Marzipan and Magistrates

Lübeck is a city in northeastern Germany, which during the Middle Ages, was considered the de facto capital of the mercantile Hanseatic League and was one of the largest commercial centers in Europe. The city’s competitiveness was due in part to its legal code, known as the Lübeck Laws.

The Harbour in Lübeck, XIX
Adolf Bock
Oil on Canvas

Painted sometime between 1995 and 1960, this oil painting depicts perhaps the most characteristic and important aspect of Lübeck: the city’s harbour, which was once a crucial stop in the region’s trading system.


Lübeck’s residents were pragmatic people, and the city is largely remembered today for its early focus on trade, rather than great advances in art or culture. However, Lübeck has managed to produce several well-known politicians, artists, and Nobel laureates, as well as its famous marzipan confections.

Platter of Niederegger Marzipan Candy
Created with Dall:E
Digital Art

Marzipan became a specialty of the Hanseatic League port towns. In particular, the cities of Lübeck and Tallinn have a proud tradition of marzipan manufacture.

Lübeck’s culture was strongly influenced by its position as a center of trade, and by a strong Christian influence. Notably, the city became the primary point of departure for crusaders and colonists heading to the eastern shores of the Baltic and the territories conquered by the Livonian and Teutonic orders, which were Christian military orders empowered to bring Christianity by force to the pagan peoples in what are now the modern-day Baltic States and Russia.

The Deplorable Apostolate, 1866
Wojciech Gerson
Oil on Canvas

This painting depicts the Wendish Crusade, a military campaign in 1147, one of the Northern Crusades and a part of the Second Crusade, led primarily by the Kingdom of Germany within the Holy Roman Empire and directed against the Polabian Slavs (or “Wends”).

Additionally, Lübeck was a member of the Schmalkaldic League, a military alliance of Lutheran states within the Holy Roman Empire during the mid-16th century. The Schmalkaldic League would fight two wars with the Holy Roman Empire, losing the first and winning the second. These were religious wars that pitted Protestant nobles against the Catholic Holy Roman Emperor. These wars presaged the ultimate Protestant-Catholic conflict, the Thirty Years War, which would commence in 1618, but which Lübeck would remain neutral in, as it had witnessed enough of the violence during the Schmalkaldic Wars.


Throughout its history, Lübeck was a prominent merchant town in the Baltic, trading in copper, iron, wax, cloth, fish, amber, and salt. Its particular role along the Baltic trade network was to connect raw-material-producing northern and eastern Europe to the western European manufacturing centers. 

Besides trade, the people of Lübeck were known for their local crafts, shipbuilding, metalworking, and food processing. In the 14th century, Lübeck was the most powerful city of the Hanseatic League, a commercial and defensive confederation of Baltic territories, earning it the title of the "Queen of the Hanseatic League."

The Adler Von Lübeck, 2004
Olaf Rahardt
Oil on Canvas

The Adler Von Lübeck was a 16th-century warship of the Hanseatic city of Lübeck, Germany, and was one of the largest ships in the world at her time. It was a war galleon built by Lübeck during the Northern Seven Years’ War to escort her convoy of merchant ships in the Baltic and North Sea.

At its height, the Hanseatic League was composed of approximately 200 different settlements ranging across the Baltic Sea from the Netherlands to Estonia, and Sweden to Poland, with the bulk of the settlements concentrated in Germany. The League maintained an effective monopoly on trade across the Baltic and North Seas during the height of its power from the 1200’s to the 1400’s.

The German cities were predominantly part of the Holy Roman Empire, and many of them gained status as “Free Imperial Cities,” that owed allegiance directly to the Holy Roman Emperor without any allegiance to an intermediary member of the nobility, through the bargaining power that they obtained through membership in the League. 

Hanze (Hanseatic League)

This map provides an overview of various large and small Hanseatic cities and the trade routes by land and sea. The four Kontors (major trading posts) are also indicated.


