A quick history of debtors prisons

In England, the enlightened tradition of tossing people in jail for their debts goes back to the fourteenth century. In extreme cases, if you didn’t pay your debts you could be outlawed–set outside the protection of the law. Given that if you stayed inside the law it would jail you, that might have been a mix of punishment and blessing.

If you were a merchant or a trader and owed less than a hundred pounds, you could escape all that by declaring bankruptcy, although it would cost you ten pounds–a big chunk of money at the time. But if you weren’t a merchant or trader, even if you had ten pounds in your pocket, you were shit outta luck. 

Irrelevantly, a pocket wasn’t one of those nifty little sewn-in things we know about. They hadn’t been invented yet. It was something you tied on and wore inside your clothes.

Don’t you feel better for knowing that?

Irrelevant photo. A plant. Which is not in debt, blooms all summer, and can be replanted from cuttings come spring. But I don’t remember what it’s called. In person, it’s a bit darker than this.

I never thought of the Middle Ages as a debt-prone period, and of course your mind works the way mine does, so you made the same assumption. It turns out we’re both wrong. There was enough debt around that the country set up laws to manage it.

But before I tell you about that, we should figure out just exactly what we mean when we say the Middle Ages. They ended in 1492. On the dot. 

Why then? 

Because that’s what Lord Google says, and (at least until you dig deeper) he’s unequivocal about it. One age ended, everyone turned the page, and the whole class started a new chapter.

The economy of the early Middle Ages wasn’t primarily a money economy, and that’s where you and I got our impression that debt and lending weren’t a big thing. By the end of the Middle Ages, though, England’s economy was increasingly being powered by trade and business, and that involved money and–yes in deedy, folks–loans. And you can’t have loans without debt, because if one person lends, another one has to borrow. 

So what happened was that all of that economic pushing and shoving crashed into the brittle shell of the feudal system, which is why the Middle Ages shattered and no one wanted to play with it anymore. They shoved it aside and invented a new game.

But that’s a different story. We’re talking about tossing people in jail for not paying their debts, not about why they took them on. 

Would you pay attention, please? 

In the fourteenth century, not paying a debt could also lead to the sheriff to turning up at your door to see what you had inside so the person you hadn’t paid could claim it. Or claim some of it, because according to the Debt Advocate (which is about modern debt collection, and very much in favor of it, thanks; tell them about a debt someone owes you and they’ll lick their lips and get back to you in five minutes, drooling onto the keyboard, although they’ll keep the drool professionally out of sight)–. 

Let’s start that over. In the fourteenth century (give or take some unknown number of decades), bailiffs commonly took more than you owed, sometimes even demanding that you sign over your land. They also commonly slipped enough into their own pockets (remember pockets?) that your creditor didn’t do particularly well out of the deal. The Debt Advocate, I’m sure, mentions that by way of contrasting it with their own highly professional services.

Who got into debt back then? Kings. Merchants and other businesspeople. Peasants. Churches. Monasteries. Geoffrey Chaucer. In other words, lots of people from all the available classes as long as they weren’t too poor or too visibly in debt to convince someone that they were a reasonable risk. Credit and debt kept the medieval economy rolling, although the aristocracy’s borrowing may have been less useful. Some of them borrowed to finance the show of wealth that they needed to put on (or thought they they did) and some borrowed  so they could go crusading.

Who lent money? I was under the impression that since the Catholic Church had outlawed lending money for interest–called usury, whether the interest was high or low–only Jews could lend money, but it’s not that simple. 

That’s true of most of the history I was taught, for which I’m grateful. If it was simple, these history posts would be no fun at all.

The ban on lending money at interest grew out of a bit in the Bible (sorry–I’m not sure which bit) that forbid people to charge or pay interest on money transactions between bothers. (That applied to any kind of lending, not just money.) In Jewish law, brother came to mean a fellow Jew. 

In a neat parallel, the Christian interpretation allowed Christians to lend money to Jews. Only Christians were brothers. Or More generally, they could lend to non-Christians, although there wouldn’t have been masses of non-Jewish non-Christians in England yet.

