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The First Common Market? The Hanseatic League

In the 13th century a remarkable trading block was formed in northern Europe. Stephen Halliday explains how the Hanseatic League prospered for 300 years before the rise of the nation state led to its dissolution.

The Extent of the Hansa about 1400.The Hanseatic League, or Hansa, began as a northern European trading confederation in the middle of the 13th century. It continued for some 300 years. Its network of alliances grew to 170 cities and it protected its interests from interfering rulers and rival traders using a powerful fleet financed by its members. Given the limits of medieval communications, it developed a modest degree of political cohesion through its parliament, even if its increasingly diverse membership struggled to agree upon common policies. Only the evolution of nation states and rival international businesses led to the Hansa’s demise three centuries later.

The League’s creation reflected the weakness of medieval governments and the divergent interests of city dwellers and the feudal overlords with whom they were often in conflict. In the middle ages, the areas now known as Germany, Poland, the Baltic States, the Netherlands, Belgium and much of Russia consisted of a multitude of territories owing allegiance to a variety of kings, margraves and dukes often from remote locations, and to chivalric orders such as the Teutonic knights. The main activities of the groups of nobles involved marrying and feuding with one another and raising taxes from their subjects. They were rarely noted for their interest in trade except as a source of taxation.

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