Jacob Fugger; portrait by Albrecht Dürer, circa 1520
Jacob Fugger; portrait by Albrecht Dürer, circa 1520

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Steinmetz’s purpose in writing a book on Fugger is not, however, only to tell his exciting story; it is also to claim that he was “the first capitalist,” a claim that his reviewers have often accepted. Steinmetz provides us no precise definition of capitalism. His notion seems, however, to accord perfectly with the concept elucidated over a century ago by the eminent medievalist Henri Pirenne, who enduringly, if controversially, defined capitalism as the rational pursuit of profit through trade. For Pirenne, capitalism existed in places where “individual enterprise, advances on credit, commercial profits, speculation” were to be found.

Speaking of a Flemish entrepreneurial merchant, formerly a peasant, whom he discovered in the archives, Pirenne identified what he called the spiritus capitalisticus—someone “combining his purchases, reckoning his profits, and…using [them] only to support and extend his business.” The problem with this definition and implicitly with Steinmetz’s is that these traits—profit-seeking, credit, speculation, “reckoning,” and reinvestment—are practically universal. Merchants everywhere, whether in Baghdad, Cairo, Aleppo, Mombasa, Samarkand, or Cordova during the Middle Ages or elsewhere at any other time, certainly sought profit, gave and took credit, speculated on changes in supply or demand, and “reckoned” their financial position. They also reinvested in their businesses even if they, like Fugger and his heirs, also frequently bought land and estates to secure their wealth and cement a newly acquired social standing, made charitable gifts to appease the public (and to help save their souls), and patronized artists to enhance their reputations.

By this measure, there has “always” been capitalism. Yet by combining commerce, production, and politics as he did, Fugger fashioned a new kind of mercantile business, one that can be considered capitalist. He was surely not the “first” to do so—men like the Peruzzis of Florence or Jean Boinebroke of Flanders operated similarly—but he was undeniably the most successful of his age. His career thus exposes a feature that the many iterations of capitalism that have swept Europe and now the globe all share: capitalism is a partnership between governors and merchants that secures the power of both. To understand the capitalism of Fugger’s day we thus cannot use Marx’s definition, which turns on the production of wealth by the exploitation of labor, although there was certainly plenty of exploitation of labor in early modern Europe. With some modifications, however, we can take several things from Marx: one, that money—big money—was made not by producing commodities and trading them for money to buy other commodities as was the usual practice in medieval markets; rather money was used to buy commodities to sell for more money; two, that a capitalist’s only form of social security (material well-being, status, honor, and so on) was money and the only source of money was business; third, and crucially important, that private fortunes made in trade of commodities would give rise to a new social class able to make political elites their partners, even their puppets.

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