The 2016 History of Capitalism lecture series throws the spotlight on the role played by cities and regions that stand out in particular moments within the History of Capitalism.


  • Lubeck’s position as “head” of the Hansa stemmed mostly from its geographical position and its commitment to attracting merchants and trade. This dominance was cemented by a form of trade-led “colonisation” that also spread Germanic customs and culture.
  • The League was not a “common market” in the sense that the EU is today. It was a loose and largely unregulated “collaborative framework”. Abulafia argued that this loose framework actually contributed to the success of the Hanseatic League, and suggested that a similar association focusing purely on the market could provide a good model for the EU of the future.
  • The fortunes of the Hansa were built on humble day-to-day goods that were traded in astonishing quantities, through a network based on collaboration. This “Mediterranean of the North” contrasts starkly with the viciously competitive merchants in the south who were heavily involved in trading luxury goods.
  • Current interpretations of the history of the Hanseatic League highlight the precedent of Germany as a dominant economic force within Europe—then as now. The historiography of the League shows how various regimes throughout history adapted their interpretations, and highlighted different features to suit their agenda.

Video Interview​


Lubeck’s dominance within the Hanseatic League can partly be attributed to its geography, but also has a lot to do with privileges granted to the town. Abulafia explained how Emperor Frederick II declared Lubeck a free imperial city, which spurred the growth of the city by allowing it free to make its own laws and govern itself. These commercial laws later became standard across the League, firmly placing Lubeck at its political centre. The Hanseatic league was an emphatically German network, although the official term that early Hanseatic merchants used for themselves was “merchants of the Roman Empire’, displaying the pride in the imperial authority of the medieval German kings.

As the centre of the Hanseatic League, Lubeck also has a considerable cultural influence along the trading route: Abulafia described this process as a “conquest” of Eastern Europe, displacing Germanic, Christian people as far east across Europe as Novgorod. Along the trade route, a sort of “Hanseatic civilisation” developed sharing a collective sense of identity. They spoke a common language—Middle Low German—and developed a common style of architecture: they shared “a common culture in many ways”, suggested Abulafia. In numerous cases, this identity even overwhelmed local ties, he explained. Many Hansa merchants did not integrate themselves into their local community and instead retained a strong solidarity with their counterparts throughout the League.

The Hanseatic League worked because it was a loose, rarely defined association of merchants and towns with few concrete rules and regulations. The privileges afforded by membership lowered their cost and encouraged trade. There was no formal membership, and towns—often attracted by the reduced transaction costs that being part of the League brought—would come and go frequently. The fallout of the Black Death encouraged a tighter organisation of Hansa merchants, and an opportunity for leading cities like Lubeck to further impose their dominance, however the League remained a “loose super-league” with no administrative superstructure, and there is no sense that the cities sought closer integration.

Abulafia explored how in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the memory of the Hanseatic League was shaped and reshaped for the agenda of German politicians. In the Bismarck and Kaiser periods, especially during the First World War, it was used as evidence that in the past, Germany had been a great naval power. Later, under the Nazis in the 1930s, the Hansa were glorified as heroes who had pioneered the German conquest of Eastern Europe. These uses of the idea of the Hanseatic League demonstrate its importance in German—and European—history.

The event was hosted by Hywel Williams, Senior Adviser at the Legatum Institute.

About the Speaker

David Abulafia is Professor of Mediterranean History at the University of Cambridge and a Fellow of Gonville and Caius College. Professor Abulafia's interests embrace the economic, social and political history of the Mediterranean lands in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. His most recent book, The Great Sea, published by Penguin, explores the history of the Mediterranean from 22,000 BC to AD 2010. In 2011 Professor Abulafia received the Mountbatten Literary Award from the Maritime Foundation for this book, and in 2013 he was awarded a British Academy Medal for the ‘landmark academic achievement' which the book represents.

About the History of Capitalism Series​

This series of lectures, which forms part of the Legatum Institute's 'The Culture of Prosperity' programme, investigates the origins and development of a movement of thought and endeavour which has transformed the human condition. Capitalism's characteristic emphasis on freedom of trade and market expansion has encouraged social mobility, global exploration and intellectual curiosity. Wherever and whenever it has appeared across the world's continents capitalism has undermined monopolies, economic protectionism and restrictive practices. The series' lecturers therefore assess case studies in business history and the individual biographies of thinkers, writers and inventors as well as describing particular periods in the histories of cities, states and nations. Further information available here.