Fabulously rich and influential, the Fuggers of Augsburg were heavily criticised for their sharp business tactics, and as a result their name has become a byword for exploitation.
The first Fuggers were a hugely successful 15th and 16th family of international bankers and venture capitalists (yes, they existed even then) who took over assets, power and influence from the Medicis. Based in Augsburg, their patriarch was Hans Fugger, a weaver whose arrival in Augsburg is announced by the entry in the local tax book in 1367: ‘Fucker advenit’ (Fugger has arrived). The spelling is authentic and – in light of future events – almost prophetic.
The family went into trade, first locally and then internationally, and then into mining worldwide, becoming increasingly wealthy with every succeeding generation. They took entire Spanish colonies as security and expanded their trade ties as far afield as Chile and Peru. The most famous of the Fuggers was Jacob the Rich (1459-1525), who lent huge sums to German Emperor Maximilian I and helped finance the election of Emperor Charles V.
To earn himself merit in the life hereafter
All this conniving through cash brought him plenty of jealous envy, and he was particularly sharply criticised by Martin Luther. To earn himself merit in the life hereafter, Jacob donated money for the erection of the first ever almshouses, the ‘Fuggerei’, in Augsburg. These 52 properties represent the first social housing project in the world, and each doorbell handle is different, so that – in the days before streetlighting – inhabitants could identify their own house in the dark. The rent was – and still is – one Rheinischer Gulden per year (approx 0.88 Euros) plus three daily prayers for the owner of the Fuggerei (so that his soul did not have to burn in Hell). These days, potential tenants have to have lived in Augsburg for at least two years, must be Catholic, and have to have become poor without debt.
Currently, the entry fee for tourists to visit the Fuggerei is €4, ie more than four times the annual rent, which is a fairly good example of what the Fuggers became known for: Fuggergeschäft.
Literally meaning ‘fugger transaction’ a Fuggergeschäft was never good for the client, because it effectively guaranteed excessive profits for the bank or trading company. The name Fugger thus became synonymous with being ripped off, and the term Fuckerei gained general useage to denote the exploiting of simple citizens with overly high payment requests. In Flemish that became Fokker, in Walloon Fouckeur, in Spanish fúcar, and in English… well, you get the general idea.
Website for official family archive and the Augsburg almshouses.