Chapter 18

Meeting Medieval Monks and Merchants

In This Chapter

● Reviewing the religious orders

● Trading and fighting with the Italian merchant cities

● Bargaining in the Baltic with the Hanseatic League

By the thirteenth century, two communities had become extraordinarily influential in the Medieval World: Monastic orders and merchant guilds.

● Monastic orders were religious communities living under one roof where everyone followed a particular version of Christianity with its own exclusive practises and beliefs. The lives of medieval monks and nuns were interesting and different from those led by the vast majority of people, and they played an important role in wider society.

● Merchant guilds were collectives of merchants and trading companies who came together to combine their efforts in search of greater trade dominance. Guilds cornered the market in the big cities and established new trade routes to far away and hard-to-reach places.

In a sense nothing was new about these groups. The influence of religion and the need to eat and to make money had always provided some of the biggest influences on the medieval mind. The institutions that grew out of these concerns, however, were much more than the sum of their parts.

In this chapter I take a look at the emergence of these two new medieval powers whose interests and influence came to play a part in the big decisions being made in the Medieval World.

Contemplating the Religious Orders

As I discuss in Chapter 9, Christianity experienced a massive upsurge during the ninth and tenth centuries throughout the Medieval World. The intensity of people’s beliefs and the way that faith dominated their lives increased hugely. Most historians think that one of the main reasons behind this surge in belief was the influence of the monastic orders. The following sections explore who these people were, what they did during the medieval period and how they became vital to the working of society during the tenth and eleventh centuries.

Examining the origins of monasticism

Throughout history, certain people have tried to separate themselves from the day-to-day stresses of the everyday world and seek a simpler, if more self-disciplined, life of religious prayer and contemplation. Monasticism, the practice of renouncing worldly pursuits and fully devoting one’s life to spiritual work, appears in all religions and throughout many regions of the world. In the turbulent times of the early Middle Ages, more and more men and women sought refuge in religious communities.

Although monasticism in Greek literally means dwelling alone, total seclusion was rarely possible, even during medieval times. In order for religious groups to be able to function, they had to continue to integrate with the rest of society - they needed supplies of food and other essentials that they couldn’t entirely produce by themselves. The monasteries and abbeys that thrived during the medieval period did so because they were able to combine a life of spiritual contemplation with an active role in their local communities.

Meeting the man who thunk of being a monk: St Benedict

St Benedict (AD c. 480- c. 550) is the man most credited with the concept of Christian monasticism. Although informal monasticism had existed before Benedict, becoming popular in the West by the fourth century AD, he was the first person in Western Europe to codify the lifestyle and be specific about the role of monks and nuns in society.

Benedict, the son of a nobleman from Umbria in Italy, founded 12 communities for monks in Italy, as well as a large monastery in Monte Casino. One of the most famous orders of monks is the order of St Benedict (check out ‘Calling the role: Notable orders’ later in this chapter), but he wasn’t really responsible for starting it. Benedictine monks chose to live by his principles rather than join a specific order that he established. Benedict was eventually made a saint by Pope Honorius III in 1220.

Anchorites and coenobites

Over the centuries and up to the present day, many religious people have interpreted the roles of monks and monasteries in vastly different ways. Two groups that illustrate the extremes of the range of interpretations are anchorites and coenobites.

An anchorite is somebody who completely withdraws from the world, often to the extent of being a hermit and living apart from any other human being. Anchorites devote themselves entirely to religious contemplation, eating and drinking only the bare minimum to exist. Many anchorites managed to withdraw by bricking themselves up in a small cell within a building. Not a great deal of fun, but then fun isn't the point of monasticism!

One of the most famous anchoresses (female anchorites) was St Julian (1342-c. 1416). Her original name is unknown; she was named after her church in Norwich, England. She spent more than 40 years living in a small cell in the church, which you can still visit today. She recorded her experiences and visions in a series of highly influential, mystical writings.

In contrast to anchorites, coenobites believe that they're duty bound to live and work in religious communities. They reside in communal, religious accommodation set within the larger and more complex buildings of a monastery. They work along with their fellow monks or nuns instead of bricking themselves up in small cells.

Coenobite life can still be pretty quiet. Established in the sixteenth century, the Trappist order of monks vow only to speak when absolutely necessary and discourage idle or conversational talk. Nobody knows whether their vow is the origin of the expression 'Keep your trap shut!'

Benedict is rather ironically considered to be the father of Western monasticism - ironically because he himself was more like a hermit than a monk and spent a large amount of his adult life living in seclusion in Subiaco (about 40 kilometres, or 25 miles, east of Rome).

