Jacques Maritain Center : Greatest of Centuries


For our present eminently commercial age nothing of all the accomplishment of the Thirteenth Century will probably possess livelier interest than the fact that, in spite of what must have seemed insuperable difficulties to a less enterprising generation, the men of that time succeeded in making such business combinations and municipal affiliations, besides arranging various trade facilities among distant different peoples, that not only was commerce rendered possible and even easy, but some of the most modern developments of the facilitation of international intercourse were anticipated. The story of the rise of this combination of many men of different nations, of many cities whose inhabitants were of different races and of different languages, of commercial enterprise that carried men comparatively much farther than they now go on trade expeditions, though we have thought that our age had exhausted the possibilities of progress in this matter, cannot fail to have an interest for everyone whose attention has been attracted to the people of this time and must be taken as a symbol of the all-pervading initiative of the generations, which allowed no obstacle to hinder their progress and thought no difficulty too great to be surmounted.

In beginning the history of the great commercial league which in the Thirteenth Century first opened men's minds to the possibilities of peace and commerce among the nations and alas! that it should be said, did more perhaps than any other agent except Christianity to awaken in different races the sense of the brotherhood of man, the English historian of the Hanseatic League, Miss Zimmern in the Stories of the Nations, said

"There is scarcely a more remarkable chapter in history than that which deals with the trading-alliance or association known as the Hanseatic League. The league has long since passed away having served its time and fulfilled its purpose. The needs and circumstances of mankind have changed, and new methods and new instruments have been devised for carrying on the commerce of the world. Yet, if the league has disappeared, the beneficial results of its action survive to Europe though they have become so completely a part of our daily life that we accept them as matters of course, and do not stop to inquire into their origin." This last declaration may seem surprising for comparatively few know anything about this medieval commercial league, yet the effects claimed for it are only what we have seen to be true with regard to most of the important institutions of the period -- they were the origins of what is best in our modern life.

Like many of the great movements of the Thirteenth Century the origin of the Hanseatic League is clouded somewhat by the obscurity of the times and the lack of definite historical documents.{1} There is no doubt, however, that just before the middle of the century it was in flourishing existence, and that by the end of the century it had reached that acme of its power and influence which it was to maintain for several centuries in spite of the jealousy of the nobility, of certain towns that did not have the same privileges, and even of the authorities of the various countries who resented more and more as time went on the growing freedom and independence of these wealthy cities. The impetus for the formation of the League seems to have been given during the Crusades. Like so many other of the important movements of the time commerce was greatly influenced by these expeditions, and the commercial spirit not only aroused but shown the possibility of accomplishing hitherto impossible results in the matter of transportation and exchange. The returning crusaders brought back with them many precious Eastern objects whose possession was a source of envy to others and whose value was rated so high as to make even distant travel for them well worth while. The returning crusaders also knew how cheaply objects considered very precious in the West might be purchased in the East, and they told the stories of their own acquisition of them to willing listeners, who were stimulated to try their fortunes in expeditions that promised such rich rewards.

Besides the crusaders on their return through Italy had observed what was accomplished by the League of the Lombard cities which had been in existence in a more or less imperfect way for more than a century, and at the end of the Twelfth and the beginning of the Thirteenth Century had begun to provide an example of the strength there is in union, and of the power for good there is in properly regulated combinations of commercial interests with due regard for civic rights and privileges. This League of the Lombard cities was encouraged by the popes especially by Innocent III. and his successors who are usually said to have given it their approbation for their own purposes, though this is to look at but one side of the case. The German Emperors endeavored to assert their rights over Italian territory and in so doing came into collision with the popes not only in temporal matters but also in spiritual things. As we have noted in the short sketch of the popes of the century, Innocent III. was the first great Italian patriot and original advocate of Italy for the Italians. He constantly opposed the influence of the German Emperor in Italian politics, mainly, of course, because this interfered with the power of the Church, but to a very great degree also because it proved a source of manifold political evil for the Italian cities.

