Renaissance and Reformation Hanseatic League
Alexander Cowan
  • LAST REVIEWED: 10 May 2010
  • LAST MODIFIED: 10 May 2010
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195399301-0049


The Hanseatic League (or Hansa), the collective association of ports along the southern Baltic and North Sea coasts that developed in the middle of the 12th century, was one of the key economic and political organizations of medieval and Renaissance Europe. Its official existence is generally held to have dated from 1356, when the first meeting of the Hansetag took place in Lübeck, but its roots are much older and lie in the attempts by merchants from groups of German cities to negotiate trading privileges elsewhere. The Hansa remained an important collective force until the 16th century and retained its institutions and common cultural forms for much longer. The main outlines of its organization and history were first established following the foundation of the German Empire in 1870, and little in more recent historiography has altered the general view that the seeds of its decline were to be found in the changing conditions of the 15th and early 16th centuries. During the Cold War, two competing historiographical models of Hanseatic history developed in the two Germanies, and some valuable work was carried out in the East. More recent studies have focused on four main themes: the organization of the Hansa, relations with different European regions, the Hansa in the early modern period, and Hanseatic culture. Research into individual member-cities of the Hansa has also blossomed. An understanding of the League is enriched in particular by studies of Bremen, Hamburg, Lübeck, and Danzig/Gdansk. The broad range of languages in which these studies have been published reflects the international interest in the Hanseatic League. Only a minority are accessible to Anglophone readers. The Hanseatic League is also featured in most histories of medieval and Renaissance Europe and more specialist studies of the Baltic and Scandinavia.

General Overviews

Dollinger 1970 is the starting point for all interested in the history of the Hanseatic League. It is complemented by the much shorter German-language survey Hammel-Kiesow and Puhle 2009. Both cover the rise of the League, its organization and evolution, and the reasons why it lost power. More specialized studies cover the organization of the League from the 14th to the 17th centuries (Henn 1993, Pitz 2001, Schipmann 2004), its foreign policy as a naval power (Widner 2001), its merchants (Hammel-Kiesow 2008), and the role of Lübeck as its unofficial leader (Stoob 1985).

  • Dollinger, Philippe. The German Hansa. Translated by D. S. Ault and S. H. Steinberg. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1970.

    This study by a French scholar, originally published as La Hanse (XIIe–XVIIe siècles), in 1964 (Paris: Aubier), remains the most accessible overview of the history of the Hanseatic League from the 12th to the 17th centuries. The basic starting point for the field. The German translation, Die Hanse (Stuttgart, Germany: Kröner, 1998), is now in its fifth edition.

  • Hammel-Kiesow, Rolf. “Schriftlichkeit und Hanselsgesellschaften niederdeutsch-hansischer und oberdeutscher Kaufleute im späten 13. und im 14. Jahrhundert.” In Von Nowgorod bis London: Studien zu Handel, Wirtschaft und Gesellschaft im mittelalterlichen Europa; Festschrift für Stuart Jenks zum 60. Geburtstag. Edited by Marie-Luise Heckmann and Jens Röhrkasten, 213–242. Göttingen, Germany: Vandenhoeck and Ruprecht, 2008.

    A comparative discussion of literacy and trading practices among Hanseatic and south German merchants in the late 13th and 14th centuries, which demonstrates the widespread existence and influence of literacy among the Hansa and contests the older view that Hanseatic literacy levels lagged behind those of their medieval contemporaries. South Germans used Hanseatic bookkeeping practices until the 15th century.

  • Hammel-Kiesow, Rolf, and Matthias Puhle. Die Hanse. Darmstadt, Germany: Primus, 2009.

    A brief review of recent historiography. It covers the rise of the Hansa, its organization and evolution, and the factors behind the dissolution of the League. Accessible approach for readers of German.

  • Henn, Volker. “Innerhansische Kommunikations- und Raumstrukturen: Umrisse einer neueren Forschungsaufgabe?” In Der hansische Sonderweg? Beiträge zur Sozial- und Wirtschaftsgeschichte der Hanse. Edited by Stuart Jenks and Michael North, 255–268. Cologne, Germany: Böhlau, 1993.

    An attempt to examine the history of the Hansa afresh from the perspective of communications between different members of the League.

  • Pitz, Ernst. Bürgereinung und Städteeinung: Studien zur Verfassungsgeschichte der Hansestädte und der deutschen Hanse. Cologne, Germany: Böhlau, 2001.

    A study of the constitutional history of the Hanseatic League and its members that offers a new interpretation of the extent to which the League was more than the sum of its parts. Ranges through the late medieval and early modern periods.

  • Schipmann, Johannes Ludwig. Politische Kommunikation in der Hanse (1550–1621): Hansetage und westfälische Städte. Cologne, Germany: Böhlau, 2004.

    Reviews the history of the Westphalian towns’ participation in the Hansetag, the League’s ruling body, during its later years.

  • Stoob, Heinz. “Lübeck als ‘Caput Omnium’ in der Hanse.” Blätter für Deutsche Landesgeschichte 121 (1985): 157–168.

    A discussion of Lübeck’s role as the unofficial head of the Hanseatic League through its history and the unsuccessful attempts by Cologne to take its place.

  • Widner, Matthias. Die Hanse und ihre Seekriege. Munich: GRIN, 2001.

    Emphasizes the role of the Hanseatic League as a political power through a study of its naval campaigns against rivals in the Baltic and the North Sea.

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