The Hanseatic City of Lübeck: A Fairy-Tale City

Name: Hanseatic City of Lübeck (Germany).
Location: in northern Germany, in the land of Schleswig-Holstein.

Lübeck, the old city of the Hanseatic League, preserves very well until this day its vast and splendid medieval zone. Among 14th-16th century residential districts, there are still boroughs full of artisans and merchants who reflect the original profile of the city which dominated the trade in Northern Europe for centuries.

Holstentor (Holsten Gate) in Lübeck, Schleswig-Holstein (Germany)

In a small coastal island in the Baltic Sea which lies on the estuary of the River Trave, Henry the Lion, Duke of Saxony, founded Lübeck in 1143 over the ruins of an old Slavic colony. With the emperor Frederick II (1194-1250) Lübeck became a "free and imperial town" and assured its independence after the war against the Danish. Governed by an oligarchy of merchants and protected by the emperor, the city started its commercial rise that gave it practically the exclusivity in the maritime traffic between the Baltic and Europe and was finally made capital of the Hanseatic League until 1535. The first Hansa or trading cooperative was constituted in 1161 in Wisby, in front of the southeastern coast of Sweden. Over the years, different leagues emerged, all of them with agreements regarding prizes, storage, and market share. In 1358, more than 200 from these prolific trading cities united together to establish the Hanseatic League or Teutonic League, an authentic corporation that took over the trade in the north of Europe, in the Baltic and North Sea. Its power was such (from London to Novgorod and from Bergen to Cologne), that put into misery several disloyal or hostile ports to the cooperation, either due to a solidarity strategy towards its associates or due to the straightforward boycott of the enemy.

Then, Lübeck was chosen as the capital of the Teutonic Order, enjoying a decent military and political power, at the same time Genoa and Venice were controlling the Mediterranean. The alliance of the Scandinavian Kingdoms into the Kalmar Union (the Danish, Swedish, and Norwegian Kingdoms), in the first place, the extinction of the herring in the North Sea and, lastly, the discovery of America, contributed to the decadence of Lübeck. The Thirty Year's War (1618-1648) was the final blow for the Hanseatic League.

Storages of salt to preserve the salted, of alum for the tinctures, of wood for the Hanseatic caravels, forges for the manufacture of weapons and tooling, the barns and warehouses to store food, as well as deposits of fur, wool, precious textiles, spices, and jewelry, emerged here and there. Lübeck exported clothes and imported silk from the East, which they received from the Mediterranean through London and Bruges, and every year were celebrated Hanseatic assemblies in the city to establish new mandatory norms.

Rich Medieval City

Elevated in a hill and protected by the Trave River, the layout of the historic center of Lübeck is defined by two main ways that pass through the city from north to south and whose origin dates back to the city's foundation. Perpendicular to this pair of ways, a grid-like network of streets goes towards the river through both slopes. The urban plan contemplates a strict social differentiation. Towards the west the residential boroughs and the factories owned by the richest merchants were established, the so-called Gründungsviertel. Towards the east, the small shops and workplaces. In the backyards of the opulent mansions were often opened particular workshops and also secondary houses (the Stiftungshöfe) where the willows were welcomed; to access this sector of the city one had to pass through a network of narrow streets and corridors called Gänge. 

It is possible to distinguish three zones in the historic center. In the first one, towards the northeast, stands out the Burgkloster, a Dominican monastery built following the Battle of Bornhöved in 1227. The artisans' borough, called Koberg, is articulated around a square flanked by two important monuments: the Gothic Church Sankt Jakobi and the Heilig-Geist-Hospital (Holy Spirit Hospital), built in the 13th century.

In the second zone, several residential blocks from the 15th and 16th centuries (during the Hanseatic League's zenith) close the surroundings of the two main churches in Lübeck: Saint Peter's Church (Petrikirche) and the cathedral Dom, Romanesque in its beginnings but with a Gothic facade of the 14th century. Closed to the left-bank piers of the Trave River the salt storehouses (Salzspeicher) are found, as well as the famous Holsten Gate (Holstentor). The fortified Holsten Gate, built in 1477, with its two solid twin brick towers, is the ultimate evidence of the importance of the Hanseatic League beyond its trading activities.

A third zone is the center of Lübeck, the medieval heart of the city and the most damaged zone after the Second World War. Almost at the shadow of the high spires of Saint Mary's Church (Marienkirche), constructed from 1250 to 1330, the town hall (Rathaus) is found, with its characteristic and large circular holes in the walls, and the always crowded square, the Marktplatz (Market Square).

The Bombs and the Controversy

With some exceptions, like the erection of the courts during the 19th century in the zone of Burgtor-Burgk-loster, Lübeck maintained its shape as "medieval burg" intact for centuries. However, the bombings during World War II (1939-1945) destroyed completely a fifth-part of its area and damaged several important monuments, like the cathedral, or Saint Peter's Church and Saint Mary's Church. Lübeck was subjected to a thorough restoration. For this reason, the Hanseatic City was larger than today's protected zone, as the latter one excludes the boroughs that had to be entirely rebuilt, like the Gründungsviertel, for the sake of the historic authenticity.

The reconstruction has received a lot of critics. The most denounced irregularities were the destruction of historic streets which had survived the armed conflict, for example, the Fleischhauerstrasse (near Saint Mary's Church), the construction of a technical school in the borough of the old merchants and the enlargement of the medieval street Mengstrasse. Lots of blocks were nicely rebuilt but only their facades, like in Wasserfront or Grosse Petersgrube. It has also been pointed out as the last defect of this policy that, while it assured the preservation of the old center, it also ended with the differences between the popular boroughs and the residential areas.

Despite the bombardments and the mistakes made during its reconstruction, Lübeck presents a stupendous harmony. A large part of its buildings and spots preserve their medieval appearance and they still evoke with unique brilliance the extinct power of the Hanseatic League.

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