In Ancient times the main traders in Europe were Romans. They maintained a sharp system of trade routes across their empire. Rome was filled with goods from East and West. After the breakdown of Roman Empire during the so-called “Dark Ages” full-scale trading in Europe was halted. During this time the masters of trade were Byzantines, Arabs, Persians and Chinese. However when European medieval states started to grow stronger, European traders again begun to compete with their eastern rivals.
Before exploring the depths of the Atlantic Ocean, Europeans sailed three main seas- the North Sea, Baltic Sea and the Mediterranean sea. The Mediterranean Sea was an old trade route. In Ancient times it was the “Greek frog pond“, then it was fully owned by the Romans. The heirs of Romans were Italian sailors, the Genoa and Venice were the main centers for trade. Constantinople was also important until it was taken by the Turks. North and Baltic seas were less known to Greeks and Romans, few of their sources describes them, there even was expeditions made by Greeks and Romans. But since the shores of these seas were inhabited by less-civilized peoples they did not find them so tempting. So it was the British, Scandinavians and Germans who will make those seas a proper trade route.
One of the first German ports was Lübeck. It was founded by Duke Henry the Lion of Saxony. Based on good position the city in the 13th century became a base for merchants from Saxony and Westphalia. The word Hansa came from intention to form special guilds to trade with other cities. Lübeck was especially interested in Baltic region where resources such as timber, wax, amber, furs, etc. came from. Rye and wheat were also important. Also the trade ships were important for the Crusades because ships were used to transport troops to conflict ground.
Lübeck and Hamburg made alliance in 1241 marking the start of the Hanse. It was based on cooperation between the cities and guilds to ease up trading and gain profit. Hanse was joined by Cologne and London. The main center of the alliance was Lübeck, it was Imperial Free city which meant that it has vast possibilities than other German cities. The administration was Hansa Diet founded the 1356.
Because Russia was the important trade source, Hansa moved to the east. Livonian cities, Riga, Venstpils, Cesis, Valmiera, Kuldiga, Limbaži and Straupe became the part of the Hansa. Ventspils was important port in Courland; ships could sail across river Venta to Kuldiga. Ventspils never lost its port’s importance as now it’s a main rival to the port of Riga. Kuldiga in other hand is no more used for ships.
Riga as the biggest city was center for stock of all trade sources. Many Guilds worked there and it was the main trade spot in Livonia only to be countered by Tallinn ( Reval). From Riga ships sailed to Koknese and from there the route ended in Smolensk, Vitebsk and Polotsk.
The last trade route from Riga to Tallin (Reval) across the river Gauja was mostly on land and headed to Novgorod and Pskov. In Russian towns Hansa had kontors- trade offices.
The 14th century was “Golden age” for Hansa. It took the monopoly on trading in the Northern seas. Hansa was so powerful that it could even wage war on a sovereign country- Denmark. Destroying their fleet and sacking their cities Hansa used force to get full control over Scandinavia. However at the end of the century Hansa lost the war to Dutch rival merchants and the Hansa monopoly was broken.
15th century is called the “Autumn of Medieval ages”. The economic crisis did not spare Hansa. As Crusader knight regimes was defeated and Novgorod was annexed by Russian Tzar Ivan III. The cities begun to rival with each other. Danzig (Gdansk) started to gain much more from Poland and became much larger than Lübeck. The Polish government tried to take over Danzig, but were repulsed. But the Dutch sailors became even more dangerous for Hansa, as they aggressively competed with Hanse. They succeeded making Hansa more and more weaker.
In the 16th century Hansa was no longer a key player. Swedish Empire was more powerful. Russia was no longer in trade business and because of centralization the cities no longer were so independent. Hansa could not make trade route to newly explored New World. The last formal meeting between the cities were held in 1699. The cities of Livonia did not take any part in them long before.
However the power of Hansa has not faded from historical memory. The word Hansa is used in the names of ships, companies (Lufthansa), the Swedish bank Swedbank was called Hansabank in Latvia for many years. There is even a PC Game The Rise of Hansa where Riga is also included (however pretty badly as it is shown as Russian town wit Orthodox cathedrals). Hansa is the symbol for the most active member towns, such as Riga. Riga is proud to be a former member of the Hanseatic League.
Hammel-Kiesow, Rolf. (2000) Die Hanse. München: C. H. Beck’sche Verlagsbuchhandlung.
Hanno Brand (ed.) (2007) The German Hanse in past & present Europe : a medieval League as a model for modern interregional cooperation? Groningen : Hanse Passage/Castel International Publ.