Only a question-mark protects the guilty?

The essential difference between the outer fringes of cat-litter sensationalism (e.g. The National Enquirer) and the likes of the Daily Mail is the query [?] replacing the screamer [!]:



Uncanny, huh?

51x93lkZ6-L._SX347_BO1,204,203,200_That ornament to The Independent, John Rentoul, has dined out on that appended punctuation for years for years. He reduces it to an acronym, QTWTAIN, and — at the last count — had collected a thousand. At which, he wisely gave up and left it to others. On occasions even its onlie true begetter seems to regret the passing of this constant in the media.

I think this must be the last, or at least one of the last, of the QTWTAIN:


QTWTAINs are easy to spot, and easy to mock. In most cases, were the notion presented as  direct positive statement, rather than a mind-worm, it would be derided as infantile, gross fallacy, or trite nonsense. Only the question-mark gives it any kind of validity. For the briefest moment of time, before logic and sanity cut in, we may be beguiled — rather as if struck by a truly clever pun or punch-line.

And then there’s the occasional thing like this:


To which  the only slightly-stunned response has to be “Err …? What? Why? How?”

When we hunt that link we find something very different. The heading becomes:

How to finance an Emperor’s Election

The piece kicks off:

The outsider candidate in the Imperial election of 1519, which was meant to choose a Holy Roman Emperor, was Henry VIII of England. He had no particular dynastic claim to the title, and, though he had one of his representatives spread the word that he had some command of the “German tongue,” he did not have much of a connection to the people he would rule. He mostly got in the race because, then as now, both of the main candidates, despite their inherited positions and elaborate claims, seemed vulnerable, if not implausible. And people, including the Pope—this was when Henry was young, before the divorces and beheadings—kept telling him that what the field needed was an energetic, competent monarch like him. Who could resist?

The last sentence there itself has some of the smack of a QTWTAIN.

Even this far in, and that’s the first of just six compact paragraphs, were it not for the accompanying image, we would be wholly mystified where we are being taken. The image, though, is:

FuggerThe caption below it is:

Jacob Fugger, pictured here in a 1518 portrait by Albrecht Dürer, was the moneyman behind the 1519 election of a new Holy Roman Emperor.

The painting is in the Bavarian State collection at the Staatsgalarie in Augsburg. It is more usually entitled: Jakob Fugger der Reiche. “The Rich”: forsooth. Now the pfennig drops: this is a brief nod, hardly a review, of a recently-published book by Greg Steinmetz, The Richest Man Who Ever Lived: The Life and Times of Jacob Fugger.

I first encountered Fugger via the Fuggerei in the heart of old Augsburg. This is an expansive cottage-estate development, claimed as the first social housing scheme in the world, founded in 1521. What we see is the post-World War II rebuild:

On the day after the bombing [24 February 1944], three prominent Fugger descendants signed a pledge to rebuild the Fuggerei out of their own funds. They worried that if they didn’t, their name would be forgotten. These Fuggers, seventeen generations after Jacob Fugger, were nowhere near as rich as their ancestors, but they still enjoyed income on land Jacob acquired centuries earlier. In rebuilding the complex, they got materials from the American occupying forces and followed the original plans except with better plumbing. They increased the number of units from 106 to 140. [Steinmetz, Epilogue]

Like everything else to do with Fugger (compare David Dale’s New Lanark, Titus Salt’s Saltaire, George Cadbury’s Bourneville, William Lever’s Port Sunlight) the Fuggerie was not entirely altruistic: it located the workforce conveniently close to the manufactory. The Fuggerei was, actually, cottage industries.

