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?