Not that there were masses of Jews. Before the Norman conquest, there weren’t enough in England for anyone to bother counting, and when they were expelled in 1290 there were only an estimated 3,000. 

Or 2,000. As usual, it depends on your source and doesn’t much matter. If we say not many, that’s close enough.

So Jews did lend money to Christians at interest, but after a time Christians found themselves a loophole and also lent money to Christians. I’m not sure what the loophole was; if you’d like to [a] credit it to a miracle or [b] tell me what it was, please do. 

The best known Christian moneylenders were Italian merchants, but churches, monasteries, bishops, and yea, even popes lent money at interest.

When England expelled the Jews, if you owed money to one of them you now owed to the crown.

Whee. Free money. Or free money if you were the king. Which was handy since he was heavily in debt himself. I read somewhere that he was in debt to Jewish lenders and by expelling the Jews he canceled his own debt, but I haven’t been able to find that again to confirm it, so we’ll pretend I never said it, okay? 

I can confirm the business about Italian moneylenders, though. 

Now let’s jump to the eighteenth century. What’s the passage of a few centuries between friends? Lots of people were now buying on credit. The supply of coins was smaller than the country needed. Wages were slow to be paid. And buying on credit was a style–a habit–however dangerous. If you got in over your head, your creditor(s) could toss you into prison without a trial and you’d sit there till you paid your debt, renegotiated your debt, or died. 

In our enlightened times, we shake our heads at how crazy the system was, but Alex Wakelam argues that it worked well for creditors, and he’s someone legitimate, not, like me, just some nut job with a blog. In one London debtors prison, 91% of the prisoners were released in less than a year and almost 33% in less than a hundred days. In other words, most of the debts were recovered relatively quickly. He’s not saying it was a good system. He acknowledges that it could ruin the lives of debtors. All he’s saying is that it did work for creditors.

Most prisoners were middle class people with small debts. About 20% of them were shopkeepers, although the list included gentlemen, cheesemongers, lawyers, wigmakers, and professors. And women, although fewer of them since men were held to be responsible for a family’s finances. 

Women and children were often in debtors prisons as the adjuncts of the men. They would have been free to come and go.

Debtors who had anything to sell sold it to pay off their debts, or called in debts that were owed to them, which could, at least in theory, mean someone in prison for debt having someone else imprisoned for debt. Others borrowed from family and friends. Those who could worked from inside prison. A trumpeter who worked for Handel was able to give music lessons inside the prison. Some sold food or alcohol to other prisoners. 

What if you had nothing to sell, no trade you could carry on from prison, and no family? Or if you were rich in family but your family was poor in money? You sat in prison and watched your debt get bigger as interest raised it from horrifying to incomprehensible. And if that wasn’t bad enough, you were being charged for your food (such as it was) and lodging while you were in prison, and that added to your debt. There are records of prisoners paying off their debts and then being held because they hadn’t paid off the bills for being imprisoned and fed.

You could also be charged for keys being turned or for having irons removed. And no, those weren’t irons as in pressing your clothes or curling your hair. They were the kind of irons that kept your legs from running off. 

In Marshalsea prison–and it seems to have been typical–prisoners were divided according to whether they could pay for their keep. On the Common side–the side whose inmates couldn’t pay–conditions were horrendous. We’re not just talking about lack of food but also deliberate brutality. I’ll leave you to look up the details and say only that the fear of being moved there kept the money coming in from those who could afford to pay. 

On the Master’s side–the paid side–you could rent a shared room, a private room, or a whole set of rooms. You could pay for good food. You could set up a business. The place had a whole economy behind its walls. History Revealed mentions bars, cafes, and restaurants within the prisons. Some prisoners paid for the privilege of living off site. Some were able to leave during the day–presumably to earn money and pay off their debts. 

These prisons were licensed by the crown but run privately, for a profit. Sound familiar? I’m old enough (and then some) to remember when privatization was going to be more efficient than frowzy old government-run institutions. If you couldn’t pay for your keep, the prison had no incentive to feed you any more than the absolute minimum–and sometimes less. The brokest of the broke begged passers-by for alms, and there were instances of prisoners starving to death. 

In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, over half of England’s prisoners were in jail for debt. 

