Sunday, 3 August 2014

The German Hansa

I have finally got around to reading "The German Hansa" (1999). This was originally written in French as "La Hanse" by Phillipe Dollinger, translated into German, retranslated with updates and amendments from the German edition for Macmillan, and latterly republished by Routledge Kegan Paul as the first volume of their series "The Emergence of International Business 1200-1800". That all sounds rather heavy, and indeed the (to my mind) Marx-influenced introduction by Mark Casson is even heavier, but I find it a fascinating history on many levels.

It had seemed to me that the Hansa was an organisation which demonstrated that it was possible for a cross-Europe trading organisation, which set its own standards, to exist independently of nation states without infringing the governance of those states. Having read most of the book, I realise that the Hansa was not a proto-EU, but there probably are lessons for the future of Europe in its story.

The Hansa flourished from around 1150 to the 1400s, before declining during the 16th and 17th centuries. It began as an association of north German merchants, grabbing trade from first the Frisians and then the Scandinavians and developed into a community of cities, with outposts far and wide including London, Boston, Edinburgh and Hull. It seems to have thrived in a period when the city state was the principal unit of secular government in the region, before the rise of German nationalism. (Misha Glenny dates the start of the latter to the Sack of Magdeburg in 1630-31.)

The book also gives one a continental perspective on English history. One sees the great Edward III in a new light when reading that under his reign:
German loans became important. To go to war with France the king needed large sums of money. His principal creditors were English or Italian, but he did not disdain to appeal for financial help to the Hanseatics. [...] In 1338 he borrowed £1,200 from four Dortmund merchants [...], £750 from four Cologne merchants. A little later he borrowed various sums, in one case £5,000 from some Dortmund merchants. 
and after he had pledged his great crown and the queen's little crown to other Rheinlanders for similar sums of money, he was grateful to a Westphalian consortium of merchants for redeeming the regalia, which otherwise seem likely to have been sold by the impatient creditors. It is not surprising that the Hansa was granted many privileges in London.

There are linguistic byways. The term "steelyard", applied to the Hansa's Kontor or enclave in London, does not derive from the alloy.  It is the English version of Stalhof, Hof meaning court or yard and Stal a place where goods are offered for sale. The surnames Sutermeister and Sutomayor whose similarity intrigued me for many years, apparently derive from a word meaning "salt magnate".

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