glyph 186: alliance, trader cities, hansa . simple agreements . complex order . consensus, abstention, dissociation, tolerance for ambiguity ... history, baltic, germany ... sovereignty services, regulatory arbitrage ... civil society, history ... alternative to centralized economic state ... James C. (Jim) Bennett
The following is taken (with permission) from James C. Bennett's The Anglosphere Challenge.
Political forms other than centralized economic states once provided to their participants many of the services which citizens today receive. In this regard, the Hanseatic League provided voluntary links between a large number of existing and emerging cities in what is now Germany and the Baltic states. The Hanse avoided taking on any of the trappings of power, and always presented itself as a humble service organization. In fact, the provision of a number of mundane services (equivalent to those carried on today by consulates or trade ministries) comprised the bulk of its activity. It was particularly careful to deny any pretensions to sovereignty or challenge the legitimacy of existing powers. Every one of its member cities was formally under the sovereignty of some prince or independent state.
The Middle Ages enjoyed a market in sovereignty services to a certain degree, such as is now returning. Whenever the Hanse needed state sovereignty to vest its actions with authority, it was always able to find some state willing to lend its cover, usually for a price or because its interest coincided with that of the Hanse. When it needed military force, which it used primarily to protect the activities of its members, it usually rented warships from its member cities and suggested contributions from the beneficiaries to pay for them. It usually characterized its military activities as suppression of piracy, which, given the nature of the princes of that time, was essentially true.
The Hanse was a coalition of the willing. It never required unanimity for action, nor did it act by majority vote. Those parties that felt a need to do something consulted each other and upon reaching consensus, proceeded to execute the decision, while those who remained outside the consensus disassociated themselves from it. Often Hanseatic communications would list those cities that exempted or disassociated themselves from the matter at hand.
The Hanse tolerated a high degree of ambiguity. It is still not clear to historians which cities belonged to the Hanse, or how many there ever were. (Somewhere between 180 and 200 is the consensus.) Each city was also free to negotiate its own terms of membership, which varied widely.
The only common institution was the Hanseatic Diet, which was strictly a forum for mutual discussion and the formation of suballiances to accomplish specific tasks. However, a consensus would emerge from the Deit that effectively shaped Hanseatic policy. Some cities seem not to have attended a Diet at all in the five hundred years of the Hanse's existence, though they were considered to be Hanseatic cities in good standing; most attended sporadically.
The Hanse was enormously influential for five hundred years but fell apart as soon as it ceased to be mutually beneficial to its members. The principal cause for its demise appears to have been its insistence on confining itself to German cities and excluding the rising Dutch cities from membership, giving them an incentive for rivalry; and in gradually excluding non-Germans from membership in its eastern European institutions. The Hanse gained immense strength from its flexibility. Appropriately enough, unwillingness to extend that flexibility was the proximate cause of its downfall.
Despite its limitations, we can see the seeds of civil society and its characteristic institutions in the Hanse. It had frameworks within which individuals and voluntary groups pursued their own purposes, rather than mechanisms for mobilizing the constituent members for a "higher" purpose determined by a state elite.
It used force solely to protect peaceful activity, rather than to impose an order on others; and it created a network of evolved institutions rather than a uniform pattern to which all subsidiary institution had to conform.
The Hanse flourished over several centuries, and in its time it dominated the Baltic and allied regions politically, economically, and militarily. Yet it had no ruler, no army or navy, no compulsory powers of taxation, eminent domain, or conscription over anybody, and no permanent employees. In fact, scholars have been unable to agree on precisely what cities and states were members, for how long, or even when it started or ended.
entered before July 9, 2006; edited/updated January 26, 2016