OREALD.COM - An Old Electronic Library
eng: a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p q r s t u v w x y z

Medieval Civilisation: Rise of Towns; the Hansa League; Decay of Feudalism; Art; Invention; the Renaissance or Revival of Learni

Medieval history. From end of western empire to the discovery of America (a.d. 476-1492). From the Crusade Period to the Discovery of America (a.d. 1270-1492).
Pages: <1> 2 3

Of the rise of towns, and the leagues or federations of cities for defence against tyrannical sovereigns and disorderly nobles, we have already seen something in the history of Germany and Italy. By far the most important and long-enduring of these associations was that known as the Hanseatic League, or Hansa, an organisation of cities in the north of Germany and the neighbouring states for commercial purposes, but one which thereby attained great political importance. Piracy on the sea, robbery on land, illegal exactions from king and baron, were the foes of mediaeval commerce, and against all these the Hanse towns waged unrelenting war. The other purposes of the confederation, whose precise date and circumstances of origin are unknown, included the control of the market for goods, and the maintenance of a monopoly for its own members. The name of Hansa, meaning "a society," "union," first appears in 1241; but even so early as the reign of Ethelred II. in England, we find an allusion in the law-books, in 978, to "the people of the Emperor" in London, meaning the German merchants (called "traders of Almaine" - i.e. Allemagne, Germany - in a charter of Henry III.) who were doing business on the banks of the Thames. Traders from Cologne and other German towns, with special privileges, had a "factory," in the sense of a goods-depot in a foreign country, on the north bank of the Thames, a little above London Bridge, called "The Steelyard," from the great balance for the weighing of goods. The wealth of the guild became such that Edward III. borrowed money from them for his French campaigns, and his crown and most valuable jewels were long kept in pawn at Cologne. The Baltic Sea was the earliest, and for ages the greatest, scene of activity for the merchants of the Hansa League. The mainspring of prosperity for traders in that region was the herring, one of the most prolific fish, which then frequented the Baltic shores in vast numbers. The "Easterlings," as the Hansa traders were called in distinction from merchants of southern Europe, bought from the fishermen the commodity which was in so great demand at a time when all Europe was of the Roman or of the Greek Church, both devoted to the strict observance of numerous fasts. The chief resorts of the herrings were the shores of Scania (southern Sweden), the seas around the isle of Rugen, and the coasts of Pomerania, and an early centre of Hanseatic trade was Wisby, on the north-west coast of the Swedish island of Gothland. From the 10th to the 14th centuries this place was one of the most important commercial cities of Europe, and its former prosperity is still attested by the almost intact walls and towers, and especially by the well-kept remains of ten churches, built in the 11th and 12th centuries, of great interest as specimens of early Gothic architecture. Numbers of Roman, Byzantine, early English, and German coins are still found in the soil of the island.

