Thought Poland’s rivers and seaside were just for sun and fun? Think again! They were once part of the biggest trade monopoly in northern Europe

Part of the spread of the Hanseatic League in the year 1400, and Poland was a key player Droysen/Andrée/ GNU Free Documentation License

Travel the coastline and hinterland of Poland’s Baltic Sea and you soon start to recognise something a little strange.

The cities and towns that dot the northern shores of the country are as proud as ever, with many of them now functioning as seaside resorts or new hubs for Poland’s burgeoning service sector.

But in many cases they also share an imposing greatness that speaks less of their place in today’s Poland and more of their erstwhile role in a once booming mercantile confederation.

In the middle ages, the Hanseatic League was a vast commercial empire that rivalled the Venetian State and the Dutch Republic in economic and, therefore, political power. 

Its merchants roamed the seas centuries before the British East India Company secured its own routes, and its network of, mainly Teutonic commercial centres, turned trade northwards, with the Baltic at the heart of their enterprise.

For this reason, the Polish cities of Słupsk, Kołobrzeg, Toruń and Gdańsk all became commercial powerhouses of trade in the 13th-15th century thanks to their strategic positioning along the central-eastern flanks of the Baltic coast.

All of them benefited from the political and intellectual spoils that money inevitably brings - even Copernicus’ father, a wealthy merchant, took up and left Kraków for Toruń, eventually bringing his son up in the multilingual and multinational typical of a medieval commercial hub.

The Hanseatic League wanted to dominate northern trade and for this reason it developed a mutual interdependence along the coast.

The economically advanced and manufacturing west of Europe had a thirst for raw materials that the bountiful lands in the East could provide them with it.

Grain, timber and pitch, tar, potash and charcoal, wax and honey, and hemp and flax all came from Poland, which in turn was exchanged for the manufactured goods the cities of Bergen and Hamburg would then sent eastward.

Gdańsk meanwhile, remained one of the centres of amber exports.

All this had a considerable impact on the development of the urban centres that can still be seen today.

Imposing gothic cathedrals and tenement houses still line the streets, where wealthy goldsmiths and cloth merchants dominated economic activity.

During this period the beginnings of a middle class -- or burghers -- began to emerge as a new form of post-feudal organisation, and they left their mark on the urban landscape.

A change in the conditions once favourable to the Hanseatic League, however, meant it could no longer be governed as a network and needed a more centralised form of power.

Thus it dissipated. Its mercantile tradition, however, along with the advent of double-entry bookkeeping, helped create the basis for the system of capitalism we now have today.

The Hanseatic League also carries another interesting legacy, at a time when nationhood and economic hegemony have come to logger heads.

As the Financial Times reported in November 2017, in a post-Brexit European Union, new alliances are beginning to appear, some of which may emerge along old mercantile faultlines.

“Last night, finance ministers from the Baltic states, Nordic countries, and Ireland had dinner together in the Belgian capital. The Dutch and German ministers also swung by for coffee. It’s an uncanny echo of the old League,” the paper reported.

The question, therefore, is, could the Baltic be back?