How did the Hansa accommodate the transition from sea to river trade along a trade route? Would river travel have been controlled by one group of people, e.g., Guild of the River Oder Merchants? Would the river traders have been moving all through the river's extents, or from one portage to the next (and have someone else pick it up there? Would it make more sense to portage ships or own ships on both sides of the portage area?

I've specified this question to relate to the Hansa League who had numerous cities (Thorn, Magdeburg, Dorpat) upstream from the North and Baltic Seas.

I have been meandering towards such a question for a while now. I'll first refer to the Meta where I asked about how I should do this: you can see my hesitation but also my aim there. This relates, like my accompanying question 'How did toll castles operate?', to the Late Medieval period of the 14th and 15th centuries trade.

Tangent: I started thinking about this while out & about crossing rivers (on bridges), and looking at the main flow channels, etc. My question (especially knowing that settlements, such as towns, manor, villages, would exist upstream at least since the 13th century) was whether these were suitable for river travel / transport of some kind.

My main sources derive from the Osprey series' books relating to North Europe and the Baltic (only because those are the Ospreys I am most familiar with). This is also the area I am most interested in at present -- focussing on the HRE territories bordering the North and Baltic Seas, roughly corresponding to the Hansaetic trading league's territories. Potentially, a difference might exist in these lands compared to the rest of Europe due to Roman power never extending this far; although, I am not convinced that would affect the importance of river travel nearly a millennium later.

The vessels used for river trade seem to have been very specific (and seagoing vessels, like the cogs mentioned in my Meta question, would not have been used). Conversely, the special design of these vessels would also have made them unsuitable for use on the seas.

In Livonia, river boats known as bofskip played a major communications and military transport role, linking the otherwise scattered komtur administrative districts, each of which was governed by an advocatus, or bailiff, based in its main castle. [Nicolle, 'Lake Peipus 1242: The Battle of the Ice']

The Scandinavian countries, most notably Norway and Denmark, continued to use later modifications of the old Viking Age longships right into the 14th century. This style of ship, known as a snäcka [the author means a snipa, which is the proper Swedish term while snäcka applies in Norway and Bohuslän] in Sweden, was an ideal vessel for transporting troops, being able to carry around 25 men plus their equipment, and being extremely seaworthy. It was equipped with oars, which made it less susceptible to being becalmed, and which also enabled such vessels to navigate estuaries, rivers and lakes. This versatility, along with its shallow draught, made the snäcka suitable for both transporting and putting ashore men and equipment during various crusading campaigns. [Lindholm & Nicolle, 'The Scandinavian Baltic Crusaders 1100-1500']

I understand that straightforward downstream transport of goods could have been done by (unmanned) barges, or by floating the goods (such as logs). I don't know if there are examples of this in European sources but this is well-popularised in American films depicting the 19th century.

Riverine ships in Scandinavia and the Baltic are described as shallow-draft, clearly indicating their suitability for traffic in variable depths (but including very shallow areas). Also mentioned are portages due to frequent cataracts, as on the Daugava which is unlikely to unique insofar as rivers go:

As the Daugava nowadays has been radically controlled by dams and hydroelectric schemes it is difficult to appreciate that at the time of the Teutonic Knights the greatest river in Latvia was notorious for the large number of rapids along its 640-mile stretch. Over 100 rapids were identified and known. [Turnbull, 'Crusader Castles of the Teutonic Knights (2)']

Cataracts form natural strangleholds on the river where the boats would have to beach. However, these places would also have strong defensive potential, such as for constructing toll castles or townships (perhaps to sell goods?).

Additional Question #1: Do we have extant records of pricing? How does river travel compare to marine and land travel in cost?

Additional Question #2: North Europe has numerous seasonal rivers which freeze in winter. The Hansa would have been very familiar with these circumstances. What would the river traders have been occupied with during this season (presumably, the sea would also be more hazardous so less goods would have been transported to the mouth of the river to begin their journey upstream)?

Let me know in the comments if either of these additional questions warrants their own topic.

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    Could give you a rough jot for England, France, HRE, now, but this seems to focus pretty much on a circle centering on the Baltics? (For eg Spain, Scandinavia & Russia I'd have to dig quite a bit more, but this appears to me as a bit too broad in time & location? I may be wrong on that, expecting lots of specifics, changes and details, overlooking broad strokes of similarities you may be after?) May 21, 2020 at 11:30
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    I have the feeling that this could vary almost river-by-river given the variety of navigation hazards, political entities, etc. that could exist along any given river's length.
    – Steve Bird
    May 21, 2020 at 12:04
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    For your first supplemental question, an approximate guide would be to use the 1:4:8 relative transport cost ratios proposed by James Masschaele in Transport costs in medieval England. So, river transport is 4x as expensive as sea transport, and road transport is 8x as expensive. I've seen Masschaele's ratios used as a basis for estimating costs for NW Europe, for southern Europe, & even the eastern Med. May 27, 2020 at 10:34
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    I am a bit late to the question, but I have to ask, why would transition be needed between river and sea trade? From what I have found the Hansa used primarily cogs in the 14th and 15th century which could navigate equally well in rivers and seas. Feb 18, 2021 at 8:42
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    @gktscrk I am not convinced. Cogs evolved from river boats and where known to sail a long way up the Vistula river. (persee.fr/doc/acsam_0000-0000_1998_act_6_1_1126) If you factor in that they could carry sizeable cargo, I don't see any reason to not stick with it. I will keep looking though. Feb 19, 2021 at 8:39

