Jakob II Fugger Becomes a Merchant Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

Jakob II Fugger bowed to family pressure, abandoned his plans to enter the clergy, and joined his family’s business. Under his leadership, the Fuggers became the most important banking family in Renaissance Europe. Their loans placed Charles V on the throne of the Holy Roman Empire, financed many wars and other national ventures, and helped shape the course of early modern capitalism.

Summary of Event

In 1367, a weaver and trader named Hans Fugger settled in Augsburg. The Fugger family quickly became valued members of the Augsburg community, and Hans’s son Jakob I became the master of the city’s weavers’ guild. Jakob’s brother Andreas became a merchant and banker, founding the branch of the family called the Fugger vom Reh (Fuggers of the Doe, named after their coat of arms). The Fugger vom Reh’s firm was not successful; they loaned more money than they could afford, and by 1494, when Andreas’s last son died, the firm’s debts outweighed its assets. Banking Money as capital Fugger, Jakob II Fugger, Jakob I Fugger, Anton Maximilian I Charles V (1500-1558) Fugger, Jakob II Maximilian I (Holy Roman Emperor) Charles V (Holy Roman Emperor) Fugger, Jakob II Fugger family

Jakob I was both a weaver and a trader like his father, and he built up a significant trading company. His branch of the family came to be known as the Fugger von der Lilie (Fuggers of the Lilies). Jakob had seven sons, two of whom died before their father. When Jakob himself died in 1469, five sons remained: Ulrich, George, and Peter, who were meant to run the family business, and Marcus and Jakob II, who were to enter the Church. Peter Fugger died in 1473, however, and Ulrich and George convinced the fourteen-year-old Jakob II to abandon his preparations for a life in the Church and take Peter’s place in the Fugger business. Although they could hardly have known it at the time, this decision was to have monumental consequences for world history.

Jakob II Fugger proved to be an economic visionary. He spent a decade learning the merchant trade, apprenticing first in the Fugger family warehouse in Venice and eventually becoming a partner in the firm. Once he had attained this partnership, Jakob began to change the mission and scope of his family’s business. He steered the firm away from the commodities that had been its stock in trade: spices, silks, and other textiles. Instead, he began to seek out investments that generated their own income, especially mines, loans, and bills of exchange. The Fugger family had made some investments in such items from the beginning, but it was Jakob II who decisively guided the firm in this direction.

The Fuggers purchased some silver Silver;German mines and copper mines outright. They also loaned money to the owners of such mines, accepting the income of the mines as interest and taking complete possession of the mines if the owner defaulted on the loan. In the late 1480’, for example, the firm loaned money to Archduke Siegmund of Tyrol, and they received in return the entire income produced by the archduke’s silver mines. It was through this arrangement that the family first came in contact with future Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian I, who took control of Tyrol in 1490.

Maximilian was often in need of funds merely to run his German kingdom and later the Holy Roman Empire. In times of war, his need became desperate. The Fuggers provided vital funds to support the empire’s campaigns in Italy and Switzerland. In return, they came to control much of the Habsburg family’s interest in silver and copper. In 1511, the family refused Maximilian’s request for 300,000 ducats with which to bribe the college of cardinals into electing him pope. On the other hand, they loaned Albrecht of Brandenburg the money necessary for him to become archbishop of Mainz (papal confirmation of archbishoprics had to be purchased in cash), and they loaned money to many prominent cardinals, as well as the pope himself. These loans were repaid in part with the Church’s income from selling indulgences.

Jakob II Fugger’s most significant loan, however, was to King Charles I of Spain, who found himself in a bidding war with France’s Francis I for the title of Holy Roman Emperor. The empire’s electors solicited bribes from both monarchs, waiting to see who would pay the most for the imperial throne. The Fuggers loaned Charles more and more money, ultimately 543,000 florins. Including this loan and other loans from the German Welser family and the Italian cities of Genoa and Florence, Charles incurred a debt of 850,000 florins to become emperor. Once he was elected, moreover, Emperor Charles V continued to incur debts to finance his wars with France.

