Hanseatic League , (Old Ger.Hansa, a union), a commercial alliance of certain Germanic cities in the middle ages, for the protection of trade. In the early part of the 13th century society in northern Europe was in a rude stage. The shores of the Baltic were occupied by Slavic tribes. Commerce, where it existed, was viewed by the sovereigns as something to supply their own rapacity, rather than as a benefit to the realm. Petty lords followed the example of the sovereigns and levied exactions under the pretence of giving protection. The maritime cities of Germany were the chief sufferers, especially those on the Elbe. The Genoese and Venetians possessed the monopoly of the Mediterranean and the East, and made those cities the depots of their northern traffic. The rich cargoes continually passing gave birth to swarms of pirates, who infested the Baltic. In 1239 an agreement was entered into between Hamburg, Ditmarsh, and Hadeln, to take means to keep the course of the Elbe and the adjacent sea free of marauders.
This was the beginning of the Hanseatic league, although it is usually dated from the compact between Hamburg and Lubeck, in 1241, to provide ships and soldiers to clear the traffic way between the rivers Elbe and Trave, and the waters from Hamburg to the ocean, and further to promote their mutual interests. When this partnership had been in operation six years, the city of Brunswick joined it. Other cities speedily sought admission, with their quota of men and money. The progress of the league was rapid. By 1260 it had so expanded that a convention was summoned to regulate its affairs, and thereafter its diet assembled triennially, with an extraordinary meeting decennially to renew the league. Lubeck was named the capital of the Hansa, and depositary of the common treasury and archives. Usually the meetings were held at Lubeck, but occasionally at Hamburg, Cologne, and elsewhere. The cities of the alliance were organized for administrative purposes into four circles : 1, the Vandalic or Wendish towns of the Baltic; 2, the Westphalian, Rhenish, and Netherlandish towns; 3, the Saxon and Brandenburg towns; 4, the Prussian and Livonian. The capitals of these circles were Lubeck, Cologne, Brunswick, and Dantzic. The number of cities belonging to the league fluctuated, but at the height of its power it comprised the following 85 : Andernach, Anklam, Aschersleben, Bergen, Berlin, Bielefeld, Bolsward, Brandenburg, Brannsberg, Bremen, Brunswick, Bux-tehude, Campen, Colberg, Cologne, Cracow, Culm, Dantzic, Demmin, Deventer, Dorpat, Dortmund, Duisburg, Eimbeck, Elbing, El-burg, Emmerich, Frankfort-on-the-Oder, Gol-now, Goslar, Gottingen, Greifswald, Gronin-gen, Halberstadt, Halle, Hamburg, Hameln, Hamm, Hanover, Harderwyk, Helmstedt, Her-vorden, Hildesheim, Kiel, Konigsberg, Kos-feld, Lemgo, Lixheim, Lubeck, Luneburg, Magdeburg, Munden, Munster, Nimeguen, Nord-heim, Osnabruck, Osterburg, Paderborn, Qued-linburg, Revel, Riga, Roermond, Rostock, Ru-genwalde, Salzwedel, Seehausen, Soest, Stade, Stargard, Stavoren, Stendal, Stettin, Stolpe, Stralsund, Thorn, Uelten, Unna, Venloo, Warburg in Sweden, Werben, Wesel, Wisby, Wis-mar, Zutphen, and Zwolle. These cities were represented by delegates.
The edicts of the assembly were communicated to the magistrates at the head of each circle, and were enforced with the strictness of sovereign power. Besides the ordinary members of the league, other cities were more or less affiliated with it, but without representation or share in the responsibilities. Among the latter were Amsterdam, Antwerp, Dort, Ostend, Rotterdam, Bruges, Dunkirk, Bayonne, Bordeaux, Marseilles, Rouen, St. Malo, Barcelona, Cadiz, Seville, Lisbon, Naples, Leghorn, Messina, and London; but in the 14th century the kings of France and other potentates of the south ordered their merchants to withdraw from the association. The objects of the league were in the beginning the protection and expansion of commerce, the prevention of piracy and shipwreck, the increase of agricultural products, fisheries, mines, and manufactures. With these views they established four great factories or depots of trade: at London, in 1250; Bruges, 1252; Novgorod, 1272; and Bergen, 1278. From these centres they were able almost to monopolize the trade of Europe. Their factories were conducted with all the rigor of monastic establishments, the officers being bound, among other things, to celibacy and common board.
