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Main page / Veliky Novgorod - the city of Hansa / Novgorod and Hansa. The History
Novgorod and Hansa. The History

The Hanseatic League represented a strategic trade partner of medieval Novgorod which in the14th – 16th cc. consolidated North German cities with Lubeck in the head (officially till 1669).

The Hanseatic league was established to provide safe trade on better terms and conditions as it mediated between productive regions of Eastern, Northern, Western and partially Central Europe, gaining great profit out of that. There are two periods in the history of Hansa:

In 1356 the league of the cities and towns “German Hansa” were finally formed. The league aimed North German merchant protecting. The convention was the superior body. All the decisions made by the convention majority were obligatory to be carried out by all the Hanseatic cities and towns including ones that were not represented at the convention for some reason. The league never had strict border limits and thus, in its heyday Hansa united up to 100 cities and towns.

Hansa heyday resulted from the victory over Denmark (1367 – 1370) in the war of safe and free sailing in the Sound. The channel connected the Baltic with the North Sea and was essential for Hansa trade. Hansa didn’t have constant finances, army or navy and its armaments consisted of the army and navy of different cities. Nevertheless, Hansa won the war against the most powerful at that time enemy the kingdom of Denmark and on May 24, 1370, there was the Treaty of Stralsund concluded. It assured the Hanseatic League of safe and privileged trade. Moreover, 4 fortresses on the East Sound were given to the Hanseatic League along with the two thirds of duty on them. The kingdom of Denmark also agreed to such humiliating conditions as not to elect any new kings without consent of the Hanseatic League. The Treaty finally resulted in trade monopoly of Hansa in the Baltic.

Novgorod was the leading trade partner of the medieval Hansa in Eastern Europe during its existence. Novgorod exported goods that had been also brought from other Russian lands. There was one of the greatest Hanseatic depots, located in Novgorod, along with all the others in London, Brugge (Finland), Bergen (Norway).

In the 11th -12th cc. Novgorod had already got trade outpost of Gotland merchants – so called St. Olavhof (“hof” for “courtyard”, German) with the church of St. Olav which was called “Varangian chapel” by the Novgorodians. It was damaged by the fire of 1152 when former Novgorod marketplace was burnt down. There was Novgorod coaching inn with a church in Visby (Gotland) - the remains of it are still over there.

Later in the 12th c. German merchants primarily from Lubeck and other North German cities and towns came to Novgorod. They founded St. Peterhof in Novgorod – the courtyard of St. Peter (named after St. Peter Church of 1192).

Nowadays the Gothic courtyard has been replaced by the hotel “Rossiya” and the German courtyard – damaged by ages – is right opposite the Church of the Dormition in the Marketplace between ancient Slavnaya and Ilina streets (present Bolshaya Moskovskaya street).

Forming “The Hanseatic League of cities and towns” Lubeck and Visby resulted in uniting Gothic and German courtyards in Novgorod under mutual governing. The courtyards were connected with the road that passed through prince’s courtyard.

Hansa courtyards didn’t have constant population. The Germans came to Novgorod twice a year – in summer and winter. Being like fortresses the courtyards were paled with logs.

Inside the courtyards there were:

In the evening there were courtyard gates tight closed, dogs let loose inside, guard being on duty.

Novgorod officials had no rights to interfere with the internal afairs of the Hansahof. Thus, Novgorod depots was the most independent and isolated from the city it is located in comparing to all the other Hansa depots in London, Brugge, Bergen, etc.

Novgorod Trade with Hansa. Export and Import

Due to Novgorod there was a thriving trade between old-Russia and Hansa. Thus, the leading medieval Russian exports included furs and wax, being highly valued all around Europe. There were a lot of western European monarchs and persons of distinctions wearing expensive fur coats, and hats made of rich Novgorod furs of ermine, sable, marten; Russian wax candles were lit on the grand altars of gothic cathedrals.

As squirrel fells as they are were the most saleable, they were abundantly exported to Western Europe. The most valuable furs were counted in pieces or sometimes in ‘soroka’s (Russian ‘sorok’ stands for English ‘forty’ pieces), squirrel fur – in hundreds or thousands or vats (up to 12 thousand fells could be placed in a vat). In 1350s a German merchant Wittenborg sold about 65,000 fells in three years. They were squirrel fells mainly, brought from Novgorod. In 1418 – 1419 another merchant Foeckinghausen bought 29000 fells in spite of ban against trade with Novgorod caused by disagreement between partners that used to happen sometimes.

According to A. L. Khoroshkevich, a researcher of ancient Novgorod trade, in the 14th – 15th cc. Novgorod annually exported over 500000 fells to Western countries.

Apiculture (collecting honey and wild beeswax), widespread in old-Russia, provided abundant wax exporting. Volga region, lands of Smolensk, Polock, Muromsk, Ryazan and Novgorod districts (‘pyatina’s) supplied Novgorod market with wax. From here it was imported to Western market by Hansa and Russia. Wax was sold in “wheels”. Each wheel was supposed to be of a certain weight (in the 15th c. – about 160 kg) and certain quality that was certified by a special official seal imprinting “God’s good” on wax. That meant that being spurious the good had been approved by God.

