New challenges in the Baltic region began to confront the Hanseatic League during the second half of the fourteenth century, which forced the new confederation of cities to prove its mettle. In 1360, King Valdemar IV (ca. 1320–1375) began to pursue a policy of Danish hegemony in the Baltic Sea and conquered not just Scania, which it had earlier lost to Sweden, but Gotland as well. Denmark raised duties and other levies for Hanseatic merchants, encumbering trade with Scania, which represented a casus belli for Lübeck and the eastern Hanseatic cities. After the Hanseatic League suffered an initial defeat at sea, Denmark made life difficult for the Hanseatic cities of the Zuiderzee and cut off passage through the Øresund to the Dutch cities that were loosely associated with the league. These actions struck a vital nerve. As a result, all of the Hanseatic cities from the lower Rhine to Reval joined forces with the cities on the Zuiderzee in the Confederation of Cologne. In concert, they militarily restored their privileges in the Treaty of Stralsund (1370), especially the right of unimpeded access to Denmark by land and by sea. They also received reparations stemming from the war. The Treaty of Stralsund marked the apex of power of the Hanseatic League; the supremacy of the Hanseatic cities in the Baltic trade was now uncontested. However, it remained a community of interest exclusively for merchants, who used political and military means to secure only their trading privileges.
Hanseatic trade proceeded from east to west along a line dotted with their trading centers in Novgorod, Reval, Riga, Visby, Danzig, Stralsund, Lübeck, Hamburg, Bruges, and London, and its existence was based on the trade between the suppliers of foodstuffs and raw materials in northern and eastern Europe and the commercial producers of finished products in northwestern Europe. The merchants, however, went well beyond their function as middlemen between east and west, first by trading in the products manufactured by the Hanseatic cities themselves and then by penetrating deep into the Baltic hinterlands south of the coast. As a result, not only did they open up trade with Bohemia and Silesia by way of the Elbe and Oder Rivers, they also followed the Vistula through Cracow to the copper mining districts of upper Hungary (Slovakia) and connected with trading partners in the Black Sea via Lemberg (Lviv).
Trade with England, the original domain of Hanseatic merchants from the Rhineland and Westphalia, continued to be brisk. They exported Rhine wine, metals, and the dyes madder and woad to England and imported tin and English wool for the textile industry in Flanders and Brabant, and later also English textiles. The Hanseatic cities of the Baltic coast, in turn, provided wares typical of the east, including pelts, wax, grain, and wood as well as Scandinavian fish and metals. The most important market in western Europe, however, was the Netherlands. Flanders and later Brabant were not only important textile producers, they also established key trade connections with the Mediterranean basin. The Hanseatic merchants bought goods in Flemish and Brabant cities, primarily woolen textiles of high and medium quality, as well as trousers from Bruges. They also acquired spices, figs, and raisins from southern Europe. France contributed oil and wine as well as bay salt. This sea salt, harvested from the Atlantic, became increasingly important as a preservative. Prussian and especially Netherlandish ships made regular bay salt runs, then used it as ballast on the way to the Baltic, where they traded it for grain and wood for the western European market. By doing so, they undermined Lübeck’s monopoly as an intermediary in trade. The Hanseatic presence in southern Europe was sporadic, except for the wine trade with Bordeaux, although the Veckinchusen family did attempt to establish trade in pelts with Venice.
In addition to products from distant trading partners, goods produced in Hanseatic cities played a key role in domestic as well as foreign trade. Products that flowed east included colored metallic goods from Aachen; Rhine wine; tools from the Westphalian lands of Mark, Berg, and Siegerland; ceramics from the Rhineland; Westphalian textiles and linen; brassware from Braunschweig; salt from Lüneburg; and beer from Hamburg.
The Hanseatic trade was organized by merchant trading companies. The most common model was the free type, in which two partners invested capital and split the profits according to the capital invested and the profits realized. Such organizations generally lasted for one to two years. The large-scale international merchants were generally involved in several companies at a time. This decreased their overall risk and increased the assortment of goods in which they traded. Relatives were often brought in as partners because they were more likely to be trustworthy, especially when it came to long-distance east-west trade. Unlike in Italy or in southern Germany, large, centrally controlled trading companies extending over several generations and including a large number of participants did not exist in the Hanseatic trade. As a result, the Hanseatic companies saw no need to introduce the double bookkeeping that was standard in Italy.