Wisby was the mother-city of the great Hanseatic settlement at Novgorod, near Lake Ilmen, in Russia, a city which, with the territory around it, was then an independent republic in the midst of various Tartar (Mongol) "khanates," or principalities. The place was a centre for Arctic and Byzantine trade, and the Hansa merchants made their way thence by waterways as far as Smolensk, and farther still by the roads due to the Teutonic Knights holding sway in Pomerania and Livonia. From Russia the traders exported wax, leather, skins, tallow, and other products, in return for the strong beer brewed in northern Germany, with woollen and linen cloth, and metal-work of various kinds. From Sweden the Hansa League exported copper, iron, timber, potash, pitch, tar, granite, and limestone. Danzig, an important town even in the 10th century, had a great commerce with England, whose crossbowmen received from Austria, by way of that Baltic port, all the yew for their bows. The head of the League was Lubeck, on the river Trave, 12 miles from the Baltic, founded by Saxons in 1143, receiving a charter from Henry "the Lion," duke of Saxony, and being greatly aided by Frederick Barbarossa and Frederick II. of Germany. This great city, having special control of Wisby in her palmy days, was at one time the commercial metropolis of the Baltic and northern Europe, wisely ruled by a council of men selected from the great mercantile families. There were great Hanseatic depots also at Bruges in Flanders and Bergen in Norway. Hamburg, founded in 808 by Karl the Great, became a commercial town, with privileges from the emperor, including a separate judicial system and exemption from customs-dues, towards the end of the 12th century. Fifty years later this city and Lubeck were the main founders of the Hanseatic League, and Hamburg was closely connected with Bremen, a place of early commercial note, and a leading Hansa city. Riga, founded in 1201 by the bishop of Livonia, soon became a great place of trade, and a member of the League. In all, the Hansa confederation, at the height of its renown, included over fourscore towns, on the coast and inland, from Novgorod to Amsterdam and from Cologne to Cracow. In political affairs the Hanseatic towns usually observed neutrality, their chief aim being a monopoly of trade, and in warlike matters they acted on the defensive. Difficulties with princes and states were settled generally by means of shrewd diplomacy and by prudent gifts or tribute, but when the League was assailed with violent injustice, it showed that it could strike straight and hard. It had an early foe in Denmark, a country commanding the sea-passage to the Baltic by the Belt and the Sound, and thus capable of giving trouble to the chief Hansa trade. In 1227 the towns gained a victory over the Danes, on land, at Bornhoved, and in 1249 Lubeck, with scarcely any outside aid, severely defeated Eric II. at sea, and took and plundered Copenhagen. Waldemar, king of Denmark, in 1361, after interfering with the Hansa fishing-rights off Sweden, and breaking contracts made by his predecessors and himself, committed a gross outrage in suddenly invading Gothland, where his forces seized and plundered Wisby. This stroke was too much to be borne, and the League at once prepared for war. An embargo was laid on all Danish goods in the Baltic towns; the alliance of Sweden and Norway was obtained; and a fleet was made ready. In May, 1362, their ships appeared in the Sound, and Copenhagen was again taken and sacked. The rashness and negligence of the Hansa commander caused the loss of most of his fleet, surprised by Waldemar while the enemy were engaged in a land-siege. The hapless leader, after a year's imprisonment, was beheaded at Lubeck as a punishment for his error, and the cities then made a truce with the Danish king. Waldemar, however, again made wanton attacks on the Baltic commerce, and in 1367 the League strengthened its constitution, in a meeting of deputies held at Cologne, representing 77 towns, by a solemn undertaking to be common enemies of the Danish king, and by an Act which became the fundamental basis of union. Waldemar grew alarmed when he found his foes, joined by many princes and barons, setting up a rival monarch in Sweden, and threatening to dismember Denmark. In April, 1368, the Hansa ships were to meet in the Sound for an attack on Zealand, when news came that the Danish sovereign had fled, leaving a viceroy to do his best. The war went on for two years, during which the forces of the federated towns did what they pleased, amply avenging the ruin of Wisby by ravaging the Danish coasts, with the sacking of cities and the gathering of abundant spoil. At the end of that time, Waldemar, returning from the eastern Baltic lands, humbly sued for peace, and received, by the Treaty of Stralsund, in 1370, humiliating terms. For 15 years the League was to have two-thirds of the revenue of Scania, the possession of all fortresses, free passage of the Sound, and control over the choice of a Danish ruler. Waldemar died four years later, leaving the Hanseatic League in a position of supremacy over Scandinavia, and enjoying the high regard, as a northern power, of Flanders, England, and France.

The decline of this great trade-confederation began with a change in the movements of the herring. Early in the 15th century the fish deserted the Baltic spawning-grounds for the German Ocean; the Netherlands gained what the Hansa towns of the eastern sea had lost; and Amsterdam, in a large degree, took the place of Lubeck, which, in the 14th century, had a population approaching the double of its numbers in 1870. The wealth, pride, and power of these northern commercial towns of the League waned further after the change of commercial routes due to the discovery of America and of the way to India round the Cape. The Dutch members of the confederacy had left it early in the i5th century, and the rise of British commerce in Tudor days had its influence, while the Reformation, changing the religion of northern Europe, lessened the demand for wax for candles as well as for the salt fish in which some of the towns still traded. Early in the 17th century Liibeck, Hamburg, and Bremen were the only survivors of the League, and these three famous "free cities," after the middle of the i gth century, relinquished their old privileges as free ports by incorporation into the German Zoll Verein, or Customs Union. The great commercial League, now for centuries only a memory, played a noble part in its day by spreading civilisation through regions of Europe sunk in barbarism, and by maintaining the cause of right against might. It has been well said that "the free cities of Germany rose like happy islands amidst the wide-wasting ocean of violence and anarchy." They were the representatives of wealth won by industry, enterprise, and thrift, against warfare and spoliation which, left unchecked, would have caused the death of all that brings prosperity and happiness to human beings. The merchants of the towns, the great burgher-class, aided the Church in all righteous causes, and withstood her in the days of corruption and gross superstition. Their fortifications gave shelter to civil freedom when she had no other asylum, and the whole life of the towns was a perpetual pagan to the glory of social order, justice, and peace. These organised communities, the abodes of intelligence, courage, and self-reliance, had a most healthy moral influence on the society in which they flourished, by maintaining a high standard of freedom, honour, domestic life, and useful activity, in an age of violence, religious fanaticism, intellectual darkness, and a large degree of civil and political slavery. The merchant was as proud of the town in which he was born, where he gained his wealth, and meant to die, as any noble was of his birth or any knight of his rank in chivalry, and the artisans in their guilds displayed the tools and emblems of their trades with as much complacency as the warrior showed his sword, or the highly-born pointed to his coat-of-arms. The glory of the Hanseatic League does not extend, like that of the Italian republics, to the domain of art and literature. The merchants aimed chiefly at money-making, on commercial principles which modern views must condemn as those of a narrow and selfish monopoly. Their entire want of political ambition alone kept them from creating a powerful independent state in northern Germany.