As a result of the debts incurred by both Maximilian and Charles, the Fuggers came to control several German counties; many silver, quicksilver, and copper mines; numerous other parcels of real estate; and the revenue owed to the Spanish crown by three ecclesiastical orders. They were also major players in the world pepper market, leased the royal mint, continued some trade in silks and other commodities, and held significant investments throughout eastern and western Europe. When Hans Fugger had died in the late fourteenth century, he had left his sons three thousand florins. Around the time of Jakob II’s death in 1525, the Fuggers’ worth, including all assets, private holdings, and outstanding loans, totaled three million florins.

Significance

Jakob II Fugger left his business to his nephew Anton. Anton continued his uncle’s tradition of supporting the Catholic popes and emperors in their military campaigns, while always demanding adequate security for any loan that he advanced. These loans made possible several Catholic victories over Protestants, especially the defeat of the Schmalkaldic League Schmalkaldic League at the Battle of Mühlberg (1547) Mühlberg, Battle of (1547)[Muhlberg, Battle of (1547)] . They also allowed Anton to increase even further the vast wealth of the Fuggers, which at the end of 1546 totaled more than seven million florins.

The creation of this fortune, however, is less important than the example it set and the uses to which it was put. During the Middle Ages, money was not thought of as the kind of thing that, through its use and investment, increased itself. As Richard Ehrenberg points out, this was both a moral observation and a factual one: Not only did Christians believe that loaning money at interest was a sin, they also believed that making an inanimate thing multiply was unnatural. This “unnatural” phenomenon, though, was a necessary prerequisite for the development of modern nations and military empires. It was inseparable from the political evolution of Europe during the Renaissance, and without banking firms such as the Fuggers’, that evolution simply would not have occurred.

The Fuggers are therefore inseparable from many of the most admirable and the most despicable aspects of the early modern period. They made charitable donations that demonstrated the power of the wealthy to engage in philanthropy on a truly culture-altering scale. They also funded many bloody wars and contributed to the trans-Atlantic slave trade. All of these activities were made possible by Jakob II Fugger, who conceived of and executed financial operations that were practically unheard of in the early sixteenth century, and who did so on a scale few at the time could even have imagined.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Ehrenberg, Richard. Capital and Finance in the Age of the Renaissance: A Study of the Fuggers and Their Connections. Reprint. Translated by H. M. Lucas. Fairfield, N.J.: A. M. Kelly, 1985. An invaluable text on Renaissance economic history and the Fuggers’ place in it. The book is divided into three sections: one on the European economy before the Fuggers, one on the Fuggers, and one on the economic legacy of the family.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Mathew, K. S. Indo-Portuguese Trade and the Fuggers of Germany, Sixteenth Century. New Delhi, India: Manohar, 1997. A study of the role of the Fugger firm and investments in shaping trade between Portugal and India in the sixteenth century. Includes bibliographic references and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Matthews, George T. The Fugger Newsletters. Reprint. New York: Capricorn Books, 1970. The Fuggers sent representatives all over the world, and they gave these agents orders to send back home any news or items of interest about the culture in which they found themselves. This volume collects these various broadsides, letters, rumors, and cultural analyses, constituting one of the most important documents in the cultural history of the Renaissance.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Meadow, Mark A. “Merchants and Marvels: Hans Jacob Fugger and the Origins of the Wunderkammer.” In Merchants and Marvels: Commerce, Science, and Art in Early Modern Europe, edited by Pamela H. Smith and Paula Findlen. New York: Routledge, 2002. An essay on the last major member of the Fugger family and his role in creating the Wunderkammer or cabinet of curiosities, a sixteenth century display case for strange or exotic objects.

July 16, 1465-April, 1559: French-Burgundian and French-Austrian Wars

August 17, 1477: Foundation of the Habsburg Dynasty

1482-1492: Maximilian I Takes Control of the Low Countries

August 19, 1493-January 12, 1519: Reign of Maximilian I

16th century: Worldwide Inflation

June 28, 1519: Charles V Is Elected Holy Roman Emperor

1521-1559: Valois-Habsburg Wars

1531-1585: Antwerp Becomes the Commercial Capital of Europe

February 27, 1531: Formation of the Schmalkaldic League

Categories: History Content