WHILE merchants and mariners in southern Europe —the Italian city-States in particular, were profiting from the Crusades, their counterparts in northern Europe also were reviving trade and flourishing.
By the late 10th Century, nobles in Flanders had repelled the Vikings and re-established order.
Long a centre of cloth production, the Flemish manufacturers traded their products with Scandinavians for furs and other products.
The merchants would bring their cloth to areas where sheep were being raised and trade for raw wool, which would be turned into more cloth in Flanders, and then the process would be repeated.
The Flemish trade area ran from England to Germany, where water transport was possible.
They did not reach Italy, though, since land transport remained quite poor and parts of the western Mediterranean were still controlled by the Moslems.
Another commercial revival took place in northern Europe, centred around the Baltic Sea.
In the middle of the 12th Century, German merchants established outposts on the Swedish island of Gotland, and, in London, in an area known as ‘the Steelyard’. They led the way in rekindling trade in the towns along the Rhine River, such as Dortmund and Munster, while also expanding along the south Baltic coast.
In the 13th Century, the rising cities of Lubeck and Hamburg allied themselves to protect
northern roads and the Baltic trade routes and from this evolved what later came to be known as the Hanseatic League, which included Luneberg, Wismar, Rostock, Stralsund and other towns concerned with commerce. The earliest membership list appeared in 1360, at which time there were 52 members.
The Hansa towns actively traded raw materials, such as timber, pitch, iron and copper, as well as livestock, salted fish, leather, wool, grain, beer, and the like; and they prospered, with Lubeck coming to be known as ‘the Venice of the North’.
They traded in an area bounded by Russia to the east, England to the west, and Scandinavia to the north, setting up ‘factories’, or branch offices, where trade was the most active.
From the factories they would sally forth with their mercenaries and oblige providers of raw materials to accept their prices.
When the Hansa towns attempted to spread their influence to the south, they were blocked by yet another commercial alliance, the Rhenish League, formed in 1254 by Cologne, Mainz, Speyer, Worms, Strasbourg, and Basel.
Still further south, Augsburg, Ulm and Nuremberg handled the trade coming north from Italy.
Thus, merchants led the way to European economic revival, and were the up and coming class on the continent.
There were Hanseatic factories in the Italian city-States. Lubeck, in particular, did a lively business in carved wooden rosary beads, the first European manufactured product to be standardised.
Through the ‘putting out’ system, families would concentrate on their production of these beads, with even a measure of specialisation of labour.
The Hanseatic League would engage in military action if its members considered it desirable.
The first unified assault came in 1367 when the members attacked Denmark, captured Copenhagen and forced King Waldemar IV to accept the Treaty of Stralsund three years later.
By then, he had relinquished to the League four castles in Scania, which dominated the maritime approaches to Copenhagen, two-thirds of Scanian revenues for 15 years and the right to veto the succession to the Danish throne.
The treaty marked the apogee of Hanseatic power.
Thereafter, the rise of Burgundy and the Netherlands, together with growing opposition to its strength from England, Scandinavia and Russia caused the League to decline.
The lack of a cohesive internal structure also hurt and although the League continued on until 1669, it no longer possessed a shadow of its 14th Century power.
The major profits in the 14th and 15th Centuries in the Mediterranean came from carrying large quantities of fairly mundane products or small quantities of high-priced items.
The merchants went to the Orient or traded with Constantinople.
Merchants who concentrated on the former did quite well for themselves.
Chinese and Persian silks were prized items in Europe. Indian cotton cloth was more expensive than wool. Emeralds from India, Burmese rubies and Ceylonese sapphires were all highly valued.
In a 14th Century merchant’s handbook were listed 288 different kinds of spices, but this included such items as glue, gums, waxes and several different varieties of sugar, which, in this period, sold in small quantities at high prices and almost all of which came from Crete and Cyprus.
Pepper was the most popular spice, much of which came from India.
Cinnamon came from Ceylon, nutmegs from the Banda Islands off the southern coast of New Guinea, while cloves were obtained from the Moluccas, also near New Guinea, to the west.
Except for products from the Americas, European merchants had created what we call ‘a global economy’ today, by the 15th century.
Most Mediterranean commerce, however, was of the ‘staple’ variety, with grain the most important cargo —understandable when you consider that approximately 60 million people lived in the countries and city-States that surrounded the Mediterranean, many in places where the soil’s productivity was poor.
The Italian cities and others on the northern littoral and along the western Mediterranean coast were never self-sufficient in grains.
They imported large quantities from the Nile Valley, Syria and other parts of the Levant.
In return, they sent wine and olive oil to the south and in addition, Venice was a major supplier of salt.
There was fishing throughout the region.
But the Mediterranean could not meet the demands for salted fish.
Italian, Spanish and especially Portuguese fishermen went into the Atlantic, bringing in hauls from as far away as the banks of Newfoundland.
Just as the European reach to the east for trade occurred earlier than many appreciate, so the stretch across the Atlantic before Columbus often has not been recognised.
Other foodstuffs that figured in trade at this time included cheese, raisins, nuts and fruit.
Dr Michelina Andreucci is a Zimbabwean-Italian researcher, industrial design consultant and is a published author in her field.
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