Origins of European Maritime History in the Early Modern Period: The Hanseatic League

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A 0.8 ounce copper alloy weight dating from the post-medieval period. It displays a green patina. One side of the weight has a worn 1 with a crown above it, while the reverse side sports a double-headed eagle, the traditional symbol of the Hanseatic League.

The Hanseatic League (or Hansa) was a mercantile organization founded by traders and merchants from Northern Europe in the thirteenth century. It dominated trade in the region between the Netherlands and Poland and imposed monopolies on many of the most important exports from the region including fish and wool. It also brought tremendous wealth and power to Northern cities such as Hamburg that are often overlooked during the Medieval period and the Mediterranean Renaissance (Wiesner-Hanks, 21). This was one of the first examples of large-scale trading organizations that led to a more connected European economy and wide-spread trade that came to characterize the early modern period. Perhaps most significantly, it represents the level of organization in Northern Europe and its ability to control and promote the important industries of the North counter the common belief of a Southern European dominance during the late medieval and Renaissance eras. Northern Europe was clearly connected to large trading networks through their many ports and their ability to ship their abundant natural resources on the waterways.

    While the Hansa’s importance petered out in the 16th century, this type of mercantile organization and large-scale trading network endured as one of the building blocks of the early modern maritime economy (Wiesner-Hanks, 21). It foreshadowed the rise of companies like the Dutch East India company that operated on a much wider scale. It also foretold the rise of Northern Europe as the economic heart of Europe later in the 18th and 19th centuries. The end of the middle ages and the beginning of the early modern period marked a shift from the dominance of the Mediterranean as the main route for shipping and commercial production, into a focus on the Atlantic world that characterized the age of exploration and conquest (Wiesner-Hanks, 241).

Origins of European Maritime History in the Early Modern Period: The Hanseatic League