Hanseatic city

Trade Route


Adolf II founded Lübeck in 1143, and in 1226 Emperor Frederick II bestowed upon the town the status of "Imperial Free City",” which gave the city autonomy from the aristocracy, making it answerable only to the Holy Roman Emperor. This change also gave the city representation in the proto-legislature known as the Imperial Diet.

Lubeck Illustration present in the Nuremberg Chronicle, 1493

Once Lübeck became a free city, it was able to develop its own unique legal code. Lübeck Law, as it would become known, instituted a legal system in which guilds of the city elected a council representative, and these council members then elected up to four mayors (or “Bürgermeisters”) to serve as the city's executive officers, with the eldest mayor acting as "first among equals." Lübeck’s laws and governance system were so influential that approximately 100 cities adopted similar governance rules based on it throughout the Baltic region, hence why it was important enough to garner its own category.

governance changes

By the time that the Hanseatic League disbanded in 1669, Lübeck's power and influence had begun to fade. Eventually, Napoleon occupied Lübeck in 1806, and after an extended occupation it was annexed by the French Empire in 1811 before it was later liberated. In 1815, the Congress of Vienna recognized Lübeck as an independent free city, but it soon after joined the German Confederation and has remained a part of the German nation ever since.

Gebhard Leberecht von Blücher, circa 1815
Artist Unknown
Oil on Copper

Jean-Baptiste Bernadotte, Marshal of France, circa 1805
Johann Jakob de Lose
Oil on Canvas

On the 6th of November 1806 the Battle of Lübeck took place in the German city, between soldiers of the Kingdom of Prussia, led by Gebhard Leberecht von Blücher, who were retreating from defeat at the Battle of Jena–Auerstedt, and troops of Napoleon’s First French Empire, under Marshals Murat, Bernadotte, and Soult, who were pursuing them. In this War of the Fourth Coalition action, the French inflicted a severe defeat on the Prussians, driving them from the neutral city.

Despite the fall of the Holy Roman Empire, and the various confederations and empires that Lübeck would be a part of after the fall, the city was able to maintain its status as a largely autonomous city-state within all of these political entities until 1937, when the then Nazi government of Germany passed a law which incorporated it into the province of Schleswig-Holstein.

In 1900, 674 years after it was created, Lübeck Law was superseded by the German civil code. Through becoming a part of the German nation-state and the implementation of German civil law, Lübeck lost its autonomy, but it maintained its importance as a Baltic logistics center.

The Holstengate, circa 1890
Unknown Author
Photochrome print
Library of Congress

The Holsten Gate is a city gate marking off the western boundary of the old center of the Hanseatic city of Lübeck. Built in 1464, the Gothic brick construction is one of the relics of Lübeck’s medieval city fortifications and one of two remaining city gates, the other being the Citadel Gate (“Burgtor”).


Abulafia, David (2016): Lübeck and the Hanseatic League. History of Capitalism Series. Legatum Institute. Legatum Institute, 2016. Available online at https://lif.blob.core.windows.net/lif/docs/default-source/default-library/lubeck-and-the-hanseatic-league-with-david-abulafia-lecture-transcript-10-february-2016-pdf.pdf?sfvrsn=2, checked on 9/1/2020.

Buelow, George J.: Hamburg and Lübeck. Edited by The Late Baroque Era. Palgrave Macmillan, London. Available online at https://link.springer.com/chapter/10.1007/978-1-349-11303-3_6, checked on 9/20/2020.

Cowan, Alexander (2003): Cultural traffic in Lübeck and Danzig in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries. In Scandinavian Journal of History 28 (3-4), pp. 175–185. Available online at https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/03468750310003811.

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Loud, Graham A. (2019): The Chronicle of Arnold of Lübeck. 1st edition: Routledge.

Rotz, Rhiman A. (1997): The Lubeck Uprising of 1408 and the Decline of the Hanseatic League. In The American Philosophical Society 121 (1), pp. 1–45. Available online at https://www.jstor.org/stable/986565, checked on 9/1/2020.