The Richest Man Who Ever Lived, by Greg Steinmetz, is about Jacob Fugger, a man who never drew a sword, nailed up his theses on a church, or painted a picture, but still helped turn the Medieval era into the modern world. Learn how money, properly applied, changed everything.
Whether you find this book is inspiring or horrifying will probably depend on your point of view. It’s most probable you’ll alternate in your opinion as you read the story of Jacob Fugger. To get it out of the way, the book explains early on that Fugger is pronounced like “cougar,” but lets us have our cake and eat it too by mentioning that, when Jacob Fugger’s grandfather first came to Augsburg to do business, his name was accidentally set down with a “ck” instead of a double “g.”
The Fuggers did nearly any kind of business they could, although they concentrated their energy on cloth trading, for two generations before Jacob was born. They enjoyed a lot of good luck. Not only were the family matriarchs just as good at business as the patriarchs, they had a seemingly endless supply of children to represent their interests. Jacob was his mother’s seventh son. The family lived in an era when everyone needed as much luck as they could get, and everyone needed a strong extended network to watch their back. Throughout the book we see the consequences of pissing off the wrong people. In Jacob’s time, a mayor of Augsburg got executed because he was too sympathetic to the poor and drew the ire of the weaver’s guild. That death is something to keep in mind while reading the book. He wasn’t executed because he angered a king. He wasn’t executed because he offended the church. He was executed because he made an enemy of a group of weavers.
There were a lot of people to piss off at the time. In the late 1400s and early 1500s, what we now think of as nations had little to no national identity. They were all separate states, run by separate families, who would go to war with each other, or marry each other, or assassinate each other, to carve out a little extra territory for themselves. If that sounds a bit like Game of Thrones, it is, but it’s a side we don’t get to see. By following a family of merchants-turned-bankers, we get to see a world in which emperors get denied money by banking firms and kings will give out a coat of arms to whoever will give them the pretty set of clothes they need to impress their future in-laws. It’s a place where the Pope will ease up on sacred strictures preventing usury because he needs a loan, and where a prince keeping his kingdom will depend on whether or not he gets a loan.
In another series of books, the immensely-popular Wolf Hall series, there’s a scene in which a commoner, Oliver Cromwell, threatens a lord by saying, “I will rip your life apart. Me and my banker friends.” The Richest Man Who Ever Lived will give you an insight into how he could do that.