Benedict’s most significant influence was through a document called ‘The Rule’, in which he set out the role and purpose of a monastic community. The Rule suggests that these communities face inward and be concerned with their spiritual health, but also look outward to the world and address the spiritual health of all people. In other words, The Rule gave monks a new purpose: to go out and pray for their neighbours and work in their communities. The Rule placed no greater value on either activity, suggesting a moderate middle way between individual spiritual concerns and the spiritual health of the wider world. In doing so, it virtually set a template for monastic life.

Get thee to a nunnery!

Monastic life wasn't a male-dominated activity. An equally important, if different, role was played in medieval society by female orders. A community of nuns was known as a convent or a nunnery. These communities were established along the lines of all the religious orders mentioned in 'Calling the roll: Notable orders', except the Carthusians.

Nuns took very similar vows to their male counterparts, undertaking a vow of chastity, poverty and obedience. Convents tended to be as self-supporting as possible and were perhaps slightly more withdrawn from the outside world than monasteries. For this reason, many young women were often sent into convents by their families. The process of placing a girl into a convent was similar to betrothing her to a husband in that the family were expected to find a dowry that was in this case payable to the church. However, women would join convents via a variety of different means: many older women would join after the death of their husband or to live out their final years in quiet contemplation.

Women could join a convent as an oblate or a postulant. An oblate was a child given to a convent as a small baby to be brought up as a nun.

This would often be done with children found deserted and occasionally with illegitimate children of the nobility. A postulant was a mature person seeking admission to the convent, who would be considered a postulant until approved for training - a process that took a matter of weeks. A girl or woman that passed through the postulant stage would be then considered a novice and be in full religious training. This stage would last for one year, after which she would take the full vows and be thought of as a nun.

A nun was effectively married to God, so on becoming a nun a ceremony was carried out in which she would wear a ring symbolising this. Nuns would then take on roles within their own internal community, usually having some specific duty concerned with running the convent or educating the novices. Other nuns would have a role in the wider world, the most common being that of an almoner, dispensing care and supplies to the poor and the sick and praying for the spiritual health of their locality. Convents were a closed world and the nuns inside weren't usually allowed to leave, so few of them became the big business that monasteries developed into.

Calling the roll: Notable orders

A huge variety of Christian religious orders developed in the Medieval World, and many continue to the present day. Here are the major monastic orders with medieval roots:

● Benedictine: These monks follow St Benedict’s Rule, although each community interpreted (and continues to interpret) it differently. Benedictine orders were particularly prominent in England and France during the Middle Ages.

● Carthusian: Founded by St Bruno in 1084, near the village of Chatrousse in the French Alps, the Carthusians are one of the most reclusive of all Christian monastic orders. The monks live in their own cells, and speaking is rare except for religious chanting and scriptural readings during communal services. They are renowned for producing the famous Charteuse liqueur.

For a great insight into the original Carthusian monastery, La Grande Chartreuse, take a look at the 2005 film, Into Great Silence. Containing hardly any talking and no narration, this fascinating documentary follows a year in the community through the lives of the monks.

● Cistercian: This self-sufficient, austere order, also known as the ‘White Monks’ because of the colour of their robes, is enclosed (known as eremitic). They interpret St Benedict’s Rule very literally. Members spend their lives in prayer and contemplation and in physical labours that support their communities, sometimes involving agriculture or the brewing of ale! The first Cistercian community was founded by Robert of Molseme in 1098 near Dijon in France.

Cistercian communities tended to be founded in remote places a fair distance from other communities. Because of this trait, the ruins that still survive are in some very exposed and romantic places like Fourtenay in France and Poblet in Spain.

● Dominican: This order, founded by St Dominic in France in 1216, has long focused on teaching and education within the wider community. Many of its members also held and continue to hold important and influential positions of state, including many popes.

● Franciscan: This order was founded by followers of St Francis of Assisi, who was inspired by a sermon in 1209. The order originally had a strict attitude towards ideas of poverty and abstinence, which provided the basis for a number of controversies and debates in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, such as the great papal arguments that you can read about in Chapter 19.

Going about monastic work

As I outline in the preceding section, the different monastic orders and the lives of the monks and nuns were varied, as were the ways in which the orders engaged with their local communities.

