The Hanseatic League, or the German Hansa, was a trade organization that for 500 years controlled much of the trade in northern Europe and in all the countries around the Baltic Sea. "Hansa" comes from the German "hanse", meaning association. 

First mentioned in mid 12th century, the Hansa started out as an organization for German - or more precisely Westphalian and Saxon - merchants working abroad. They started traveling together, and opened permanent branches of their businesses abroad,  together. For instance, the Swedish city of Visby in the Baltic Sea became an important hub where all German merchant going to the important Russian trade city Novgorod gathered .

In 1159, Lübeck became an administrational center for the activities abroad, with its strategic place in the south of the Baltic Sea. Soon after that, the Baltic countries Latvia, Estonia, Lithuania and also Belarus established towns along the coast in order to trade with the Hansa; Reval, Riga, Danzig/Gdansk etc. The Hansa helped form hundreds of cities in northern Europe at this time, in exchange for exclusive trading rights and other privileges

In the early 13th century, the Hanseatic League had a near monopoly of the overseas and long distance land trade. In the same way, Hansa merchants from Cologne had acquired privileges in trading with England and Holland. At the mid-century, most German cities had adopted to the Hanseatic League, using its branches abroad for trade. Permanent branches now existed in major cities such as London, Novgorod and Brügge. In 1265, all the towns in northern Germany had the "law of Lübeck" with respect to defense of merchants and their business. The final step toward the creation of the League, was when in 1280 the confederation of merchants working in western Europe joined the ones trading in the Baltic.

The Hanseatic League built lighthouses, struck hard on piracy and even hired armies for defense and wars. By the 14th century, the growing League held and increased its control over the trade by negotiations, bribes, blockades, embargos and even war. In 1370 the Danish king Valdemar Atterdag/Valdemar IV was defeated when he tried to limit the monopoly of the Germans. The League was also an important political power. It stabilized the political scene in Europe by not taking the part of the strongest. 

The Hansa traded timber, grain, furs, different foods, cloth, copper and iron. It spread locally produced goods over the whole continent. The League was governed by representatives from the participating cities, and these met on an irregular basis. At its height, some 70 towns were active members and another 130 were passive member cities. The Hansa were organized into four regional Hansas; one based in Lübeck, one based in Cologne and one based in Visby and Riga.

From the beginning of the 15th century, the Hansa started to stagnate. The exploration and exploitation of the rest of the world at this time made the economic and trade focal point move west, towards the Atlantic coast of Europe. Also, some of the German cities in the Hansa started fighting with each other over regional issues. Lithuania and Poland united, just like Sweden, Norway and Denmark did and this created more powerful counterparts for the League. Also, The Netherlands and England started opposing the Hansa by helping their own merchants control the trade. The 15th and 16th century were ones of protectionism.

In the 16th century, the Russians had closed the settlement in Novgorod, the London branch closed, and the Dutch negotiated the same privileges as the Hansa in the Baltic Sea. The Swedes became a military super power in the northern Europe, gaining control over the Baltic Sea. 

The last meeting of the Hanseatic League was in 1669. Still in 1937, Lübeck, Hamburg and Bremen were free Hansa cities, and even today Hamburg and Bremen are independent states in the Federal Republic of Germany.

The legacy of the Hanseatic League can be seen in hundreds of cities in Europe. The German merchant and administrative terminology and language is widely spread and used all over the world, and they were the first to standardize sea travel and the trade regulations.

reference:, for english terminology

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