A Shift in the Baltic Trade (ca. 1400-1600)

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Tekstukas apie prekybą Baltijos jūra 1400-1600 metais. Originalus pavadinimas buvo toks: “A Shift in the Baltic Trade: The Change in the Organization of the Baltic Trade ca. 1400-1600“. Rašytas kaip esė prieš kelis metus viešint Turku universitete (Suomija), todėl ir parašytas ne gimtąja kalba. Tikėdamasis, kad nemaža dalis mano skaitytojų ja skaito, palikau tekstą neverstą. Jei atsiras pakankamai pageidaujančių, imsiuosi pamažu jį išversti.

A text on the Baltic Trade ca. 1400-1600. Originally named “A Shift in the Baltic Trade: The Change in the Organization of the Baltic Trade ca. 1400-1600“. Written as an essay a few years ago while in Turku (Finland), thus not in my native tongue. Blogged in english in hopes that my audience will understand anyway. Text might be subjected to translation if readers insist so.


[1] Trade Organization of the Hanseatic League
[2] Dutch Trade in the Baltic
[3] Change and Stability in the Baltic Sea Region



The first thing that needs to be stated before we begin is this: the change, that gradually took place during the 16th century in the Baltic trade is not a new historical issue. There is an immense amount of historical work already done on the subject. Historiography presents us with a good opportunity to view this shift in various angles; nevertheless it has its own serious downside. The amount of historical research consumes a great deal of time to get acquainted with, and even with much more time for that than I had, it requires a careful (and in a way painful) selection of historical research to use. Because of the aforementioned limited amount of time, this task was turned upside down for me – to pick and read the most convenient and useful amount of information on the subject as fast as possible. So, I had to resort to using the biggest (and as new as possible) monographs that could have easily been acquired.

First of all it includes the great work of Jonathan Israel on the history of the Dutch Republic1. However, despite the magnitude of the book itself, the subject researched concerns way more with the political fluctuations in the region than we found useful. The trade, although outlined well in the study, remains a secondary subject – it’s influence and general trends are always noted, but not talked about in real depth. A really interesting study of the Dutch international trading companies by Joost Jonker and Keetie Sluyterman2, on the other hand, does give us a quite clear view on the whole “mechanism” of Dutch trade during the discussed period. For it were the ways the business was organized, as we will later see, that played a significant role in the shift in the Baltic trade. On the Hanseatic side – a solid monograph by Philippe Dollinger3, of which the chapters on the organization of Hansa in its decline was the part that I have found most valuable to this essay. Conception of naval warfare’s role in maritime trade is originally by Stewart P. Oakley4. I also found some additional insights and information in Lars Magnuson’s “Economic History Of Sweden”5, though this work has different goals than those of this essay. The last credits must be given to the experts of the two seas – David Kirby and Fernand Braudel – even though this time they are not on my list of literature.

The main object of this essay is to look at this shift from a moderately new angle. I will make an attempt to look at this change as a change in forms of trade organization. This point, revealing a new perspective to the problem, raises a question: “did Dutch really change that much in the Baltic?”. I will try and point out the things that did really change in the Baltic during this shift – that should not be hard, as the trends of historiography tend to emphasize this change. But more than that – I will try and see the things that remained stable, or only changed gradually in the Baltic trade during the decline of the Hanseatic League and rise of Dutch merchants.

Few things to keep in mind before we plunge into the fresh waters of the Baltic. First, this is not meant to be a thorough or even semi-thorough study of the subject. This essay is intended to give an outline of the problem and suggest new ways to try and resolve it. Second, many of the following statements need to be proved (or disproved) by thorough historical research. Third, to limit the unnecessary rewriting the statements found in the historiography, I will not go into unnecessary detail when it will not be necessary. For the same reason, I am not going to start (as it would be appropriate) with the geographical description of the region. It has been done before, more than once6. And even though in many cases it is, in Braudel’s words: “the traditional geographical introduction to history that often figures to little purpose at the beginning of so many books”7>, there is not much that I can add to them yet.


