The Amazing Career of a Pioneer Capitalist

Jacob Fugger; portrait by Albrecht Dürer, circa 1520
Bayerische Staatsgemäldesammlungen, Augsburg, Germany/Bridgeman Images
Jacob Fugger; portrait by Albrecht Dürer, circa 1520

After more than twenty years of relative neglect, the history of capitalism is once again of high interest to scholars and their students. The new interest has many sources, but the chief impetus is surely the recognition that the world we know is rapidly changing under the pressure of a global capitalist system that is moving away from the forms it has taken since its early modern beginnings in Europe. Theorists such as Adam Smith are again on students’ reading lists, along with writers as different as Karl Marx, David Ricardo, Joseph Schumpeter, and Friedrich Hayek.

New studies of the United States’ emergence as a capitalist power, of Europeans’ move into Asian markets, African lands, and South American mines during the Renaissance, or of South Asia’s or China’s entry into the global economy appear daily. The history of finance and financial institutions is also receiving new attention from historians treating monetary policy, banking, and credit as central elements of the capitalist system that defines the West, not simply the subjects of technical studies. Some historians are approaching the history of capitalism in ways that are different from the work of most economists, whose focus has traditionally been on what they call “the market” or “the economy,” on how it “grew” or “performed,” and on the policies or institutions that best assured—or failed to assure—its proper functioning. The Nobel Prize–winning economist Douglass North’s books Growth and Welfare in the American Past (1974) and Institutions, Institutional Change and Economic Performance (1990) exemplify this approach. The French economist Thomas Piketty’s much-discussed Capital in the Twenty-First Century (2013), a critical study of how modern capitalism has inexorably functioned to create rigid hierarchies in which the rich stay rich, is one important exception to standard economic histories; its wide readership is a sign that the new interest in capitalism’s history is no longer confined to the academy and to historians alone. It now seems more urgent than it has for years to reveal how the system we call capitalist came into being, to expose its logic, and to reveal its powers for both good and bad.

Greg Steinmetz’s The Richest Man Who Ever Lived: The Life and Times of Jacob Fugger is an effort to contribute to such a history. Written by a journalist to introduce the most important merchant banker of the sixteenth century to North American readers, few of whom would recognize his name, the book is a careful synopsis of a rich body of scholarly and not-so-scholarly literature in German, little of it translated. It is a lively portrait of the late Renaissance and tells the story of how Fugger, born in 1459 into an already prosperous merchant family in the then-booming town of Augsburg in Bavaria, assembled a private fortune that was unmatched in his day. The Medicis…

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