Learn more about the City of Hamburg in the Middle-Age.

Development of the City of Hamburg

Modern Hamburg is situated on the River Elbe but that was not the case over 1000 years ago. At that time, the little town was still at least 2 km away from the river, originally on the Alster. In earlier times, the Alster played an important role in the town's economic life but its importance has increasingly declined in the modern era, with the Elbe becoming the main factor in Hamburg's economic development.

The solid geest terrain among the marshy land around the Elbe, easy access to fresh water, and its geographical location are what would later make this place so attractive as a port. When the first ramparts were built, Hamburg still found itself in a hotly contested no man's land between Christian France, the Danish Vikings, and the Slavs, who were still heathens—a "godless" region where the balance of power only stabilized once Christianity was established.

On this model of Hamburg from the year 1050, the fortifications have been expanded and the settlement, protected by them, has grown between the Alster and the Bille. We can see merchant ships moored on one fortified riverbank. This first harbor on the Bille laid the foundations for Hamburg's importance as an international port.

Right by the gate inside the new ramparts and opposite the first enclosing wall stands a round tower which archaeologists believe may have been the former bishop's residence. On the same street, further to the left, near the still unfortified Alster, stands a square tower. Researchers believe this may have been the residence of the former landowner, Bernard II, Duke of Saxony. This town of two halves was shaped by its political power struggle for many years.

At the end of the 12th century, the Alster was dammed to drive corn mills. During the decades which followed, the town was systematically expanded. In 1235, the Alster was dammed for a second time at the Reesendamm, part of what is now the Jungfernstieg promenade. The model shows how a number of meal and grain mills had been established there by around 1535. There are two corn mills, one of which mainly served the local population, while the other was largely reserved for brewers and bakers. Alongside them is a polishing mill, where suits of armor made of metal plates were manufactured and polished, and a carpenter's workshop, on the wide forecourt of which tree trunks are being sawn and chopped to make a mill wheel.

The wooden tower was built in 1531. It is part of Hamburg's ancient waterworks, which consisted of a pump driven by a waterwheel, and a tall water container—the wooden tower. The old waterworks supplied running water to the homes of certain wealthy citizens. The first customers were the local breweries here, which were able to guarantee the quality of their beer thanks to the clean water—after all, beer was the Hanseatic city's biggest export.

Hollowed out tree trunks called "Teucheln" were used as water pipes. On the model we can see a pipe like this being laid in the ground.

The bulbous stern of the "Hansekogge" (Hanseatic cog ships) allowed plenty of space for loading goods and raw materials. Standardized barrels were the "containers of the Hanseatic period." Almost everything was transported in them: herring, knives, gold bars, and pieces of ore. In the 13th and 14th centuries, cogs were the main ships plying the North Sea and the Baltic. They could sail equally well in shallow water and on the high seas and, as reliable long-distance sailing vessels, played an important role in the success of the Hanseatic league. The ever-growing overseas trade led to the development of port facilities in many cities, including Hamburg.
Our replica cog is based on the dimensions of a wreck found in Bremen harbor in 1962 which was dated to 1380. The cargo was stowed securely in the dry, under cover, while the crew had to withstand the wind and weather out on deck.

The term "Hanse" originally meant "gang” or “band," i.e. a group of merchants. From the middle of the 12th century, they began to come together in groups, both to represent their commercial interests and to increase their safety during dangerous crossings. By the middle of the 14th century at the latest, this "merchants' Hanse" had become an alliance of about 72 towns with a further 130 towns loosely associated with it. The redbrick houses with magnificent stepped gables that we can see in the model are typical of many Hanseatic towns.

A Hamburgian legend

Klaus Störtebeker is a legend in northern Germany. Even today, people like to tell the tale of the gold treasure that he supposedly hid in the masts of his ship. There is indeed historical evidence that the Baltic and the North Sea were swarming with pirates around 1400. Hamburg's merchants tried to protect their goods by travelling in groups, protected by armed escort ships.

Have a look around the inside of the old ship!

