Grand Canal

Grand Canal
Grand Canal

Next to the Great Wall of China the Grand Canal was the most important engineering feat in ancient China and was undertaken during the Sui dynasty (581–618). Earlier, during the Qin (Ch’in) dynasty and Han dynasty major canals had been built for land reclamation and irrigation and short canals for transportation.

Sui Wendi (Sui Wen-ti), unifier of China after three centuries of division, began the Grand Canal. He rebuilt and extended the old canals to link up the Yellow River with his capital Chang’an (Ch’ang-an) on the Wei River, then southward to the Yangzi (Yangtze) River at Yangzhou (Yangchow) in central China.

His son Yangdi (Yang-ti) expanded the system to Hangzhou (Hangchow) on the coast south of the Yangzi, and northward to near modern Beijing, totaling 1,250 miles. The Grand Canal, completed in 605, symbolized the reunification of the empire, economic growth, and integration. Over the centuries the growing wealth of the south became crucial to the defense of the nation’s vulnerable northern frontier.


China was politically divided during the Song (Sung) dynasty. With the loss of all northern China at the end of the Northern Song in 1127, the Grand Canal fell to disuse. In 1264 Kubilai Khan, grandson of Genghis Khan, proclaimed himself grand khan and ruler of a new Yuan dynasty in China, with the capital city at modern Beijing, which he named Dadu (T’a-tu, meaning Great Capital).

Kubilai needed grain from the Yangzi valley for his capital and had two choices for routes, by sea, where ships were subject to loss in storms, or via a safer inland waterway, the Grand Canal. He chose the canal route, which entailed repairing the old canal including a 135 mile-long section near Dadu.

Three million laborers were drafted for the task, which was completed in 1289. Maintenance was expensive and the canal again fell to disuse as the Yuan dynasty declined. The silted up sections were repaired in the early 15th century under the Ming dynasty.

Somewhere in the Grand Canal China
Somewhere in the Grand Canal China

The Grand Canal fulfilled several functions. It brought grains, cloth, tea, wine, and other products of the increasingly developed southeast to the politically dominant north. In integrating the country economically, it also played a vital role in the political unification of China. The Grand Canal was built and maintained at a huge cost.

Sui Yangdi conscripted over a million people for this project during his reign and labor became so short that women were also conscripted. However the million plus number was the grand total of all laborers, not the number at work at any time, because each laborer had to work for the government for only 20 days per year.

Life along side of grand canal
Life along side of grand canal

Nevertheless the huge labor demands for Yangdi’s many projects caused widespread discontent that brought down his empire. Silting, currents, and the need to pull canal boats in areas of steep elevation posed difficult problems for supplying Chang’an’s 2 million people during the height of the Tang (T’ang) dynasty.

The fact that boats were fully laden on the journey north but returned south mostly empty posed economic problems that were never solved. The difficulty of supplying Chang’an was a major factor in abandoning it as the capital of China after the 10th century in favor of Luoyang (Loyang), Kaifeng (K’ai-feng), and Beijing.

Grand canal nowdays
Grand canal nowdays

Gratian - Byzantine Monk and Scholar

Little is known about Gratian. He was probably born at the end of the 11th century in Chiusi in Tuscany and died in Bologna around 1160. Around 1140 he completed his Decretum Gratiani, which made him one of the most renowned canonists of all time.

The Decretum Gratiani not only replaced the preceding decrees but also provided a systematic and logical ordering of documents taken from existing collections supplemented by prescriptions of the popes Paschal II (1099–1118) and Innocent II (1130–1143) and of the Second Lateran Council (1139). Until the Code of Canon Law was published in 1917, it remained a standard work for canon law.

Gratian was the first who taught canon law as an autonomous science, although the Byzantine Code of Justinian I had already served as a model in combining civil and religious laws into one code. Canon comes from the Greek word kanon and means a stem or a reed and a long and straight piece of wood, a wooden rule used by masons and carpenters, or a rule with which straight lines are drawn. Figuratively it is the rule of an art or of a trade, a model, a type, or a definitive list or catalog.

With the rise of Christianity, kanon received a new meaning: commandments of God, or in Latin regulae fidei (norms of faith) and regulae morum (behavioral rules). It is in this sense of regulae morum that canon was taken up into law. These behavioral rules began with the Bible and the Didache (Teaching of the Apostles).


As new questions about the faith were posed, heretical and otherwise, church councils and synods were called to answer these questions. This was especially true of the first seven ecumenical councils, which tackled questions on the divinity of Christ, the divinity of the Holy Spirit, the two natures of the one person of Christ, and Mary as the Mother of God, as well as the Council of Trent (1545–63), which answered the many questions of the Reformation.