1 Answer 1


I believe that after a lot of research I can start the basis of an answer. My understanding is that the answer to your question, as @Steve Bird said, would depend on the river. There have been found wrecks of cogs in rivers, most notable among them the Bremen cog. Bremen is a city upstream in the Weser river and had a shipyard. The cog, as I said in my comment, was able to travel up river, especially in rivers found in many of the most important german Hanseatic cities, and maybe even played a major role in their development as attested here:

The architecture of the Cog informs what kinds of harbors and ports can be developed as trade centers develop in new locations. Because of the morphology of the bottom of the hull, Cogs are able to travel on rivers to inland harbors such as those found in Bremen and Lübeck and do not require the coastal harbors that ships with tapered bottoms did. However, Cogs, once beached, were extremely difficult to get back to sea, unlike Keels or other tapered bottom ships, and therefore required docks and mooring points to be constructed in the harbors for the ships. Additionally, the architecture of the Cog reflects its primary function as a commercial shipping vessel.

However, other river cities, had different problems. Another example is Kampen:

Kampen was the largest Hanseatic seaport in the Low Countries.. Goods were transferred here from river barges to sea going vessels (and the other way around) connecting the Rhineland with trading centres in the Baltic such as Lubeck and Gdansk, Scandinavia and England. These routes took the ships on voyages across the dangerous shallows of the Zuiderzee and Waddenzee, towards the North Sea.

And another notable example is Ladoga, as told in Baltic Hospitality from the Middle Ages to the Twentieth Century:

Not far from Ladoga, upstream the Volkhov River, there were the most dangerous of the Eastern European rapids, the Volkhovskie (Gostinopol’skie) rapids. They stretched for 9 km between the steep limestone banks that were over 20 m high. Thirty kilometers farther downstream began the other rapids—these ones known as the Pchevskie—which stretched for another 9 km and created further difficulties for navigation. Overcoming the rapids required travelers to reload goods, transporting them overland along the river, and dragging or pulling ships on ropes along the coast. The conditions for crossing the rapids are described in detail in the 1269 treaty of Novgorod with Lübeck and Gotland. The ships on which the Germans brought their goods to the Novgorodian Land could not pass the Volkhov rapids. The goods were reloaded onto flat-bottomed Novgorodian boats that were led to Il’men’ by local pilots. Even experienced pilots were not safe when passing the rapids, as evidenced by a clear division of responsibility: the German guests were responsible for the ship itself, whereas the pilots were not responsible for the sunken goods.

Who owned and facilitated that transportation of goods up the river? In the case of the Volkhov rapids, the boats were Novgorodian. I do not have yet a definitive answer but a good guess would be that this was either regulated by agreements between the Hansa, the local kontor and the city's authorities. If that wasn't an option they should be able to hire boats. Or a merchant of the city could transport the goods for them. The options were many and can be seen (and admired for how advanced they were for their time) here:

  1. The "vera societas" (wedderlegginge) was a specific commercial enterprise in which the financier (Kapitalgeber) and the person responsible for the commercial transaction (Kapitalführer) shared in the profits.
  1. In the case of a "commission business" (sendeve), a merchant transported goods for another merchant. Usually, the two merchants would also have entered into a "vera societas" with each other.
  1. The "trading company" consisted of two or more persons, who shared in the company's capital, but were themselves also involved in active trading. This type of business developed at the beginning of the 15th century.
  1. The "reciprocal trade" was the most important form of partnership between the Hanse merchants. In this instance, merchants in different places would sell the respective commodities sent to them by other merchants in their own names. For this practice there were, however, no written agreements, and the sellers did not share directly in the profits of a particular commercial transaction.26
  1. For the organization of long-distance travel, the merchants formed "cooperatives", for example those operating in Scania, Bergen or Flanders.

From the source, I can answer your 2nd additional question and say that frozen rivers would not be an issue as travelling during winter seems to have been prohibited:

To reduce the risk of accident, winter travel was prohibited on the Baltic Sea. However, because the forced winter residence led to increased costs in foreign ports, this policy was disadvantageous for the Hanse merchants in the long run. What is more, the non-Hanse merchants continued with their maritime trade during the winter.

So to recap my answer, river trade was as complex as the rivers the Hanseatic traders used. How they conducted their river trade was subject to the morphology of the river and agreements with the interested cities. The loose structure of the trade network meant that river transactions, as all of their transactions would have been concluded in any number of ways.

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    I think this is a very good answer, especially reflecting upon the complexity of the question itself. It's interesting you place a lot of emphasis on the shape of the hull, and I suspect this aspect could easily be overlooked (e.g., which ship can be beached and refloated easily, which can not).
    – gktscrk
    Aug 26, 2022 at 23:30

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