Most orders were based in abbeys, which were essentially large monasteries or convents. Abbeys were far more complex institutions than those of the smaller, more contemplative monastic orders. The difference was similar to visiting a modern-day school as against a university campus. Each abbey was run by an abbot or an abbess, who was the spiritual leader of the abbey and the surrounding community.

By far the most influential medieval abbeys were Gorze in Lorraine and Cluny in the Burgundy region of France. See the later sidebar ‘Cluny - Toeing the corporate line’.

Cluny - Toeing the corporate line

Founded in 909, Cluny Abbey in Burgundy was founded on land donated by William I, Duke of Aquitaine (875-918). It became an international brand and a symbol of the new Benedictine monastic way of life. By the twelfth century, nearly 2,000 other European abbeys and monasteries were associated with Cluny.

The theological research and teaching that took place at Cluny was hugely influential on religious thought throughout the whole Medieval World. Not coincidentally, Pope Urban II used the influence of Cluny to call for the First Crusade in 1095 (turn to Chapter 11 for the origins of the Crusade). In a world where international communication was far more difficult than today, the spiritual influence of a large abbey was tremendously important.

Indeed, the following curse leaves little doubt of what would befall anybody who didn't respect the institution. Duke William issued this curse upon anybody who failed to show Cluny a suitable level of respect:

First indeed let him incur the wrath of almighty God; and let God remove him from the land of the living and wipe out his name from the book of life, and let his portion be with those who said to the Lord God: Depart from us; and with Dathan and Abiron [who rebelled against Moses in the Old Testament] whom the earth opening its jaws swallowed up, and hell absorbed while still alive, let him incur everlasting damnation. And being made a companion of Judas, let him be kept thrust down there with eternal tortures, and, let it seem to human eyes that he pass through the present world with impunity, let him experience in his own body, indeed, the torments of future damnation, sharing the double disaster with Heliodorus and Antiochus [treacherous kings], of whom one being coerced with a sharp blow scarcely escaped alive; and the other, struck down by the divine will, his members putrefying and swarming with vermin, perished most miserably.

Building up the abbeys

By the eleventh century, coenobite abbeys were the centres of their local community. Abbeys were mighty constructions. They typically contained the largest local church, which also served as the focus of abbey life. The church was surrounded by areas for the monks and nuns to eat, sleep and work, as well as the Chapter House where theological debate took place.

Abbeys also provided education for both novices who wanted to join the order and the general population. Infirmaries were available to provide medical care for individuals inside and outside the abbey. Most abbeys also had guest quarters for hosting important secular and religious visitors or to shelter pilgrims on their way to various shrines.

Probably the best preserved and the most studied of these institutions is the Abbey of St Gall in Switzerland. First erected during the ninth century, this abbey features more than 30 separate buildings, each with specific purposes in the working of the community. It was and is an incredible site and you can still visit today.

Considering the cold, hard cash

By the thirteenth century, more than 50,000 abbeys covered the Medieval World. Most were incredibly efficient and almost self-sufficient, which allowed them to produce surpluses that they then traded.

The value of the abbeys’s agricultural land was also immense. After the monarchs of Europe, the churches were the biggest landholders. This value often made them a target for acquisitive kings, the most famous example occurring during the Tudor period in England with Henry VIII’sdissolution of the monasteries between 1536-1541. (See The Tudors For Dummies by David Loades for lots more about this.)

The situation for convents was very different. Being so much more closed off from the world they were unable to trade, and were usually much poorer as a result. Convents depended on the support of local communities who valued the spiritual care they received in return.

The following Domesday Book entry from 1086 (Chapter 10 contains much more on the Domesday Book) gives an indication of the wealth of the Abbey of St Peter in Winchester, England:

The same Abbey holds Miceldevre in demesne [Micheldever in its territory]. In King Edward’s time it was assessed at a hundred and six hides. It is now assessed at eighty-five hides and half a yardland. Here are seventy-two ploughlands; nine in demesne. Sixty-four villeins and twenty-eight cottagers have twenty-five ploughlands. There are twenty-two serfs; a mill, which yields thirty pence; thirty acres of meadow; and woods for four hogs. [. . .] The value of the whole manor was in King Edward’s time sixty pounds; and when it came into possession forty pounds. The abbot’s demesne is now worth fifty-seven pounds.

Unusually, this particular abbey lost value following the Norman invasion of 1066 (which I describe in Chapter 10). But the property’s value soon rose again, in tandem with the rising economic power of all the abbeys and monasteries. Eventually, these institutions became big players in the other great medieval revolution - the revolution in trade.