The answers in the form of decrees would be added on to the list of canons governing behavior of clerics and lay people alike. Over the course of time, as the church grew and branched out, and it became necessary for a rule of conduct to be collected for uniform interpretation and implementation of divine law spelled out in the sources cited. This was the basis of canon law.

Gratian worked with a set method in which three parts may be clearly distinguished. The first part deals with the sources of the law. It also treats subjects concerned primarily with the ecclesiastical hierarchy and the clergy. The second part deals with procedure, secular property, religious orders, marriage, and confession. The last part deals with the rules on the sacraments, except for matrimony, and sacramentals.

Prior to the middle of the 12th century only systematic collections of church prescriptions had existed. With his Decretum, Gratian published the first synthesis of the universally applicable canon law. At the same time he provided the later popes with a foundation upon which their decrees could rest.

In spite of its renown and the great authority of the Decretum Gratiani, it remained a private collection with no universal force of law. The ecclesiastical authorities never officially recognized or approved the collection.

Greenland

Greenland nowdays
Greenland nowdays

It is said that on a good day one can glimpse distant Greenland from Iceland. This may be an exaggeration, but the existence of links of land across the North Atlantic played a key role in Norse exploration, along with the development of new types of ships and new navigational technology and knowledge. The Faeroe Islands, not far from Britain and probably already known to the Romans, were settled first, early in the Viking age.

From there the Vikings settled in Iceland, perhaps known to the ancients and certainly to the Irish, starting in the ninth century after evicting a few stray Irish monks. From Iceland the Norse continued west to Greenland in the second half of the ninth century, and then to the islands and coasts of North America by around 1000 c.e.

The Greenland of the Norse age of exploration was warmer and had more open land, allowing a limited agriculture. It was also uninhabited. The Eskimos and similar groups had yet truly to settle the area when the Norse came, although they did begin to penetrate south after their arrival and may have been a factor in the final extinguishing of the colony in the 15th century. It was thus not misnamed, but in the ninth and 10th centuries was truly a green land and eminently suited for the Norse way of life with its fjords, turf, and seacarried wood from what is now Canada.


Greenland was also known for its fisheries and marine mammals, including the narwhal, a source of valuable ivory that later became the principal export of the Norse colony and was highly prized in medieval Europe.

According to Icelandic tradition, mainly from his saga, it was Eiríkur Raudi, or Erik the Red, who was the motive force behind Norse settlement of Greenland, trying to outrun his own legal problems (he carried outlaw status in both Norway and Iceland). Over time two distinct settlements emerged there: Vestribyggd or Western Settlement, and Eystribyggd or Eastern Settlement.

The former was the first settled, in 986, and was located near modern Nuuk. The latter was around what is now Narsarsuaq and began a decade later. Scattered settlements arose in other places where conditions were favorable for fishing or hunting.

Both settlements prospered into the 12th century when a downturn in average temperature began, briefly arrested by an improvement during the 14th century. By then it was too late, and the viability of the Norse of Greenland had declined to the point that survival was difficult, if not impossible.

The Western Settlement was abandoned in the mid-14th century and the Eastern Settlement died out in the late 15th century. Ultimately isolation and a progressively more difficult environment with the beginning of the Little Ice Age (which put more icebergs into the seas, making travel more difficult) doomed the Eastern Settlement.

Both settlements left behind substantial archaeological remnants, including fragments of the material culture of the era, preserved by the cold. This included clothing, in some cases in the latest European fashion. From these fragments it is clear that the Norse of Greenland tried to maintain at least the semblance of their European culture and its values.

Also associated with Norse Greenland is evidence of wider contact with the islands and mainland of North America. The most famous example of this is the brief Norse settlement in Canada, Vinland (L’Anse aux Meadows, Newfoundland). In addition archaeology and an examination of written sources have suggested Norse presence not only all and up down the Greenland coast, but on Baffin Island and at points north and south and even farther into the interior.

At some of these locations, Norse from Greenland came into contact with Native Americans, including the Eskimos, who were to replace the Norse in Greenland, perhaps by force. It is conspicuous that the only North American culture to make bronze was one in close contact with the Greenland Norse, who knew how to work with bronze.

Gregory Palamas - Theologian and Bishop

Gregory Palamas - Theologian and Bishop
Gregory Palamas - Theologian and Bishop

Gregory Palamas was born in the city of Constantinople in 1296. His father was a prominent official under Byzantine emperor Andronicus II Palaeologus. His father died while Gregory was an infant, and the emperor actively took a part in Gregory’s formation and education. Intelligent and hard working, Gregory was destined by his imperial patron for government service. But at the age of 20, Gregory left government service to take up monastic life at Mount Athos.

