Let us start on a somewhat turgid note. Nowadays, we are happy to be able to talk about Poland’s membership in nearly 30 different international organisations, including the European Union, and about the freedom of trade and doing business. Thanks to marine, land and air transport, Gdansk has again become attractive both to investors and tourists.
But what was it like in the “days of yore”, that is in the past?
Let us look at history from the point of view of Gdansk.
As we all know, trade is what drives history. Therefore, let us begin with trade. In the 12th century, merchants operating on the same territory would found groups, called hanses. In Old High German, “Hansa” means exactly that – a group. This name is the origin of the famous League. Originally an association of individual merchants, entire cities began joining the League from the 13th century onward, all the way to the 17th century, when the organisation imploded. The League’s founding city was Lübeck. Historian Henryk Samsonowicz described the establishment of the Hanse in his book titled “THE HANSE. RULER OF THE SEAS” (Hanza. Wladczyni morz), published by the Ksiazka i Wiedza publishing house.
The Hanse was divided into four main quarters: Wendish, Westphalian, Saxon and Baltic. Gdansk joined the Baltic quarter in 1361, and served as its main port until the League’s demise. The Baltic quarter also comprised towns such as Chelmno, Torun and Elblag, as well as Braniewo, Riga, Reval (modern-day Tallinn) and Krolewiec (modern-day Kaliningrad). Krakow, Wroclaw and Berlin were also members of the Hanse. In its prime (in the 15th century), the League numbered approx. 160 member towns and cities.
The Hanse is often compared to the European Union.
Its goals were to protect and manage trade between the Baltic Sea and what has come to be known as Western Europe. Everyone traded everything with everyone. Unless someone was an enemy of the Hanse, that is.
Members of the League obeyed the League’s law. Gdansk, following in the footsteps of other members, placed its city chancellery in its city hall, established a port authority and introduced a tax dependent on the price and value of shipments. Currency exchange offices were established, banking operations were carried out, and commercial companies were founded. Merchants from cities belonging to the League founded brotherhoods, and had their own tables in Artus Courts around the Baltic Sea, just like in merchant and city clubs.
You can learn more about the history of the Hanse in the National Maritime Museum and the Museum of Gdansk.