Under what conditions may social contracts arise? Evidence from the Hanseatic League


Social contractarians commonly take social contracts to be solely hypothetical and refrain from elaborating on the factors that influence the feasibility of the formation of social contracts. In contrast, this paper aims at providing a discussion of the conditions affecting the feasibility of social contracts. I argue that the more aligned the preferences of group members for public goods are, the more the individuals share similar social norms, and the smaller the group is the more feasible a genuine social contract becomes. I provide evidence in support of my contention from the medieval Hanseatic League. At the Hanseatic Kontor in Novgorod, one of the four major trading posts of the Hanseatic League in cities outside of Germany, German merchants agreed to live under the rule of a constitution that gave rise to a political authority for the Kontor society.

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  1. 1.

    Kontore throughout the text refers to the plural of Kontor.

  2. 2.

    Another variant of the social contract approach uses the state of a ‘natural distribution’ as starting point for the deliberation on the contractual stage; see for example Buchanan (1975) and Bush (1972).

  3. 3.

    Besides the four major Kontore the Hanseatic League had additional trading posts in foreign cities. The Kontore, however, represented the most important trading posts of the Hanseatic League. Since historians paid considerably more attention to the structure of the Kontore than to other trading posts, we have a fairly good understanding of the Kontore, whereas relatively little is known about other trading posts.

  4. 4.

    From roughly the middle of the 13th to the middle of the 14th century the Hanseatic League developed from an association of merchants into an association of towns (De Roover 1963, 111; Dollinger 1970, 45–61).

  5. 5.

    For a general introduction to the Hanseatic League see Dollinger (1970).

  6. 6.

    This holds especially true for Bergen and Novgorod, where the merchants lived on the Kontor’s premises. In London and in Bruges, the merchants did not live on the site of the Kontor and the German merchants intermingled with the native population.

  7. 7.

    Summer travelers arrived in Novgorod in spring after the ice gave the seaway to Novgorod free and left just before the ice made the voyage impossible. Winter travelers accordingly arrived in Novgorod shortly before the ice covered the passage to Novgorod.

  8. 8.

    Although officially a princedom, Novgorod was de facto governed by an oligarchic class of so-called Boyars. For details on Novgorod’s political system, see for example Johansen (1953).

  9. 9.

    The second condition concerning the absence of any political authority appears to be non-binding. It is imaginable that although a political authority is present all members of a society, including the political authority, agree to a social contract giving rise to a new political authority. A preexisting political authority therefore does not per se eliminate the possibility of designing a social contract. For a discussion of the influence of an existing political authority on the formation of a social contract see Sect. 4.

  10. 10.

    Kattinger (1999, 220) estimates that the first Skra was written around the year 1192.

  11. 11.

    Schlüter (1911b) provides the original text of seven versions of the constitution of the Kontor in Novgorod.

  12. 12.

    The preamble of the first Skra contains a reference to an approval of the Skra by ‘the wisest of all German cities’ (Schlüter 1911b, 58, author’s own translation from the original Middle Low German). The reference to the ‘wisest of all cities’ suggests that the extent copy was composed around 1270 in Visby, where merchants from several German cities formed a community (Schlüter 1911b, 8), and not that it was virtually approved by representatives from the wisest cities when it was first composed in the first half of the 13th century (Kattinger 1999, 217–219; Rennkamp 1977, 123).

  13. 13.

    Throughout the paper all references to the olderman of the Kontor refer to the ‘olderman of the court’.

  14. 14.

    One of the three known versions of the second edition of the constitution from 1298 (Schlüter 1911b, 18) mandated that the constitution be read to all the merchants of the Kontor twice a year—once for the summer travelers and once for the winter travelers (Schlüter 1911a, 26, b, 51).

  15. 15.

    See Holcombe (1994, 80–89) for a discussion of different definitions of government.

  16. 16.