What made Fugger rich was:

  • lowliness is young ambition’s ladder: a comfortable family origin in the cloth trade (just when cloth was no longer the one industry in town), but being at that historical moment when “new men”, with a lick of education and numeracy, were breaking through the strict medieval class hierarchy;
  • the location of Augsburg, as a centre of European affairs:

In Renaissance Germany, few cities matched the energy and excitement of Augsburg. Markets overflowed with everything from ostrich eggs to the skulls of saints. Ladies brought falcons to church. Hungarian cowboys drove cattle through the streets. If the emperor came to town, knights jousted in the squares. If a murderer was caught in the morning, a hanging followed in the afternoon for all to see. Augsburg had a high tolerance for sin. Beer flowed in the bathhouses as freely as in the taverns. The city not only allowed prostitution but maintained the brothel.J,

Jacob Fugger was born here in 1459. Augsburg was a textile town and Fugger’s family had grown rich buying cloth made by local weavers and selling it at fairs in Frankfurt, Cologne and over the Alps, in Venice. Fugger was youngest of seven boys. His father died when he was ten and his mother took over the business. She had enough sons to work the fairs, bribe highway robbers, and inspect cloth in the bleaching fields, so she decided to take him away from the jousts and bathhouses and put him on a different course. She decided he should be a priest.  [Steinmetz, Chapter 1]

  • information systems: he built a network of “branches”, which provided economic intelligence, and he connected himself to them and controlled the flow of information by inventing a postal system;
  • accountancy — Fugger served an apprenticeship in Venice, that free-booting Italian Business School at the European end of the Spice Road:

he was among the first businessmen north of the Alps to use double-entry bookkeeping and the first anywhere to consolidate the results of multiple operations in a single financial statement [Steinmetz, Introduction]

  • bribery, and its deployment for political control at the highest levels (which is the essential point of that New Yorker piece);
  • his control of several industries crucial to proto-capitalism, and a ruthless approach to making money:

Fugger made his fortune in mining and banking, but he also sold textiles, spices, jewels and holy relics such as bones of martyrs and splinters of the cross. For a time, he held a monopoly on guaiacum, a Brazilian tree bark believed to cure syphilis. He minted papal coins and funded the first regiment of Swiss papal guards.  [Steinmetz, Introduction]

  • above all, exploiting the moment when Northern Europe was going soft on usury:

Venetians lived by the motto of “First Venetians, then Christians.” They preferred making money to pleasing God. They ignored the ban and invented bank deposits. Venetian investors could leave their money with a bank, return a year later and get more back than they put in. Deposits gave banks a new way to grow and gave their customers an easy way to put their money to work. Everyone was happy except the church. The rest of Italy recognized the brilliance of savings accounts and offered their own. Germans respected canon law more than the Italians and observed the usury ban more faithfully but they, too, eventually came around. [Steinmetz, Chapter 4]

Fugger adopted the “Augsburg Contract”, which promised his investors a 5% p.a. return. This was risking his all on the turn of a Papal card — but it was already a marked card:

Fugger was taking a risk. The Augsburg Contract may or may not have been legal under church law. But it was in wide use and Fugger needed it to raise money. If Eck lost the debate and the judges declared the contract usurious, Fugger’s depositors would refuse to give him money. This would be lethal. It was one thing to operate in a gray area. It was another to engage in a practice specifically ruled heretical. Fugger must have felt extremely confident because he sought nothing short of a Scopes trial, a winner-take-all smackdown pitting dogma against modernity, but with money instead of monkeys at the center. He had at least one precedent on his side. After theologians squared off over the subject of annuities—the interest-earning pension schemes that cities sold to raise money—the pope had sanctioned them. Maybe Pope Leo, who had replaced the “Warrior Pope” Julius II earlier that year, would do the same with the Augsburg Contract. There was also the fact that Leo was a member of the Medici banking family. Legalization would serve his personal interests. Even better was that Leo himself was a borrower of Fugger’s. It goes without saying that Leo would be favorably inclined towards someone who gave him money. [Steinmetz, Chapter 6]

No doubt about it, Steinmetz is highly readable. My QTWTAIN: does that New Yorker piece, by Amy Davidson, do the book justice?


Filed under History, Independent, John Rentoul, New Yorker, reading

3 responses to “Only a question-mark protects the guilty?

  1. yourcousin

    Just ordered my copy today.

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