The Verge

I listened to The Verge from Patrick Wyman last week. It’s an excellent historical non-fiction book about the period from 1490 to 1530 in European history. In a series of stories told from different points of view, Wyman gives his possible explanation for the Great Divergence of European wealth and power from other world civilisations of the time.

He tells the story from the perspective of various people who lived through the times. Some are familiar, like Hernando Cortez or Christopher Columbus and Martin Luther; others less so, like banker Jacob Fugger or printer Aldus Manutius. All are involved in pursuits that had great leaps forward of exponential growth during this crucial few decades.

Wyman’s essential argument comes to this: during the Great Bullion Famine of the 1400s, an imbalance of trade caused gold and silver to leave the European continent. The European economy managed to develop networks of credit and forms of long-term investment to let it weather the famine. And those financial instruments let them invest in projects on a massive scale, like the conquests of Granada and the Americas, or the defense of Vienna when it was besieged by the Ottoman Turks.

The human focus makes the story more compelling and the point more convincing. The author doesn’t whitewash the massive cost in misery and human life that many of these projects had.

The audiobook is read by the author, which helps a lot, too. The original author is usually better at making points and putting emphasis than paid actors are, especially for nonfiction. I liked the whole book and I’d recommend it to others interested in the time period and its effects on our own time.

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