Gdańsk Show on the map

Source of amber and cereal crops for all of Europe:

The area around the mouth of the Vistula first developed into a significant trading site in antiquity. It was the starting point of the Amber Road, one of Europe’s oldest trading routes, taking consignments of this much sought-after resin, venerated as ‘tears of the sun’, as far away as Rome and Egypt. The amber’s provenance made Roman historians aware of the Vistula, which they described as the boundary between the Germanic, Baltic and Slavic peoples.

The name ‘Gdańsk’ first occurs at the close of the tenth century in the Vita sancti Adalberti, the hagiography of the bishop Adalbert of Prague (in office 982–997), who crossed the Vistula in 997 from urbem Gyddanyzc to its eastern bank to serve as a missionary among the Prussians. After his martyrdom there, the Polish duke and subsequent king Boleslaw the Brave (Bolesław Chrobry, assumed ducal office in 992 and became king in 1000/1025, died 1025) ransomed his body from the pagans by paying them its weight in gold and laid it to rest in the cathedral of Gniezno, since those days the site of his veneration as one of Poland’s patron saints.

Gdańsk was the centre of a Slavic dominion that was part of the Polish commonwealth and later gave rise to the Duchy of Pomerelia, ruled over from the twelfth century onward by the Samborides dynasty that achieved political independence from Poland under Duke Swietopelk II (reigned 1220–1266). Swietopelk worked energetically to drive the expansion of Gdańsk, his dukedom’s capital. In 1224, he founded a German mercantile settlement under Lübeck law, presumably on the site of present-day Main City, endowing a Dominican cloister there in 1227. During Swietopelk’s reign, Gdańsk consisted of four distinct areas of settlement: the ducal castle; a settlement (Hakelwerk) under Polish law, inhabited by fishermen and amber gatherers; the old city, with its parish church of St Catherine; and the mercantile quarter, with St Mary’s as its parish church. Three distinct population groups, Pomeranians, Prussians and Germans, lived here alongside one another, as noted expressly in a description of the ceremonies marking Swietopelk’s death in 1266.

The death of Duke Mestwin II, who ruled from 1266 to 1294, also saw the demise of the Samborides dynasty; there followed a protracted conflict of succession for Gdańsk and Pomerelia between Poland, Brandenburg and the Teutonic Order, the last-named of these eventually proving successful, with its capture of Gdańsk in 1308 deciding the hostilities in its favour. The Polish side of the conflict subsequently sought to arraign the Order for a massacre it is alleged to have committed upon almost the entire population of the city (up to 10,000 people); the Teutonic Knights claimed to have merely executed sixteen criminals. The divergent views of Polish and German historiography on this massacre, be it actual or alleged, bear witness to the enduring impact of this medieval propaganda war. The emphatic partiality of the contemporary sources frustrates to this day our confident access to the actual truth of the matter.

Under the Order’s rule, Gdańsk enjoyed a significant period of economic boom, growing in the course of the fourteenth century into the largest and richest city in the dominion. The Order strictly maintained its claim to numerous political and economic prerogatives over the city. The castle erected by the Order on the bank of the Motlawa became the resonant symbol of its dominance, pushing the Pomerelian ducal castle into the metaphorical background. In 1343, the Order took another step towards the consolidation of its power by withdrawing Gdańsk’s endowment with Lübeck law and re-endowing it with Kulm law.

Late-medieval Gdańsk was unparalleled among contemporary cities of the Baltic region for its highly complex and nuanced urban structures. It was effectively a conurbation – before the term existed – of several legally independent urban entities, with the addition of specific districts. The dominant component of this ensemble was the Main City, whose centrality to supra-regional trade put it at the heart of the city’s business and political life. To its north was the old city; longer established than the Main City, yet substantially inferior in political and economic significance, it still had its own municipal law and council, as did the ‘New (Young) City’ to its north-east, founded in 1380 under Kulm law and demolished in 1455. To the west of the Main City stood the ‘Old Suburb’ (Stare Przedmieście), where many crafts- and tradespeople had settled; although it did not have its own council, it constituted an independent parish. Granary Island (Wyspa Spichrzów), the symbol of Gdańsk’s might as a trading metropolis, lay east of the Main City and was administratively attached to it. On this elongated island towered up to 300 large storehouses belonging to Gdańsk’s merchants. Main City’s pre-eminence among the city’s components additionally manifested in the solid fortifications which, initially, it and only it enjoyed. It was not until the dawn of the early modern period that continuous fortifications protected the entire conglomeration and ensured that Gdańsk, until the eighteenth century, was a bastion immune to any and all assault from without.

The topography of sacred medieval Gdańsk likewise bears traces of its contemporary status. Around 1400, the area of settlements covered by the city had five parishes, two in the Main City (the parishes of St Mary and St John) and one each in the Old City (St Catherine), the Young City (St Bartholomew) and the Old Suburb (St Peter and Paul). There were also three monasteries of mendicant orders, one Dominican, in the Main City; one Franciscan, in the Old Suburb; and one Carmelite, in the Young City, which moved to the Old City at some point after 1455. The Old City was also home to a large double Bridgettine monastery, and to the north of the city gates stood the influential Oliva abbey of the Cistercian order. In the Baltic region, only Lübeck had a comparable wealth of religious establishments.