This wondrous system was ended by the 1869 Debtors Act. But–.

A but always gets involved somewhere, doesn’t it?

In England and Wales, you can still be tossed in jail for up to three months if you don’t pay your council tax (the council being the local government). In 2016-2017, just under five thousand people were jailed for that–and going to jail doesn’t clear the debt. When you get out, you still owe it.  

In the U.S., debtors prisons were banned under federal (not state) law in 1833, but in recent years you can once again find people in prison for not paying fines and debts.Some of them have been convicted for various crimes but then can’t pay what private companies charge them for drug rehab, electronic monitoring, parole, and so forth. That lands them back in jail after they’ve been released. Others are people who owe court fees and fines they can’t pay. 

In theory, you can’t be jailed for a civil debt–a debt owed to anyone but the government (or a company charging for government services)–but in some states debt collectors can ask a court to order you to appear and answer questions about your finances, and if you don’t show up (you didn’t get the notice; you couldn’t read the notice; the dog ate your notice), you’re in contempt of court, and you’re also in jail. By the purest coincidence, you can pay a bond, which is usually the exact amount the collection agency’s claiming, although if you had the money you’d probably have paid it to begin with.

It’s good to live in our enlightened age. It reminds us not to look down our noses at our ancestors.


Thanks to Cat9984, who asked about debtors prisons in Britain. Sorry about the long digression into debt itself, and into lending. I couldn’t see a way to separate them sensibly and–oh, hell, I got interested. Anyway, here it is, right in time for Christmas. Do I know how to celebrate or what?

81 thoughts on “A quick history of debtors prisons

  1. Hang on. If you could pay to rent a set of rooms in prison, or even pay for the privilege of living off-site, why didn’t you just pay your debt so you’re not in debtors prison to begin with?

    I don’t do credit, though, except for financing my home and car, so I probably don’t understand the thought process of people who do use credit. Every time someone approaches me in a store and ask if I want a store card, they look at me as if I’m insane when I reply no thank you, I don’t believe in buying stuff on credit.

    Liked by 2 people

    • The poorest of the debtors couldn’t and didn’t pay. They were the ones begging passersby for money just to eat. The richer ones, who could and did? As far as I can sort this mess out, they’d gotten themselves in deep enough that they could manage the one payment but not the other. They weren’t the ones–I think–who were likely to be there long term, and conditions among those who couldn’t pay were bad enough to keep the money flowing in from those who could. It sounds like it was a deliberate policy.


    • Say you owe £1000 and can’t repay until the ship you have invested in comes back – literally, until your ship comes in. When it does, you will have £2000. Meanwhile, you only have £100 (which is relatively rich, but nowhere near enough to pay your debt). £100 will buy you better accommodations and food, so you do. Then you either try to borrow the £1000 off someone else (rebroking) or you wait for your ship and hope neither the storms nor the pirates got it

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Off at a tangent here, but I have always wondered about the thing Americans call a “pocket book” , I think that in the UK we’d call it a wallet or purse. Presumably it dates back to the era of these separate tie-on pockets? I know a lot of American pronunciations that differ from the British ones, are derived from the original C17th & C18th ones. For a long time I assumed the Americans had innovated or changed how words were said, but it turned out it was the Brits who had changed how they said words like missile and vehicle. I am wondering if its the same with the pocket book?

    Liked by 1 person

    • I remember hearing people talk about pocketbooks when I was a kid, and memory insists that they meant purses (or bags, or handbags, or whatever we’re calling them at the moment), but I looked up the American usage and got a purse or wallet. For a word origin I got “Originally from the 1610s, a small book meant to be carried in one’s pocket, from pocket + book. Meaning ‘a booklike leather folder for papers, bills, etc.’ is from 1722.”