The Germans then, who in the train of the Emperor went down into Italy saw the working of this League of Lombard cities, talked about it on their return, and were naturally tempted to essay what might be accomplished by the same means on German territory. These two elements, the incentive of the crusades and the stimulus of the example of the Italians, must be considered as at the basis of Hansa, though these were only seeds, and it was the nurture and fostering care of the German mind which ever since the days of Tacitus had been noted as the freest in Europe, that gave the League its wonderful development.

It is difficult to tell how many towns belonged to the Hanseatic League during the Thirteenth Century but at the end of this period, Hansa, as it came to be called, was, as we have said, in its most flourishing condition and we know something definite of its numbers a little more than half a century later. In 1367 deputies from all the towns met in the large council chamber of the famous town hall at Cologne to discuss certain injustices that had been committed against the members of the League, or as the document set forth "against the free German merchants," in order to determine some way of preventing further injuries and inflict due punishment. Altogether the deputies of 77 towns were present and declared most solemnly "that because of the wrongs and the injuries done by the King of Denmark to the common German merchant the cities would be his enemies and help one another faithfully." The distant and smaller cities were not expected to send troops or even naval forces but promised to give contributions in money. Such cities as did not take part in this movement were to be considered as having forfeited their membership and would no longer be permitted to trade with the members of Hansa.

Lest it should be thought that the cities were incapable of enforcing any such boycott with effect, the story of the town of Lübeck must be recalled. Lübeck on one occasion refused to join with the other Hansa towns in a boycott of certain places in Flanders which had refused to observe the regulations as to trading. One of these was to the effect that such vessels as were lost on a coast did not become the property of the people of the neighborhood, though they had a right to a due share for salvage, but a fair proportion must be returned to the citizens of the town that suffered the loss. Lübeck was at the moment one of the most powerful commercial cities in Germany, and her citizens seemed to think that they could violate the Hansa regulation with impunity. For 30 years, however, the Hansa boycott was maintained and so little trading was done in the city that according to one old writer "the people starved, the markets were deserted, grass grew in the street and the inhabitants left in large numbers." Such a lesson as this was enough to make the Hanseatic decrees be observed with scrupulous care and shows the perfection of the organization.

The outcome of the war with Denmark demonstrates the power of the league. The King of Denmark is said to have scorned their declaration of war, and making an untranslatable pun on the word "Hansa" called the members of the League "geese who cackled much but need not be feared." The fleet of the League, however, succeeded in shutting off all the commerce of the coast of Denmark and though there was a truce each winter the war was renewed vigorously, and with summer many of the Danish cities were ransacked and plundered. At the end of the second year Denmark was exhausted and the people so weary of war that they pleaded for peace, and Valdemar had to accept the terms which the "geese" were willing to offer him. This triumph of the common people over a reigning monarch is one of the most striking passages in medieval history. It comes about a half century after the close of the Thirteenth, and is evidently the direct result of the great practical forces that were set in movement during that wonderful period, when the mighty heart of humanity was everywhere bestirring men to deeds of high purpose and far-reaching significance.

As a matter of fact, Hansa became, very early in its career, one of the firmest authorities in the midst of these troubled times and meted out unfailingly the sternest justice against those who infringed its rights if they were outsiders, or broke the rules of the League if they were its members. It was ever ready to send its ships against offenders and while it soon came to be feared, this fear was mingled with respect, and its regulations were seldom infringed. It is a most interesting reflection, that as its English Historian says, "never once in the whole course of its history did it draw the sword aggressively or against its own members." While it was ever on the look-out to increase its power by adding new cities to the League, cities were not forced to join and when it meted out punishments to its members this was not by the levying of war but by fines, the refusal to pay these being followed by the "declaration of boycott," which soon brought the offender to terms. War was only declared in all cases as a last resort, and the ships of the League were constantly spoken of and designated in all documents as "peace ships," and even the forts which the League built for the protection of its towns, or as places where its members might be sure of protection, were described as "Peace Burgs."