Advancing in monastic life under his spiritual mentor (St.) Nicodemus of Vatopedi, he eventually became a priest and hermit at the small monastery of Glossia on Mount Athos. During this time he absorbed the teachings of such church fathers as Evagrius of Pontus, Macarius of Egypt, and Simeon the New Theologian.

Moving to Thessalonika, he became a noted priest, preacher, and teacher while maintaining a strict monastic regimen. He gathered a small community of solitary monks around his church and began actively to teach the “Hesychast” (from the Greek hesychia meaning “calm, silence”) method of prayer and theology.


During the 1330s Gregory was called to Constantinople to defend the Hesychasts against the “Scholastic” teaching of the Italo-Greek monk Barlaam of Calabria. Barlaam taught that one could not “know God” through mental prayer. Influenced by Thomas Aquinas he insisted that knowledge of the existence of God could only be appropriated through intellectual activity.

He ridiculed the teachings and prayer methods of the Hesychasts and attempted to disprove the Hesychasts’ claim to experience God through “the light of Tabor.” (Tabor was the place where Jesus [Christ] of Nazareth experienced his “transfiguration” into divine brilliance and energy.) Palamas’s most extensive written response to Barlaam was Apology for the Holy Hesychasts, commonly called the Triads.

Palamas’s defense established the theological basis for the whole human person’s (body, spirit, and soul) being involved in the mystical experience. The whole person can be deified or united with the divine energies of Christ’s Tabor experience. This deification or “theosis” ultimately includes body, soul, and spirit, so a person enters into a real, but mystical union with God.

Metropolitan Church of Saint Gregory Palamas
Metropolitan Church of Saint Gregory Palamas

In this incarnational way Palamas and the Hesychasts attempted to experience the presence of God through “divine energies.” Palamas helped to define the difference between the “divine essence” (which cannot be known) and “divine energies” (which can be known through how humans experience God’s presence).

Palamas’s teachings were accepted as orthodox at the Council of Constantinople in 1341, and Barlaam was condemned as a heretic and fled to Calabria. This did not end Palamas’ troubles, as Barlaam’s followers among monks and high clergy continued to dispute Palamas. He was imprisoned from 1344 to 1347.

But after his release by Patriarch Isidore, he was elected archbishop of Thessalonika. During one of his trips to Constantinople, he was captured by pirates. He was beaten and tortured for preaching the Gospel to his fellow captives and captors. After a year he was ransomed and returned to Thessalonika.

Palamas performed many miracles during his reign as archbishop, including healing many illnesses. He died on November 14, 1359, and was canonized by a church council in 1368. He is commemorated in the Byzantine Church on November 14 and the second Sunday of the most solemn season of the church, the Great Fast or Lent.

Johann Gutenberg

Johann Gutenberg
Johann Gutenberg

The dissemination of knowledge occurred more quickly after Johann Gutenberg invented the printing press in 1440. Gutenberg, the son of a businessman named Friele Gensfleisch zur Laden, was born in Mainz, Germany, and was a goldsmith by profession. Movable type made of wooden blocks had been developed by the Chinese but was a time-consuming process.

In Holland and Prague, experiments on a sophisticated printing process were already taking place. Gutenberg’s goal was to reproduce medieval liturgical manuscripts by using movable pieces of metal blocks for each letter. Many copies of a book were printed without loss of color and design. An assembled page was placed into a frame, and afterward a heavy screw forced the printing block against the paper. He combined paper technology along with oil-based ink.

With the financial backing of a rich German lawyer, Johann Fust, Gutenberg established the first printing press, ushering in an era of enlightenment. A large portion of society received an opportunity to read, and literacy was not confined to church, monastery, and nobility. The labor-intensive hand copying of books was no longer necessary, while the printing of books became fast and inexpensive.


Gutenberg published the 42 Line Bible, or the Gutenberg Bible, in Mainz in 1445 after two years of hard labor. Each column had 42 lines, and the whole Latin Bible had 1,282 pages. He printed 180 copies, out of which 47 are still extant. The words from the original Bible were not changed.

He sold copies of the Biblia Sacra at the Frankfurt Book Fair of 1455. Adolf of Nassau, the elector of Mainz, gave him a benefice in 1465. Gutenberg printed indulgences, slips of paper used by the church. He also produced parts of Aelius Donatus’s Latin grammar, Ars Minor, which had 24 editions. Persons trained by him established their own printing presses.

