The lending and borrowing of money in the past have become major preoccupations for historians. These two rewarding and thoughtful books, which lie very close to one another in the themes that they explore, form part of the surge of investigation into late medieval and early modern credit. Undoubtedly historians’ concern for the subject has been stimulated by the international financial troubles that began in 2008, though historians’ interest was developing before 2000. The background to this earlier development lay in the discovery of commercialization as a means of explaining economic changes in the later Middle Ages, and also in the revelation of the consumer revolution that took place mainly in the early modern period. How could commerce have had a transformative power when cash was in short supply, and how could consumers have acquired an expanding range of goods unless money could be borrowed? If the study of credit had developed as a branch of economic history, it would have been mainly a matter of calculating interest rates and flows of money, but the growth of the subject has coincided with the rise of cultural history, and credit has been seen as a dimension of law, morality, and ideas. Both of these books are exploring different aspects of the same problem. Everyone in the later Middle Ages “swam in a sea of credit” (Lange, 5), not just because loans of cash were often advanced to cover the costs of consumption and investment, but also because, in a period when coins were in short supply, purchases and payments of rents and wages had to be delayed and made in installments. Relationships, not just in the marketplace but also in daily life, depended on trust, and anyone who failed to honor verbal promises and informal obligations had a tarnished reputation. In a phrase found in the thirteenth century and still in use today, those who failed to pay their debts would “lose credit” and no one would do business with them. If trust, mutual obligation, honor, and morality did not secure payment, how could the creditor obtain the money? These two books are written in the knowledge that there were many avenues for bringing pressure to bear on recalcitrant debtors, but they focus on particular methods: Tyler Lange, in Excommunication for Debt in Late Medieval France, is concerned with the role of the church courts, which employed excommunication as their ultimate sanction for debt, while Daniel Lord Smail, in Legal Plunder, concentrates on the process through the secular courts by which court officials (or sometimes the creditors) could seize debtors’ goods to enforce payment. Lange has studied a sample of church-court records from the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. He shows how the church-court system developed from early beginnings to a hierarchy of courts in the thirteenth century held by bishops, archdeacons, deans, monasteries with jurisdictional privileges, and other institutions. Among a number of other matters, they could hear cases involving unwritten or privately recorded obligations, many of these relating to debts. If oaths had been broken, or there had been a breach of faith, Christians had an obligation to keep their word and pay money owed, and if they failed, a case could be brought by a wronged individual, or by an official of the court on the basis of “rumor (fama)” (“the debtor’s supposed reputation in the community” [51, 215]). If the court found that the debt was proved, it ordered payment, but if the debtor did not appear or failed to pay, he or she was guilty of contumacy and was excommunicated. Debtors were in the wrong in the eyes of the church because of their oppression of the creditors; they also flouted the authority of the church. Lange emphasizes that in expanding its court activity and in particular in dealing with numerous debt cases, the church was responding to demand. Creditors wanted a relatively cheap and effective way of bringing pressure to bear on the debtors. The book contains analyses of a number of church-court records with considerable quantities of cases—for example, two hundred excommunications per annum in 1426–1438 in the jurisdiction of a Paris court, and many hundreds also to be found in provincial courts held in Rouen and Chartres, and in the records of the court held by the Norman monastery of Montivilliers. The procedures touched a large proportion of the population, and as many as a quarter of Parisian households would have contained a person excommunicated for debt (129). The numbers of excommunications for debt fluctuated a good deal in the later Middle Ages. They appear to have been at a high level in the late fourteenth and early fifteenth centuries, to have declined during the fifteenth century, and to have tended to revive somewhat toward the end of the century, only to fall away in the 1520s and subsequently. Factors behind these changes included the impact of war, climatic instability, and economic depression in the mid-fifteenth century. As peace and prosperity returned around 1500, a rising tide of hostility to the church’s exploitation of excommunication and subsequent absolution reduced the number of debt cases. The laity saw that the church had encouraged business in its courts in order to increase profits. Lange draws from the church courts some useful insights into the late medieval economy. He traces from the Chartres records the rise of moneylending by Christians in the 1390s after the Jews were expelled. He shows economic differences from region to region, so the average sum owed in Paris tended to be higher than those in Chartres, but some very large