The turn of the sixteenth century was a period of great change in Europe and across the world with many figures such as Henry VIII, Leonardo da Vinci and Christopher Columbus reshaping the political, social and economic landscape of the time. Yet, as with many periods in history, the economics is often forgotten and the name of Jakob Fugger, the man who financed many of these changes, is often forgotten. The Great, The Magnificent and The Lionheart represent some of the most iconic epithets in history, whereas Jakob Fugger the Rich demonstrates the wealth of a man who is twice as rich as Jeff Bezos and seven times richer than Smaug. As historical thought has moved away from powerful, political figures with Marxist styles of history, Fugger’s name has almost disappeared into obscurity.
Fugger was born in the Bavarian city of Augsburg in 1459 into a wealthy merchant family, similar to the more famous Borgia and Medici families in Italy. Jakob, alongside his brothers, built the family wealth through the textile, metal and mining industries and traded significantly with the Habsburg family and the Roman Curia, two of the major powers of early-modern Europe. During a period of military revolution, the powers of Europe needed capital to raise armies and in this era as much as any other, in the words of Thomas Hobbes, wealth is power.
Fugger maintained strong relationships with the Holy Roman Empire, especially emperors Maximilian I and Charles V. Maximilian’s reign saw expansion for the Habsburg family in Iberia and central Europe and the emperor granted Fugger the title of Imperial Count for his services to the empire. Following Maximilian’s death in 1519, it was Fugger’s support in choosing Charles V over Henry VIII and Francois I that persuaded the papacy to support the Habsburg. In a period that is known for papal deviance, the Fugger’s wealth, estimated to be around $400 billion in today’s money, would have been a very tempting proposition for Pope Leo X. Fugger’s wealth increased due to this support as Charles granted him several rights in the Spanish mining business that last for over a century.
However, the corruption in the church, partly instigated by the Fugger family, influenced Martin Luther to publish the 95 theses in 1517, one of the most important moments in European history. This moment only intensified Fugger’s relationship with the papacy as they worked to keep the financial backing firmly on their side.
Another major change of this period was the international trade and exploration that began in the early sixteenth century. Fugger, although he mainly focused on Europe, did expand his commercial empire with the spice trade in Asia and traded his copper for spices from the kingdom of Portugal. Alongside this he also financed several overseas voyages including (with some historical doubt) Magellan’s circumnavigation of the Earth.
The question remains of why is his legacy so minimal and his name almost forgotten? Firstly, he has left few physical remains, with only a few buildings and chapels in Augsburg still standing, compared to grand cathedrals and castles of other rulers and bankers. Secondly, his name has been overshadowed by other people of the period, such as the more Machiavellian and deceitful families of Italy, the famous rulers of England, and the explorers of Spain and Portugal. Finally, his name is forgotten due to a general focus away from economic history, towards the often more glamorous and thought-provoking fields of social and political history.
Fugger’s name should not be forgotten to history and he will almost certainly remain the richest man ever. Nevertheless, due to his position and power, his name may never capture the public’s attention and gain the status that it deserves.