Within a span of 50 years about 100,000 publications emerged. In libraries, books were to be distinguished from archival materials. Very soon, literacy expanded with the printing of maps, posters, pamphlets, and newspapers. Novel ideas of Renaissance Europe were fostered and preserved. National languages replaced Latin, a change important for the creation of nation-states.

The invention of the printing press was received with opposition from the Catholic Church. The printers of Mainz fled after an attack from soldiers of the archbishop of Nassau in 1462. But European cities benefited from the printers’ skill.

Some of the elite did not want to keep printed books along with hand-copied manuscripts in libraries. This dissipated gradually, and the printing press spread all over Europe. In 1476 William Caxton established the first printing press in England at Westminster.

printing press
printing press

He published Thomas Malory’s Le Morte d’ Arthur. In the 1480s, a printing press opened in Andalusia, Spain. By the end of the 15th century, the printing industry existed in 250 cities of Europe. The 1,000 printing presses published 35,000 titles and 20 million copies.

Afterward, Roman type styles replaced Gothic types and metal screws were used in place of wooden ones. The printing press in the 15th century was modest compared to a modern press. A standard press having five workers could publish only five books a year, but an important discovery had been made in the history of human civilization.

Statues of Gutenberg adorn many places in Germany and notable institutions are named after him. Gutenberg is credited with transforming medieval Europe into a modern society, bringing about a scientific revolution.

Early Habsburg Dynasty

Early Habsburg Dynasty
Early Habsburg Dynasty

Although the Habsburg dynasty became especially prominent after the election of Rudolf of Habsburg as king of the Romans in 1273, its history goes back to the 10th century. Emperor Otto I (936–973) had a subject named Guntram the Rich (c. 930–990), who was grandfather of Radbot of Klettgau (c. 985–1035).

The latter built the castle of Habichtsburg, or the Hawk’s Castle, in the Swiss canton Aargau. One son, Werner I (c. 1030–1096), was styled count of Habsburg, while his other son, Otto I, became count of Sundgau. Werner’s son Otto II (c. 1040–1111) was the first to use the title Habsburg.

The wealthy Habsburg dynasty acquired vast territories in German-speaking parts of modern Switzerland, southeast Germany, Alsace, and Austria. This expansion became visible especially during the days of Albrecht III the Rich (d. 1199). After his death, the House of Habsburg was inherited by Albrecht IV (c. 1239), father of Rudolf, the future King Rudolf I.


Rudolf I

Rudolf was born on May 1, 1218, from the union of Albrecht IV of Habsburg and Hedwig of Kyburg. His godfather was Emperor Frederick II Hohenstaufen (1212–1250). When Albrecht died in 1239, Rudolf inherited his holdings in Alsace and six years later (1245) he married Gertrude, daughter of the count of Hohenberg.

Gertrude brought a large dowry, which expanded the dominions of the Habsburgs. Rudolf was on excellent terms with Emperor Frederick II and his son Conrad IV (1250–1254), which allowed him to receive a series of imperial grants to augment his estates.

This expansion continued during the Interregnum (1254–73), especially after the death of Rudolf’s maternal uncle Hartmann VI of Kyburg (1264). His prominence, wealth, and influence made him a worthy candidate for the royal crown and on September 29, 1273, the assembly of German princes, the Kurfürsten, elected him king of the Romans.

Although he was never crowned emperor by the pope in Rome, Pope Gregory X recognized his election, provided that Rudolf renounced all his territorial claims in Rome, Sicily, and the Papal States in Italy. Alfonso X of Castile followed Gregory, elected king of the Romans in 1257.

Rudolf I
Rudolf I

While Rudolf’s coronation did not seem to provoke negative emotions outside his kingdom, the first challenger to his rule came from inside. It was Otokar II, king of Bohemia, who failed to win the majority of the Kurfürsten electors to be crowned the king of the Romans.

He refused to acknowledge Rudolf’s election and to surrender his estates in Austria, Carniola, Styria, and Carinthia that were seized from the imperial crown during the Interregnum. The provinces were won back after Otokar’s defeat in 1276. Otokar resumed his hostilities against Rudolf, having allied himself with Polish chieftains.

His attempts to challenge Rudolf were crushed in 1278, when he was killed in the Battle of Dürnkrut and Jedenspeigen. Rudolf spent much time restoring domestic peace. He invested two of his sons, Rudolf II (1271–90) and Albrecht I (1255–1308), as counts of Austria and Styria. With the death of Rudolf II in 1290, Albrecht became the sole male heir to the throne.