Unfortunately, the lessons of peace that were thus taught by commerce were not to bear fruit abundantly for many centuries after the Thirteenth. It is practically only in our own time that they have been renewed, and the last generation or two, has rather plumed itself over the fact that trade was doing so much to prevent war. Evidently this is no guarantee of the perpetuation of such an improvement in national or international morals, for the influence of Hansa for peace came to be lost entirely, after a few centuries. The cities themselves, however, that belonged to the League gradually became more and more free, and more independent of their rulers. It was thus, in fact, that the free cities of Germany had their origin, and in them much more of modern liberty was born than has ever been appreciated, except by those whose studies have brought them close to these marvelous medieval manifestations of the old spirit of Teutonic freedom.

The names of most of the cities that were members of the Hansa League are well known, though it is not easy to understand in the decrepitude that has come over many of them, how they could have been of so much importance as has been claimed for them in the Middle Ages. All the cities of the North Sea and the Baltic Sea were united together, and while we think of these as German, many of them really belonged to Slav people at this time, so that the membership of a number of Russian cities is not surprising. While the Rhenish cities were important factors in the League, Cologne indeed being one of the most important, Bremen and Hamburg and both the Frankforts, and Rostock, and Lübeck and Stralsund, and Tangermunde and Warnemunde, were important members. Novgorod was founded by Hansa for the purpose of trading with the Orientals, and the Volga, the Dnieper, the Dwina, and the Oder were extensively used for the purpose of transporting goods here and there in central Europe. One of their most famous towns, Winetha in German, Julin in Danish, disappeared beneath the waters of the Baltic Sea and gave rise to many legends of its reappearance. It is hard to realize that it was so important that it was called the Venice of the North, and was seriously compared with its great southern rival.

A good idea of the intimate relations of the Hansa towns to England and the English people can be obtained from the article on the subject written by Richard Lodge for the Ninth Edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica. A single paragraph of this compresses much of the external and internal history of the "Rise and Development of Hansa." It was rather to be expected that the commercial relations between England and the various cities situated along the North Sea, as well as the Baltic and up the Rhine, would be active and would have to be submitted to careful regulation. Unless the modern mind is actually brought directly in touch, however, with the complex yet very practical state of affairs, which actually existed, it will utterly fail to appreciate how thoroughly progressive and enterprising were these medieval peoples. Enterprise and practicalness we are apt to think of as the exclusive possession of much more modern generations. Least of all would we be apt to consider them as likely to be found in the Thirteenth Century, yet here they are, and the commercial arrangements which were made are as absolute premonitions of our modern thought as were the literature and architecture, the painting, even the teachings of science at the same period.

"The members of this League (Hanseatic) came to England mostly from Cologne, the first German town which obtained great importance both at home and abroad. Its citizens possessed at an early date a guild-hall of their own (in London), and all Germans who wished to trade with England had to join their guild. This soon included merchants from Dortmund, Soest and Munster, in Westphalia; from Utrecht, Stavern and Groningen, in the Netherlands, and from Bremen and Hamburg on the North Sea. But, when at the beginning of the Thirteenth Century, the rapidly rising town of Lübeck wished to be admitted into the guild, every effort was made to keep her out. The intervention of Frederick II. was powerless to overcome the dread felt by Cologne towards a possible rival to its supremacy. But this obstacle to the extension of the League was soon overcome. In 1260 a charter of Henry III. assured protection to all German merchants. A few years later Hamburg and Lübeck also were allowed to form their own guilds. The Hansa of Cologne, which had long been the only guild, now sinks to the position of a branch Hansa, and has to endure others with equal privileges. Over all the branch Hansas rises the "Hansa Alamanniae," first mentioned in 1282.

This article gives additional information with regard to the many and varied influences at work at the end of the Thirteenth Ceiitury. It furnishes in brief, moreover, an excellent picture of the activity of mind and power of organization so frequently displayed during this period in every branch of life. This is after all the highest quality of man. The development of associations of various kinds, especially such as are helpfully purposive, are the outcome of that social quality in man's mind which is the surest index of his rational quality. Succeeding centuries lost for some almost unaccountable reason much of this faculty of organization and the result was a lamentable retrogression from the advances made by older generations, so that it was only in quite recent years that anything like this old international comity was reestablished.

