History – Reading – Financial Culture


Behind each great historical phenomenon there lies financial secret. Niall Ferguson

But Fugger couldn't ignore the usury ban. He had to take it seriously because his depositors took it seriously. Every time a depositor gave money to Fugger, they, like bankers, expected to earn interest. They took their 5 percent but felt dirty afterward. The Nurembergers circulated pamphlets about usury after the Diet of Cologne in hopes of putting a chill on bank deposits and destroying Fugger's fund-gathering machine. The attack hit Fugger where he lived. Unless he could raise money, he could not satisfy client demand for loans. And unless he could make loans, his business would shrink and his influence would vanish.

Did you understand everything? Maybe you are sure that you understand completely and specifically, maybe you understand in general terms and with only minor ambiguities. Maybe you only understood a little because you were distracted by something while you were reading, or because you sprinted through the text. The feeling that you have understood the passage about the richest man of all time is certainly justified if you were not in a hurry. In addition, it was important to know who the depositor is, what usury is, what the relationship between the loan and the interest is. If someone asks you about a depositor, you probably will not immediately answer with an encyclopaedic definition that mentions a promise or a term. If the word usury appears in the text, you are certainly not holding in your mind information about the medieval understanding of usury or the fact that it was then regarded as a theft of time that belongs only to God. Both during and after reading, you probably had in mind the nature of the commitment that Fugger negotiated with the creditors, or that usury is fraud and is related to the unreasonable value of the money. Simply, if you knew the words that the text was speaking to you, you could mentally reconstruct the historical situation in which the entrepreneur Jakob Fugger found himself. The confident feeling that you really understand the text can easily be challenged. Let's ask ourselves a few questions that the source text does not directly answer, but the answers to which may create a more complete picture of a significant figure of the past:

When was the prohibition of usury that Fugger had to consider?

What events preceded the prohibition that Fugger could not ignore?

Why did Fugger's clients feel that they were doing something indecent by profiting from the interest?

What economic risk did the offensive articles pose to Fugger?

Which methods did Fugger use to raise funds?

Why were the pamphlets against Fugger circulated in Nuremberg if the Diet was sitting in Cologne?

Why did Fugger's clients crave new loans?

What risks would insolvency bring to Fugger or his family?

To want to understand the people of the past is a noble desire. Especially if it is a desire that we lead children and young people to by teaching them history. Understanding the actors of both small and large histories using a single source can only be partly, partly, because the decisions made by adults of the past may simply not be cognitively accessible to the children or adolescents of the present. The private accounts of contemporaries and the public statements of rulers, the diary entries of the ordinary student and the declarations of politicians - all these provide only one perspective and one with the risk that the child will take from them far less than they provide in terms of what can be learned from them and how what is known can be understood with them. In addition to the quality of the resources and texts, it is therefore necessary to take into account what competences in financial culture the recipient has, whether and to what extent he or she has developed an economic consciousness, i.e. an area of thinking and knowledge that orientates the child or adolescent in social and economic relations. This is true whether the orientation is in the past or in the present. A child really doesn't need to understand another's speech if it mentions volatility or deflation. However, we would probably not object to asking ten year olds to have a formed awareness of borrowing - after all, children borrow something from each other every now and then; such fifth graders could certainly recognise wealth and poverty more accurately - they see the direct and mediated manifestations of inequality every now and then. By contrast, say 14 year olds might be able to talk about the purpose of their savings and saving in general - many of them have already saved for something, they have experienced saving, they know it takes time to save. Ninth graders could actually already tell whether the interest in a text is high or low - whether the text is a history narrative or a billboard. These assumptions can lead to several questions: what learning benefits might students on history journeys experience if they possessed at least a basic awareness of loan, interest, or fraud? How can a well-developed financial culture of children and young people contribute to their understanding of texts about the past, and thus to their understanding of the past itself? Will pupils be more sensitive in their understanding of ordinary people and extraordinary personalities of the past if they perceive their destinies through the prism of a developed consciousness of financially expressed values? Will they show a greater interest in the past or even in the future in this way? None of this is certain, of course. But it is likely that textual sources that depict the financial context of historical events will be more comprehensible, accessible and informative to them.

The sources of historical knowledge conceal much, mention much in passing, tell much without further explanation, and hint at much only indirectly. Clearly, if we want to understand such sources, we cannot dwell endlessly on every word or motif. The reader is simply not Achilles chasing the elusive tortoise that hides the full meaning of communication beneath the shell of words. Even a young reader always possesses at least a certain set of experience and knowledge, a certain degree of contextual knowledge that enables him to accept and understand unfamiliar content expressed in familiar words. Contextual knowledge or readiness to understand seems to condition the reading of any text. If the young reader has not yet encountered usury or the desires of creditors, he or she will probably experience little ambiguity when reading about Jacob Fugger. He is more likely to be confronted with a disappointed expectation of clear information, more likely to experience a dense communicative fog, the text becomes more a source of considerable communicative effort, less a source of rich information exchange - as a result, he can only see a meaningfully opaque, blurred and at the same time sparse text that conceals rather than reveals the past. This can lead, at best, to a resignation to the text, and in repeated cases to a resignation to both reading and interest in historical knowledge.

