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Economic prosperity on the southern coast of the Baltic Sea in the late Middle Ages and its conditions

The period until mid-14th century was a time of relatively stable growth and a successful economic situation, interrupted only by short periods of downturn. There are clear analogies in the economic situation of the cities of the Wendish Quarter, Pomerania, Prussia, and Livonia. These concern both longterm trends, such as the economic recovery in the 1330s and the prosperity after the Treaty of Stralsund, as well as its short-term collapses, such as the crisis in the 1340s. These phenomena were associated with political events concerning the entire Baltic area - the end of the 1320s crisis, the end of the war with Denmark and the opening of trade opportunities after signing the peace treaty, the conflict with the counts of Holstein. The exception was the plague outbreak of the late 1340s, the effects of which were almost unnoticeable in Prussia and Livonia. As the crises of 1380s intensified, the role of local and regional factors became increasingly important, which, combined with the general crisis tendencies, determined the situation of individual cities.

The first symptoms of the approaching economic collapse appeared in Elblqg in the early 1380s. At that time, the percentage of merchant capital invested in the credit market clearly increased, which was a consequence of the withdrawal or/and exclusion of Elblqg merchants from long-distance trade and the search for safe investments. This was mainly due to an increasing competition of Gdansk merchants and difficulties accessing the sea. At that time in other cities of the Baltic area, we can still observe a relatively stable situation related to the effects of the Treaty of Stralsund (1370) (Hammel 1988, p. 92).

The economic situation of Greifswald was similar to that of Elblqg at the turn of the 14th century. Both cities experienced a period of economic growth and prosperity in the first half of the 14th century but in the second half of the century they found themselves in a crisis which resulted in the exclusion of these towns from long-distance trade. The reasons for these phenomena lay at the local (ports) and regional level (stronger neighbours). The unfavourable trend in the economic situation in this period undoubtedly accelerated these phenomena. This argument is confirmed by the fact that the economic collapse began in Greifswald almost two decades after it took place in Elblqg.

The situation of Toruh was utterly different. Until the beginning of the 15th century, the city had remained strongly linked to Silesia economically and acted as an intermediary between the Sudeten-Carpathian area and the Baltic Sea basin. The first symptom of the crisis was that merchants in the late 1380s became increasingly interested in loans. Due to difficulties in trade with Slovakia and Russia and the downturn in Hanseatic trade, trade income was declining, and some of the merchants sought capital to survive the impending crisis. However, the symptoms of the downturn were visible in Torun only at the beginning of the 15th century and its effects were aggravated by the aftermath of the war of 1409-1411 (Sarnowsky 1993, p. 454). Although in the 1440s Torun experienced a short-term economic recovery, the city waited until the end of the 15th century to reverse the long-term unfavourable trend.

Among the analysed Prussian cities, Gdansk clearly stood out from other cities in terms of economic location at the turn of the 14th century. It quickly rebuilt the damage it incurred at the beginning of the century and in the second half of the 14th century the merchants of Gdansk, at the expense of the inhabitants of Elblqg and Torun, were gaining an increasingly strong position in Prussian trade. This related to contacts with Polish lands and relations with the cities of Western Europe. Research indicates a clear intensification of economic contacts of Cologne with Gdansk at the beginning of the 15th century, whereas at the same time the relations with Elblqg (late 14th century) and Torun (after 1411) (Hirschfelder 1994, p. 222) were dying out. The analysed source material does not indicate an economic slowdown in Gdansk at the end of the 14th century. A slight increase in the number of unpaid rents, which may indicate that the economic situation deteriorated, occurred in the Main City of Gdansk only in the 1430s.

The influence of regional factors on the economic location of the city is clearly visible on the example of the Livonian city of Rewel. In Rewel, a period of economic downturn associated with pirate activity at the end of the 14th century took place along with other surveyed cities, yet unlike in Prussian or Pomeranian cities we do not observe a downturn at the turn of the 14th century. The signs of crisis are not to be seen in Rewel until the mid-1420s - at the same time, due to economic differences, there was a clear increase in tension between Wendish, notably Lübeck, and Livonian cities (Misäns 2003, p. 36).

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