Along with furs and wax during the last decades of independence age and even later the Novgorodians exported leather, leather goods, including footwear, to Western countries. Sometimes they exported some agriculture goods and game birds (falcons).

A lot of essential goods were imported from Western countries as well. Most of them were sold in other Russian cities. Expensive fabrics especially broadcloth, nonferrous metal used in many arts were the most popular.

Goods of local weavers met all the demands of the population for daily life clothes. As for festive dressing, noble Novgorodians preferred to buy fabrics brought from abroad. The cloth produced in Ypre, Gent, Brugge in Flanders was the most popular. According to Russian chronicles, the Ypre broadcloth and scarlet (one of red colour) considered to be an expensive present for important people.

Hansa merchants brought here brass, lead, tin and other essential crafts materials, including alum used for leather tanning, parchment production. Imported Baltic amber was used for making jewellery; imported arsenic, quicksilver, vitriol were used in crafts as well.

Baltic herring, salt, and bread (in case of lean year) were also imported. According to a chronicler, in 1231 the Germans brought bread ands thus, saved the exhausted Novgorodians from starving to death.

Hansa merchants brought here French, Hispanic, Rhine and Greek wines. Moreover, in Novgorod courtyards the Germans brewed beer, mainly for themselves, and partially for sale.

Breaking bans from the West, caused by often wars with Novgorod, Hansa merchants sometimes brought arms and horses.

Novgorod merchant leagues

In Middle Ages, conducting trade, especially international one, was extremely dangerous: while traveling a merchant faced natural disasters such as storms and gales, but the main threat was caused by robbers. That’s why for long journeys merchants got together and, thus, traveled in big armed groups. It was very difficult even for professional warriors to fight them. To protect interests the merchants founded special corporations, guilds.

The same units were quite common in Novgorod as well. There they were called merchant sotnyas (“sotnya” or “sto” stands for English “hundred”). The leading Novgorod merchant union was the so-called “Ivan’s sto” The church of St. Ivan the Forerunner on the Marketplace - preserved till these days – used to belong to them. According to the regulations of “Ivan’s Hundred”, remained till now, the corporation united the merchants, trading with wax. It had an exceptional right to weight all wax coming to Novgorod market and collect wax dues.

In the early 13th c. “foreign merchants” (a union of Novgorod merchants, conducting trade abroad) built a stone church of Parasceva the Friday (the protectress of merchants).
The church profited from a special due, taken from foreign merchants. 

Corporate culture of Medieval Russia

Mutual celebrations and feasts appeared to be the leading features of various medieval unions. In old-Russia, they were called “bratchinas” which symbolized fellowship (Russian ‘brat’ stands for English ’brother’). St. John Day appeared to be a traditional celebration of “Ivan’s Hundred” and lasted for 3 days.

A big fee let the richest Novgorod merchant unions invite three most important religious people to conduct praying service in their churches. The first day was for the archbishop, the second for St. George archimandrite, the third one for Father Superior of St. Anthony monastery.

Relations between Hansa members and Novgorodians

Trade relations of German merchants and Novgorodians were regulated by special treaties (the most ancient refers to the 12th c.) and a special charter of Hansahof (‘skra’).

As the most essential there were articles of an agreement on providing the Germans with “safe travel” to Novgorod land and the Novgorodians with safe trade around the Baltic.

In other articles there were statements about terms of merchant trips across foreign lands and about penalties for harm-doing and resolution of cases between the Russians and the Germans.

Hurt made to the group of merchants or even one of them very often could be the reason of rupture of relations for several years.

Hostility usually accompanied by measures of repression against all merchants of the opposite party (arrest or seizure). Thus, hostility appeared as a result of robbery of Novgorod merchants in Narva, lasted for seven years. In response Novgorod authorities confiscated trade goods of Hansa merchants in Novgorod, though they didn’t bear any relation to the events in Narva. In 1392 a peace treaty was signed (Nibur peace) after which the parties came to agreement and trade continued.

Even the most acute issues between trade partnerships sooner or later ended with peace treaty: trade with western Europe was profitable for both Novgorod and German merchants.

The main features of Russian – Hansa trade in Novgorod were the following:

According to the charter of German courtyard, Hansa merchants were strongly prohibited under the thread of big money penalty and deprivation of “rights of courtyard” (a merchant lost the opportunity to come with trade aims to Novgorod)

A lot of manuscripts describing trade activity in Novgorod has survived. That’s why many historians of 19-20 centuries were sure that trade was the base of Novgorod economy. But it’s not true enough. From foreign countries the articles of luxury and soft goods for handicraft production were mainly imported. Novgorod export gave an opportunity to buy imported goods. Contemporary historians do not deny possibility of trade but they have proved that the base of economy was agriculture along with the developed handicraft.

After Novgorod annexation to Moscow it still had the position of leading partner of Hansa and didn’t lost its leading trade positions in Russia. But starting from 15 c. step by step Hansa was falling into decay. One of the reason was trade competition of English and Holland merchants. Hansa finally lost its predominance in the second half of 16 c. when new sea ways, which connected Europe with Asia were open.

The article is based on the material of historian
Vasily Feodorovich Andreev

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