The extent and very natural development of this community of interests must ever attract attention. It is the first time in our modern history that it occurs and men of some seven different races and tongues were at last drawn into it. In this it represents the greatest advance of history, for it led to assimilation of laws and of liberties, with some of the best features of each nation's old-time customs preserved in the new codes. Its extension even to Novgorod. in what is now the heart of Russia is a surprising demonstration of successful enterprise and spread of influence almost incredible. The settling of the trade disputes of this distant Russian City in the courts of a North Sea town, is an evidence of advance in commercial relations emphasized by the write: in the Britannica, that deserves to be well weighed as a manifestation of what is often thought to be the exclusively modern recognition of the rights of comnierce and the claims of justice over even national feelings.

"The league between Lübeck and Hamburg was not the only, and possibly not the first, league among the German towns. But it gradually absorbed all others. Besides the influence of foreign commercial interests there were other motives which compelled the towns to union. The chief of these were the protection of commercial routes both by sea and land, and the vindication of town independence as opposed to claims of the landed aristocracy. The first to join the League were the Wendish towns to the Ease, Wismar, Rostock, Stralsund, etc., which had always been intimately connected with Lübeck, and were united by a common system of laws known as the 'Lübisches Recht' (Lübeck Laws). The Saxon and Westphalian towns had long possessed a league among themselves; they also joined themselves to Lübeck. Lübeck now became the most important town in Germany. It had already surpassed Cologne both in London and Bruges. It soon gained a similar victory over Wishy. At a great convention in which twenty-four towns from Cologne to Revel took part, it was decided that appeals from Novgorod which had hitherto been decided at Wishy should henceforth be brought to Lübeck."

After much travail and vexation of spirit, after much diplomacy and political and parliamentary discussion, after much striving on the part of the men in all nations, who have the great cause of universal peace for mankind at heart, we have reached a position where at least commercial difficulties can be referred to a sort of international court for adjudication. The standing of this court is not very clear as yet. Special arrangements at least are required, if not special treaties in many cases, even for the reference of such merely commercial difficulties as debt-collecting to it. In the last quarter of the Nineteeenth Century special tribunals had to be erected for the settlement of such difficulties between nations. In the Twentieth Century the outlook is more hopeful and the actual accomplishment is indeed encouraging. In the Thirteenth Century with the absence of the telegraph and the cable, with the slowness of sailing vessels and the distance of towns emphasizing all the difficulties of the situation, the Hanseatic League succeeded in obtaining an international tribunal, whose judgments with regard to commercial difficulties were final and were accepted by men of many different races and habits and customs, and to which causes were referred without any of the immense machinery apparently required at the present time.

This is the real triumph of the commercial development of the Thirteenth Century. While it may be astonishing to many modern people to learn how much was accomplished in this utterly unexpected quarter, it will not be a surprise to those who realize the thoroughly practical character of the century and the perfectly matter of fact way in which it went about settling all the difficulties that presented themselves; and how often they succeeded in reaching a very practical if not always ideal solution. The sad feature of the case is to think that most of this coming together of nations was lost by the gradual development of national feeling, much of benefit as there may have been in that for the human race, and by the drawing of the language lines between nations more closely than they had been before, for the next three centuries saw the development of modern tongues into the form which they have held ever since.

Hansa did more than almost any other institution in northern Europe to establish the reign of Law. If it had accomplished no other purpose, this would make it eminently worthy of the study of those who are interested in sociology and social evolution. Before the time of Hansa the merchant by sea or land was liable to all sorts of impositions, arbitrary taxes, injustices, and even the loss of life as well of his goods. As Hansa gained in power however, these abuses disappeared. Perhaps the most noteworthy improvement came with regard to navigation. There is a story told of a famous rock in Brittany on which many ships were wrecked during the Middle Ages. Even as late as the Thirteenth Century sometimes false lights were displayed on this rock with the idea of tempting vessels to their destruction on it. Everything that was thrown ashore in the neighborhood was considered to be the property of the people who gathered it, except that a certain portion of its value had to be paid to the Lord of the Manor. This worthy representative of the upper classes is said to have pointed out the rock to some visiting nobleman friends one day, and declared that it was more precious to him than the most precious stone in the diadem of any ruling monarch in Europe. This represents the state of feeling with regard to such subjects when Hansa started in to correct the abuses.

