The Verge


Patrick Wyman




Date Reviewed:

December 31, 2021

on-fiction books seems to require lengthy titles. The complete title of this one is The Verge - Reformation, Renaissance, and Forty Years that Shook the World - 1490 to 1530. When I think Renaissance and Reformation, I think Da Vinci, Michelangelo, Raphael and Dante. Those men are not even mentioned in this book. Instead, Wyman focuses on nine different individuals who contributed hugely to the changes that realigned how nations and society worked. Feudalism was dropped and the modern states and finance emerged.

Chapter 1 - Christopher Columbus and Exploration. Columbus was motivated by a quest for profits, as was Prince Henry the Navigator and his successors to the Portuguese throne. Much of this first chapter describes the financing of Columbus' trip, rather than the story of his actual journey. Wealthy Genoese investors, and yes, Queen Isabella, backed Columbus, hoping for profits. Discovery of the Canary Islands were a successful money maker. The investors were pretty sure that Columbus's calculations were wrong - the Earth was not that small, but apparently they funded him in the chance he found something to make them rich. Queen Isabella did not pawn her jewels to fund the voyage of Columbus, though we learn in the next chapter that she did pawn them to finance her war against the Moors.

Chapter 2 - Isabella of Castile and the Rise of the State. Isabella was queen of Castille who married King Ferdinand of Aragon, which combined their kingdoms to form Spain. Both Ferdinand and Isabella were determined to oust the last Muslim stronghold from the Iberian peninsula - the Moors had invaded in the 6th century, and slowly had been driven back by Christian forces over the centuries. During the reign of Isabella's rule, the Muslim's last remaining stronghold was Grenada, located in the mountainous Sierra Nevada. Despite the seeming overwhelming advantages possessed by Isabella, the campaign was long and expensive. At this time, the innovation of lending money to the state rather than to the ruler came into being. Previously, if money-lenders made a loan to a king, and the king perished, the money-lender lost. But by loaning to the government, money-lenders could still recover their investment even if the queen herself died. This was a major financial innovation, and it resulted in the saying: "The state made war, and war made the state."

Chapter 3 - Jakob Fugger and Banking - This chapter was all about perhaps the richest man who ever lived: Jakob Fugger. Fugger made money by loaning money to kings desperate for cash to wage war. Also, the election of the Holy Roman Emperor required 7 votes; and being emperor was a prize well worth going deep into debt by bribing the electors. Fugger ended up with control of the lucrative silver and copper mines in the Tyrol region of Austria - production kept expanding, European royalty kept demanding more loans, and Fugger was always willing to make favorable loans.

Chapter 4 - Gotz von Berlichingen and the military revolution - This chapter is about a relative nobody who wrote a diary. Gotz von Berlichingen was a mercenary. For a price, von Berlichingen would recruit military men to wage war, either as part of a larger army, or even to just settle a feud between petty nobles. But this era changed how warfare was conducted - the state now formed and paid standing armies. The king no longer had to command his nobles to bring troops to join his cause, the king already had an army at the ready.

Chapter 5 Aldus Manutius and Printing This chapter was all about the massive changes wrought by the invention of the printing press. Manutius was an accomplished publisher in Venice, but he had a ton of competition - there were many people entering the printing business and often failing. Manutius's innovation was to print books in Greek, and then print Greek textbooks that he could sell to students and professors. But the real money was to be made in printing Indulgences. An Indulgence was sort of a "get of hell" card - by donating a certain sum to the Catholic church, the sinner would be absolved of all his sins. The church loved this innovation (it was constructing the enormous and expensive St. Peter's cathedral in Rome and need the funds), but - as the reader soon discovers - the obvious corruption of the Indulgences led to the ire of a monk named Martin Luther.

Chapter 6 - John Heritage and Everyday Capitalism. An account book found in an old library described how a small time English merchant made money through the buying and selling of wool. After the first waves of bubonic plague swept through Europe, there was a labor shortage. The peasants that remained alive demanded better wages and conditions. The nobles responded by abandoning their feudal system and tossing the serfs off of the land, converting farms into pasture for sheep. Heritage's forgotten account book was found in a library and gave modern economists insight of how the English wool trade worked for small producers. The account book showed how an early capitalist like John Heritage could survive by making loans, collecting wool, and carefully buying and selling at the right times.

Chapter 7 - Martin Luther the Printing Press and Disrupting the Church. Outraged by the corrupting Indulgences, the rigidly moralist Martin Luther nailed his 96 theses to the church door of Wittenberg. Luther wanted to reform the church, but the church didn't want reforming. The result led to schisms in Europe and centuries of religious warfare. The printers were delighted to print Luther's essays - he wrote in German as well as Latin, so more than just the clergy could read his arguments. For years Luther's works were bestsellers throughout Europe, even though he personally condemned the peasant revolts that arose by people inspired by his writings.

Chapter 8 - Suleiman the Magnificent and the Ottoman Superpower The Ottoman Empire was quite wealthy. Unlike the perpetually in debt kings of Europe, Suleiman had money pouring in - his empire was built upon an ever expanding acquisition of new territories, which were looted and their wealth sent back to his growing territory. Suleiman conquered Syria, Egypt, the Balkans. Suleiman attacked the Kingdom of Hungary, and the western kingdoms did not come to Hungary's aid because they were fighting amongst themselves. Suleiman was finally stopped at the gates of Vienna because tremendous rainstorms bogged his huge, deadly cannon down in the mud, and the assault could not begin before the fighting season ended. I think the argument here is that because the Ottoman Empire was wealthy, it didn't to develop the modern tools of finance that made their appearance in the west, and so ultimately the Ottoman Empire was left behind while the west grew in power and influence over the subsequent centuries.

Chapter 9 - Charles V and Universal Rule - Charles the V was the emperor of the Holy Roman Empire (which seems to have covered most of central Europe), he also ruled Spain, Portugal, parts of Italy, and the lowlands. In fact, the only parts of Europe not under the rule of Charles V were France, the British Isles and Scandinavia. Despite this vast empire, Charles the V was always broke. Someone was always rebelling. Despite the fact that the Spanish galleons were returning shiploads of wealth looted from the New World, Charles the V was perpetually short of cash. The bureaucracy simply wasn't set up to control such a huge area full of so many disparate people. Ultimately, it collapsed

It was interesting that so much of the developments were seen through a lens of finance. I guess humanity is always motivate by money, no matter what century it is. I enjoyed this book, so I checked to see what else Wyman has written. It appears that The Verge is his first book. Hopefully he is working on his next one.