Hanseatic League and Wine Trade in Late Medieval Europe
The Hanseatic League and the Wine Trade in Late Medieval Europe
Wine Trade in Medieval Europe
It is widely accepted that Europe has been divided for centuries into a wine-drinking south and a beer-drinking north, with France, Spain, Italy and other Mediterranean nations prioritising viticulture to a greater extent than regions like Poland and Sweden.
Yet this divide used to be even greater than it is. Because the Roman Empire had never penetrated into eastern and northern Germany and the regions beyond, there really was no culture of grape wine consumption here at all during the Early Middle Ages. That began to change gradually though in the High Middle Ages, in part owing to the trade networks established by the Hanseatic League.
The Hanseatic League was one of the most significant elements of the commercial life of Europe during the High (1000–1300) and Late Middle Ages (1300–1500). It is important to remember that the Middle Ages were not all doom and gloom. After the dark ages at the beginning of them (usually identified as lasting from about 450 to 750), Europe actually entered a period of pronounced prosperity and growth from the eleventh century onwards.
As it did, new towns and cities began emerging in places like Germany and the coastal regions of the Baltic Sea. As they did, some of the merchants in these cities decided to establish rules for how they would trade with each other, much as traders in any society, no matter how backward it might otherwise be, will attempt to do.
The Hanseatic League emerged out of these efforts to establish better commercial ties and rules between the cities of northern Germany. The main cities in the beginning were Lubeck, Hamburg and Bremen. They named themselves the Hansa as this means ‘On the Sea’ in Old High German.
Thus, the League was a coalition of trading interests by German cities lying on the North Atlantic and Baltic Coast. The first members established rules around commercial rights, trading routes and how trade was managed in the cities of the constituent parties. After a certain point they met every year at a Hansetag or parliament, generally held in the city of Lubeck. And so by the early thirteenth century it had formed into a cohesive League of trading cities, the Hanseatic League.
Northern Europe in the 1400s, showing the extent of the Hanseatic League. Wikimedia Commons
Now the Hanseatic League eventually grew to encompass over 150 cities and towns across Northern Europe. [See Notes for a more complete list of the Hanseatic cities].
As a result, by the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries the League controlled a vast array of the trade being undertaken from the Iberian Peninsula north to Scandinavia and northern Germany and even into north-western Russia. In due course it came to play a major role in the distribution of all manner of goods across the North Atlantic and Baltic Seas, notably foodstuffs, furs, timber, whale oil and pottery. From amongst these few were as significant as the wine trade.
The Hanseatic Trade in Wine
The Hanseatic League grew by the late fourteenth and early fifteenth centuries to become the primary body involved in transporting wine between the primary areas of production in Europe at that time, in France and the Iberian Peninsula, to other regions further north and east in England, Scandinavia, northern Germany and even into the Baltic States and parts of Russia.
Wine from specific areas was favoured. For example the Hansa merchants grew to dominate the trade northwards of wines being produced in Bordeaux and the Medoc in western France and the Doura region of northern Portugal. These were easily accessible for Hansa merchants and their vessels.
In time distinct trade routes developed. Wine from France and Portugal would be brought north to Bruges, the foremost port in the Low Countries at the time. From there some was shipped to the Hansa’s headquarters in London to supply the English market, while more still was shipped north-east into the Baltic Sea to ports like Lubeck, Rostock and Danzig. From there it could find its way further east again, often travelling as far as Riga, Tallinn or even Novgorod in Russia.
There were immense profits to be made from this trade, for Hansa merchants who transported wine all the way to the far east of the Baltic Sea, could then load up on furs and other goods produced in this region. When they returned to Western Europe they obtained a price far above what they had paid in Eastern Europe.
A sign of exactly how significant the Hansa’s role in the wine trade is seen in the Steelyard. This was the name of the Hansa’s compound in what is now Cannon Street in London. London was not itself a member of the Hanseatic League, but it had allowed the League to establish a headquarters in the city, such was the volume of trade it conducted here.
The Steelyard had lodgings for Hanseatic merchants to reside in when they visited London on business, while it also had extensive storage space for goods being imported or exported into England. These included a large wine cellar, an indication of the fact that these merchants of Northern Europe were bringing in a considerable amount of wine to England from France and elsewhere.