[1] Trade Organization of the Hanseatic League

The German Hansa, being a dominant trading organization in the Baltic, underwent a serious organizational change just before the Dutch traders appeared in the Baltic. P. Dollinger marked the second half of the 14th century with the change from Hansa of merchants to the Hansa of towns. This was a change in the whole organizational scheme of the Hanseatic trade.

Hanseatic League grew. The extent of the Hanseatic League (the number of members by the middle of 15th century grew up to 180), the geographical coverage of the network also meant a wide range of interests. Even though local interests were quite effectively resolved in local diets, the central diet, led by Lübeck, had to perform a central role in the politics of the whole League. As the League grew, it’s importance grew as well. Organizing a diet of such an immense organization was a challenge in itself, and, of course, it never went as fluently as to be hoped for. Variety of interests and variety of means to avoid accepting unfavorable decisions led to slow response of the organization in general. And this was not a unique trait of Hanseatic diet. Protoparliamentary organizations in the Baltic always had this sort of trouble – for example, Polish-Lithuanian diet, a Sejm, was constantly troubled by misrepresentation of certain locales for the same reasons as the Hanseatic diet – distance and costs of a simple arrival to such a diet’s sessions as well as unwillingness to participate in the deliberation of any personally (or regionally) unfavorable subject. During the second half of the 15th century, the German Hansa developed a large administrative superstructure to control and manage the whole League.

Implementation of such an administrative superstructure can be clearly seen as the change of status of the Kontore of Hansa. They served as a main base of operations for merchants in the key points of trading network and were quite autonomous in 12th to 15th century, thus allowing effectively adapt to rapidly changing political situation. In the second half of 15th century they gradually became subjugated directly to the Hanseatic diet. Each of the Kontore (there were four of them – Novgorod, London, Bergen and Brüge) already had a legal status as a corporation and thus was rigorously regulated by their own statutes. When it became subjected to the towns’ rule, latter began to decrease Kontors’ independence and a second “layer” of administration was additionally implemented on to the former structure.

Even though in general, even after evolving to the Hansa of towns, it remained a ambivalent, fluctuous institution, an organizational superstructure on top of necessary backbone for trade was quite excessive. It, of course, turned Hansa into an influential political power, but adding politics to trade never worked to the benefits of the trader. The major setback was the formation and an understanding of a “law of the common merchant” – a certain set of written and (mostly) non-written rules a member of this merchant community had to follow. Naturally, such things tended not to change and even if they were to be changed, it took a serious amount of time and effort to impose such a change to and through this organizational superstructure. This not only made such an attempts more costly, they decreased the ability to rapidly react to the changes in the Baltic market. And even though there is always a gap between juridical and real situation in historian’s perspective nearly in every sphere of life, breaking the existing law adds to already vast number of risks a merchant is taking, thus dampening the incentive of an individual merchant.


[2] Dutch Trade in the Baltic

http://www.admiraltyship models.co.uk/acatalog/ Batavia_Dutch_VoC_Model _Ship.html

From around the year 1400, Holland’s ships began to sail in impressive numbers both to the Baltic for grain and timber, and western France and Portugal for salt. This was made possible by the developing of the full-rigged seagoing ships, which formed the basis of the subsequently burgeoning bulk-carrying traffic. It was a good time to start sailing to Baltic, for around the year 1400, Hanseatic League with the help of Teutonic Order had driven the recently thriving piracy out of the Baltic sea. Nevertheless, the bulk-carrying trade didn’t start to boom for a century or so. The medieval captain-merchant type of business organization still predominated Dutch trade, Hanseatic league was not yet to give up its positions in the Baltic sea – the trading network of Hansa easily reached the Netherlands themselves. The surplus of grain in the Baltic Sea Region itself (“the mother of all trade”) also was yet to reach its peak.