Balancing Profits and Losses: Medieval Trade

Trade had thrived in Europe ever since ancient times. In both the Greek and Roman periods, trade was extensive, with goods such as silks, spices, wine and metals travelling huge distances. Even the fall of the Roman Empire didn’t massively impact trade because people still needed goods. But in the thirteenth century, trade in Europe went through a major transformation and expansion - and it never looked back.

Changing the very nature of trade

During the thirteenth century, trade blossomed within nations, internationally and even across continents. The big movers in this change were Italian merchant cities such as Venice, Pisa and Genoa. These cities were relatively peaceful and secure, which provided them with opportunities to expand their trading operations significantly. As the following sections describe, they introduced big changes in how trade was organised, paid for and accounted to drive this trade, as opposed to any single, specific event.

Hiring agents

Traditionally, merchants had been always on the move, travelling with their goods and being present at the point of sale. This arrangement changed in the thirteenth century when mercantile businesses in Italy became prosperous enough for the merchants to stay at home. A three-stage process developed: merchants employed specialist goods carriers who made their livings by transporting things from place to place, delivering items along established trade routes to distant agents, who sold the items at prices determined by the merchants. Figure 18-1 shows the major trade routes of the day.

Figure 18-1: Major trade routes in the thirteenth century

The following letter is an excellent example of this new three-stage trade practice. The quote comes from an acknowledgement note dating from 1248, written by an agent to a merchant that he represents:

June tenth. In the year of the Incarnation of the Lord 1248. I, Bartholomew, son of the late Benedict of Lucca, confess and acknowledge to you Rolland Vendemmia, of Lucca, that I have had and received from you as an order twenty-three pounds and ten solidi [Genoese currency], invested in armor and in prepared silk and gold wire from Lucca and in two cross-bows, renouncing, etc. With that order I shall go, God willing, on the next journey I make to Montpellier, by sea or by land, for the purpose of selling the said things, with God’s favor and at the risk of the sea and to your profit. I promise by this agreement to repay you all the capital and the profit of the said order, retaining for myself what I expend for the transport and sale of the goods, pledging all my goods, etc.

I wonder whether he ever came good on the agreement?

Founding trade colonies

After a while, towns with large numbers of agents began to form their own kinds of colonies. Venice, Pisa and Genoa all had colonies throughout the Mediterranean. The purpose of colonies was to establish a distribution centre for goods as well as a place for agents to be permanently based so that they could find new customers and markets. For example, the territory of Galata in Constantinople was a Genoese colony and they built the large Galata tower that still stands in modern-day Istanbul to protect their interests.

Competition for trade colonies was fierce. For example, Venice’s involvement in the Fourth Crusade (which I describe in Chapter 16) was primarily based on the city’s desire to establish more control of trade in the Adriatic and colonies in Constantinople. These colonies also provided handy bases for long voyages. Venetian ships travelling to Constantinople were able to stop at a number of (usually island) bases on their way to the Byzantine capital.

Establishing trading companies

The concept of the trading company emerged during the thirteenth century. Merchants had worked together before but usually just agreed to invest jointly in a single voyage or series of trading operations. These arrangements gradually became more permanent to the point where companies were formed.

The main reason for the creation of these trading companies was the evolution of financial practices. Amazingly, all the following practices developed hugely in the thirteenth century:

● Accountancy took on the tasks of recording everything that was happening financially. Merchants had previously dealt personally with customers, but now a whole new network of transactions needed to be recorded. These new skills first developed in various Italian cities, particularly Genoa, which developed schools for these ‘notaries’.

● Banking had been going on for hundreds of years, but during the thirteenth century it got serious and went international. The biggest development was the creation of bills of exchange, which freed merchants from having to carry bucketloads of cash around all the time. Instead, bankers as far apart as Paris and Antioch were able to pass credit notes, which encouraged larger deals to take place. Most major European cities became part of an ever-growing network of banks. Usury (money lending) also became a far more complex business.

● Communication became increasingly important. During the thirteenth century, several Italian cities and business guilds began their own courier services. These companies were in addition to the services started by large religious organisations such as the Templars and the Teutonic Knights (check out Chapters 14 and 16 respectively for more on these groups). A lot of business letters survive from the period and show how up-to-date the authors were with events taking place some distance away.

● Insurance was increasingly necessary as trade deals became riskier and more complex. An early system developed in which the ship owner transporting goods advanced a loan to the merchant covering any losses that may occur. Gradually this system changed into separate companies providing this service, enabling merchants to buy insurance cover.