Pirates who were caught faced a cruel punishment under medieval law: their heads were cut off and then nailed to a post as a deterrent for everyone who could see them. Research has shown that the person this skull belonged to was beheaded between 1375 and 1430, on the Grasbrook, which was then Hamburg's place of execution. The site is now home to the Speicherstadt warehouse district. It was probably also there that the notorious pirate, Klaus Störtebeker, was beheaded in 1400.

The nail was driven very carefully into this skull, leading to the conclusion that it may have belonged to Störtebeker. His head would have been handled carefully by his executioners to make sure it would remain recognizable for as long as possible. This is what the famous pirate might have looked like!

Christianity in the Hamburg region

This cross—which is actually carved from bone—is, with the exception of a cross-shaped brooch from the 9th century, the oldest symbol of the Christian faith in Hamburg. The image of the crucified Christ has been used since the 4th century, when Constantine the Great made Christianity the main religion in the Roman Empire. However, it took at least a further 500 years before Christianity reached the Hamburg region.

The model shows what St Mary's Cathedral would have looked like in around 1280. The wattle and daub huts around the cathedral highlight the contrasts in size at that time: the houses were no more than two stories tall, while the cathedral towers high above their roofs.

Many of the internal features were lost when the cathedral was demolished early in the 19th century. Among the things which did survive were these stone remnants of the rood screen. They depict young women with curly hair and distressed expressions—the "foolish virgins" who, according to the New Testament, missed the arrival of their heavenly bridegroom, Jesus Christ, because they had to go to buy oil for their lamps when night fell. The three figures shown here are the oldest surviving group of sculptures in Hamburg, dating back to around 1270.

Between 1500 and 1650 - Reformation in Hamburg 
Christian faith and piety played an important role in people's everyday lives in the Middle Ages. The groups of figures shown here are some of the few surviving remnants of early church fixtures and fittings. In 1529, Hamburg switched from the Catholic to the Lutheran-Protestant faith and, even though there was no violent "Bildersturm" (destruction of religious images), large quantities of the original church fittings were lost.

One of the few important Hamburg artworks dating from the early 15th century is this wooden cross, decorated with gold and bright colors.

It depicts the crucifixion of Christ, with his tortured body and his hands and feet nailed to the cross. This image of the suffering Christ became established in Western art from about the 13th century.

After the Reformation, the cross ended up at the Hiobs Hospital, a smallpox hospital founded in 1505. Since the Middle Ages, such hospitals had cared not only for the sick but also for the aged, and they provided accommodation for the unemployed and shelter for travelers, funded by donations from wealthy citizens.

The house at Pferdemarkt 28
The richly decorated beams from the former half-timbered building at Pferdemarkt 28 are cracked and almost black. This is hardly surprising given that the beams have been exposed to Hamburg's wind and weather for nearly 400 years. When it was demolished in 1910, it was Hamburg's oldest building. It was originally occupied by clergy from St James' Church, so it is fitting that it depicts one of the New Testament's most important stories—the birth of Christ, or, more specifically, the first visitors following the birth.

The two panels on the corner pillar show Mary with her flowing hair and her child on her lap, ...

... while her husband Joseph approaches her from behind with his hat in his hand.

Property owners visibly expressed their wealth in the ornamentation on their houses. As you explore the museum, you will see many painted wooden ceilings and decorative features such as window surrounds and porches from historic buildings which have become an integral part of the architecture of the museum.

On the panels beneath the crossbeams, which are decorated with a plaited pattern, we see two of the Three Kings bearing gifts.


The third king is missing: he was originally shown in the corner next to Mary.

The fact that, on the same house, we also see a small group of jugglers clowning around and playing the fool was no contradiction in those days.

So-called drolleries, mystical creatures or people pulling faces, were to be found even in medieval churches.

They were said to ward off evil and are a good example of the way elements of the Christian faith coexisted with traditional folk beliefs and superstition.

Credits: Story

Projektkoordination und Umsetzung: Anna Symanczyk, Martina Fritz
Texte: SHMH
Fotos: SHMH

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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