sums occur in the Montivilliers area, reflecting the trade in Norman cloth. The prominence of women reflects their active participation in the economy. Lange suggests that by serving as a protector of honesty and financial obligations and thus promoting business confidence, the church was making a positive contribution to the economy (49). Smail’s study uses evidence from a rather earlier period than Lange’s for the city of Lucca, where there is a concentration of court registers from the early fourteenth century, but Smail’s documents for Marseilles extend after 1400. He makes much of the material culture of the later Middle Ages, drawing on a wealth of inventories that extend over a wide social spectrum. As well as considering the evidence for purchases, especially of clothing and household textiles, Smail analyzes the expenditures of a Marseilles woman, Laureta Bonaffazy, revealed in household accounts of 1403–1407. This not very affluent woman sold on credit the wine that she produced and lived on credit beyond her means. This remarkable documentary survival leads to an examination of “shop credit,” that is, the normal custom for retailers to hand over goods without expecting immediate payment. As well as discussing the habitual expenditure when the buyer could not hope to pay in cash, Smail cites important evidence of the pawning of goods to raise loans. He argues that people, rich and poor, bought goods—particularly textiles that they could ill afford—not just to display their status, but also in order to have a valuable pledge from which they could raise money if they hit on hard times. Moralists criticized the lavishness of the expenditure, but they may not have appreciated that showy clothes were a practical investment. All of Smail’s discussion of consumption and credit is preparatory to the main theme of the book—that is, the procedure by which goods could be taken from debtors and sold or pledged in order to raise the money owed. This might be done by the creditors themselves, which could lead to accusations of theft. The courts also authorized officials to take goods. This could begin with an attachment of specific items to persuade the debtor to attend court, but often the debtor fled, and the authorities invaded the house that he or she left, and might sell all of his or her goods. Smail translates the word preda, which refers to the goods taken, as “plunder” (29), and calls the action of the officials plundering, which is rather an emotive word for the legal seizure of property. This was not an exceptional measure, as in Lucca in the 1330s one thousand cases were reported each year, which means that annually one in every ten households was “plundered.” The process is presented in very negative terms by Smail, who emphasizes the violence of the officials, arriving at a house and stripping it of the debtor’s possessions. Officials targeted items that were valued by the debtor, and particularly the objects that were essential for the household’s livelihood, such as the wooden tubs and barrels for wine. Poorer peasants were particularly vulnerable to these depredations, and they took countermeasures, such as hiding goods, protesting against the officials with the help of neighbors, and organizing violent recovery of seized goods. Smail sees the wider implications of his examination of the forcible recovery of debts, and in particular the light that it sheds on household possessions and consumer behavior. He notes that the system of debt collection was bound up with the trade of the pawnbrokers. The officials would seize goods that had been pawned and then deposit them as pledges, rather than sell them to raise money for the creditor. Smail argues, with less conviction than is shown by Lange, that this form of debt recovery benefited the economy, because the circulation of goods was being promoted by means other than the conventional market. Both books are of high quality. They make good use of large quantities of original sources, and they interpret the evidence on a small scale—for example, by explaining legal procedures—but also draw much larger conclusions. They both agree that the hidden hand of the market cannot explain all that they have uncovered. Coercion played a part in forcing people not just to pay their debts but also to submit to the routines of work and wage earning. Falling into debt could have terrible consequences. All of the actors in the processes described had a sense of a moral economy. Although both books are very similar in their subject matter and interpretations, they represent very different approaches to history writing. Lange tests the stamina of the reader, who is taken through technicalities of legal history and statistics, though there are rewards in Lange’s striking general ideas. He is not entirely convincing in arguing that a contractual market economy emerged in the sixteenth century, because the pre-1500 evidence suggested that the market was already then a strong presence. Smail offers a more easily read book, and he has an eye for an illuminating example presented with psychological subtlety. Both books are perhaps too long, with much detail, many anecdotes, and repetitions. Smail’s book is undoubtedly an attractive and entertaining read, but the writing sometimes strays into irrelevance with philosophical ruminations. Both books are valuable additions to the literature on credit, and deserve a wide readership. © The Author 2018. Published by Oxford University Press.
The American Historical Review – Oxford University Press
Published: Feb 1, 2018
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