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I have spent a good part of the last two weeks studying the Hanseatic League. This was a quite fascinating organisation in which a number of north German towns and cities built a loose, and then, more formal structure around trading in the Baltic and the North Atlantic. They were a major force from the 12th until the 16th century and changed that part of the world from one of bandits to one of traders.
The trading Guilds of the region progressively freed themselves from the control of both the Kings and of the Church to establish what might be termed a middle class organisation built on manufacture and trade. The town of Lubeck placed as it was with access to Baltic trade routes became the natural headquarters and around 200 towns from throughout northern Europe signed up. Outposts were established in Novgorod in Russia, Bergen in Norway, London and Bruges, with even a small office as far away as Aberdeen in Scotland.
Important materials traded included furs, leather, hemp and timber from Russia, herring from southern Sweden, cod from Bergen and wool and cloth from London. Always quite fluid in its structure, the Hanseatic League did move to establish both rules and a military force to secure its routes. They built great churches, designed a superb ship - the Hanseatic Cog, perfect for big cargoes in the regional waters, and installed intricate astronomical clocks which told you time, date, holidays, phases of the moon, sunrise and sunset and what taxes you should pay. The clocks played music too, rather like a medieval iPhone!
The importance of Russian leather at this time is one good reason for us to be interested, as well as the fame of the Germans as great shoemakers, attracting investment from all round the area. Yet, there are two other aspects worthy of consideration. First, the system was established to create a monopoly and remove the freedom of countries to trade directly and freely with each other. So as soon as the added value of using the Hansa declined, members and non-members alike were looking for ways to work round the system. This is interesting today, where after a long period of markets opening up, we are seeing more and more raw material markets closing, and with it, rising illegality and smuggling. Banning raw exports to support a nascent industry is one thing, doing it in the long term is quite another.
Secondly, the Hansa Cities became so preoccupied with their own Baltic area that they missed the big changes going on in the world around them. Most importantly, they overlooked the discovery that the world was round, and that the Netherlands, Spain and England were building better ships to trade on a larger scale in other parts of the world. They also missed the fact that a lot of their key goods had lost value as a result of societal changes such as the reformation. The move away from Catholicism reduced the need for herring and wax is one example of many.
Nothing new, you may say, and that is exactly the point. It was a well-made in 307 BC by King Wu-ling from north east China when he said “A talent for following the ways of yesterday is not sufficient to improve the world of today”.
Which makes a final point that for most of history the regions that are connected to what we call the Silk Road have actually been the most advanced in the world, and it looks as though they might be regaining their predominance once more.
8th June 2016
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