Adolf of Nassau, Albrecht, and Frederick I

During his brief reign (1291–98) Adolf did not achieve anything significant and in the later years of his rule some German magnates rebelled against him and chose Albrecht as their new king. Albrecht marched with his army against Adolf, who did not recognize the election, and defeated him in the Battle of Göllnheim (July 2, 1298). The throne was restored to the Habsburgs—but only for a short time.

The marriage of Albrecht to Elizabeth, daughter and heiress of the count of Gorizia and Tyrol, augmented the demesnes of the Habsburgs. During his reign (1298–1308), Albrecht attempted to seize territories in the Low Countries, as well as on the Burgundian frontier. These attempts to expand his control westward provoked a quarrel with Philip IV of France.

After Albrecht’s murder (May 1, 1308), Henry VII of Luxembourg was elected as the new king of the Romans (1308–13), while Albrecht’s heirs were deprived of the crown. His eldest surviving son, Frederick I (1286–1330), tried to regain the royal title at the cost of war against emperors Henry VII (1308–13) and Louis IV (1314–28). In 1322 Louis crushed Frederick’s army in the Battle of Mühldorf, with the latter taken captive. He was released in 1325 and made coruler with Louis.

The year after, he withdrew from the joint rule of the empire and came back to rule Austria proper, until his death in 1330. During his struggle with the emperors, Frederick was strongly supported by his younger brother, Leopold (1296–1326), ruler of Farther Austria. The latter insisted on having Frederick crowned as king of the Romans and fought by his side in Mühldorf.

Austria's Consolidation and Vienna

Frederick I’s two sons, Albrecht II the Wise (1298–1358) and Otto the Merry, succeeded him in 1330. Although not a monarch, Albrecht gained considerable influence on the international scale. He was asked by Pope Benedict XII and Philip VI of France to mediate in their conflict with the emperor. He never switched allegiences and remained with Louis until the latter’s death in 1346. In domestic matters, Albrecht paid much attention to the law, codifying the rules of inheritance of the Habsburg lands in Austria and issuing constitutions for Styria and Carniola.

Frederick’s son Rudolf IV the Founder (1339–65) was married to Catherine of Bohemia, daughter of Emperor Charles IV (1346–78). Rudolf paid a good deal of attention to the development of his hometown, Vienna, where the bishopric and cathedral of St. Stephen were established. In 1365 the University of Vienna was founded, in a response to the establishment of the Charles University of Prague (1348).

In 1363 he inherited Tyrol from the childless Countess Margaret of Tyrol and annexed the county to the Habsburg domain. He is also credited with the establishment of a stable currency, the Vienna penny, and the invention of the title archduke of Austria.

Rudolf’s son, Albrecht III (1349–95) continued the expansion of the University of Vienna. In 1379, rule over the Habsburg territories was divided between Albrecht and his only surviving brother, Leopold III (1351–86). The former retained Austria, while the latter received Farther Austria, Tyrol, Carinthia, and Styria. He also acquired Freiburg (1386), Feldkirch (1375), and Trieste (1382).

After the death of his son, William the Ambitious (1370–1406), the possessions of the Leopoldian line of the Habsburgs were divided between William’s younger brother Ernest the Iron (1377–1424), who inherited Styria, Carinthia, and Carniola, and William’s son Frederick IV (1382–1439), who succeeded in Tyrol and Further Austria.

Albrecht V (1397–1439), the future King Albrecht II (1438–39), succeeded the Habsburg dukedom after the death of Albrecht III’s son Albrecht IV (1377–1404). He spent his youth in the company of Emperor Sigismund, who was also king of Hungary and Bohemia and fought by his side against the Hussites of Bohemia. In 1422 he married Sigismund’s daughter Elizabeth, who descended from noble Hungarian and Slavic lines.

After Sigismund’s death in 1437, he inherited the kingdom of Hungary and Bohemia, although he was not able to gain control over the latter. In March 1438 he was elected king of the Romans, returning the German crown to the Habsburgs. Having being crowned king, Albrecht spent the last two years of his life fighting Bohemians and Poles, as well as defending Hungary from the Ottoman Turks.

Vienna Concordat

Frederick V of Austria, son of Ernest the Iron, succeeded Albrecht as Frederick III (1440–93). He was unsuccessful in battle, but an outstanding diplomat. He signed the Vienna Concordat in 1446, which established and defined relations between the the empire and papacy. In 1452 he was crowned emperor by the pope in Rome. In the same year he married Eleanor of Portugal, inheriting a considerable dowry.

In 1475 he arranged the marriage of Mary, daughter of Charles Bold of Burgundy, to his son Maximilian. Despite all these achievements, his rivals challenged Frederick’s power more than once. Between 1458 and 1463 Frederick was involved in a bitter struggle with his brother, Albrecht VI, over Austria. He also fought with his nephew, Ladislaus Posthumus, over Bohemia and Hungary.

