Hanseatic City of Bremen
The people of Bremen are often seen as traditional, level-headed and cosmopolitan; noble even and perhaps a little formal – typically Hanseatic, one might say. But what does that actually mean? Where does the term Hanseatic come from, and what relevance does it hold for Bremen today?
To answer that, we need to step back in time a few years. The Hanseatic League was one of the most influential international trading guilds in Europe. It comprised around 70 cities and up to 130 smaller towns. Hamburg, Lübeck and Bremen were among its most famous members, but other notable Hanseatic cities included Berlin and Krakow. At its height, the League held sway over an area that would now encompass more than 20 modern European countries. At times, its power was so great that it could enforce economic blockades and wage wars against principalities and kingdoms. For over 400 years, until around the time the Americas were discovered, the members of the Hanseatic League played an important role in shaping politics and trade in the areas around the North and Baltic seas.
The League first took shape in the middle of the 12th century as a very small union of merchants. The group, known in Low German as Hanse, afforded protection to members when on their travels. As a collective, their shared interests could be better represented at the ports they visited. It is impossible to pinpoint the exact date the Hanseatic League was established, because individual merchant unions were formed one by one in different towns, cities and regions. Long before they became famous football rivals, Hamburg and Bremen were known to have clashed from time to time. In 1418, for example, it is said that these two Hanseatic cities could not agree which year the organisation had been formed and eventually turned to Cologne to settle their dispute. But Cologne could not offer an answer either. Despite this, Hamburg and Bremen have shown that they can work together: up until the end of the 19th century, long after the demise of the Hanseatic League, the two cities shared diplomatic representative offices and consulates all around the world.
By the middle of the 13th century, structural changes in Europe saw the original Hanseatic League, which connected the individual merchants, transformed into an alliance that united towns and cities. Once the trade routes became safer and the merchants were able to settle in the many market towns and cities that had been established, they no longer depended on the protection of travelling collectives. Trading became far more lucrative for merchants, because they could send multiple representatives from their home town to different cities at the same time. Furthermore, the introduction of promissory notes and other forms of credit meant that the merchants were no longer restricted to trade by bartering, which opened up many more opportunities for them.
Of particular importance at the time of the Hanseatic cities were the Hanseatic Conventions, where specific motions were discussed. However, the envoys were not authorised to approve or reject a motion. After the convention, they would travel home to present the outcome to the aldermen. Conflicting business interests meant that motions were never passed by all members, but were at least debated until almost all parties were in agreement.
The successful merchants were highly regarded in their respective cities and were elected onto city councils and given other positions of importance. Bremen still has a number of grand mercantile houses that were built by the wealthy Hanseatic traders. The names of some streets and squares also make reference to the guild, such as Hanseatenhof in the city centre.
Nowhere is Bremen’s former affiliation with the Hanseatic League more evident than on the city’s market square. Here, you will find the stone statue of Roland, which, together with the town hall, is a UNESCO World Heritage site. The figure of Roland is a global symbol of freedom and of the trading rights bestowed upon the merchants. Bremen’s Roland, which dates back over 600 years, is one of the oldest and most splendid of the many Roland statues across Europe. The Schütting on the market square, which now serves as the chamber of commerce, was once the merchants’ guildhall. The name Schütting possibly comes from the word zusammenschütten (pour together), which conveys an image of the merchants’ money being poured into one pot. Other possible derivations are the Norwegian term scoting, a house that offers warmth and protection, or the Low German word schütten, meaning ‘to protect’. Bremen’s magnificent cathedral, built during the Hanseatic era, hosted meetings of aldermen and gatherings of citizens.
Major turning points that led to the demise of the Hanseatic League were the discovery of the Americas and the expansion of trade outside Europe. Competition became increasingly fierce for Hanseatic merchants and the League gradually lost more and more of its economic and political influence. The final Hanseatic Convention, at which Hamburg, Lübeck and Bremen were made the official bearers of Hanseatic heritage, took place in 1669. Until 1990, when various former Hanseatic towns and cities put ‘Hanseatic’ back into their names, these three cities were the only ones to have this designation in their official title.
Once the Hanseatic League of cities was dissolved, the term Hanseaten came to denote members of the upper classes in these three official Hanseatic cities. These days, however, the term describes all residents of Hamburg, Lübeck and Bremen. An important attribute that was always associated with the Hanseaten was pride. They are said to have considered their three home cities the most beautiful places on earth. And you won’t find many Bremen residents who disagree with them today.
Another significant and hugely popular ‘leftover’ from the Hanseatic era is the city’s Freimarkt. Bremen was first permitted to hold a regular market in 1318. At the start of the 19th century, what was then a goods market began its transformation into the colourful Freimarkt festival that now attracts four million visitors each year.
The Hanseatic League and its positive attributes live on in the public consciousness. It stands for trust, reliability and, of course, the commercial success that the organisation once enjoyed. To benefit from these positive associations, many businesses incorporate the word Hanse (Hanseatic) into their company names. There are Hanseatic insurance companies, Hanseatic hotels, Hanseatic restaurants and even Hanseatic estate agents. Just take a look around and you’ll find plenty of examples.
In 1980, the ‘new’ Hanseatic League was formed, with the aim of promoting trade, particularly tourism, in the former Hanseatic cities. From its base in Lübeck, this organisation sets out to revive the spirit of the Hanseatic League through a thriving cultural alliance between the cities. For more information, visit www.hanse.org.