Impact of Medieval European Society Upon The Environment: Hanseatic League, N. Europe

7 May

Iron Age in Europe: Hanseatic League, N. Europe

The Iron Age began in Europe about 1100 BCE, in the middle of the period.

The Hanseatic League was an alliance of trading cities, their merchants and guilds that existed during the 13th to the 17th centuries C.E. in Northern Europe and into the Baltic Sea area. The League primarily dealt in: timber, plant resin, fish, honey, grains, copper and iron ore/implements as well as cloth and animal furs via ships and over-land trade routes.

Although trading reached as far as Iceland and the Baltic, this map shows the main Hansa trading routes:

The Hanseatic League was the first major trading consortium in Northern Europe and while it made the flow of goods in this region much more efficient and boosted economies and settlements rapidly, it also had an environmental impact.

We can see that even in the Middle Ages, that human harvesting and use of resources was beginning to exert pressure upon the ecosystems where fisheries existed and non-renewables, such as Iron. In an article about the expansion of Hanseatic Leagues trade and technology in fishing, Carolyn Scearce notes:

“The development of a thriving trade in preserved marine products pushed shipbuilders to build higher capacity boats, navigators to explore well beyond the limits of their shores, and fishermen to develop more sophisticated gear. While these changes increased the fishing capacity of medieval fleets, it also increased the costs and attendant risks of economic loss (Tittler, 1977). Ecologists speculate that in coastal and shelf regions of Northern Europe, by the late Middle Ages commercial sea fishing was already depressing populations of commercially important species such as herring and cod (Roberts, 2007).”

(1555 woodcut of fishing industry)

Cod and herring were some of the major trading commodities of the Hansa. An archaeological find of a waste dump of discarded shells of almost 10 million oysters from this period are evidence of seashore harvests of marine life. The increased demand for timber for ships and the fish and marine life themselves all had an impact upon the renewable resources of Europe.

The culture and life-style of many of the only recently Barbaric nomad lands continued to transform Europe. The increased dependence upon domestic livestock, the domestication of hunting dogs, the harvest of deer and the hunting of competing predatory creatures such as wolves all grew rapidly during this time. Wolf species alone declined significantly across Western Asia and Northern Europe as civilization grew. Forests were cleared for farming land and for commercial use.

Besides for building the ever-larger ships, timber was needed for building, firewood and many other daily uses of the increasing European population. By the 13th century, the harvest of timber had been so great in some areas, that many landowners were already managing the cultivation of timber on their lands. This not only was an attempt to conserve or create timber resources, but the choices of those trees planted altered the natural mixture that was original present.

To protect their investments in ships, trading settlements and cargo, the use of cannon became ever increasing among Europeans. Iron ore boomed in demand as more and more uses were found for the Iron Age technology. An article from the University of Toronto about Medieval iron metallurgy industry at this time states:

“The market for cast iron objects in Europe appears late in the fourteenth century when cannonballs came to be in demand. Iron casting could make cheap, uniform cannon shot in vast quantities, and with this as a base, iron masters learned to produce and sell other simple objects for household use. Smiths also became skilled at making different forms of steel from cast iron, objects of high value when made into weapons.”

While I am uncertain as to the whole extent of this Europe-wide increase for and impact upon the various renewable and non-renewable resources and the eco-systems involved, one thing is certain: by the end of the pre-Industrial Revolution age in Northern Europe, humankind had already significantly altered the original natural resources. The pollution from industry and the depopulation of certain plants and animals had already begun long before the Modern Era.



Resources Consulted/Works Cited:

HANSA: The Hanseatic Expansion in the North Atlantic
Historische Archäologie Universität Wien

Northern Europe: an environmental history By Tamara L. Whited
ABC-CLIO (August 19, 2005) p. 47

European Fisheries History: Pre-industrial Origins of Overfishing
By Carolyn Scearce
Medieval Iron and Steel — Simplified by Bert Hall
Institute for the History and Philosophy of Science and Technology

University of Toronto

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