Makler im Hansisch-Niederdeutschen Handelsgebiet
Brokers in the Hanseatic - Low-German Trading World
The modern scholarly world has not been kind to medieval brokers. Investigations of their activities are few and far between and, for the most part, outdated. The one exception, Anke Greve’s analysis of brokers in Bruges, skews the picture, since they were - viewed from the perspective of the Hanseatic trading world - something of a one-off. In Bruges, innkeepers, who provided lodging, and brokers, who enabled trade between natives and foreigners, belonged to the same guild (from 1303) and customarily combined both activities. Generalizing from the Bruges example is, therefore, fraught with danger.
This scholarly neglect is entirely unwarranted, and it is high time that we broadened our perspective to include brokers in other towns in the Hanseatic trading world. This article begins with a survey of the literature, spotlighting the various theories on the origins of brokerage and the explanations offered for the terms used to designate theni (mekeler, underkoper or sensal). The article then turns to a comparative analysis of brokerage in Lübeck and Brunswick. In both towns, brokerage arose in order to facilitate trade between Hanseatic and non-Hanseatic merchants (the latter being called ’guests’). Common to both towns, too. was the brokers’ status as urban office-holders. In contrast to Bruges, the Lübeck and Brunswick brokers never organized themselves as a guild, nor is there any evidence that they had any connection with the innkeepers whatsoever.
Our first (indirect) evidence of brokerage comes from a Lübeck regulation of the early 14Ih Century requiring foreign traders to display their merchandise for sale on the quay for three days. This regulation feil into disuse because of the intensification of trade between natives and foreigners on the cusp of the 16lh Century, while direct trade between ’guests’ continued to be prohibited throughout the 15,h Century. While Brunswick also generally prohibited direct trade between ’guests', it did provide for one exception, namely if the brokers had been unable to midwife the sale of the goods in question to a native merchant. Here, too, we find a curious bifurcation of the designations for brokers, the terms mekeler and underkoper appearing simultaneously. Both in Lübeck and Brunswick, there is ample evidence of brokers who specialized in the grain trade. In the case of Lübeck, it is apparent that the brokers played a major role in inspecting imported goods (especially herring) and certifying their quality. Goods which had passed inspection were designated as Ventegüter (’vendible goods’), which meant that they could be sold elsewhere without further ado.
This initial investigation of brokerage in Lübeck and Brunswick opens the field to new questions, in particular regarding the interrelation of brokers and merchant networks and their role in direct trade between ’guests’.