Despite the city’s dizzying economic boom, or perhaps precisely because of it, dissatisfaction began to grow among the citizenry of Gdańsk around the outset of the fifteenth century, and it was directed against the city’s powerful rulers. Gdańsk’s merchants were particularly put out by the trade in which the Teutonic Order itself extensively engaged, staking claim to various monopolies which included amber and salt. After its defeat at the Battle of Tannenberg (Bitwa pod Grunwaldem) in 1410, the Order imposed new taxes in order to service its war debts, further damaging its relationship with Gdańsk to the extent that the city subsequently took on a leading role in the opposition movement driven by the estates and launched by the Prussian Confederation, founded in 1440. The conflict escalated until, in 1454, Gdańsk and the Confederation declared war on their sovereign, stormed the Order’s castle and razed it to the ground, recognised the Polish king Casimir IV (ruled 1447–1492) as their patron and paid him homage. The war with the Teutonic Order lasted until 1466, when the second Peace of Toruń confirmed Poland’s dominion over Gdańsk.

The links thus forged with the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth supplied Gdańsk with new economic opportunities; its monopoly as the hub of all Polish maritime trade with other nations and territories flooded it with riches virtually beyond measure. The city’s principal export was grain, brought to Gdańsk from across Poland and stored in its enormous granaries to be sold in Europe. During the sixteenth century, this economic expansion drove the city’s population to rise to around 55,000, to which we must add a peripheral region of almost 650 square kilometres encompassing 70 villages and effectively endowing Gdańsk with the character of an expansive city-republic. With the exception of the early Reformation period, its royal patron refrained from intervening in civic policy and decision-making. Gdańsk and Poland had entered a mutually beneficial symbiosis, in which Poland granted the city generous freedoms and privileges, while Gdańsk, in return, filled the royal coffers and frequently provided military aid. The success of this alliance endured as long as did both parties’ positions of strength – from the mid-fifteenth century to the seventeenth.

For all reciprocally fruitful cooperation, religious affairs remained divisive. The ideas of the Reformation spread rapidly among the residents of Gdańsk, with initial printed copies of some of Luther’s writings produced as early as 1520 and the new beliefs preached from the pulpit of St Mary’s from 1523 onward. The latter influence radicalised parts of the population and sparked a rebellion against the existing powers-that-be in 1525. The Polish king Sigismund I, who reigned from 1507 to 1548, violently crushed the revolt in 1526, had its ringleaders executed and banned Protestantism, yet the Catholic victory was short-lived; Sigismund II August, whose rule lasted from 1548 to 1572, found himself forced in 1557 to irrevocably acknowledge the adherence of Gdańsk’s population to Lutheran teachings.

The political and economic demise of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth during the eighteenth century went hand in hand with a downturn in Gdańsk’s fortunes, precipitated inter alia by the collapse of the once-mighty Hanseatic League. In 1734, in sheltering King Stanislaus Lesczyński during the War of the Polish Succession, Gdańsk suddenly found itself standing alone amid a struggle for power with Russia and its allies from Saxony. Surrendering under Russian siege, the city experienced subjugation to a more powerful adversary for the first time since its conquest by the Teutonic Order in 1308. This defeat spelled the end of Gdańsk’s period as a north-eastern European power in its own right. Long burdened with the weight of war debts and the troubles of its own destruction, Gdańsk, like the remainder of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, was at the political mercy of the major powers surrounding it. Its inexorable decline into economic and political insignificance saw it finally, in 1793, swallowed up into the Kingdom of Prussia as an ordinary provincial town.

By Christofer Herrmann


Further reading:

Edmund Cieślak (ed.), Historia Gdánska [History of Gdańsk], vol. 1 (do roku 1454) [(up to the year 1454)], Gdańsk 1978.

Edmund Cieślak (ed.), Historia Gdánska [History of Gdańsk], vol. 2 (1454–1655), Gdańsk 1982.

Reinhold Curicke, Der Stadt Danzig Historische Beschreibung, Amsterdam/Danzig 1687.

Edmund Kizik, Danzig, in Handbuch kultureller Zentren der Frühen Neuzeit, vol. 1, ed. Wolfgang Adam and Siegrid Westphal, Berlin 2013, pp. 275–326.

Paul Simson, Geschichte der Stadt Danzig, Bd. 1 (von den Anfängen bis 1517), Danzig 1913.

Paul Simson, Geschichte der Stadt Danzig, Bd. 2 (von 1517 bis 1626), Danzig 1917.

Cite as:

Christofer Herrmann, Gdańsk. Source of amber and cereal crops for all of Europe, in Magdeburg Law. A building block of modernen Europe, 17/11/2020,

A version of the original German text previously appeared in Gabriele Köster and Christina Link (eds), Faszination Stadt. Die Urbanisierung Europas im Mittelalter und das Magdeburger Recht (catalogue of the eponymous exhibition, 1 September 2019 – 2 February 2020), Dresden 2019, pp. 244–248.