The London factory, with branches at Boston and Lynn, gave the Hansards, as the merchants of the league were called, command both of the import and export market of Britain, while it enabled them to engross much of the carrying trade to the exclusion of British ships. As it was difficult in the state of navigation at that time to make a voyage from the Mediterranean to the Baltic and back in one season, Bruges became the intermediate depot for the rich traffic with Italy and the Levant. Novgorod was the entrepot between the countries E. of Poland and the cities of the league; while Bergen secured to them the products of Scandinavia. The league was at its greatest power during the 14th and first half of the 15th century, but its objects were professedly different from those with which it set out, being now : 1, to protect the cities of the Hansa and their commerce from prejudice; 2, to guard and extend foreign commerce and to monopolize it;
3, to administer justice within the confederacy;
4, to prevent injustice, by means of assemblies, diets, and tribunals of arbitration; 5, to maintain the rights and immunities received from foreign princes, and, where possible, to extend them. Further, the league claimed to exercise a general judicial power, and to inflict the greater and lesser ban. In this change of principle may be traced the seeds of dissolution.
The association framed for defence had become a confederation exercising a sovereign power, aiming at monopoly, negotiating treaties, and declaring war or peace. In 1348 it fought and defeated the kings of Sweden and Norway, and Waldemar III. of Denmark. It subsequently deposed Magnus, king of Sweden, and gave his crown to his nephew Albert, duke of Mecklenburg. Again, in 1428, it declared war on Denmark and fitted out a fleet of 248 ships, carrying 12,000 troops. To such extent did it carry its arrogance that Niederhoff, a burgomaster of Dantzic, himself declared war against Christian I. of Denmark. When citizens of London, jealous of the privileges of the Hanse factory, insulted the employees of that institution, the league declared war against England, and compelled Edward IV. to grant yet more extravagant concessions. But influences were growing up which destroyed the league as rapidly as it rose. Its own efforts had abolished piracy, and left commerce safe on the ocean. Its own example, too, had taught states the value of the commerce they had hitherto disregarded. The league, in short, had laid the foundation of that commercial policy which has since become the basis of all political relations.
Sovereigns, nat-urally jealous of a power whose military force rivalled their own, began by modifying their previous grants, and ended by repealing them. Such was the case with England, which about 1597 withdrew all privileges from the Hansard merchants. The English and Dutch, finding themselves now strong enough to compel the right to trade in the Baltic, entered into it with little care for the interests of the Hansards. Meantime the league, finding its monopolies slipping away, made desperate efforts to retain them; and the cost becoming heavy the maritime towns of the Baltic, so soon as direct trade was opened with the Dutch and English, seceded from the association. The discovery of America and of the passage to India via the cape of Good Hope turned the tide of commerce into new channels, and was the finishing blow to the existence of the league. Its last meeting was held in 1030 for the purpose of receiving the secession of the remaining members. Hamburg, Lubeck, and Bremen, to which was afterward added Frank-fort-on-the-Main, formed a new association under the name of the free Hanse towns.
Napoleon in 1810 embodied them as a Han-seatic department of the French empire; their independence was acknowledged again in the act for the establishment of the Germanic confederation (1815), and they obtained a joint vote in the federal diet as the free Hanseatic cities. Frankfort was annexed to Prussia in 1806; the three other cities joined the North German confederation in the same year. Lubeck was subsequently added to the German customs union, while Hamburg and Bremen remained free ports. Each of these three cities now constitutes a state of the German empire, and is represented in the diet. - See Sartorius, Geschichte des Ursprungs der deutschen Hansa (3 vols., Gottingen, 1802-'8), continued by Lappenberg (2 vols., Hamburg, 1830); Bar-thold, Geschichte der deutschen Stadte (4 vols., Leipsic, 1850-'52); and Falke, Die Hansa als deutsche See- und Handelsmacht (Berlin, 1862).