ages
By Haralabos Lemonopoulos
Anistoriton, Vol.1 (1997)
Introduction: In the High Middle Ages, confederations of towns were the dominant characteristic of Germany, since the organization of the Empire was loose enough to allow a kind of independence to the growing cities. However, these semi-independent towns were subject to many dangers because of the inability of the central government to offer them protection in their commercial transactions. Their merchants were exposed either to the tyranny of the nobles or to the depredations of the pirates. In addition, there were excessive tolls and tariffs on roads and rivers. On the Rhine alone there were sixty custom-frontiers, and tolls had to be paid every time someone wanted to pass through the river.
This situation made, little by little, the German cities to league in defensive associations. There were already earlier confederations: the Swabian, the Westphalian, the Rhenish Leagues, which were mainly composed by southern and central German cities and were seeking for political power in the administration of the country. Those leagues were directed against the territorial lords and tried to find ways to protect trade routes. However, these leagues had no organization, no real economic cohesion, and most of the times, some towns suspected their allies for profiting from the situation. That is why these associations of towns became gradually less significant. On the other hand, a great northern confederation based on purely commercial foundations started to take shape and was going to have a future completely different from the others. This Confederation was the Hanse of the North German cities or the Hanseatic League.
The imperial control over the north cities was even looser than that of central and south Germany. The geography of the territory played the greatest role in order for mercantile enterprises to seem boundless. Towns favorably situated on harbors or rivers, like Hamburg, Rostock, and Lubeck, became great by developing new lines of trade, and by capturing and monopolizing the commerce of others, mainly that of Slavonic traders along the Baltic shores or that of Scandinavian traders.