● Share options first came into being around the middle of the thirteenth century. Several investors grouped together in a contract, or commenda, and agreed to undertake mutually the risks in a series of trading ventures and share whatever profits came out of it as a dividend. Essentially, the stock market was born!

Things didn’t always work out in merchants’ daily lives. In Shakespeare’s play The Merchant of Venice, the merchant Antonio gets in trouble with Shylock the moneylender (or usurer) because his ships are lost at sea and he’s uninsured. A film version starring Al Pacino (2004) is a good production of this classic play with connections to medieval history and commerce.

Armour for hire!

The range of original documents regarding trade that survive is quite staggering. Modern historians can review original price lists, ship manifests, insurance documents, tax agreements and all manner of other things that I don't have space to include.

One of my favourites is the following, written by a knight wanting to hire some armour so that he could go on Crusade in 1248:

July twenty-seventh. In the year of the Incarnation of the Lord 1248. I, Bonfils Manganelli, of Gaeta, acknowledge and confess to you, Atenoux Pecora, of Gaeta, that I have taken and received from you a certain suit of armor at a rent of seventeen solidi in mixed money now current in Marseilles, which seventeen solidi I have already paid you, renouncing all claims, etc. This armor I should take on the next voyage I am to make across the sea, for the price mentioned, at your risk and for your profit, going across the sea and returning to Marseilles. But if, on the completion of the said voyage, I should make another voyage with the said armor, I promise to pay you by this agreement, as hire for the said armor, one augustal of gold, and on the return from the said voyage to pay you that augustal and to return the armor or its value, namely seventy solidi in mixed money now current in Marseilles, if by chance the armor should be lost through my fault. OrI promise to bring the said armor to your profit under pledge of all my goods, present and future, renouncing the protection of all laws, etc. Witnesses, etc.

This document hints at one of those wonderful lost stories from history. Did the knight make it on Crusade and ever bring the armour back? We'll never know. Incidentally, he was probably paying about 25 per cent of the price of the suit to hire it.

Trudging through Italian trade wars and tribulations

On the one hand, these commercial advances were great boons to people throughout the Medieval World, and yet wherever money was to be made there were also fights to be had. The Italian cities were almost continually in conflict with each other, endeavouring to dominate trade routes and set up new colonies. Several notable conflicts of the era were based in trade issues.

The Sicilian Vespers

Despite its name, the Sicilian Vespers - one of the more interesting episodes in medieval history - has nothing to do with Italians riding scooters. In fact, the Sicilian Vespers took the form of a revolt on the island of Sicily in 1282 against the rule of Charles of Anjou (also known as Charles I), the king of

Sicily. A series of wars followed, lasting all the way through to the beginning of the fourteenth century. The rebellion takes its name from the fact that it began during evening prayers (vespers) on Easter Monday, 1282.

The series of events following the 1282 uprising are extremely complicated, but the relevance to trade is clear: nearly all the great and good of Europe got involved at one stage or another, including the Holy Roman Emperor, because Sicily was so vitally important in the trade of sugar, wheat and cotton. (Figure 18-1 highlights Sicily’s prominence in multiple routes.)

The Grand Company

For every legitimate trading company (turn to the earlier section ‘Establishing trading companies’), there was a group of what historians politely call ‘adventurers’ and who we might refer to as robbers or pirates. Piracy was still big business in the Mediterranean (see Chapter 7 for more on early medieval piracy), but groups such as The Grand Company (also known as The Catalan Company) were even more organised.

When the Sicilian Vespers came to an end in 1302, Roger de Flor recruited the soldiers and mercenaries who had become unemployed to form The Grand Company. Roger then offered their services to the Byzantine emperor in his war with the Ottoman Turks in Asia Minor and he was quite successful. However, Roger had political ambitions and was eventually betrayed by the emperor. He took his revenge by ravaging the cities of Thrace and Macedonia and getting very rich from the proceeds.

Continuing to offer their services to the highest bidder, the Grand Company prospered under a number of leaders and eventually set themselves up as the legitimate rulers of large chunks of Greece, ruling in Thessaly and Athens all the way through until 1390. Not bad for a bunch of heavies!

Expanding in the North

Many of the advances in trade happened in Southern Europe, mostly based around the Mediterranean, but the thirteenth century also saw advances in trade in the North:

● Fishing, particularly herring, was one of the biggest industries, which the Scandinavians dominated.

● Wool and the cloth produced from it was the major import/export in England, Flanders and northern France.

