The Richest Man Who Ever Lived: The Life and Times of Jacob Fugger
July 28, 2015
Greg Steinmetz tells the story of Jacob Fugger, "the richest man who ever lived," and one that more than anyone else created the modern world.
Jacob Fugger, it could be argued, was the world's first truly modern business person, and seems to be tied up in the laying the foundations of the modern world in every possible way—from funding its ruling class to defeating those that would foment against it. At a time when compiling money was seen as sinful, when moneylending was "unchristian" in fact, Fugger was unabashed in procuring profits, and with it political advantage, with which he would rewrite the rules in his favor and procure ever greater profits.
He changed the world by building it anew, and was fundamental to the rise of Europe's most famous royal house—the Habsburgs. He financed the family to such a degree that the book begins with the story of a 1523 collection notice sent by Fugger to Charles V, he of of "eighty one titles, including Holy Roman emperor, king of Spain, king of Naples, king of Jerusalem, duke of Burgundy and lord of Asia and Africa." In the letter, Fugger, the grandson of a peasant, reminds the most powerful man on Earth, a man that ruled over the first empire the sun did not set on, that he would likely have none of those titles without Fugger's backing. And that is just one aspect of the world at the time Fugger was behind.
When Fugger said Charles would not have become emperor without him, he wasn't exaggerating. Not only did Fugger pay the bribes that secured his elevation, but Fugger had also financed Charles's grandfather and taken his family, the Hasburgs, from the wings of European politics to center stage. Fugger made his mark in other ways, too. He roused commerce from its medieval slumber by persuading the pope to lift the ban on moneylending. He helped free enterprise from an early grave by financing the army that won the German Peasants' War, the first clash between capitalism and communism. He broke the back of the Hanseatic League, Europe's most powerful commercial organization before Fugger. He engineered a shady financial scheme that unintentionally provoked Luther to write his Ninety-five Theses, the document that triggered the Reformation, the earth-shattering event that cleaved European Christianity in two. He most likely funded Magellan's circumnavigation of the globe. On a more mundane note, he was among the first businessman north of the Alps to use double-entry bookkeeping and the first anywhere to to consolidate the results of multiple operations in a single financial statement—a breakthrough that let him survey his financial empire with a single glance and always know where his finances stood. He was the first to send auditors to check up on branch offices. And his creation of a news service, which gave him an information edge over his rivals and customers, earned him a footnote in the history of journalism. For all these reasons, it is fair to call Fugger the most influential businessman of all time.
Each era of humanity has it's moguls, but Fugger is the archetype. He set the mold that all who come him after attempt to fill. Each era of humanity also has certain unquestioned assumptions it lives with, supposed truths that it takes for granted simply because it is "how things are done," have things have always been done. The Richest Man Who Ever Lived is a brilliant biography of a man that ignored those truths and came up with his own, and in the process defined the reality we still largely live with today. It is a great, eye-opening read.
We have 20 copies available.