The Hanseatic League (//; Middle Low German: Hanse, Düdesche Hanse, Hansa; Standard German: Deutsche Hanse; Latin: Hansa Teutonica) was a commercial and defensive confederation of merchant guilds and market towns in Northwestern and Central Europe. Growing from a few North German towns in the late 1100s, the league came to dominate Baltic maritime trade for three centuries along the coast of Northern Europe. It stretched from the Baltic to the North Sea and inland during the Late Middle Ages and declined slowly after 1450.
The league was created to protect the guilds' economic interests and diplomatic privileges in their affiliated cities and countries, as well as along the trade routes the merchants visited. The Hanseatic cities had their own legal system and furnished their own armies for mutual protection and aid. Despite this, the organization was not a state, nor could it be called a confederation of city-states; only a very small number of the cities within the league enjoyed autonomy and liberties comparable to those of a free imperial city.
Historians generally trace the origins of the Hanseatic League to the rebuilding of the north German town of Lübeck in 1159 by the powerful Henry the Lion, Duke of Saxony and Bavaria, after he had captured the area from Adolf II, Count of Schauenburg and Holstein. Exploratory trading adventures, raids, and piracy had occurred earlier throughout the Baltic region—the sailors of Gotland sailed up rivers as far away as Novgorod, for example—but the scale of international trade in the Baltic area remained insignificant before the growth of the Hanseatic League.
German cities achieved domination of trade in the Baltic with striking speed during the 13th century, and Lübeck became a central node in the seaborne trade that linked the areas around the North and Baltic seas. The hegemony of Lübeck peaked during the 15th century.
Lübeck became a base for merchants from Saxony and Westphalia trading eastward and northward. Well before the term Hanse appeared in a document in 1267, merchants in different cities began to form guilds, or Hansa, with the intention of trading with towns overseas, especially in the economically less-developed eastern Baltic. This area was a source of timber, wax, amber, resins, and furs, along with rye and wheat brought down on barges from the hinterland to port markets. The towns raised their own armies, with each guild required to provide levies when needed. The Hanseatic cities came to the aid of one another, and commercial ships often had to be used to carry soldiers and their arms.
Visby functioned as the leading centre in the Baltic before the Hansa. Sailing east, Visby merchants established a trading post at Novgorod called Gutagard (also known as Gotenhof) in 1080. Merchants from northern Germany also stayed in the early period of the Gotlander settlement. Later they established their own trading station in Novgorod, known as Peterhof, which was further up river, in the first half of the 13th century. In 1229, German merchants at Novgorod were granted certain privileges that made their positions more secure.