In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Hamburg, 1350–1815

  • Introduction
  • General History
  • Topography and Architecture
  • Political Order and Political Culture
  • Enlightenment and Education
  • Music, Opera, and Theater

Renaissance and Reformation Hamburg, 1350–1815
Frank Hatje
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 May 2020
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195399301-0445


Originally, Hamburg was a borough around the cathedral of the archbishops of Hamburg-Bremen and a mercantile port city founded by the counts of Holsatia. In the 13th century both towns were united, given privileges supporting port and trade, and granted an ample political autonomy. As a member of the Hanseatic League, the city grew economically and demographically, particularly when Dutch and Sephardic refugees transferred their capital, know-how, and commercial networks after the fall of Antwerp in 1585. By that time, Hamburg’s merchants had already begun to link the markets around the Baltic and North Seas with the Iberian Peninsula and the Mediterranean. The extraordinary upturn around 1600 is evidenced by a rapid population growth and the huge sums that were spent on public buildings, which reflected Dutch influence, like the fortification and a number of welfare institutions as well as the stock exchange and the bank which turned Hamburg into an international hub of finance and trade ranking next to Amsterdam and London. During the 18th century her port became one of the most important emporia for French colonial goods until the 1790s, when the effects of the revolutionary wars made it crucial for British (re-)exportation to central Europe. The economic development was supported by Hamburg’s extraordinary constitutional setting. In 1618, the city’s status as a Free Imperial City was confirmed, whereas the kings of Denmark relinquished their claims on the city not until 1768, which resulted in strict neutrality policies of an independently acting city state whose rather exceptional republican constitution had been agreed upon by magistrate and citizens’ assembly in 1529, together with adopting the Reformation. Hamburg’s “state church” became a stronghold of orthodox Lutheranism. Since late 17th century, religious pluralism spread and Hamburg became one of the centers of the Enlightenment in the German-speaking lands, not least fostered by its republican political and civic culture. While the French revolution was hailed among the city’s elites, the effects of the French occupation in 1806 and the integration into the Napoleonic Empire in 1811 cooled down any enthusiasm. Although this nourished a considerable current of national patriotism, politics as well as civic identity resulted from the patriotic self-consciousness of a sovereign, independent city state trading with the rest of the world.

General History

A general overview touching all relevant issues from the early Middle Ages until 1870 is provided in Jochmann and Loose 1982. Although the volume has never been updated, it is still reliable in giving a comprehensive orientation. Meanwhile particularly early modern Hamburg has attracted the attention of historians. The exceptional political, economic, social, and cultural situation of the city during the Thirty Years’ War is dealt with in Knauer and Tode 2000. Lindemann 2015 analyzes the political culture against the background of early modern republicanism and a predominant commercial ethos covering the history from mid-17th to the end of the 18th century. Utterly indispensable for 18th-century Hamburg is Kopitzsch 1990. For Kopitzsch does not only portray the city as a center of German Enlightenment, but also the development of its political, economic, and social structures in great detail. The era of the French Revolution and Napoleon is studied in a likewise all-embracing manner in Schmidt 1998 and Aaslestad 2005. While Schmidt focuses on the political and economic structures, events, and developments under the impact of the Revolutionary Wars and the French occupation, Aaslestad highlights the shifts in political and civic culture and public discourse from a republican patriotism toward a nationalistically tinged politicization. Unlike Schmidt, Aaslestad also deals with the Wars of Liberation. Whoever looks for concise information on personalities involved or peculiarities playing a role in the history of Hamburg will find Brietzke and Kopitzsch 2012 as helpful as Kopitzsch and Tilgner 2010. Both Klessmann 2002 and Jefferies 2011 provide an overall history of the city.

  • Aaslestad, Katherine B. Place and Politics: Local Identity, Civic Culture, and German Nationalism in North Germany during the Revolutionary Era. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 2005.

    Drawing on public discourse represented by periodicals, broadsheets, and ego-documents. At the same time highly recommendable as an introduction.

  • Brietzke, Dirk, and Franklin Kopitzsch, eds. Hamburgische Biografie. Vol. 6. Göttingen, Germany: Wallstein, 2012.

    Biographical encyclopedia. This latest volume contains a general index which gives an easy access to the previously published five volumes, each running from A to Z.

  • Jefferies, Matthew. Hamburg: A Cultural and Literary History. Oxford: Signal Books, 2011.

    A short but pointed history of the city focusing on architecture and culture.

  • Jochmann, Werner, and Hans-Dieter Loose, eds. Hamburg. Geschichte der Stadt und ihrer Bewohner. Vol. 1, Von den Anfängen bis zur Reichsgründung. Hamburg, Germany: Hoffmann und Campe, 1982.

    A comprehensive introduction and still a good starting point.

  • Klessmann, Eckart, Geschichte der Stadt Hamburg. New ed. Hamburg, Germany: Die Hanse, 2002.

    A comprehensive general history written for a wide public, but also an excellent introduction for all levels of academic studies.

  • Knauer, Martin, and Sven Tode, eds. Der Krieg vor den Toren. Hamburg im Dreißigjährigen Krieg 1618–1648. Hamburg, Germany: Verlag Verein für Hamburgische Geschichte, 2000.

    The eighteen articles of this volume cover the whole array of topics related to the city during the Thirty Years’ War from topography, the repercussions of warfare and its contemporary interpretations to Hamburg’s role in international trade and finance.

  • Kopitzsch, Franklin. Grundzüge einer Sozialgeschichte der Aufklärung in Hamburg und Altona. 2d ed. Hamburg, Germany: Verlag Verein für Hamburgische Geschichte, 1990.

    The standard social history of the city state’s elites with particular emphasis on the impact of the enlightenment on innovative reform issues, unexcelled in detailed research.

  • Kopitzsch, Franklin, and Daniel Tilgner, eds. Hamburg-Lexikon. 4th ed. Hamburg, Germany: Ellert und Richter, 2010.

    Encyclopedia containing any kind of information in historical perspective.

  • Lindemann, Mary. The Merchant Republics Amsterdam, Antwerp, and Hamburg, 1648–1790. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2015.

    Dealing with republicanism and self-images of the mercantile classes as well as political management and business practices, the chapters on Hamburg represent the most instructive and best-informed interpretation of the city’s dominant features in the 17th and 18th centuries in English.

  • Schmidt, Burghart. Hamburg im Zeitalter der Französischen Revolution und Napoleons (1789–1813). 2 vols. Hamburg, Germany: Verlag Verein für Hamburgische Geschichte, 1998.

    A detailed presentation of the political, economic, and social history of Hamburg in the context of international relations, particularly those with France, based on profound archival research.

back to top

Users without a subscription are not able to see the full content on this page. Please subscribe or login.

How to Subscribe

Oxford Bibliographies Online is available by subscription and perpetual access to institutions. For more information or to contact an Oxford Sales Representative click here.