It may be looked upon as a serious disgrace to the Thirteenth Century that such a low state of ethical feeling should have existed, but it is the amelioration of conditions which obliterated such false sentiments that constitutes the triumph of the period. On the other hand we must not with smug self-complacency think that our generation is so much better than those of the past. It is easy to be pharisaical while we forget that many a fortune in modern times suffers shipwreck on the coasts of business and investment, because the false lights of advertising intended to deceive, are displayed very prominently, for those who are only anxious as were the mariners of the olden times to make their fortunes. Doubtless too the proprietors of many of the papers which display such advertisements, and it is nonsense to say that they are unconscious of the harm they do, are quite as proud of the magnificent revenue that their advertising columns bring to them as was the Breton noble of the Thirteenth Century. Man has not changed much in the interval.

Lest it should be thought that even the present-day initiation into secret societies of various kinds is the invention of modern times, it seems well to give some of the details of the tests through which those seeking to be members of the Hanseatic League were subjected, by those who were already initiated. It may possibly seem that some of these customs were too barbarous to mention in the same breath with the present-day initiations, but if it is recalled that at least once a year some serious accident is reported as the result of the thoughtless fooling of "frat" students at our universities, this opinion may be withdrawn. Miss Helen Zimmern in her story of the Hansa Towns already quoted several times, has a paragraph or two of descriptions of these that we shall quote. It may be well to remember that these tests were not entirely without a serious significance for the members of the Hansa. Much was expected of those who belonged to the Hansa Guild. A number of precious trade secrets were entrusted them, and they alone knew the methods and mysteries of Hansa. In order that these might not by any possibility be betrayed, the members of Hansa who lived in foreign countries were forbidden to marry while abroad and were bound under the severest penalties to live a life of celibacy. They were not supposed to be absent from the houses assigned to them during the night, and their factories so called, or common-places of residence, were guarded by night watchman and fierce dogs in order to secure the keeping of these rules.

Besides torture was a very common thing in those times and a man who belonged to a country that happened to be at war for the moment, might very easily be subjected to torture for some reason or another with the idea of securing important information from him. If the members of Hansa wanted to be reasonably assured that new members would not give up their secrets without a brave struggle, they had no better way than by these tests, for which there was therefore some excuse. As to the brutality of the tests perhaps Miss Zimmern in maidenly way has said too much. We commend her paragraphs to the modern committees of reception of college secret societies, because here as elsewhere this generation may get points from the Thirteenth Century.

"We cannot sully our pages by detailing the thirteen different games or modes of martyrdom that were in use at Bergen. Our more civilized age could not tolerate the recital. In those days they attracted a crowd of eager spectators who applauded the more vociferously the more cruel and barbarous the tortures. The most popular were those practices known as the smoke, water and flogging games; mad, cruel pranks calculated to cause a freshman to lose health and reason. Truly Dantesque hell tortures were these initiations into Hansa mysteries. Merely to indicate their nature we will mention that for the smoke game the victim was pulled up the big chimney of the Schutting while there burned beneath him the most filthy materials, sending up a most nauseous stench and choking wreaths of smoke. While in this position he was asked a number of questions, to which he was forced, under yet more terrible penalties, to reply. If he survived his torture he was taken out into the yard and plied under the pump with six tons of water." (Even the "Water Cure" is not new).