    I consider the term ‘legitimate’ in Weber’s definition of government to indicate that despite the government’s official monopoly other members of society engage in physical force, which is then accordingly deemed ‘illegitimate’ by the established government.

  17. 17.

    Note that governments which were originally based on unanimous consent can turn into organizations that predate on those who initially consented to their creation. See Wagner (2007, 35) and the literature cited there for a discussion of the possibility that over time governments, which were originally created by unanimous consent, secure a dominant position in society not intended by those who participated in its creation.

  18. 18.

    If, as preferred by Holcombe (1994), the presence of coercive measures is considered to separate governments from clubs, due to its voluntary nature the Kontor society would have to be regarded as a club with a club leadership, which has extensive powers commonly associated with the characteristics of governments.

  19. 19.

    In the next known German-Russian trade agreement from 1259 the first mentioned participant on the German side is a representative from the city of Lübeck, followed by a representative of the German merchants frequenting Novgorod via Gotland and a representative of the Gotlandic merchants (Goetz 1916, 74). This change in the signers of the contract stands for the increase in influence of the Hanseatic Cities, especially Lübeck, over the affairs of Germans in Novgorod as elaborated on in Sect. 4.

  20. 20.

    Although the trade agreements between Russians and Germans and people from Gotland granted mutual freedoms, they were de facto privileges for the Germans (Goetz 1916, 68). The Russians’ level of international trade decreased from a very modest level in the 12th century to an even lower level during the 13th and 14th centuries, nearly vanishing completely (Johansen 1953, 130–131).

  21. 21.

    I understand norms to encompass all ‘rules of the game’ for social cooperation that are not provided for by a political authority. Whereby norms can emerge spontaneously through human interaction or be designed by individuals deliberately.

  22. 22.

    Voigt (1999) does not elaborate on further conditions for the establishment of constitutions.

  23. 23.

    Williamson (2009) provides empirical evidence for the claim that formal institutions are only effective when successfully embedded in a set of informal institutions.

  24. 24.

    For a discussion of the conditions under which either anarchy or the presence of a government is the efficient form of social organization for individual members of a society, see Leeson (2007a).

  25. 25.

    I assume here that the group is large enough to be able to produce public goods efficiently.

  26. 26.

    Without referring to any particular time period Rybina (2002, 240) states that the Kontor of Novgorod was dependent on the cities and problems concerning all businesses of the Kontor were discussed and resolved by the Hanseatic diet and the city diets of the Livland cities (especially Dorpat and Reval). If Rybina makes this statement also for the period before the first Hanseatic Diet in 1356, Rybina represents an exceptional opinion concerning the degree of independence of the Kontore. The development of the constitution itself suggests that the Kontore lost their independence over time and other historians argue that there was a time in which the Kontore were self-governed free of direct influence from any of the governing institutions of the Hanseatic cities (Gurland 1913; Zeller 2002; Angermann 1989, Szeftel 1958, 404; Johansen 1953, 138). Furthermore, Rybina (2001, 307), contradicting her dependence thesis, stresses the uniqueness of the isolated and closed settlement of the Germans in Novgorod.


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The author thanks Simon Bilo, Peter Boettke, Nicholas Curott, Harry David, Stewart Dompe, Thomas Hogan, Ole Jürgens, Peter Leeson, William Luther, Adam Martin, Douglas Rogers, David Skarbek, Daniel Smith, Nicholas Snow, Virgil Storr, Elif Uncu, Lawrence White, and participants of the Southern Economics Association Meetings 2009 for helpful comments on earlier drafts of this paper. The standard disclaimer applies. He gratefully acknowledges generous research support from the Mercatus Center.

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Fink, A. Under what conditions may social contracts arise? Evidence from the Hanseatic League. Const Polit Econ 22, 173–190 (2011). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10602-010-9099-z

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  • Social contracts
  • Constitutions
  • Hanseatic League
  • Trading posts
  • Kontor

JEL Classification

  • D71
  • H41
  • N43