Industrious, but without legal rights
In the Hanseatic era, women were far more than just decorative accessories for men: in some cases, it was female merchants that helped their ventures achieve success in long-distance trade, as Professor Harm von Seggern discovered in his research on the Hanseatic League.
Women were also very actively involved in trade during the Hanseatic era, as the painter Marinus van Reymerswaele shows in his piece “Der Geldwechsler und seine Frau” (The money exchanger and his wife, estimated to come from earlier than 1533). Image: Wikipedia
These "Women in the focus of regional history. Schleswig-Holstein from the Middle Ages to the present" were not only the topic of a lecture series at Kiel University, but are also, amongst other things, a field of research for Harm von Seggern. "In research, you cannot ignore the role of women in society," explained the professor of economic and social history, who is researching the Hanseatic history. One aspect he focuses on is the southern German merchants who engaged in long-distance trade in the 14th and 15th centuries, based in the Hanseatic City of Lübeck.
"When reviewing sources and articles, it is noticeable that women are also indicated as conducting business, in documents such as customs duty certificates, guest tax lists, and the like. And they were certainly successful," explained the lecturer. Investigating the position of women in history is important for von Seggern, because considering the gender aspects of the topic also results in a more complete picture of the past. In addition, the female merchants are an independent phenomenon, and therefore of particular interest for research.
The Hanseatic League, on the other hand, was a purely male domain. It comprised businessmen and merchants who joined forces to gain privileges from other rulers, on which basis trade could then commence. Women played no role in this, because they generally had no legal capacity to act during the Middle Ages. Men had guardianship of women, who were subordinate to them in social status.
"In everyday life however, women had a different, much more independent role. Amongst merchants, the wife ran the household, including supervising the staff, kept records of household expenditure and had money at her own disposal," reported von Seggern. Women's business abilities also extended to the family enterprise: if her spouse died, the widow continued operating the business. "She was allowed to continue trading, but if she wanted to sell the business, she had to be represented by a guardian."
In other cases, the wives ran the local businesses, because their husbands were establishing a subsidiary in a new country. One example is Margaret Veckinchusen. Her husband Hildebrand and his brother Sivert were among the most well-respected Hanseatic merchants of their time, at the beginning of the 15th century. Goods were shipped from Lübeck to Bruges, where Hildebrand managed a branch of the trading company. He handed over management of the operations in Lübeck to his wife.
"She successfully organised the transport of wood, fish, cloth, copper and other goods via the Baltic Sea and onwards via land, while Hildebrand ran up a mountain of debt in Bruges." The entire company eventually went bankrupt, as can be seen in more than 500 surviving letters and ten account books.
However, Margarete Veckinchusen is only one of many businesswomen. We do not know how many there actually were. "There are no such statistics," said von Seggern. In all surviving legal texts, the man is listed as head of the household and the business, even if his wife or widow actually ran the business. But even without accurate figures, it is clear that there must have been educated, competent businesswomen – and not only in Lübeck. "This phenomenon is also known from other Hanseatic towns. If you research the topic, you encounter businesswomen throughout Europe, from north to south." It is only in the history books where you search in vain.
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