There was a variety about the tests at different times and places that show no lack of invention on the part of the members of Hansa. With regard to other water tests Miss Zimmern has furnished some interesting details:

"The 'water' game that took place at Whitsuntide consisted in first treating the probationer to food, and then taking him out to sea in a boat. Here he was stripped thrown into the ocean, ducked three times, made to swallow much sea-water, and thereafter mercilessly flogged by all the inmates of the boats. The third chief game was no less dangerous to life and limb. It took place a few days after, and was a rude perversion of the May games. The victims had first to go out into the woods to gather the branches with which later they were to be birched. Returned to the factory, rough horse play pranks were practised upon them. Then followed an ample dinner, which was succeeded by mock combats, and ended in the victims being led into the so-called Paradise, where twenty-four disguised men whipped them till they drew blood, while outside this black hole another party made hellish music with pipes, drums and triangles to deafen the screams of the tortured. The 'game' was considered ended when the shrieks of the victims were sufficiently loud to overcome the pandemonic music." Some of the extreme physical cruelties of the initiations our modern fraternities have eliminated, but the whole story has a much more familiar air than we might have expected.

Probably the most interesting feature, of the history of the Hanseatic League is the fact that this great combination for purposes of trade and commerce proved a source of liberty for the citizens of the various towns, and enabled them to improve their political status better than any other single means at this precious time of development of legal and social rights. This is all the more interesting because great commercial combinations with similar purposes in modern times have usually proved fruitful rather of opposite results. A few persons have been very much benefited by them, or at least have made much money by them, which is quite another thing, though money is supposed to represent power and influence, but the great mass of the people have been deprived of opportunities to rise and have had taken from them many chances for the exercise of initiative that existed before.

There is a curious effect of Hansa upon the political fortunes of the people of the cities that were members of the League which deserves to be carefully studied. As with regard to so many other improvements that have come in the history of the race, it was not a question so much of the recognition of great principles as of money and revenues that proved the origin of amelioration of civic conditions. These commercial cities accumulated wealth. Money was necessary for their rulers for the maintenance of their power and above all for the waging of war. In return for moneys given for such purposes the cities claimed for the inhabitants and were granted many privileges. These became perpetuated and as time went on were added to as new opportunities for the collection of additional revenues occurred, until finally an important set of fundamental rights with documentary confirmation were in the hands of the city authorities. One would like to think that this state of affairs developed as the result of the recognition on the part of the ruling sovereign, of the benefits that were conferred on his realm by having in it, or associated with it, an important trading city whose enterprising citizens gave occupation to many hands. This was very rarely the case, however, but as was true of the legal rights obtained by England's citizens during the Thirteenth Century, it was largely a question of the coordination of taxation and legislative representation and the consequent attainment of privileges.

The most important effect on the life of Europe and the growth of civilization that the Hanseatic League exerted, was its success in showing that people of many different nations and races, living under very different circumstances, might still be united under similar laws that would enable them to accomplish certain objects which they had in view. Germans, Slavs and English learned to live in one another's towns and while observing the customs of these various places maintained the privileges of their homes. The mutual influence of these people on one another, many of them being the most practical and enterprising individuals of the time, could scarcely fail to produce noteworthy effects in broadening the minds of those with whom they came in contact. It is to this period that we must trace the beginnings of international law. Hansa showed the world how much commercial relations were facilitated by uniform laws and by just treatment of even the citizens of foreign countries. It is to commerce that we owe the first recognition of the rights of the people of other countries even in time of war. If the Hanseatic League had done nothing else but this, it must be considered as an important factor in the development of our modern civilization and an element of influence great as any other in this wonderful century.

{1} Perhaps no better idea of the obscurity of the origin of the Hansa confederation can be given, than is to be derived from the fact that even the derivation of the word Hansa is not very clear. Bishop Ulfilas in his old Gothic translation of the Scriptures used the word "hansa" to designate the mob of soldiers and servants of the High Priest who came to take Christ prisoner in the Garden. Later on the word Hansa was used to mean a tax or a contribution. This term was originally employed to designate the sum of money which each of the cities was compelled to pay on becoming a member of the league, and it is thought to be from this that the terms Hansa and Hanseatic League were eventually derived.

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