But the main threat came after Ladislaus’s death, with the ascension of Matthias Corvinus (1458–90) to the Hungarian throne. This powerful king seized various Habsburg possessions in Austria, Moravia, and Silesia. In 1485 Corvinus captured Vienna and resided there until his death in 1490. It was only his death that saved Frederick’s rule and perhaps the imperial rule of the Habsburgs.

Frederick’s son Maximilian (r. 1493–1519) succeeded his father, controlling vast territories. He inherited the Free County of Burgundy from his father-in-law, Charles the Bald, together with some parts of the Low Countries. In 1490 he acquired Tyrol and parts of Austria from his half-uncle, Sigismund, son of Frederick IV of Austria.

Maximilian’s rule over the Free County of Burgundy provoked tensions with the French Crown, which led to the Italian Wars (1494–1559). In 1499 Maximilian’s army was badly beaten by the Swiss Confederation, resulting in the imperial recognition of the Swiss independence. His grandson, Charles V of Spain, succeeded Maximilian.

During his reign (1519–56), the Habsburg house rose to the premier authority and influence in Europe, holding dominions in the central Europe, Germany, the Low Countries, parts of Burgundy, and Spain with its vast American colonies. After his death, the Habsburg holdings were divided among his heirs. The Habsburg dynasty ruled Spain until the death of Charles II in 1700, while the Austrian lineage did not cease until 1918, when the last emperor Karl, or Charles, resigned and Austria was proclaimed a republic.

Hafiz - Persian Poet

Hafiz - Persian Poet
Hafiz - Persian Poet

Hafiz, a pen name for Khajeh Shamseddin Mohammad Shirazi, was born in Shiraz in present-day Iran. Following the death of his father, a merchant, Hafiz lived in poverty until his poetry earned him the patronage of several Persian rulers.

He is perhaps the most admired poet among Persians, who, up to the present day, memorize and quote extensively from his lyric poems. He is best known for his over 500 Ghazals (sonnets) collected in his Diwan. His lyricism is captured in the following portions of the sonnet “My Bird”:
My soul is a scared bird, the highest heaven his next
Fretting within its body-bars, it finds on earth its nest


Hafiz often wrote about his favored hometown of Shiraz. Other poems are highly erotic, while others are clearly influenced by Islamic mysticism or Sufism. His many references to wine and drinking from the cup are believed by many to be symbolic of Sufibelief in mystical intoxication. Others argue that the language is not symbolic.

Hafiz had an enormous influence on Arabic and Turkish literature and his poems have also been translated into many Western languages. Authors as diverse as the American essayist Ralph Waldo Emerson and the German writer Johann Wolfgang von Goethe admired the poetry of Hafiz.

Hangzhou (Hangchou)

Hangzhou city walls
Hangzhou city walls

Hangzhou is situated near the West Lake and the coast in southern China. In 605 Emperor Yangdi (Yang-ti) of the Sui dynasty had the Grand Canal extended from Yangzhou (Yangchou) on the Yangzi (Yangtze) River to Hangzhou. As a result an already fast-developing area of the lower Yangzi and the southeastern coast grew by leaps and bounds. Hangzhou became the capital of a prefecture of the same name.

In 1126 Kaifeng (K’ai-feng), the capital of the Song (Sung) dynasty, fell to the Jurchen nomads who had been ruling northeastern China through the Jin (Chin) dynasty. The Jurchen captured the Song emperor and more than 3,000 members of his court, deporting them to the wastes of northern Manchuria.

A Song prince escaped capture and rallied resistance from several temporary capitals, then settled on Hangzhou because of its location south of the Yangzi, and in the midst of numerous lakes, where the nomadic cavalry could not be effectively deployed. Peace was made around 1136 with northern China under the Jin and land south of the Huai and the Yangzi valley under the Song, now called the Southern Song (1126–1379).


Hangzhou was capital city for a century and half; it also became a great commercial center and the most populous metropolis in the world. The existing city wall was expanded, new palaces and public buildings were built, and with the population increase (to over a million by 1275 from under 200,000 before 1126), large suburbs extended beyond the city limits.

As a contemporary writer noted: “The city of Hangzhou is large, extensive and overpopulated. The houses are high and built close to each other. Their beams touch and their porches are continuous. There is not an inch of unoccupied ground anywhere.”