● The mines in Germany produced large amounts of copper and silver, which were highly valued in other countries.

Marco Polo - to the ends of the earth

The vast expansion in trade also saw Europeans travel farther than ever before. The most significant traveller was Marco Polo (1254-1324). A nobleman and merchant from Venice, Marco Polo is credited with being the first man to introduce Europeans to the people and culture of the Far East. He travelled to Asia Minor, Persia (modern-day Iraq and Iran), China and Indonesia, meeting the Mongol leader Kublai Khan, who asked Polo's entourage to visit because he wanted to meet Europeans. Polo recorded his experiences in a book called II Milione, in which he gives a detailed account of meeting Kublai Khan at his capital located in modern-day Beijing.

At 9,000 kilometres (5,500 miles), the journey from Venice to Khan's kingdom must have seemed almost unimaginably long. In total, Polo journeyed for 24 years (between 1271-1295), during which time he's estimated to have travelled around 24,000 kilometres (15,000 miles).

Ironically when Polo returned home, he didn't move much at all. Venice was at war with Genoa (over trade issues, unsurprisingly), and Marco Polo was captured and thrown in prison. He didn't waste his time though, putting together IIMilione during his captivity (although it may have actually been written by somebody else). After being released he returned to Venice and continued to work successfully as a merchant, never leaving the city again. I suppose any more trips would have been a bit of a let-down.

Getting together: The Hanseatic League

Given the relatively separate industries throughout Northern Europe, one development of the thirteenth century was a real surprise. The Hanseatic League may sound like a football tournament, but it was an alliance of trading guilds and cities that dominated the coast of Northern Europe all the way through until the seventeenth century. Originally founded in a small way in the eleventh century, the League saw a massive expansion during the thirteenth century as more and more cities joined it.

In essence, the league was an idea similar to the agents and colonies that were used in Southern Europe (see the earlier section ‘Changing the very nature of trade’). Merchants within a northern town would form their own guild, or hansa. Under its mutual protection they agreed partnerships with guilds in foreign towns and cities, particularly far to the east where the towns were less developed but rich in important commodities such as amber, fur and timber.

The league began in the town of Lhbeck in northern Germany, gradually forming alliances with other German cities such as Hamburg and eventually farther east to ports in the Baltic sea. By the mid-thirteenth century, league representatives had travelled as far as the Russian port of Novgorod, over 2,250 kilometres (1,400 miles) away across very treacherous waters.

Gradually the league expanded into Norway, England and Flanders until the vast majority of ports were associated with it, because not being so made life financially difficult. The Hanseatic League worked as pretty much a monopoly on all trade in the region. Member cities often had a hansa community where merchants and businessmen lived with their families, much like the colonies founded in the Mediterranean.

In the following 1231 agreement, the town of Riga (in modern-day Latvia) grants a house for hanse traders from Lubeck to live in:

To all the faithful of Christ seeing these presents, the citizens and consuls of Riga wish the enjoyment of perpetual peace. Since those things which are done lapse with the passage of time, and unless they are corroborated by written testimony, will easily slip the memories of men, and be changed, we wish it to be known to all people both now and in the future that we, on the advice of the citizens of Lubeck, for the preservation of that true love and the constant faith we have in the citizens of Lubeck, have granted a court lying near to the citadel, within the walls of our city, to be held freely with every right and the income therefrom, to be possessed by them and their heirs free and forever. Therefore, in order that no calumny may arise in the future, and in order that all doubt may be removed, we have strengthened this gift of ours, corroborating it in writing and with our seal.

Finding safety in numbers

The benefits of being a member of the Hanseatic League extended beyond the financial. In the thirteenth century, although the peak of Viking activity was over, raiders from Scandinavia were still a problem (Chapter 8 has much more on the Viking raiders), and league money paid for military protection for its members. The league fought several successful campaigns against piracy in the Baltic, and spent vast revenues to build lighthouses and schools that provided training in navigation and seamanship.

By the fourteenth century, the league’s power was so great that it was able to take on entire nations! Between 1361-1370 the league was at war with the king of Denmark, Valdemar. They were successful in this conflict too, forcing the king to hand over 15 per cent of all trade revenues to the league. Formed for the protection of its owners, at the height of its power, the league was more like a Mafia protection racket!

Expanding trade during the thirteenth century had very different outcomes in the north of Europe as compared to the south. Although trade wars were common in both areas, the Hanseatic League was formed, initially at least, for mutual protection, whereas competition was the order of the day in the south. But that’s what the free market is all about, I suppose!

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