But by as early as first half of the 15th century, a new business model began to emerge in Holland. It marked a change from medieval to early modern era and stretched up to mid-16th century. The traders still escorted their consignments abroad, handled business in person and resorted to barter trade and coins, instead of rudimentary bills. This was not yet an early modern era type of international companies. But, for bigger ventures and sharing risks, merchants signed short term contracts – for single journey or consignment. It carried enough capital power for a medium ranged operations, such as Baltic trade. Such a business model encouraged trade, for it carried less individual risks without yet having a notable insurance infrastructure. The network of contacts and trainees allowed merchant to take care of both sides of the trade (for example, Danzig and Amsterdam) at the same time. This was a more complex way to organize business than captain-merchant type of trade, but it still left only necessities and no additional burden (no, so to speak, politics) in business.

Even greater importance of such a model was its ultimate ambivalence and ability to change. Short term ventures allowed to learn from own mistakes, apply newest information and knowledge rapidly and it required nothing more but a merchant’s personal decision. This meant, that even facing pressure from foreign political powers, ultimately trade could adapt itself easily and rapidly with the change of certain circumstances. Embargoes and similar political decisions, that could force such a huge political as well as economic entity as Hansa to act on the same level – good example of that is an active participation of Haseatic league in the political affairs of the Baltic in 14th century – had nearly no lasting effect on small-celled Dutch trade organism. In 1605, for instance, Lambert van Tweenhuysen received a warning from his correspondent in Seville not to sail for Spain with a Dutch ship or crew, because of new harsh penalties on trade with the Republic. Consequently he instructed his captain to sail from Amsterdam to Archangelsk, deliver the cargo and take a new load on board. Then to dismiss the Dutch crew and engage English, French or Scandinavian sailors for the return trip to Spain8. This example illustrates the merchant’s ability to change according to the changing circumstances.


[3] Change and Stability in the Baltic Sea Region

The general trend of historiography is to stress the novelty of Dutch technology as a main factor of their success. The political circumstances are as well a noted factor of the Dutch miracle in the Baltic – decline of the Hanseatic league, the absence of piracy in the Baltic. But what needs to be mentioned as well is their superiority in organizing the business. The ability to quickly react to changing circumstances was essential and it was made easy by having an individual merchant to carry the incentive and responsibility of every operation. The reaction itself, nevertheless, depended on the ability to gather and evaluate information on the changes in the market. Thus equipping a new ship with a new, smaller or bigger crew depended on the man, getting the information directly. Gathering and using the gathered information efficiently allowed Dutch traders to minimize the risks of loss and send out up to three ships per year to do the “Baltic run” – from Amsterdam to western France for salt, then to Danzig to unload the salt and load the grain and back again – this run took four to fourteen weeks depending on the sailing conditions. In the meantime the Hanseatic merchants did two runs per year. There can be no doubt, that technological advances were one of the important factors in the creation of the Dutch Baltic trade monopoly. But the dynamics of the trade organization was the underlying cause of the superior competitive ability of the Dutch merchants. A decline of Hanseatic League did not mean that main cities involved in trade were physically diminished – a decline meant, that due to its own administrative weight Hanseatic merchants were unable to keep up with the paces and the prices offered by the Dutch.

The general idea of the importance of the shift between Hanseatic League and Dutch controlled trade in the Baltic has one essential flaw pre-programmed in it. It is obvious, that the decline of the German Hansa was a cause of major political fluctuation in the political stage of the Baltic Sea Region. Thus it seems plausible, that this made other things, for example, the market and the economy in general, change. But it might be a false assumption, if we would look at it from a different perspective. The change meant that the major entrepôt changed – Lübeck was replaced by Amsterdam. One of the political tools was removed from the area, and the ability to control trade, as the Hanseatic League had it, was diminished to protection-selling, that Denmark and Sweden later had their monopolies in. But it resulted in nothing more, but a change in the political scene. The main trade ports – Riga, Danzig, Stockholm, Novgorod, as well as Reval and Dorpat – retained their status and importance in general – political, as well as economical. The trading routes did not change – changed only the people (in some cases even they remained the same) who were taking those routes. Nor did the trade itself change – the balance of trade remained highly positive (lots of exported goods out of the Baltic Sea Region), the goods exported, as well as imported, remained the same as well.

