A trade association with political power
In the middle of the 12th century, merchants and then entire cities joined forces in the Hanseatic League in order to guarantee the safety of their trade routes. At its peak, the Hanseatic League encompassed over 60 cities, from Tallinn to Bruges. The power wielded by the Hanseatic League was so great that it was able to defend its interests in two wars with Denmark.
Trade was conducted via the North Sea and Baltic Sea, but also along the Rhine from London down to Italy. Salt from Lüneburg was used to preserve fish caught at sea, and crops from Eastern Europe were traded for cloth from Flanders. Merchants were no longer globetrotting travellers themselves: they were administrators and managers who were able to increase the flexibility of their trading volume by using bills of exchange and promissory notes. Economic historians believe that the Hanseatic League, as an international trade association, played a significant role in globalisation.
Onwards to new continents
Centres of trade in Northern Italy were not official associations in the same sense as the Hanseatic League, but their trade networks extended even further afield. They benefitted from centuries of trade with Islamic merchants. Florentine trading company Peruzzi, for example, had offices and agencies from London to Cyprus, Barcelona to Constantinople and Paris to Tunis. Venice prospered particularly as a result of Oriental trade, even before the legendary journeys of Marco Polo. By contrast, Genoa was more active in the western Mediterranean and with European Atlantic ports. Genovese mariners had been sailing around the world under the Portuguese flag since the 14th century, focusing on finding overseas routes to India along the west coast of Africa. One expedition led by Pedro Álvares Cabral in 1500 was driven away from Africa by unfavourable winds and ended up landing in Brazil.