The four Hanseatic Kontore in Novgorod, Bergen, London, and Bruges formed a sort of higher-level trade organization. Here, German merchants lived in specially demarcated areas such as the Petershof, the German Bridge, or the walled Steelyard. Only in Bruges did Hanseatic merchants live with local hosts. Each Kontor was tightly structured, with aldermen (literally, older men) elected annually; firmly established statutes; and its own legal jurisdiction, counting house, and seal. The Kontore were important in terms of acquiring trading privileges because, with cover provided by the Hanseatic cities, they represented the interests of merchants in their dealings with the ruling elites and cities in the foreign countries in which they traded. But the Kontore also facilitated everyday trade by establishing a regular news and messenger system with their home cities, and the attendant correspondence, certification, and bookkeeping also helped them to raise credit. But above all, the reporting requirements regarding the Hanseatic merchants active in any given area encouraged a certain uniformity in the buying and selling of goods, which tended to limit competition among Hanseatic members.
Toward the end of the fifteenth century, Hanseatic trade experienced setbacks on all fronts. The old trading system based on privileges proved inadequate in the face of growing competition and the consolidation of the European powers. For example, the Scandinavian kings now attempted to limit Hanseatic trade for the benefit of their own merchants. At the same time, these kings played the Hanseatic merchants off against their Dutch competitors. As a result, the Hanseatic cities were drawn into Scandinavian power struggles by backing privateers in hopes of retaining their privileges. The closing of the Novgorod Kontor in 1494 by Ivan III was another blow, although much of its trade had already shifted to the Livonian port cities of Riga and Reval during the fifteenth century, as a result of which these cities experienced a significant upswing.
Matters were changing in England as well, where imports and exports of textiles were at the center of disputes. Internal conflicts within the Hanseatic League undoubtedly played a role, because Lübeck stubbornly demanded that England recognize its old privileges, whereas Cologne and the Prussian trading cities were ready to come to an accommodation. Be that as it may, the 1474 Treaty of Utrecht ratified an understanding with England that restored the Hanseatic privileges. As a result, Hanseatic trade in England enjoyed a final phase of prosperity up to the middle of the sixteenth century.
In the same way, the ‘war’ against England in the 1470s largely consisted of individual attacks on commercial shipping by privateers licensed by individual towns. The most celebrated engagement, in fact, well illustrates the pitfalls in this kind of warfare. A large ship, originally French, the St Pierre de la Rochelle, had been abandoned in Danzig harbour as unseaworthy in 1462. In 1470 the city authorities repaired and refitted the ship as a privateer against England. She sailed the following year, commanded by one of the city councillors, but spent most of her time at anchor in the estuary of the Zwyn. In 1473 she was bought by three other councillors and sent to sea under the command of Paul Beneke, the most effective of the privateering captains. He attacked two galleys under the Burgundian flag, sailing from Bruges to Florence with a cargo of luxuries including an altarpiece by Hans Memling intended for a Florentine church. His excuse was that the vessels also carried a cargo of alum intended for an English port. One of the galleys was captured and eventually taken into Danzig where his coup was not popular, since the Hanseatic towns had no wish to antagonise the Duke of Burgundy.47 War waged in this fashion brought many unexpected consequences; privateering captains could not be easily controlled, while the need to offer them large rewards for their enterprise did not make it without cost to the promoters.
The English at sea in our period were faced with forces raised and organised in a variety of different ways. In all realms there existed some sort of obligation on shipowners and seamen to aid their ruler in time of war. The details regarding the way in which this obligation was expressed and implemented varied. In France and Iberia it was either part of feudal service or of the overall power of the monarch. In the cities of the Hanseatic League it was a mixture of civic duty and self-interest. Beyond this basic obligation rulers might attempt to establish their own fleet of ships supported by royal arsenals and dockyards and more or less elaborate systems of administration. Another expedient was to turn for aid to other allied powers and to hire their vessels and their crews. No one method seems to have been outstandingly more successful than the others. Both Aragon and Castile had learnt from and adapted the methods of the leading maritime powers of the Mediterranean. In both realms the organisation and methods of the shipyards benefitted greatly from the expertise of Genoese shipwrights. Crews on their galleys were made up of seafarers from all the neighbouring coasts. These crews had much experience of fighting in the endemic corsair warfare of the region. It is no wonder that the French turned to the Castilians and the Genoese themselves when the need for fighting ships was urgent. Conditions in the Channel and the Western Approaches did not, however, really suit the operation of galley fleets in the southern model. It could be argued that there was a growing awareness among the states that bordered these waters of the need for some more permanent form of naval defence, but that none had found an entirely satisfactory solution to the problem by the middle of the fifteenth century.