At this point an attentive reader could object: the magnitude of the trade changed – the goods were exported in progressively larger amounts. Yes, that is correct. But here we have yet another thing, rarely taken into consideration. Some changes in the Baltic Sea Region cannot be related to the fluctuation of entrepôts. 15th and 16th centuries in one of the two biggest grain exporters – Grand Duchy of Lithuania – was the age of economic growth, especially in the northern part of it. Constant demographic growth meant inner colonization, more arable land and larger surplus of grain. The ever-tightening network of small towns with markets shows the same trend. It culminated in 1547, when the agricultural reform was begun, implementing three-way system in the king’s domain at first and rapidly spreading to noblemen’s domains. This increased the amounts of grain from the same amount of land fourfold, the new administrational system increased the effectiveness of distributing it. In other words – more exported grain does not necessarily mean the capability of the ships and traders. It does well correspond to the general growth of agriculture in the Baltic Sea Region. Of course, a more direct approach is needed to define the relation between these two factors – agriculture and export – but that is not the object of this essay.



The worst thing that can happen to a “historical truth” is that it stops being questioned. Thus it is always fruitful and necessary to look for alternative points of view on any subject in history.

  1. The shift in the Baltic in the means of trade organization is quite clear. The German Hansa, being buried by its own weight, had gradually lost its effectiveness. It never became a solid political entity, but became large enough to become cumbersome. The new influx of more dynamic, more competitive Dutch traders was decisive for the Hanseatic merchants.
  2. A small-celled, individual organism of Dutch trade, proved to be more efficient than declining Hanseatic League. The ability to individually react to political changes, market fluctuations and even changing sailing conditions, inevitable individual competition, ability to share risks and to muster enough capital for profitable trade, was one of the important conditions that in a long run made Dutch a dominant mercantile power in the Baltic.
  3. Dutch brought new technology as well as new trade organization into the Baltic. A tool of controlling the regional trade was taken away from the region itself, which left maritime powers with a mere ability to selling protection for the foreign traders.
  4. Economic history, although in some cases, hardly traceable, needs to be viewed in a different angle than rapidly changing political history. It opens up new perspectives, allowing us to see the economic change in its own light. A changing entrepôt – from Lübeck to Amsterdam – had a limited effect on the Baltic market in general. The trading hubs remained the same, as didn’t the economic trends change.
  5. The economic trends in the Baltic Sea Region cannot be fully understood without taking the development of the region itself into account.

1Israel, I. Jonathan. The Dutch Republic : It’s Rise, Greatness and Fall. 1477-1806. New York, NY, U.S.A.: Oxford University Press, 1995.

2Jonker, Joost. Sluyterman, Keetie. At Home on the World Markets : Dutch International Trading companies from the 16th Century Until the Present. Montreal, QC, Canada: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2001.

3Dollinger, Phillipe. Casson, Mark. The German Hansa: The Emergence of International Business, 1200-1800. London, U.K; New York, NY, U.S.A.: Routledge, 2000.

4Oakley, Stewart P. War and Peace in the Baltic, 1560-1790. Florence, KY, USA: Routledge, 1993.

5Magnusson, Lars. An Economic History of Sweden. London, UK: Routledge, 2000.

6Good example is: Oakley, S., p. 4-8.

7Braudel, Fernand. The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World in the Age of Philip II. Vol. 1. Berkley; Los Angeles, CA, U.S.A.; London, U.K., University of California Press, 1995. p. 20.

8Joonker, J. p. 40.


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