Getting spruced up

I need to get spruced up when I go to visit my clients. I put on a suit and a tie for the city offices but don’t get quite so spruced up for the more hands-on firms. Being spruced up is a common expression for dressing something up cleanly and neatly. Its meaning comes to us along a very oblique path stretching back to medieval times. Spruce is a relic of the heyday of a great medieval trading federation that stretched across Northern Europe.

Spruce is an adaption of pruce, an Old French word for Prussia, now part of Germany. From the 14th to the 17th centuries merchants from what are now Dutch and German cities along the Northern European coast formed what was known as the Hanseatic League. The league got its name from the Hansa which were the merchant guilds that formed in each of the cities to trade with each other and especially to import commodities from the eastern Baltic, a rich source of timber, wax, amber, resins, furs, and grain. The German airline, originally Deutsche Lufthansa, was named after the Hansa, and is literally German air Hansa.

The Hanseatic League traded strongly with England and established a Kontor (a major trading post and goods depot) in 1320 west of London Bridge. Known as the Steelyard (Stalhof) it eventually grew into the largest medieval trading complex in Britain with its own warehouses, weighhouse, church, offices and houses. There were also smaller warehouses dotted around England including at York and Bristol.

Commodities brought to England by the Hanseatic merchants from Northern Europe were collectively known as spruce as they were seen as goods from Prussia (just as we in Australia refer to linen goods as Manchester because they used to be imported from the Midlands of England). Timber from the Baltic was exported to England and was also known as spruce, thus giving the name to that family of trees from the tundra regions.

As trade grew so did the quality of the commodities. The league were manufacturing high quality wool, linen and even silk fabrics as well as leather goods. Spruce became synonymous with high quality fabrics so that when you got “spruced up” you were getting dressed in your best clothes.

The Hanseatic League eventually disappeared replaced by traders from Britain, the Netherlands and the rising Ottoman Empire. However spruce, is our little reminder of their glory days.