      I can’t remember hearing people use “pocketbook” for purse in years, but it may be a regionalism.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. First off, thanks for explaining the pocket. I’m not sure why, but I found that interesting. I always pictured us going from wrapping ourselves in a bear skin to wearing a suit of clothes like we see today. I remember reading an article last summer about a boy, I think in Baltimore, who was arrested after stealing a car and taking it for a joy ride. Stupid and illegal thing, to be sure, but after fines and fees and interest and penalties, he ended up thousands of dollars in debt to the city. So, to pay that off, he started selling drugs. It worked, only he was making so much money selling drugs, he didn’t stop. Until he got arrested for that. It’s interesting to ponder, given that the US is over $23 Trillion in debt. I wonder where they (whoever they are) could lock us up.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. If you want to dig into this subject, our reading group is tackling: , , , and forgive them their debts: Lending, Foreclosure and Redemption from Bronze Age Finance to the Jubilee Year by Michael Hudson. . It’s a slough but one gets the idea that this all started a very long time ago. One could trade one’s children, goats or servant girl to get out of debt. However, every few centuries a new ruler would come along, declare what we now call a Jubilee, and reset the entire economy. If you believe the little squiggles carved in stones (or the people who interpret them) it worked! (I’m not recommending the book as it’s almost impossible to read but I just wanted to show off.) I do however recommend debt forgiveness. I’m sure the IMF will listen.

    Liked by 2 people

    • I was impressed. Especially at the idea that the Bronze Age had finances. I think of them as traders, but I never thought of finances coming into the picture.

      Somehow I don’t think we’re going to convince that IMF about that jubilee idea.


  5. I have answers to two of your questions:

    End of the Middle Ages, ended in 1492 (on the dot). That was because in 1492 Columbus sailed the ocean blue, but he returned happy after putting all of the native American’s in debt.

    How could the church lend at interest? Easy. That’s why the Church of England was established. They could now lend to Catholics and Catholics could now lend to them. Simple.

    Liked by 2 people

  6. One if the books in the Old Testament gives laws for the Jews of that day. Debts were to be forgiven if not paid in seven years. Then there was the jubilee year and the golden jubilee. Can’t remember a lot of the details. Reading those old laws is interesting. Some of our laws seem to be based on them. I like the rule that if house has mold, you can clean it three times go fix it but if the mold comes back after the third cleaning it had to be torn down.

    There are statutes of limitation for collection of debts. And for prosecution of crimes. Idea of fresh starts seems to run deep in our history.

    I thought someone would comment on yesterday’s elections. Historic day for Britain.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Historic as in, oh, fuck, what have we done?

      I’m surprised the Bible had laws on mold. I think of it as having come out of a dry climate, where mold wouldn’t be a major issue. They were probably ahead of their time now, given what’s now known about the diseases that come from living with mold.

      Liked by 1 person

      • The Bible describes red and green molds. Green mold can infect human skin, hence the conflation of mold and leprosy (and the idea that just washing and sitting in the sun for a day or two might heal leprosy–it won’t touch Hansen’s Disease but it can help fungus infections). Red molds infect foods, making the foods taste nasty and the people who eat them sick. Both kinds thrive in damp places but tolerate dryness longer than the more common kinds of mold.

        Interestingly, the Bible doesn’t prescribe special treatments for blue, grey, white, or black molds…raising the question whether Stachybotrys, the “toxic” black mold, was present in ancient Israel..

        (I wrote an article about mold once and would just love to let the world know that it could be updated.)

        Liked by 1 person

  7. Thank goodness Pretty has Alexa playing a Johnny Mathis Christmas collection or I might have been thrown into an even deeper holiday depression than my usual one.
    Wow. Who would have thought of a post on debtors’ prisons, but it is Friday the 13th. so there’s that. And to know that Handel’s trumpeter spent time in one will forever color Handel’s Messiah for me.
    No mention of the landslide victory of the conservatives in Britain or the Americans embroiled in impeachment controversy across the pond? Would love to hear your historical perspective.
    Regardless, Happy Holidays to you and yours! I look forward to more lessons as we approach a New Year!

    Liked by 2 people

  8. One of Jack the Ripper’s victims was described in the police reports as having a pocket tied about her waist (or what was left of it when Jack had finished) so that would have been quite late in the 1800’s.. Now we can wonder when they began to be sewn directly into clothes.
    The Templars were early financiers and bankers. Supposedly that’s why Philip of France burned the lot of them at the stake – so he could get his hands on their money. Supposedly the Templars connect to the Masons, who connect to the Illuminati. Which makes me picture my Dad, my Grandfather, and my Uncle Ralph as plotting to take over the world. Not much of a conspiracy theory , in my view.