West Lake
West Lake

Marco Polo wrote about Hangzhou (which he called Quinsai) after the fall of the Southern Song, when the city was past its prime, thus: “This city is greater than any in the world.... [It] has twelve principal gates; and at each of these gates at about eight miles are cities larger than Venice or Padua might be, so that one will go about one of those suburbs for six or eight days and yet will seem to have traveled but a little way.” Other descriptions paint a gay life with lamps lighting up places of entertainment such as restaurants, shops, taverns, and teahouses until late in the night. Pleasure boats, some 180 feet long, plied the West Lake.

Numerous canals intersected the city and environs, making transportation of people, merchandise, and provisions easy. Fleets of barges also carried away the waste of the city. Major roads also linked the city and beyond to many scenic spots, where rich men rode on horseback and ladies were carried in sedan chairs.

Hangzhou was also noted as a center of the silk industry, of fine ceramic kilns whose output supplied the court, and of the best teas grown and processed in its environs. The growing economy of the region also began to support the best academies. Many of the activities of this multiple-function city survived the demise of the Southern Song; however Hangzhou never became a national capital again.

hangzhou ancient building
hangzhou ancient building

Hanseatic League

Hanseatic league port
Hanseatic league port

The Hanseatic League, or Hanse, was an association of German merchants, and later of towns, that dominated trade in northern Europe from the 13th through the 15th century. During this time the Hanse comprised around 75 member towns plus around 100 associate towns. The word hanse means an association, but the entity called the Hanse was far more. Its members were middlemen, both geographically and economically.

They controlled trade between the Baltic and North Seas, in part because their ships, called cogs (depicted on the seals of many Hanseatic towns), were much superior to earlier ships. Using this technological advantage German merchants were able to exact economic privileges from rulers along the Baltic and North Seas who came to depend on their trade. But as their economic power grew, they also took a more active military and diplomatic role in shaping the politics of northern Europe.

Eventually the structural weakness of this loosely organized transnational community became apparent, as witnessed by the growing divergence in the interests of the member towns. The Dutch, English, Spanish, and Portuguese merchants, who traded not only throughout Europe, but also throughout the world, had already long eclipsed the Hanse when it finally dissolved in the mid-17th century.


Frisians, Flemings, Scandinavians (Vikings were traders as well as raiders), and the Slavic and Baltic peoples living along the south and east Baltic littoral dominated long-distance trade on the Baltic and North Seas before the arrival of German merchants. The main centers of trade were Haddeby in Schleswig-Holstein, Birka in Sweden, Truso on the Vistula River, and Stettin and Jumne on the Oder River. These trading centers provided the groundwork for the later Hanse.

By the 12th century Visby, on the island of Gotland, had emerged as the main emporium in the Baltic Sea. Its merchants established a trading outpost in the important Rus town of Novgorod, and they were granted extensive privileges by Emperor Lothair II (1125–37) to trade throughout his realm. This emperor’s grandson, Henry the Lion, duke of Saxony (1142–80), was also interested both in developing trade and in pushing the bounds of his lordship farther east.

Along with Albert the Bear, margrave of Brandenburg (1134–70), Henry played an important role in what has come to be known as the Drang nach Osten, or “push to the east.” This involved not only the military conquest and conversion of the Slavic pagans to the east of the Elbe River, but also the colonization of the conquered lands with peasants and burghers from overpopulated western lands.

They were aided in this project by other nobles, including Count Adolf II of Holstein, who in 1143 founded a town, Lübeck, at the confluence of the Trave and Wakenitz Rivers, at almost the narrowest point of the isthmus dividing the Baltic and North Seas.

The native Slavs had long recognized the strategic and economic importance of this site, whose town a few miles downstream (from which Adolf took the name for his own town) had been destroyed in 1138. Henry the Lion complained that the town’s success was causing his own economic projects to fail, as the chronicler Helmold relates.

In 1157 Henry forced Adolf to give him the town, and Henry endowed it with expansive privileges and encouraged foreign merchants to trade there. In 1180 Emperor Frederick I Barbarossa (1152–90) stripped Henry of his possessions for failing to submit to his judgment.

Frederick I confirmed the town’s privileges in 1188, and in 1226 Emperor Frederick II made Lübeck an imperial city, free from the jurisdiction of local lords. This status as the only imperial city east of the Elbe, along with Lübeck’s geographical position, heralded the future greatness of the city that would become the capital of the Hanse, displacing Visby as the center of Baltic trade.

Because of the privileges granted to the Gotlanders, German merchants, especially those from Lübeck, were permitted to trade in Visby. These merchants formed an association and were recognized by authorities as “the merchants of the Roman Empire frequenting Gotland.” They elected leaders to speak on their behalf and in time established trading posts, or Kontore, in Novgorod, Bergen, Bruges, and London, four of the most important markets in northern Europe.

