Friday, 13 May 2016

Top of the League: Lübeck's Hanseatic Museum

I'm currently in Lübeck, Germany. 

Nowadays it's an attractive small city with a beautifully preserved Old Town, the pretty little sister to big brash Hamburg. Through the Middle Ages, however, it was the de facto capital of the Hanseatic League.

You'll hear the Hanseatic League mentioned again and again when visiting cities along the Baltic coast, especially in modern-day Germany and Poland.

Before the rise of strong nation-states, the League (founded in 1356) was a loose confederation of trading cities. It developed trade across Europe from north to south and east to west, for example trading furs from Russia for foodstuffs and manufactured items from the west.

In an age when setting forth as a merchant meant a dangerous coast-hugging voyage, subject to pirates or state-sponsored raiders, the League was basically a trading association with muscle - aside from cracking down on pirates it occasionally fought armed wars, winning against kingdoms such as England and Denmark.

Its complex history, as it evolved from small allied groups of traders to an organisation with permanent trading missions across Europe, is told in detail at the European Hansemuseum which opened in 2015 within the foundations of Lübeck's original castle.

It's remarkable to realise just how much territory the Hanseatic League covered at its height:


And beyond that core region it had trading posts across Europe (you can see a few above, but they extended further south).

Past that initial map, the museum is set out as a series of separate rooms, each focusing on a different topic: the rise of towns, the sale of goods, the settlement of disputes. Although it sounds a little dry, the material is brought to life by a good deal of cleverly designed audiovisual content. Beyond text, excellent diagrams and images expand on each subject.

I was particularly interested in the big display in one room detailing the background of the Steelyard, which was the Hanseatic League's outpost in London. Missions such as this acted as enclosed communities, akin to diplomatic enclaves within the state they were trading with.

(As an aside, I did a little online digging later and discovered the Steelyard remained in the possession of the then-moribund League all the way to the mid-19th century, when it was sold to provide the site of Cannon Street railway station. The old giving way to the new!)

As the museum explains, there was a lot of technological and social change driven by the League and the increased scope of manufacturing and trade; and this was all happening centuries before the Industrial Revolution.

A nice little extra at the museum is provided courtesy of the ticket you're given upon entry, which brings up text and displays in the correct language when touched to icons next to exhibits. When setting it up, you can nominate a particular Hanseatic city of interest, along with a topic such as the life of everyday people. 

I chose Thorn as my town, which as Toruń is one of my favourite Polish cities. Periodically as I walked through the museum, I could touch the ticket to a display which told me something about Thorn that related to the theme of that room (eg the 15th century conflict over the city between the Teutonic Knights and the Kingdom of Poland).

As unsexy as the topic of trade might sound, I really enjoyed the European Hansemuseum. 

There's a tendency (at least in my mind) to assume that nothing much happened in Europe between the Roman Empire and the Renaissance. However, this museum opened my eyes to the significant changes that happened under the sway of the Hanseatic League, that shaped the world we live in today.

European Hansemuseum, An der Untertrave 1, Lübeck, Germany. Open daily, adult entry €12.50. See www.hansemuseum.eu.