The struggle for the Baltic Sea


Fish, money, power

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In the 11th century, fishermen, merchants and warriors crisscrossed the Baltic Sea. The western Baltic formed the border between German, Danish and Wendish areas. The islands of Lolland, Falster and Møn were all a part of the Danish area. Fehmarn, Rügen, Mecklenburg and Pomerania, together with eastern Holstein, were Wendish. Territories east of Kiel were German. Royal families found spouses throughout the Baltic area. Twelfth century historians Saxo Grammaticus in Denmark and Helmold of Bosau in the Slavic regions both write about waves of peaceful coexistence, followed by periods of division and strife. Revenge was taken by burning towns, fishing fleets and markets.

Merchants of Scandinavia

Proper market towns with formal laws and regulations appeared in the 12th and 13th centuries, replacing the seasonal marketplaces found north and south of the Baltic. In Slavic areas, commerce moved outside the walls of hinterland castles to coastal market towns located at the mouths of rivers feeding the Baltic.

By 1100, Scandinavian merchants had come to dominate trade in luxury items in the region. Schleswig was a transit point for Baltic goods to be traded further west. Trade due to head east where Russian rivers would take them towards Novgorod, Constantinople and on to Baghdad went through Gotland.

Lübeck – the key to the region

With the rebuilding of Lübeck at the end of the end of the 12th century, Low German merchants had a departure and transit port for Baltic trade. Low German merchants traded fresh fish with the cloth producing areas of Flanders, northern France and Britain.

King Valdemar the Victorious' realm stretched from the southern Baltic coast, from Holstein to Pomerania and further on to the Courland and Estonian coasts. Lübeck was the main point of departure for Crusaders and their supplies. The cog, the most widely used vessel amongst Medieval traders, became one of the most important weapons in the battle to control trade in the Baltic. Cogs were far less manoeuvrable than Scandinavian ships, but they could carry much more cargo, and they needed a smaller crew. Goods shipped from the Baltic area included wood, pitch, potash, hemp, flax, copper and iron, herring and dried cod, as well as grains.

The defeat of Valdemar the Victorious

During the 12th century, Christian missionaries, supported by an ever growing church administration, began heading further east to find new areas to convert. Meanwhile, Germans continued to move east, colonising areas to the south of the Baltic once controlled by Slavs. Conflicts over missionary activities in Livonia in the 1220s were a source of increasing disagreement between Danish King Valdemar the Victorious and Lübeck. Valdemar lost control over the Baltic in the Battle of Bornhöved in 1227.

Hanseatic monopoly

The Danish defeat in 1227 set the stage for Lübeck to assume the lead role in the Hanseatic League. At its high point, more than 150 market towns of all different sizes – stretching from the Netherlands to Estonia and from Gotland to Cologne – were members of the Hanseatic League. During the 14th century, the Hanseatic League became so powerful that it was able to impose embargoes on kingdoms and duchies and even wage war. After losing a naval battle in 1367, Denmark's King Valdemar IV was forced to sign the Stralsund Treaty in 1370, securing the Hanseatic League a near total monopoly on the Baltic fish trade.