The Hanseatic Period
In the 13th century both Stralsund and Wismar experienced rapid growth, ecomically and politically. Both cities belonged to the Wendish area of the Hanseatic League. This group established in Lübeck provided with rights of the city of Lübeck was the political centre of the league of cities. While Wismar promoted the first associations of cities in the second half of the 13th century, paving the way from a merchant’s league to a city league, Stralsund was to significantly contribute to the history of the Hanseatic League in the 14th century.
The Hanse was originally an association of north German merchants abroad who would jointly represent their shared trade interests. At its peak, the association of cities numbered some 200 sea and inland cities and for several centuries wielded considerable economic and political power in northern and central Europe.
Stralsund and Wismar were abe to quickly attain important positions in long-distance trade across the Baltic Sea and North Sea. Their merchants played a leading role in brokering cloth from Flanders, wool from England, honey, wax and furs from Livonia with wine from France, Spain, Portugal as well as in the fish trade with Norway. Together with Lübeck, the two cities were among the first to operate the herring trade with Schonen, of crucial importance in the Middle Ages.
For Wismar, the early rapid expansion and enormous economic strength particularly in the second half of the 14th century which resulted in the city’s prosperity, was mainly a result of its beer production, which was renknowned throughout the Hanseatic League. Agriculture was of great importance to the cities, with hop production the greatest priority. This prosperous community living also attracted the prince, who moved his residence from the village of Mecklenburg to Wismar in 1256. At least by the mid 13th century, both cities’ citizens benefited from civic representation in the form of the Town Hall.
The Hanseatic Period was not always peaceful. The King of Dennmark, Waldemar IV Atterdag, attempted to break the supremacy of the Hanseatic League, but lost to the united cities. A peace treaty was signed on the 24th of May 1370 between the Hanseatic cities and the Imperial Parliament of the Kingdom of Denmark. The famous ‘Peace of Stralsund’ of 1370 ended the long-standing struggle between the commercial cities and the Kingdom of Denmark and also signified the height of Hanseatic power and influence.
The wealth and self-confidence of the citizens are reflected in the two cities both in outstanding religious buildings such as the monumental brick churches, as well as in elaborately designed resident houses in the cityscape. Trade relations between the Hanseatic cities are impressively expressed inside the parish churches. Fixtures such as the Bergen/Norway travellers Altar, the Aarhus/Denmark traveller stalls and Novgorod traveller stalls in St. Nicholas’s church in Stralsund expressively convey ideas of the far-reaching trade relations.
Pride of the townspeople in their civil liberties and the increasing independence from their sovereigns found expression particularly in town halls and in strong fortifications, gates and towers. Between 1330 and 1380 Stralsund experienced a building boom that brought forth the ‘Sundische Gotik’ (Gothic of the Sund) style. The architecture of this time is an expression of the economic growth and the rising political power of Stralsund.
During the gradual urban decline over the course of the 15th century, the towns of Stralsund and Wismar sought to maintain their positions in spite of internal difficulties. While in economic terms the 15th century still saw relatively stable development, the decline of the Hanseatic League in the 16th century spelled the end of their former glory and also lead to the reduction in construction activity in both cities.
Nevertheless, in the second half of the 16th century some highly significant Renaissance buildings emerged in Wismar. For example, the ‘New House’ of the Duke's Palace, which was later to be the seat of the Royal Swedish Tribunal of Upper Appeal for all Swedish provinces in Germany, and also the ‘Schabbellhaus’ and the ‘Water Works’, the architectural highlight of the city water pipe network.