During the 13th century dozens of towns were founded beyond the Elbe River according to “German law.” Many of these towns were new settlements, but there were also a large number of preexisting towns, like Gdansk and Kraków in Poland, that were reorganized according to the new social (“Stadtluft macht frei,” or “town air makes you free”) and spatial (a checkerboard pattern of streets around a market square) ideals of their mother cities.

As more merchants from these new towns became involved in trade, they became wary of the other merchants’ leadership of the Kontore, and they wanted towns to take over the leadership of the Hanse. During the late 13th century a transformation took place—this association of merchants became an urban league.

Hanseatic league route map
Hanseatic league route map

The Hanse was not the first urban league. Others emerged in the empire during the 13th century, as imperial power declined and towns looked to each other for protection from predatory lords, pirates, and other threats. But these other leagues proved ephemeral, dissolving after the immediate threat had passed.

With Lübeck at its head, the Hanse continued to display its economic and military might throughout the 13th and 14th centuries. It forced the surrounding rulers, including the kings of Norway, Denmark, England, and France, to grant the Hanse ever more extensive privileges, allowing them to monopolize trade between the Baltic and North Seas.

In 1356 the first Hansetag, or general assembly of all the Hanseatic towns, was held in Lübeck. The Danish king Valdemar IV had been jeopardizing their trade routes by conquering lands throughout the Baltic, including Visby. The Hanse resolved to put an end to this. In 1362 they financed a fleet to oppose the king through the imposition of a toll on merchandise, called the Pfundzoll.

This venture, however, ended in defeat for the Hanse, and its leader was executed in the Lübeck town square for his failure. In 1367 a new Hansetag convened, this time in Cologne, because the Hanse needed the help of the Dutch in defeating the Danes. This “Cologne Confederation” of the Hanse, the Dutch, and Sweden sacked Copenhagen and forced Denmark to accept the Peace of Stralsund in 1370.

The confederation won the right to occupy all Danish fortresses guarding access between the Baltic and North Seas for 15 years as well as the right to choose the next king. In 1388 the Hanse authorized an embargo of England, Flanders, and Rus and won privileges in all three lands, taking control of the Kontore in these lands. These however would prove to be pyrrhic victories.

The late 14th century marked the apogee of the Hanse’s power. It monopolized trade between the Baltic and North Seas and had imposed its will on lands in which it traded through a combination of military and economic measures. Yet even at the height of its power, it was the beginning of the decline of the Hanse.

Many inland towns and some coastal towns did not take part in the “Cologne Confederation.” It was expensive to send representatives there, and the goals of individual towns were not always in line with those of the general assembly. The interests of the eastern towns and the western towns as well as those of the coastal towns and the inland towns continued to diverge.

Next because the Hansetag met so infrequently, the Lübeck town council functioned as the de facto head of the Hanse. When a revolt broke out in 1408 against its rule by the Lübeck burghers, it demonstrated not only the institutional weaknesses of the Hanse, but also the fact that frictions existed between the town councils and the burghers they were representing. In an organization as amorphous as the Hanse, there existed the problem of “freeriding,” that is, merchants from towns who did not belong to the Hanse trying to claim its privileges.

In addition to this internal fragmentation, the Hanse also faced external challenges. The rulers of Hanse lands sought to develop their sovereignty by limiting the Hanse’s privileges or forcing towns to withdraw from the league. In 1442 the margrave of Brandenburg forced Berlin-Cölln’s withdrawal. Also English, Dutch, and south German merchants began to take a larger share of the northern European trade.

The Hanse continued to decline throughout the 16th century, and in the first half of the 17th century the Thirty Years’ War (1618–48) decimated central Europe to an extent not seen since the Black Death. Two decades after the Peace of Westphalia (1648), argued by many political theorists to be the origin of the modern state system, the association convened its last Hansetag.

The extent of the Hanse’s economic and political power has led some historians and political theorists to draw comparisons to the European Community, forerunner of the European Union. These scholars suggest that because a transnational polity like the Hanse presented serious challenges to the emerging territorially sovereign states of the late Middle Ages, useful examples might be found for the future of the sovereign state in a world in which transnational organizations are once again challenging its supremacy.

Hanseatic league building
Hanseatic league building

For nearly four centuries the Hanse was a major economic, political, and social factor in the formation of Europe—it facilitated the exchange not just of commodities, but also of people and ideas. Dozens of preserved medieval marketplaces in towns around the Baltic littoral, from Tallinn, Estonia, to Gdansk, Poland, to Lübeck, Germany, bear witness to the greatness of the Hanse during its heyday.