Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Robber Barons and Luther’s Stew

When my wife and I go on road trips, I spend much of the time reading out loud while my wife drives. It makes the miles go by faster, and we get educated and entertained. She knows that when we have a long trip, she’s going to have hear some things from my list: I can take a break from The Plan for a weekend jaunt, but not for a three-week trek to Newfoundland. We always read some C. S. Lewis, and often we enjoy some G. K. Chesterton; this year we read Christian Reflections and Orthodoxy. We also watched Emma nearly ruin everyone’s lives, including her own, by her meddling. And we followed Agatha Christie to Baghdad. These are all things she would normally read on her own. But I also read a long chapter from something she hasn’t, to my knowledge, ever picked up and probably never will: Will Durant’s magisterial The Story of Civilization.

I’m well into the Reformation volume this year. Last year, I read the first 250 pages, which trace the events of several European countries through the years of the Italian Renaissance, the subject of the previous volume. But now, after the game of catch-up, Durant is just about ready to discuss the actual Reformation. In the car last month, we read a chapter about conditions in Germany just before Luther’s stand.

As we read the first few pages, concerning the financial transformation of fifteenth-century Germany, I kept thinking about the robber barons I had read about earlier this year in Edward Rutherfurd’s New York. Did you know J. P. Morgan once stopped a nationwide financial crisis with his personal funds? His personal funds! I couldn’t help making the comparison when we read about Jakob Fugger making private loans to several troubled European states. One person bailing out an entire country – or even several. Now that’s rich. I don’t think Bill Gates could make more than a tiny dent in a national crisis if, say, our creditors decided to call in their debts.

Coincidentally (I hesitate to say “ironically” since no one can use that word these days without being told that they don’t understand irony), after I had the term “robber barons” swimming around in my head for a couple of days, Durant explained the origin of the term – and it wasn’t Fugger and the other financiers. The term came from actual barons, the German knights who seemed to make up the only class that didn’t benefit from the move from feudalism. Their wealth lay in land and traditional obligations for service, none of which went far in a society that wanted thalers for everything. So the German knights declared private wars and attacked tax wagons moving through their domains. It wasn’t exactly stealing from the rich to give to the poor. It was more a matter of stealing from the moneyed to give to the landed, which happened to be themselves.

The ultimate point Durant makes in this section is that the new portable wealth enjoyed throughout the region we think of as Germany led a sizable new class of people both to scorn the old system of feudalism and to resent having to part with so much of their new-found cash in the form of tithes to Rome. After all, they reasoned, the church in Rome is extremely corrupt (we just won’t mention the lax morals in our part of Europe); so why should we enable their debauchery? And thus the pot was heated for Luther’s stew.

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