Intimately connected with the rise and progress of towns in mediaeval days is the decay of feudalism. According to the great authority Hallam, the subversion of the feudal system in Europe was due to the increase of the power of the Crown, the elevation of the lower ranks of society, and the decay of the feudal principle. The first of these causes has been seen operating in England, France, and Spain. Men recognised the king as the one lord to whom obedience was due in the common interest, and preferred the rule of one tyrant to that of many. All kings were not tyrants, but subject to certain of the laws which they administered, as well as to the public opinion which might operate through armed force. The feudal nobles, whose castles had been centres of violence and injustice, became state-officials or mere courtiers, and all society was better for the change. The abolition of villeinage or serfdom, the rise to influence of artisans and merchants, and the institution of free cities and towns, had obvious effects which need not be further noted. The commons or middle class were, by their very nature, destructive of feudal superiority. The Church took part with the king, as her best supporter, rather than with the feudal nobles, and as the prelates and religious corporations were great landowners in most European countries, this desertion was a suicidal cause of the extinction of feudal power. The invention of gunpowder put the foot-soldier on more than a level with the mail-clad baron and knight, and reduced to nothingness, by the battering force of cannon, the strength of feudal fortresses. The feudal principle, lastly, decayed because it had lost its former vitality, the essence of which lay in ancient prejudice and acknowledged interest. The reign of law and order made the protection of a feudal lord over vassals needless, and the use of mercenary troops did away with the need for the feudal militia. Respect and attachment for the feudal compact died away; "homage" and "investiture" became useless ceremonies, and the payment of feudal dues to the lord was a mere burden. The whole institution had done its work and seen its day, and so it perished with the change of ideas, of institutions, and of the forms of civilisation.

Of the Renaissance or Revival of Learning we have already seen something in connection with Pope Nicholas V. We must now go back and view the beginnings of this great movement. During the really dark ages, the Latin language, in a debased form, had been used for all legal instruments, and was the chief channel for conducting all communications on ecclesiastical and political affairs. From the 6th to the 11th-centuries quotations from any classical Latin author are rarely found. In the 12th century these great writers began to be studied afresh, and we find many references to Cicero, Virgil, Livy, Pliny, and other authors of ancient Rome. In the 14th century a zeal for the ancient learning appears, and a regular trade began in the copying of books, much aided by the introduction of good, cheap, rag-made paper in place of the costly parchment. Translations from classical authors made their appearance, Italy being ahead, in the revival, of the other European countries. Much was due there, in the 14th century, to Petrarch the poet and Boccaccio the prose-writer, for the preservation of the remains of authors by the rescue of manuscripts mouldering away in monastic libraries, and by the correction of errors of transcription, which furnished an intelligible text of the Latin classics a century before the invention of printing. In the i5th century Italian scholars gave up their lives to the work of thus reviving both Latin and Greek literature.

>>> Next page >>>
Pages: <1> 2 3

Pictures for Medieval Civilisation: Rise of Towns; the Hansa League; Decay of Feudalism; Art; Invention; the Renaissance or Revival of Learni

Home | Privacy Policy | Copyright | About