Hanseatic League, a commercial association of northern German cities that flourished between 1250 and 1500. At its height, during the late 14th century, the league included all the important towns on the Baltic shore and along the main rivers of northern Germany. It virtually monopolized trade on the Baltic and North seas, especially in cod and herring, furs, lumber, grain, cloth, and minerals.
The Hanseatic League suppressed piracy. It improved navigation by dredging waterways and building lighthouses and canals. Courts were established at the league's foreign trading posts to settle disputes among members. Laws were drawn up for commercial operations and offenders were boycotted. The league became strong enough to protect its merchants from arbitrary laws of foreign rulers and from foreign lawsuits.
"Hanseatic"hansa, an Old High German word for "union" or "association.” At its height the league included about 70 cities and towns, including Bremen, Lübeck, Brunswick, Cologne, and Rigas. The league never had a permanent governing board. Deputies, chosen by the cities, met at Lübeck from time to time, but their decrees had no binding effect on the member cities. In practice, however, mutual economic interests resulted in a high degree of cooperation. Rarely, a rebellious member might be expelled from the league.
In the 12th century, German traders at Visby, on the island of Gotland in the Baltic, formed a cooperative association. Similar associations of German traders were established later at London (where the league's trading post was called the Steelyard); Bergen, Norway; Novgorod, Russia; and Bruges, Flanders.
In Germany, the fall of the Hohenstaufen dynasty in 1254 ended strong imperial rule. Northern German towns began forming leagues to defend their trading rights abroad. Soon the associations of German merchants abroad united with the northern German towns to form the Hanseatic League.
The league grew in power throughout the first half of the 14th century. Beginning in the 1360's King Waldemar IV of Denmark challenged the league's supremacy in the Baltic. The Danish King was initially successful but in 1370 Denmark was defeated by the league. Its prestige and power reached new heights as it extended its commercial control throughout northern Europe.
The rise of national states ended the league's trade monopoly. Novgorod fell to Moscow in 1478. Antwerp replaced Bruges as a trading center. English traders began to compete. Sweden ended the league's privileges in Scandinavia during the 16th century. Hansa cities were torn by strife between their merchant aristocracy and their craft guilds. Many of the cities were annexed by German princes. The Thirty Years' War (1618–48) shattered German prosperity.
The last general assembly of the Hanseatic League was held in 1669. Soon only three members remained—Lübeck, Bremen, and Hamburg. The last building belonging to the league, at Antwerp, was sold in 1863.