Indeed the Hanseatic League’s role in the wine trade even began to influence the cuisine of Northern Europe and northern Germany in particular during the High Middle Ages. For instance, dishes such as eel cooked in red wine and oxtail in Madeira wine are traditional in Hamburg and evolved during the late medieval period owing to the importation of wines from the Iberian Peninsula and the Medoc region of western France.
German Wine and the Hansa
The Hanseatic League also played a considerable role in the development of the wine industry in Germany in the Late Middle Ages. This was not a region which had practiced viticulture extensively in previous times. But as the merchants of cities like Lubeck and Hamburg grew to realise exactly how great the profits on sending French and Iberian wine to Scandinavia and Eastern Europe could be, more rulers in Germany itself began to develop their lands with a view to planting vineyards across them.
In the course of the fourteenth and fifteenth century extensive amounts of land were cleared along the course of the Rhine and planted with grapes for the production of larger amounts of local wine. These Rhenish wines were then shipped to Cologne, a major city within the Hanseatic League, and much of it was sent northwards to Scandinavia and the Baltic Sea.
By 1500, such was the demand for German wine, that extensive tracts of land in Swabia and Franconia had been cleared for vineyards. Thus, at the height of the Hanseatic League there was approximately four times more land under vine in Germany than there is today. As such, when we consider the German wine industry it is impossible not to view it as being founded in large part by the Hanseatic League and the markets its merchants found for Rhenish wine in Northern and Eastern Europe.
The Bremen Ratskeller
Further evidence of the Hansa’s role in the wine trade of Northern Europe comes from Bremen, one of the three north German cities which along with Lubeck and Hamburg were absolutely central to the League. In 1405 the ‘Ratskeller’ was built as the townhall of Bremen by the city’s mercantile community, which at that time was synonymous with the Hanseatic League.
The Ratskeller around 1900. Wikimedia commons.
The Ratskeller became a social meeting place for merchants and civic officials, but it also was built to house a vast wine cellar. This contained thousands of vintages which attested to how the Hanseatic merchants of Bremen wished to collect the wine they traded from all over Europe and store examples of it in their home city for their own consumption. Over six centuries later the Ratskeller remains as one of the oldest functioning wine cellars anywhere in the world with the largest selection of German wines internationally, a testament to the enduring interest of the Hanseatic League in the wine trade.
The Decline of the Hanseatic League
Eventually the Hanseatic League began to decline in power and wealth, not because the trade which it had dominated for centuries was no longer important, but owing to the rise of rival trading and commercial entities.
In particular the port cities of London, Antwerp and Amsterdam emerged as the behemoths of North Atlantic trade in the sixteenth century. Furthermore political tensions within Germany and the Baltic Sea region, brought about by the Protestant Reformation and antagonism within the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, led to internal discord amongst the constituent states of the Hansa.
As a result, in the course of the sixteenth century the League’s role in the trade of Northern Europe declined and indeed by the start of the seventeenth century it had almost been entirely eclipsed in the carrying trade between the North Atlantic and the Baltic Sea by Dutch merchants.
Conclusion – Residual Influence
Despite its decline in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the Hanseatic League continued to influence the shape of European viticulture in tentative ways thereafter.
Perhaps the foremost example of this is the story of Nicolau Kopke and his arrival to Oporto in Portugal in 1636 as the General Consul or representative of the Hanseatic League in Portugal. The League’s involvement in the transport of Doura wines and ports to Northern Europe was still considered significant enough that they needed agents on the ground to manage it in the seventeenth century. But Kopke did more than manage it. Two years after his arrival in Portugal he founded his own port-producing business. The Kopke company which he founded is the oldest still functioning port wine house in Portugal over 380 years later.
Thus, while the Hanseatic League might have held its last parliament in Lubeck in 1669 and was officially wound down in 1862, its influence on Europe’s wine industry has persevered in some ways down to the present day.
The Hanseatic League began as a number of north German cities began to reach agreements with each other concerning trade monopolies and customs dues on goods. The three key founding cities were Lubeck, Hamburg and Bremen, but it soon stretched out to the east, west and north. Over 150 cities and towns in the Baltic and North Sea regions became members, but some were more significant than others. In Germany and further east along the Baltic coast of what are now Poland and the Baltic States:
Tallinn were important members by the fifteenth century.
Further north the main Scandinavian trading cities were: Malmo and Visby in Sweden and Bergen in Norway.
Then heading south-west to the Low Countries we find that Bruges was the most significant member-state in Western Europe, while Cologne dominated the Hansa trade on the River Rhine.
