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Institutions of Hanseatic Trade

Studies on the Political Economy of a Medieval Network Organisation

Ulf Christian Ewert and Stephan Selzer

The merchants of the medieval Hanse monopolised trade in the Baltic and North Sea areas. The authors describe the structure of their trade system in terms of network organisation and attempts to explain, on the grounds of institutional economics, the coordination of the merchants’ commercial exchange by reputation, trust and culture. The institutional economics approach also allows for a comprehensive analysis of coordination problems arising between merchants, towns and the ‘Kontore’. Due to the simplicity and flexibility of network trade the Hansards could bridge the huge gap in economic development between the West and the East. In the changing economic conditions around 1500, however, exactly these characteristics proved to be a serious limit to further retain their trade monopoly.

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Chapter 5 State of Cities, Commercial Trust, or Virtual Organisation? – Structure and Coordination of the Hanse


The Paradoxical Outward Appearance of the Hanse

The Hanse is probably one of the most dazzling phenomena in the economic as well as in the political history of the Middle Ages. The mere economic facts are quite impressive. From the thirteenth to the early sixteenth centuries the Hansards, who were mostly, as we have seen in the chapters so far, self-employed merchants, could deliver all sorts of goods to the consumers in the ever growing cities all over the Baltic. Merchants also acted as a coordinated group and together defended – with great success – the Hanseatic trade privileges they had once obtained in London, Bruges, Bergen and Novgorod, the places where they founded trading outposts, known as the Kontore of the Hanse.245 Despite the fact that they neither formed large firms nor really adopted state-of-the-art trading techniques, both features that we have discussed at great length in the previous chapters of this book, the merchants were able to maintain their quasi-monopoly of trade on Baltic markets until the turn of the sixteenth century.

The Hanse’s outward appearance has nevertheless been shaped until today by the Hanseatic League, a rather loose alliance of towns that became visible around the mid-fourteenth century as a more or less formal entity although there are good reasons to assume that it had emerged earlier. The Hanseatic League appears as a kind of omnipotent political superstructure of the Hanse, which in fact it never was. And the focus which historians placed...

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