A few weeks ago, I attended a talk by Greg Steinmetz on his new book The Richest Man Who Ever Lived: The Life and Times of Jacob Fugger. I had no idea who Jacob Fugger was until I read a review of the book in the NY Times, so I eagerly went to hear the author speak at the American Business Forum on Europe. From his talk and the Q&A, it was clear that Steinmetz had thoroughly researched his subject, and the economy of Europe at that time.
I just finished the book, which I enjoyed. Steinmetz is a business writer, which I think gives the story the right tone. It’s a straightforward account of how one person with a lot of money and hutzpah was able to prop up an empire or two, as Jacob Fugger did for the Holy Roman Empire, the House of Habsburg and the Vatican. In addition to the money from his family’s textile business in Ausberg, Germany, Fugger also had interests in several European mines and the spice trade, but his influence derived from his ability and willingness to make extremely large loans to kings, princes and the church hierarchy. I was amazed at how some of these potentates – vain, feckless and reckless – managed to stay in power. Fugger financed wars, trade and the suppression of rebellions. However, his financial activities sometimes had unintended consequences: his schemes to insure repayment of his loans to the Vatican, through the selling of indulgences, led Martin Luther to post his 95 theses, igniting the Protestant Reformation. Fugger took big risks and had some powerful enemies – but his ability to turn setbacks to his advantage is very instructive. As this book makes clear, if you want to know what makes the world turn, forget “cherchez la femme” – it’s “follow the money!”
I think it’s entirely possible that we would be living in a completely different world if Jacob Fugger had made different decisions or if he hadn’t existed. Even though he lived over 500 years ago, Fugger’s story resonates today.