Sunday, August 23, 2015


After requesting to review this book, I wondered if Jacob Fugger really was the richest man who ever lived. I Googled it and guess what? There are several claimants to that title – Andrew Carnegie, John D. Rockefeller, Bill Gates. Bill Gates? Sorry, you aren’t even top 10, and that was back at your peak.

Most websites show a ruler of Mali in the early 14th century to be number one. Be that as it may, Jacob Fugger was certainly the richest man of his period and his effects on business may be greater than any of his rivals. Until Fugger the Catholic Church prohibited charging interest on debts (or ‘usury’), which makes lending to any but the most solvent and trustworthy rather a risk, and consequently economies remained small. Fugger was almost as much politician as businessman, and through payoffs, favours, and buying of positions of influence for himself and lackeys he was able to persuade Pope Leo to issue a papal bill legitimizing interest.

Another practice that Fugger used to crush his competitors was double-entry bookkeeping. Until his time, businessmen jotted figures down on scraps of paper without any sort of organization. Italians had developed a better method and Fugger brought this knowledge back to Germany and revolutionized accounting in that country. He also had the audacity to ask the king to pay back a loan, something that just wasn’t done. And the king paid! 

Greg Steinmetz's book suggests that Fugger was a partial sponsor of Magellan, and details various political intrigues used to acquire a virtual monopoly on European copper and, to a lesser extent, silver. He also established the oldest social housing complex still in existence.

Recommended reading for a glimpse into a fascinating period of history.

- Steve Lidkea


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