Hanseatic or Hansa/Hanse, is derived from an Old High German word meaning guild, association, or union.
The original Hanseatic League was a mercantile alliance of about 80 trading cities and their merchant guilds. The League founded and governed a trade cartel amongst cities along the coast of Northern Europe and inland trade routes from the 12th through the mid-17th century. Their reach extended along the Baltic Sea
Shipping and trade routes were often hazardous due to raiding parties and pirates, so there was safety in numbers. Merchants would often travel together and combine resources to hire mercenaries as guards for the journey.
The original founding of the League came about in 1241 between Hamburg and Lübeck in Germany. Since Europe was primarily Christian, meat could not be eaten on Fridays and many other days of the year due to Church sanctions. Lübeck’s chief industry was fishing but without modern refrigeration there was no way to transport the fish to other markets for sale. Hamburg, on the other hand had access to salt quarried from the nearby mines in Kiel. The salt preserved the fish and made it possible for the merchants in Lübeck to export their supply of fish to other markets, so it was mutually advantageous for these two cities to enter into a trade agreement. As other cities and merchant guilds formed similar trade agreements or became members of existing ones, the economic power of the Hanseatic League strengthened.
The member cities of the League created their own laws and court system to settle member’s disputes and provided their own protection as well as mutual aid for member cities. Along with this new economic power also came the political clout to deal with offenders by boycotting their trade fairs and not importing or exporting their goods and services.
Cities that were large ports of call had a Hanseatic League office complex or Kontor as they were called, consisting of a counting house (accounting/inventory), administration office, warehouses and often employee housing along with League owned docks. Lübeck was the capital of the League and almost all trade in the Baltic went through this Kontor. These administration offices were also counting houses which took in fees, stored goods in warehouses and basically were the regional corporate offices of the group.
Many other cities along their trade routes had Kontors as well, but the main Kontors were located in:
- Lübeck, Germany
- Bergen, Norway
- Visby, on the Baltic Island of Gotland
- Novgorod, Russia
- Bruges, Flanders
- London, England
The main commodities the League members dealt in were salted cod and herring; wool and linen; wheat and barley; furs, spices, lumber, and minerals. Craftsmen, artisans and others often paid to join a caravan to safely reach their destination.