Re-Run: The First Common Market?

Bruges. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress

My Own True Love and I leave next week for Belgium and my thoughts are turning toward Waterloo, Flanders Field, and the Hanseatic League.* Especially the Hanseatic League.

I’m fascinated by traveling merchants, from the Silk Road caravans that brought luxury goods from China and India to the Muslim peddlers who sold dry goods and notions to farm wives in the upper Midwest in the nineteenth century.** Part of it’s the romance of the thing: desert caravans, clipper ships and gypsy-style wagons. Part of it is the hardheaded economics of who bought what from where.

In many ways, the Hanseatic League can be seen as Europe’s first attempt at a Common Market. In the twelfth century, the European economic world was expanding. Increased agricultural productivity allowed more people to work at something other than farming, creating surplus goods for sale and a need for raw materials. (This is the same thing that made the Crusades possible. Cool, huh? The way different bits of history link together like that?) At the same time, the Teutonic Knights, a fighting monastic order interested in conversion and conquest (or possibly conquest and conversion), invaded the Slavic lands to the east. They established a network of fortified bases along the Baltic Sea that became new towns with markets where foreign goods could be bought and sold.

Being a merchant was dangerous work. By land, you had to worry about armed brigands and raiding militias. By sea, you were in danger from storms as well as pirates and their legally sanctioned cousins, privateers. Merchants from the newly formed cities of the Baltic began to join together into informal associations (hansas) to make long-distance trading safer.

They soon learned that working together not only brought greater safety at sea, it also made it easier to negotiate in the foreign towns with which they traded. (Collective bargaining, anyone?) Loose associations grew into merchant companies and guilds. By the end of the thirteenth century, Hanseatic merchants had built a trading network that stretched from Bergen (Norway) in the north, to Novgorod (Russia) in the East, and London (you know this one, right?) and Bruges (modern Belgium!!) in the west.

Hanseatic merchants were intermediaries between the workshops of Western Europe and the forests of Eastern Europe. They brought salt from the mines at Kiel to the herring fisheries of the Baltic. They exchanged cloth from Flanders, wool from England, and metalwork from Westphalia for furs, timber, wax, grain, and amber from Russia. They traded in salted fish from Scandia, wine from the Rhineland, copper and iron ore from Sweden and beer from north Germany, once Hamburg brewers figured out that adding hops would stabilize their product for transportation.

The Hanseatic League dominated northern Europe until the mid-sixteenth century, when they were elbowed aside by England and the Netherlands, whose merchants had larger, more seaworthy ships and a free-trade philosophy that made them welcome in foreign markets.

Bruges and Antwerp, here we come!


*Not to mention chocolates, waffles, beer and pommes frites.

** Yes, you read that right. Muslim peddlers in rural Iowa in the 1890s. A story for another day.

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