Medieval Protectionism

The Wilson Quarterly, Autumn 2008 | Go to article overview

Medieval Protectionism


THE SOURCE: "The Rise of Hamburg as a Global Marketplace in the 17th Century: A Comparative Political Economy Perspective" by Erik Lindberg, in Comparative studies in Society and History, July 2008.

ITS ANCIENT NAME MEANS "lovely," and the German port city of Lubeck in 1400 was one of the glories of Europe and a leading merchant trading center. In that distant era, as Europe recovered from the devastation of the Black Plague, Lubeck and its neighbor, Hamburg, had roughly similar social, economic, and religious profiles, writes Erik Lindberg, a historian at Uppsala University in Sweden. They could have been twin cities: Lubeck connected to the Baltic Sea via the Trave River and Hamburg to the North Sea via the Elbe. Their divergent fates illustrate the perils of extreme protectionism.

At the dawn of the early modern period, the two cities veered in opposite political directions. In the face of increasing Baltic Sea competition from upstart traders from London and Amsterdam, Lubeck chose to protect its powerful landowners and leading merchant guild by prohibiting importers from selling copper, furs, and grain to anybody other than a Lubeck merchant. Hamburg, by contrast, encouraged trade with Dutch, Flemish, and English merchants, and even a score of Portuguese Jews were invited to move in.

The copper-trading capital of Northern Europe, Lubeck began in 1607 to rigorously enforce a 12th-century imperial privilege that allowed it to prohibit "transit" trade. Commodities coming from Sweden had to be resold and reloaded for transport down the 40-odd miles of the Stecknitz Canal and connected waterways to Hamburg for shipment to the Atlantic, or inland along the Elbe River. This "right of staple" medieval privilege was considered a cornerstone of the city's wealth. It was rigorously guarded by the five or six aristocratic families who dominated the ruling council and the approximately 20 merchant families that controlled trade. Growth in the number of burghers was severely restricted to protect the income of the incumbents. …

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