On a practical level, it's about bringing a written speech from the past into the classroom - it doesn't have to be a text that's foggy with interest, loans or usurers at all - and asking the pupils about it skilfully - knowing, for example, how to develop a dialogue before reading a textual source, and how to conduct one after reading it. We might take the following statement as a textual starting point:

TO GOD, ALL-POWERFUL AND GOOD! Jacob Fugger, of Augsburg, ornament to his class and to his country, Imperial Councilor under Maximilian I and Charles V, second to none in the acquisition of extraordinary wealth, in liberality, in purity of life, and in the greatness of soul, as he was comparable to none in life, so after death is not to be numbered among the mortal.

Inscription on the grave of Jacob Fugger

There are two concepts in the text - wealth and acquisition - that should be part of people's consciousness quite early: children should certainly know about wealth in the first grade of primary school, and they should certainly encounter acquisition in the second grade of primary school. Such a text can therefore certainly be incorporated into history lessons; wealth is already known, acquisition can be seen as a subject of new knowledge. Prior to reading, it is advantageous to direct communication initiatives towards pupils' awareness of possessions - frontal questions such as:

Is the car/house/land a big wealth?

Does a big wealth require more care than a small property? Why?

Should teachers/policemen/medics be wealthy? Why?,

or individual tasks like:

Write/draw what you consider to be a great property. How should it be cared for?

List two ways of looking after a property.

Whether the entry questions are harder or easier, common or provocative, it is important that they include the word wealth or words connected with it. In a communicative way, they can be used to animate a certain cognitive node of the child that brings together knowledge and experiences related to property - it can be a memory of the seventh-grader of people who talked about property, e.g. a picture of a grandmother who at a certain moment had a giggle: That's a whole property!, and at the same time a reminder that a property is also a smartphone acquired thanks to birthday money from grandpa - indeed, it can be a whole aggregation of cognitive clues from different times in life from different people in different situations. The questions before reading the text activate the initial awareness of the phenomenon, while the reading of the text should broaden and deepen this awareness.

After the initial communication, the pupils read the text, accepting the new knowledge just silently.

In turn, it could come down to verifying that the history inquirers in the classroom did indeed informatively receive the text, for example, by asking questions about what the text explicitly conveys:

In what way was Jakob Fugger incomparable to anyone else?

In what ways could Jakob Fugger have been an ornament to the country?

Is it possible for a person of great wealth to lead a life of purity and greatness of soul?

Verification of the reception of a text can also be directed to the implicit meaning of the text, to the probable circumstances of its origin:

Who do you think wrote this text? (Jacob Fugger)

Why did he place this text on a tombstone?

With what intention did the author write it?

The actual inquiry into the past may begin with questions that are neither explicitly nor implicitly answered in the text:

What did Jakob Fugger not mention about himself in the inscription? Why?

What advice did Fugger give to Maximilian I or Charles V?

Are Jakob Fugger's expectations confirmed? What information is needed to make this determination?

In what ways did Fugger enlarge the estate? Would he continue to acquire property in that manner today? Why?

Is it true that Fugger led a life consistent with the social norms of the time?

Is it true that Fugger led a life consistent with today's social norms?

Did Fugger have property in what is now Slovakia? Where? What kind? Was it a large estate?

In what way did this property bring him profit?

It is clear that each of these questions represents a continuation of the learning journey, where it will be necessary to search for information, compare it, draw conclusions from it, process it clearly, and deduce conclusions from it. Admittedly, this need not be a continuation; we could conveniently end here. We could, but we still would not allow our model seventh graders to realistically reconstruct the historical situation so that they could apply knowledge of financial culture to it. And since reconstruction is a productive activity, the learning journey should result in a communicative intersection of historical discovery and financial knowledge. That intersection could look like a new seven-volume text - a letter from Jakob Fugger to the king or Jan Thurzo, a conversation at the first meeting between Jakob Fugger and Jan Thurzo, a diary entry of Jakob Fugger's stay in Banská Bystrica, and so on. An important condition of these texts could be that the authors skillfully use in them concepts that enable them to navigate economic and social relations, i.e. form the cognitive construction of their financial culture. In the first place, these will certainly be the words wealth and profit, or other familiar mainstays such as wealth, loan or supply. It cannot be ruled out that the seventh-grader Jacob will warn the king about bankruptcy in a letter, raise the idea of a joint financial plan in a conversation with Jan Thurzo, or complain about the heir to his fortune in a diary entry.

To want to understand the people of the past is a noble desire. The way to fulfilling it can also be discovered by allowing pupils to discover the - often problematic and mysterious - world of values of specific persons who were responsible for the social status of many people in the past and who have left messages about themselves. Of course, it doesn't have to be the richest person of all time, it can be a queen and a governor of a national bank. An important effect of such readerly exploration of the past may not only be a deeper and more stable understanding of the events of the past. At the same time, it can be expected that such reading expeditions into the past can enhance understanding of the relationships and situations in which our pupils find themselves today and in which they are likely to find themselves in the future.

Karel Dvořák PhD. – DaCoSiDe expert tasked with the creation of A2/B1-level methodological guidelines and certification tools


FERGUSON, Niall. The Ascent of Money. A Financial History of the World. New York : Penguin 2009

KRATOCHVÍL, Viliam. Pátrame po reči iného. Princíp multiperspektivity teoreticky a prakticky pre vzdelávaciu oblasť Človek a spoločnosť. Bratislava : Raabe 2021

LE GOFF, Jacques. Money and the Middle Ages. An Essay in Historical Anthropology. Cambridge : Polity 2012

STEINMETZ, Greg. The Richest Man Who Ever Lived. The Life and Times of Jacob Fugger. New York : Simon & Schuster 2015

ŠÍBL, Drahoš a kolektív. Veľká ekonomická encyklopédia. Bratislava : Sprint 2002