A very important centre to the far east was the powerful republic of Novgorod to the south-west of Moscow. This was the easternmost trading partner of the Hanseatic League and so was a very important link with the trade in furs and other goods from wider Russia into Europe and vice-versa.
European wine was particularly prized in Novgorod and if Hansa merchants brought this product here they could return with cargoes of furs and whale oil which would reap a very rich return on both journeys.
Frederick H. Cramer, ‘The Hanseatic League’, in Current History, Vol. 17, No. 96 (August, 1949), pp. 84–89.
Peter Dollinger, The German Hansa (London, 2000).
Stephen Halliday, ‘The First Common Market?’, in History Today, Vol. 59 (2009), pp. 31–37.
Tom Scott, ‘Medieval Viticulture in the German-speaking lands’, in German History, Vol. 20 (2002), pp. 95–115.
Cornelius Walford, ‘An Outline History of the Hanseatic League, More Particularly in its Bearings Upon English Commerce’, in Transactions of the Royal Historical Society, Vol. 9 (1881), pp. 82–136.
On this Day
6 August 1195 – On in this day in 1195 Henry the Lion, Duke of Saxony and Bavaria, and one of the most powerful rulers in Central Europe during the High Middle Ages, died in Brunswick in Lower Saxony. Henry was known for many things, notably being the primary rival to Emperor Frederick Barbarossa for power across the Holy Roman Empire during the twelfth century.
He was also responsible for re-founding the town of Lubeck on the Baltic Sea coast of northern Germany in 1159. This was a significant action in terms of the history of viticulture, for Lubeck went on to become the founding city in the formation of the Hanseatic League, the network of Northern European trading cities which dominated trade between the Baltic Sea and the North Atlantic throughout the late medieval period.
The Hansa were responsible for much of the wine trade across Northern Europe, transporting Iberian wines to parts of Germany and involving themselves in the carrying trade of French wines to England and parts of Scandinavia. In the process the League shaped much of the viticultural map of Europe for centuries to come.
29 May 1669 – On this day in 1669 the last official meeting of the Hansetag, the parliament of representatives of the main cities involved in the Hanseatic League, occurred in the north German city of Lubeck. Previously dozens of cities from across Europe from Bruges in the Low Countries to Bergen and Stockholm in Scandinavia and eastwards to Novgorod in Russia had sent dignitaries to the annual Hansetag.
But in 1669 only Lubeck, Bremen and Hamburg sent representatives, a sign of how diminished its role in the trade of Northern Europe had become, eclipsed by the ports of London, Antwerp and Amsterdam to the west. Yet, while the Hanseatic League might have eventually declined and died this should not take from its role in the wine trade of Northern and Western Europe throughout the late medieval period.
If you drank French wine in Stockholm in the fifteenth century it had most likely arrived there on board a ship under the flag of the Hanseatic League, while throughout these centuries the Hansa’s role in the wine trade shaped the viticultural landscape of Europe, with even the culinary traditions of northern Germany influenced by wine brought to the region from as far afield as Spain and Portugal by Hansa merchants.
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 Stephen Halliday, ‘The First Common Market?’, in History Today, Vol. 59 (2009), pp. 31–37; Peter Dollinger, The German Hansa (London, 2000).
 Frederick H. Cramer, ‘The Hanseatic League’, in Current History, Vol. 17, No. 96 (August, 1949), pp. 84–89; Stephen Halliday, ‘The First Common Market?’, in History Today, Vol. 59 (2009), pp. 31–37; Cornelius Walford, ‘An Outline History of the Hanseatic League, More Particularly in its Bearings Upon English Commerce’, in Transactions of the Royal Historical Society, Vol. 9 (1881), pp. 82–136.
 Olga Pavlova, ‘The Hanseatic League and the Russian state: the significance of historical experience’, in Advances in Economic, Business and Management Research, Vol. 90 (2019), pp. 245–248.
 Benjamin Arnold, ‘Henry the Lion and his time: Lordship and Representation of the Welf Dynasty, 1125–1235’, in The Journal of Medieval History, Vol. 22, No. 4 (1996), pp. 379–393; Albrecht Cordes, ‘The Lubeck Law Codes (ca. 1224–1642)’, in Stefania Galdroni, et al. (eds.), Migrating Words, Migrating Merchants, Migrating Laws (Leiden, 2020).