- The Fuggers of Augsburg: Pursuing Wealth and Honor in Renaissance Germany
Most scholars who study the sixteenth century are aware of the importance of the Fugger firm of Augsburg because the firm's influence on sixteenth-century economy and society was ubiquitous. Past generations of historians who have written about the Fuggers have treated the firm's affairs as part of a progression toward modern capitalism, and have focused on the firm's most important administrators, Jakob Fugger the Rich and his nephew and successor, Anton Fugger. Scholars have held up these two principals of the firm as icons of merchant capitalism whose business acumen catapulted the firm into prominence and gave rise to a so-called "Age of the Fuggers."
In this book, Mark Häberlein moves beyond the more traditional treatments of the Fuggers by being sensitive to the social norms of the time. Häberlein rejects the older teleological perspective on the firm's development that stressed a profit-making mentality marching relentlessly to modern capitalism. He shows that the family's overriding goal was not to amass great wealth, as important as that was; rather it was to increase the family's good reputation and provide benefits for later generations. So while profit was important for the Fuggers, it was important not for its own sake, but because of the benefits that profit brought to the family. In focusing on honor and benefit, Häberlein pays far more attention to the generations of Fuggers who came after Jakob and Anton than most historians usually do. The result is a balanced work that highlights the "personal relations and social environment" of the Fuggers and their agents (5). However, this book should probably not be thought of as a biography in the strictest sense. Häberlein includes numerous biographical sketches about various Fuggers (including separate chapters for Jakob Fugger the Rich and Anton Fugger), but the emphasis is on the firm and its successes and failures during its long existence.
That said, although this book is essentially a work of social and economic history, it employs a decidedly prosopographical perspective in keeping with Häberlein's goal of focusing on personal relationships. This is a departure from most economic histories, in which authors often shy away from social relationships when writing about the past, and too often view their subjects' [End Page 528] experience in strictly economic terms. Häberlein, however, brings the issue of social relations front and center in his work. As he points out, "in a society that was largely structured around personal relations, the management of social relations, especially contact with people of influence, was of crucial importance" (58).
The Fugger family's focus on increasing its status and prestige for later generations becomes clear when one considers the family's involvement in the arts as patrons, and in its investments in land (with noble titles), marriage alliances with the nobility, and association with the Habsburg court. This process has often been referred to as feudalization, though Häberlein points out that rather than feudalization, the strategy "indicates a pluralism of social norms and career options" on the part of the Fuggers (200). Whatever term one chooses to use to describe the process, the Fuggers employed their growing wealth in socially strategic ways. Indeed, after the Thirty Years' War, the Fugger family income came primarily from their landed estates rather than from their commercial enterprises—testament to the shift in "long-term changes in family ideals and social norms" in the seventeenth century (221).
So, was the Fugger firm successful over the long haul? Häberlein would answer with a resounding yes. The firm had its share of commercial challenges and was certainly criticized in its own day for its attempts to buy position and status. Nevertheless, the firm was very successful when judged by its goal to increase "status and family honor" (223). In this regard, the story of the Fuggers is an excellent example of the importance of social...