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Exploring the Dutch cities of the Hanseatic League

In the Middle Ages, while Amsterdam was still a tiny fishing village, cities in the eastern part of the Netherlands flourished. They were part of the Hanseatic League, a trading network of cities stretching from the German Rhineland, the Baltics, Scandinavia, Belgium, Poland, Spain, Portugal and London. The name derives from “hanse”, German for “guild or company.” At its peak, the League had more than 220 member cities.

The cities traded grain, fish, salt, wood, beer, wine, textiles, beeswax and pelts. Water was their lifeline – the cities all sit along rivers or the sea. The Koggeschip (Cog ship in Dutch) was the primary means of transporting goods.

Zwolle, a Hanseatic city
Zwolle, a Hanseatic city

First developed in the 10th century and made of oak wood, the Koggeschip measured 15 to 25 metres in length and could hold 200 tons. They also doubled as warships, logical given the value of what they transported. The essential advantage of the Koggeschip was that it would navigate difficult seas, which was especially important for the unpredictable North Sea.

These cities all feature ornate Gothic architecture, especially in churches, municipal offices, banks and city gates. The wealth brought by trade funded painters, architects, writers and philosophers, making the cities attractive destinations for immigrants.

The League grew in strength, consolidated control and governance and wanted to develop and extend a commercial monopoly on trade throughout Northern Europe. There were attempts at creating a political union, but these plans never came to fruition.

Hanseatic cities in The Netherlands

The Hanseatic League was not just an economic partnership. At times, the League used force. In 1368, the League went to war with Denmark. Years earlier, the League helped install Valdemar IV Atterdag to the Danish crown, but after his ascension, the king seized two cities of the southwestern Baltic to control the herring trade. The League met and decided to go to war and won. As concessions from Denmark, the League received complete control of the Sound waterways and the right to determine the Danish royal succession for the next two decades.

Yet, membership in the League remained voluntary. However, the League maintained power over its towns through fear of economic sanction or expulsion. Slowly, the League’s power dwindled. Scandinavia grew closer economically and politically, united under Margaret I in 1397. Lithuania and Poland united in 1386, and in the 15th century, Russia came to prominence, expelling Hanseatic merchants and leaving the league altogether. The English and the Dutch expanded their trading and naval prowess in the early 17th century.

The herring trade in Scandinavia collapsed as the amount of herring caught dwindled, perhaps due to overfishing. Fishing in the North Sea, dominated by the English and the Dutch, filled the gap.

Eventually, European states focused more on developing internal economic policies, consolidating power within their borders. The Hanseatic League was an almost anti-nation state union that, as countries developed, ceased to have power or influence. Its last official meeting was held in 1699.

Lastly, colonising lands far away required military and economic resources and attention.

The Netherlands has 22 Hanseatic cities, 9 of which are on the Ijssel River or its tributaries: Deventer, Doesburg, Elburg, Harderwijk, Hasselt, Hattem, Kampen, Zwolle, and Zutphen. These are some of the most well-preserved cities in The Netherlands and are generally free from the mobs of tourists in the western provinces. You can reach them easily by train, bus, car and bike.

Deventer, in particular, stands out. Once the printing press capital of Northern Europe, the city holds the continent’s largest second-hand book fair every year in August. The riverbank and Medieval streets are lined with stalls selling antique and contemporary books. Deventer also hosts an annual Charles Dickens festival in December with readings, lectures and performances.


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