The Richest Man Who Ever Lived is pop history, designed to appeal to modern readers by putting a modern gloss on a medieval man. As to its central figure, the German banker Jacob Fugger, it may get the core of his story right. Or it may not, because in much of its ancillary history, it is grossly inaccurate—to the degree it makes the reader uncertain what in the core story is actually accurate.
The core of the story is that Fugger was both one of the first semi-modern bankers and also a key player in much of the political activity of the early Renaissance, in particular in the Holy Roman Empire, in particular Germany. Fugger played a key role in the career of the Hapsburg Maximilian I, in both his election as Holy Roman Emperor and in enabling him to conduct various wars. Fugger played a similar role for Maximilian’s grandson, the very famous and fabulously powerful Charles V.
Fugger was not so much original as lucky and disciplined—he was the Warren Buffett of his time, having no special talent that many others did not also have, but starting with significant wealth and connections given to him by his forefathers, he parlayed that into massive wealth by a consistent application of core business principles. And as with Warren Buffet, outsiders ascribed genius to what was actually a combination of good luck and good management.
That’s not to say Fugger’s story isn’t interesting. It is very interesting. For one, seeing history through the activities of someone outside the usual aristocratic oligarchy is inherently interesting. Moreover, Steinmetz writes well, and narrates the story with reasonable vigor. So it’s an enjoyable read.
But let’s get on to the inaccuracies and errors. My criticisms are not mere pedantry. There are probably many more errors in the book than those I list—I know little about Fugger or the Holy Roman Empire of the period, so I suspect there are many other howlers that I just missed. My interests lie in Hungarian history and Roman Catholic theology, so the errors I detect mostly relate to those areas. In no particular order:
1) Steinmetz repeatedly refers to the Western European social framework of the time (late Fifteenth and early Sixteenth Centuries) as a “caste system.” He says, for example, that “Fugger began his career as a commoner, the lowest rung in the European caste system. If he failed to bow before a baron or clear the way for a knight on a busy street, he risked getting skewered with a sword.” None of this is true.
The European system lacked all characteristics of a true caste system (e.g., India’s), not that Steinmetz identifies any supposed caste other than “noble” and “commoner.” A true caste system does not have “rungs,” which implies movement among classes, and anyway “commoner” as such wasn’t a rung in Europe. While Europe did have a class structure, European medieval classes were quite fluid (extremely fluid at times); they were not divided into rigid sub-classes; marriage was not endogamous. Moreover, different areas of “Europe” differed wildly in their class system—for example, in the death of serfdom West of the Elbe, and its resurgence east of the Elbe. Steinmetz himself notes that Augsburg, Fugger’s home city, was a “free city” that administered its own justice and was subject only to the “remote and distant emperor.” Finally, nobles could not randomly skewer commoners. This was not feudal Japan. The rule of law emerged early in Europe, and while doubtless injustice was frequent, citizens on the street, whatever their rank, could not be randomly murdered without severe punishment, especially in a free city. Steinmetz seems unaware of all of this.
2) Steinmetz shows a total lack of understanding of much of Roman Catholic medieval theology. Early on, he telegraphs his ignorance with the astonishing statement: “There were two types of clerics. There were conservatives, who blindly followed Rome, and reformers like Erasmus of Rotterdam, the greatest intellectual of the age.” Apparently there was nobody in between.
Steinmetz spends quite a bit of time on Fugger’s role in the structuring and collection of indulgences, a key focus of Martin Luther’s reforms. But Steinmetz totally fails to understand what indulgences are. He claims that they “were called indulgences because Rome used them to indulge wickedness.” This is apparently not a joke. (The name really comes from the Latin indulgentia, from indulgeo, “to be kind or tender”.) Beyond nomenclature, though, Steinmetz doesn’t seem to understand the difference in Roman Catholic theology between hell and purgatory. It is not true that, by selling indulgences, “The pope could take the meanest sinner and, with a blessing, secure him a place in heaven and save him from purgatory.” In Roman Catholic theology, attaining heaven requires repentance and absolution, and indulgences have no effect on either of those. Instead, indulgences are supposed to reduce “the temporal punishment due to sin,” i.e., time in purgatory, which is a “waiting pen” prior to heaven—but everyone in purgatory is already guaranteed to attain heaven. All this was very clear to medieval people, as any study of the Crusades, for example, will show. Steinmetz compounds this lack of understanding by bizarrely claiming that “Kill a baby? Deflower the Virgin Mary? Indulgences absolved them all.” No, indulgences absolved nothing, and certainly not sins such as killing a baby, which would require absolution from a bishop, not a mere priest, after confession (as abortion always has in the Roman church).
3) Steinmetz repeats the old legend that Europeans consumed spices used to “mask the taste of rotten meat.” This has been repeatedly debunked, and makes no sense anyway—if you were rich enough to afford spices, you were certainly rich enough to not eat rotten meat.
4) The book badly needs an editor who’s not drunk or a Millennial. Vocabulary errors litter the book. It’s “wring [money] out of the citizenry,” not “ring out.” It’s “illiquid,” not “ill-liquid.” Discussing Fugger’s bequests, on page 233 Fugger left specific amounts of “millions” of florins; on page 237 those amounts are now “billions.” Also, “1427” is incorrectly used for “1527” in the same discussion. Plus other minor factual errors—for example, medieval coins were not cast; they were die-struck.
5) Dracula was not a “Transylvanian count.” He had nothing to do with Transylvania; that’s an invention of Bram Stoker in the 20th Century, for his fictional character. Vlad III, known as Dracula, was voivode (i.e., ruler) of Wallachia, an independent principality now part of Rumania and never part of Transylvania. And he was not a count. He did not impale Turks in Hungary, as Steinmetz claims, because he was not Hungarian.
And, conversely, the peasant rebellion leader György Dózsa was Hungarian, not Rumanian, as Steinmetz claims. He was a Székely, a Hungarian from Transylvania.
6) One of Fugger’s longest-lasting and most profitable investments was in Hungarian copper mines, beginning in 1494. Steinmetz claims “Other German merchants thought Fugger a fool when he bought his first Hungarian copper mine . . . . For them, Hungary was too savage and unpredictable for investment.” This is entirely false. At the time, Hungary was the largest kingdom in Europe, a cultivated ancillary center of the Renaissance and wholly integrated as a key member of the kingdoms of Europe, and probably less savage and unpredictable than Germany, with its patchwork of principalities. Steinmetz seems to have no grasp of overall European history.
7) Erasmus did not have syphilis, despite Steinmetz repeatedly claiming he did. A second’s worth of research shows this definitively. Nor was Cortes personally the first person to bring syphilis back from the New World—Cortes first went to the New World, as a very-not-important person, in 1504, and syphilis appeared in Europe in 1494.
8) Under customary law, prior to the re-creation of Roman law, it was not true of the manor system that “Everything belonged to everyone.” Customary law was very complex, of course, and involved various informal property arrangements, along with strict rules against alienation. But it was hardly generally communal property, other than specific pieces of property used in common (hence, the “commons”).
9) Steinmetz claims “The Janissaries were children of Christian slaves, raised as soldiers.” Actually, they were (kidnapped) children of Christian free peasants, made (military) slaves and forcibly converted to Islam.
So, while The Richest Man Who Ever Lived tells a quite interesting story, it’s impossible to rely on anything it says. Steinmetz appears to be an auto-didact who relied too much on “auto.” He seems to have read widely, with, as he says, the help of a translation app, but perhaps not widely enough, and he desperately needed a skilled and knowledgeable editor. Ultimately, that makes his book barely worth reading.