The areas of Europe to the west of the Adriatic Sea and the Elbe River were changing from the more subsistence- oriented economy of the early Middle Ages to a money economy, from an economy based in good measure on home-grown produce paid for in kind to one relying heavily on imports paid for in money or letters of credit.
By the fifteenth century the West had long been importing the spices of the East; salt from the mines of Germany or the sea-salt pans of the Atlantic coast; and the wines of the Rhine, Burgundy, and Bordeaux. The furs of eastern Europe, the wool of England and Spain, and the woolen cloth of Flanders and Italy commanded good markets. At the close of the Middle Ages supplies of palatable food and warm clothing were steadily increasing.
Trade slumped during the serious economic depression of the early 1300s and in the prolonged aftermath of many wet summers, the Black Death, and the Hundred Years’ War. Recovery came in the fifteenth century, and by the late 1400s the trade of the West could, for the first time, be compared in relative volume and variety with that of the Roman Empire, of Byzantium at its peak, and of Norman and Hohenstaufen Sicily. Meantime, Western merchants developed more elaborate commercial procedures and organizations.
In the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries the membership of the Hansa (the German word means “league”) included almost a hundred towns, among which Lubeck, Hamburg, Bremen, and Danzig were the leaders. Its policies were determined by meetings of representatives from the member towns, usually held at Lubeck. The weakness of the Holy Roman Empire and the fact that many of the Hanseatic towns began as autonomous frontier outposts enabled the Hansa to play a virtually independent political and military role, besides exercising great economic power.
The Hansa was not the first important confederation of commercial towns in Europe; alliances of communes in Lombardy and in Flanders had blocked the ambitions of Hohenstaufen emperors and French kings, respectively. The Hansa, however, operated on a grander scale; its ships carried Baltic fish, timber, grain, furs, metals, and amber to western European markets and brought back cloth, wine, and spices.
Hanseatic merchants, traveling overland with carts and pack trains, took their Baltic wares to Italy. The Hansa maintained large depots at Bruges, London, Venice, Novgorod, and Bergen on the Norwegian coast. These establishments resembled colonial outposts of a Hanseatic empire. The Hansa itself had its own legal code (the Law of Lubeck), its own diplomats, and its own flag.
After 1500, however, the fortunes of the Hansa declined rapidly. The shift of trade routes from the Baltic to the Atlantic ended the prosperity of many Hanseatic towns. The loosely organized Hansa was no match for the stronger monarchical governments growing up along the rim of its Baltic preserve. Internally, the Hansa was weakened by the mounting conservatism of its merchants and by rivalries among member towns and competing merchant families.
Only a minority of the member towns usually sent representatives to the deliberations in Eli 1 beck, and very few of them could be counted on for men and arms in an emergency. Moreover, Hanseatic trading activities were carried on in a relatively primitive fashion by a multitude of individual merchants who entered temporary partnerships for a single venture rather than establishing permanent firms.
The truly big business of the last medieval centuries was to be found in Augsburg, Nuremberg, and the cities of the Mediterranean: Venice, Genoa, Pisa, Lucca, Florence, Milan, and a dozen others in Italy; Marseilles, Montpellier, and Narbonne in France; and Barcelona in Spain. Venice furnishes an excellent case study. It was the East-West trade that brought wealth to Venetian merchants: from the East, spices, silk, cotton, sugar, dyestuffs, and the alum needed to set colors; from West, wool and cloth. The area of Venetian business was enormous, from England and Flanders to the heart of Asia, which the thirteenth-century Venetian Marco Polo (1254-1324) crossed to reach China.
The main carrier of Venetian trade was the galley. By 1300 the designers of the Venetian arsenal (originally a government-operated shipyard) had transformed the traditional long, narrow, oar-propelled galley of the Mediterranean into a swifter and roomier merchant vessel, relying mainly on sails and employing oarsmen chiefly to get in and out of port. In the fifteenth century these merchant galleys had space for 250 tons of cargo. Records from the early fifteenth century show about forty-five galleys sailing from Venice annually to Flanders, southern France, the Black Sea, Alexandria, Beirut, and Jaffa in the Holy Land. The Flanders fleet, which touched also at London and Southampton, provided a service between Italy and northwestern Europe that was cheaper and more secure than the overland route.
The state supervised the activities of these galleys. Since the average life of galleys was ten years, government experts periodically tested their seaworthiness, and the arsenal made needed replacements. The government provided for the defense of the galleys and their cargoes by requiring that at least twenty of the crew be bowmen. The captains of the Flanders galleys were directed to protect the health of the crew by enlisting a physician and a surgeon. The Venetian Republic also maintained an ambassador in England to smooth the way for its merchants.
Ship design changed slowly, but as more and more galleys ventured out into the Atlantic, the differences between northern European and Mediterranean designs began to disappear. The great medieval ship was the full- rigged three-master that could be adapted to carracks (ships that carried bulk cargoes), to caravels (ships that crossed the Atlantic), to galleons (ships that brought treasure back from the Americas to Spain), to merchantmen for the Baltic trade, and finally to the fluyt, a Dutch ship best used for grain, wine, and alum, which became the model for Europe’s commercial fleets.
With these changes went better instruments, improved charts, and clearer lines of authority for ships’ captains. Improved navigation tied the world of commerce closer together, sped cargoes that otherwise might spoil, created a community of instrument makers, and made possible the pursuit of cargoes around Africa. Sailing in tropical waters brought changes in ship design, new cargoes, knowledge of disease, and new forms of finance.
For example, shipworm, which rotted the bottoms of wooden ships, was far more active in the tropics; ships sailing in those waters therefore had to be replaced far more often. This, together with the increase in sailing distances and the need to carry cargoes further and to sail at greater speeds, led to ever more complex commercial arrangements. Europeans hoisted sail before they saddled horse, and watercraft became the first tools in the European conquest of the world.