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Of Bondage: Debt, Property and Personhood in Early Modern England by Amanda Bailey (review)

From: Comparative Drama
Volume 47, Number 4, Winter 2013
pp. 553-556 | 10.1353/cdr.2013.0042

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Among the “brave buildyngs rare” enumerated by Isabella Whitney in her 1573 verse testament to London are the city’s famous prisons.1 The poet first praises the Counter, a debtor’s prison, to which she bequeaths those whose “whose coyne is very thin” (l.196). Prison will offer them “a certayne hole, / and little ease” (l.197–8). Newgate and the Fleet follow and then, as she approaches another debtors’ prison, Ludgate, Whitney becomes jokingly coy. Accusing her readers of laughing at her, the “dying” testator rebukes them with mock solemnity—“here is no place of jest” (l.228). We infer the cause: the impecunious poet who has the temerity to be wandering freely and making bequests of all of London’s luxury goods and consumer services is nothing but a bankrupt, who should herself be in bondage, stowed away in prison. Whitney disarmingly acknowledges this. Indeed, she says, she had “reserved” a place in Ludgate for herself, if only she “ever came in credit so / a debtor for to bee”:

When dayes of paiment did approch,
  I thither ment to flee.
To shroude my selfe amongst the rest,
  that chuse to dye in debt:…
Yet cause I feele my selfe so weake
  that none mee credit dare:
I heere reuoke: and doo it leave,
  some Banckrupts to his share


Whitney’s will and testament, predicated on the fiction of dying of poverty (the author, “very weake in Purse” [l.52], departs from London/this life because she never achieved sufficient credit for food and clothing), thus oddly imagines the debtor’s prison as a space of living death which nevertheless represents London’s only possibility of temporary agency and means. It is a diseased “hole,” a “shroud,” which yet signifies a privilege beyond the reach of the dying speaker—the privilege of being able to conjure up the credit that would make London life possible—at the least until “days of paiment” approach.

Amanda Bailey’s elegant and quietly devastating book, Of Bondage: Debt, Property and Personhood in Early Modern England, does not, understandably, mention Isabella Whitney. Yet Bailey’s argument—which centers on the social implications of debt, and specifically, of the penal debt bond—is as illuminating of the imagined topography and temporality of Whitney’s Testament as it is of the city comedies and tragicomedies that form its principle subject. It is a mark, perhaps, of the maturing of the subfields of legal and economic literary criticism, that Bailey’s exposition of the social life of a single monetary instrument can have such explanatory and literary critical power. Though clearly drawing on Luke Wilson’s ground-breaking analysis of assumpsit, Bailey’s book is both original and surprisingly accessible in the way in which it unpacks the practical workings of the debt bond as both a form of writing and a form of money. Economically inflected literary criticism has tended to be preoccupied either with the figure of the usurer or with the emergence of mercantilist writings about money. While usury has important moral and imaginative consequences, the debt bond emerges as far more central to the logics of dramatic narrative because of its capacity to conjure an evanescent wealth and agency at the expense of a future bondage, or civil death. Rather than illegally charging for the use of money and time, the creditor who loaned on a sealed bond might legally, if the borrower defaulted and was unable to meet the penal condition, lay claim to the debtor’s person. “The bond’s innovation,” as Bailey summarises it, was “to construe human flesh…as a vehicle of promise” (7). This means, in turn, that bonded human flesh functioned as money: the peculiarly conditional temporality of the bond, given material form as a written signature, could magically conjure up spending power. Bailey’s work thus makes visible the way in which writing itself, functioning as a sign of voluntary, if hypothetical, bondage, structures the forms of fictional narratives and of economic reality.

Why, then, did the penal debt bond arise, and why have literary critics overlooked it? We have known about the importance of interpersonal credit relations at least since Craig...

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