    “Ours” is on the road to formal impeachment…so who’s further ahead ? I read that Scotland voted in a way that seems to be recalling a desire to secede. I’m hunting for my clan tartan scarf .

    Liked by 1 person

  9. A sobering blog post prior to Christmas! I thought you might go into the bailiffs in England and Wales, but not Scotland as I understand, coming into your home if you owed money and taking your tv away along with other items to cover the debt. Might be a relevant subject, though I don’t know how much humour is in it!

    Liked by 1 person

    • The research did lead me onto the fringes of what bailiffs can and can’t do (they can’t break down your door, as it turns out, but if it’s unlocked they can come in; not sure about windows), but the trick to keeping your focus, it turns out, is in learning what to leave out. It took me too far afield.

      Liked by 1 person

  10. This was so fun to read! Love your satirical approach. And glad to you brought up America’s current system, because I find it very annoying when people say, “America is better because we don’t imprison people for not paying their bills.” So not true 😂

    MB> keturahskorner.blogspot.com
    PB> thegirlwhodoesntexist.com

    Liked by 1 person

  11. What an interesting post! Reading all the comments also interesting. Its funny isn’t it how debt has been around since…maybe day dot! I was a debt collector….a lot of people get into debt because they want everything and they want it now. #SeniSal

    Liked by 1 person

    • I’m sure it left you with tales to tell.

      It’s certainly true that many people want everything asap, but our culture tells them that having stuff is what makes life worth living, so it’s no surprise that people get into trouble over it. These days, from what I read, more and more people get into trouble trying to get from one paycheck to the next–not for silly stuff but for basics, although the loans they take out have crazy interest rates. A couple of people have commented (either here or on Facebook–I’ve lost track) about the tradition of debt forgiveness: jubilees. There’s so much more that could be explored.

      I do agree about the comments. They’re fantastic.Thanks for adding to them.

      Liked by 1 person

  12. There are some modern parallels, which is scary. I thought you might appreciate a story about talking statues in Venice, and how one helped punish financial criminals.

    “Unfortunately, Gobbo had a role in punishing minor financial offenders, and this ended up punishing Gobbo, too. If you committed a minor financial crime you had to strip naked and run through a gauntlet from the Piazza San Marco to Gobbo, while citizens lashed and hit you. At the end of the gauntlet, you had to kiss Gobbo. Poor Gobbo was inadvertently hit, too, and ended up in terrible shape. He was restored in 1836 and protected with a fence.”


    Liked by 1 person

    • I’m out of my depth there. I do know there’s a lot of political and cultural focus on the debt states take on but damn little on the huge (and growing) amount of personal debt, and yet it was personal debt that caused the last crash. Okay, we’re calling it a credit crunch, but I’m not sure where the line between the two is. I don’t know at what point state debt becomes unsustainable. I do know that it makes a difference what use it’s put to. If it goes to build politicians’ swimming pools or to sit in numbered Swiss accounts, it’s nothing but a burden. If it builds infrastructure, educates, sustains the most vulnerable, it circulates and (I think; I’ve read; I hope it’s true) sustains the economy. But like I said, I’m way out of my depth here.

      Liked by 1 person

      • I’d forgotten about private debt… That is a growing threat too.
        Public debt? Let me keep it simple. France’s public spending is half of French GDP. Every time 2 bucks are produced, one goes into the state’s pockets. To pay for salaries, maintenance, whatever. Now France’s public deficit is around 3%GDP. A clever way to mask the fact that deficit is 6% of public spending.
        If you run a country at 6% deficit a year, in ten years you will have accumulated 60% debt. With me so far?
        Now, ask yourself: can a family live for long spending 6% more than it makes? Can a company lose 6% on sales every year and survive long? Nope. Neither can.
        So, one day, the sh.t will hit the fan…
        (And meantime, the problem is, in France,as a good example, the quality of public service is degraded each year, though the spending increases: medical care? Down? Security? Down. Justice? 5 years after the sole survivor of the Bataclan attackers has still not been judged… etc.

        Liked by 1 person

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