When Banks Rule

Jacob Fugger and Matthaus Schwartz. The filing cabinet shows the names of Fugger's branch offices: Rome, Lisbon, Budapest, etc.

What shall we call a world where kings come to bankers to finance wars?  Instead of a monarchy, shall we have a bankarchy? 

What shall we call a world where bankers send past due notices to the greatest ruler of Europe, as Jacob Fugger did to Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor?  Instead of an empire, shall we have a bankire?

“Gold and silver,” said the Englishman, Thomas More, has become “the blood of the whole body social.” 

Mints abound as coinage doubles and redoubles.  The amount of precious metal in these coins is reduced, and the cost of a bushel of wheat triples, to the dismay of the poor man.  

Mysterious forces called letters of credit, bills of transfer, and stock exchanges impact the cost of a barrel of ale.  But only a few understand–and control–how it works.  Who can tell what has happened, what will happen?

In Antwerp, it is said, there is a quadrangle called the Bourse and above a doorway is engraved, “For the service of merchants of all nations and languages.”  To this clearinghouse comes the cargoes of thousands of ships and wagons.  Lace from Spain.  Glass from Venice.  Tin from England.  Spices from the east.  Here one can buy a painting or hire an assassin. 

For desire is the real force behind the bankers.  Our desire for luxuries, our lust for exotic goods and dainty foods.  As Erasmus says, “When did avarice reign more largely?”  No longer is a man content, as in times past, to praise God for enough to eat and a warm cloak.  No, he must have cloves.  He must have sugar.

But at what cost?   For it is said that the demand for sugar in Europe creates a demand for slaves in far-off countries.  So my innocent desire for a rosewater cookie enslaves a man on the other side of the world.  And increases the riches of the sugar Company until it is so powerful that it answers to no king, no government, and least of all, the people whose desires made it great. 

Many applaud the new merchant world that has arisen in the last few years.   The powerful international banking, the global trading, the variety of goods available to ordinary men, and the opportunities for profits will give us better lives, they say.  But I wonder.  Shall the day come when we have made these banks and trading companies so powerful that, not only do they enslave the man in a foreign land, but they own us as well?

Antwerp Bourse 16th century

Capito gratefully acknowledges The Reformation by Edith Simon and Time-Life Books as the inspiration for this post.
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One CommentLeave a comment

  1. “So my innocent desire for a rosewater cookie enslaves a man on the other side of the world.”
    That’s really good writing, and an applicable lesson for today.

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