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  • Legal Plunder: Households and Debt Collection in Late Medieval Europe by Daniel Lord Smail
  • Evelyn Welch
Legal Plunder: Households and Debt Collection in Late Medieval Europe. By Daniel Lord Smail (Cambridge, Mass., Harvard University Press, 2016), 326pp. $39.95

Smail is highly regarded for his detailed and evocative work on medieval Marseilles. Legal Plunder, which focuses primarily on how the local courts in Lucca seized the goods of debtors, demonstrates what happens when a historian changes his archives. In the shift, Smail found a rich resource in the literally thousands of fourteenth-century Lucchese records of household goods that were taken for non-payment of debts. Having done so, he then returned to his Marseilles’ material from approximately the same period to re-examine his ideas about consumption and material goods. Bringing the two cities together, he offers exciting insights into what constituted household wealth, particularly for the very poor.

Smail creates a fascinating picture of the lived experience of debtors at the most precarious points in their annual credit cycles, when personal promises to repay were no longer sufficient. Promises were almost always backed by pledges, such as the rings, textiles, or silverware stored in chests or the tools found in sheds. Where there were no obvious household valuables, barrels of oil, sacks of grain, or even an oven door might suffice as eventual payment.

The use of material goods to oil the wheels of commerce in a world without sufficient coinage has been well told by, among others, Muldrew and the Material Renaissance research group.1 But it is not only the lack of bullion that made the difference; trustworthy systems of exchange were needed to translate a cloak into cash, and then back again. Second-hand dealers filled this gap alongside regular public auctions of pawn pledges, the goods of bankrupts and rebels, or simply the furnishings of unfortunate orphaned families who needed to re-invest in their capital. These public assessments of value allowed urban citizens in such places as Lucca and Marseilles (and many other towns) to check the price of the [End Page 248] goods in their homes on a regular basis. This knowledge allowed creditors to accept mirrors, hoes, barrels, and even manure as a form of exchange, not simply a mechanism for barter.

Smail’s contribution to this important debate about how material goods underpinned the medieval and early modern economy lies in his careful exposition of how this process took place. The seizure of preda, translated as “plunder,” was judicially sanctioned and carefully organized. Bailiffs or crier-sergeants were duly authorized to enter homes and take an appropriate amount of goods to satisfy a debt. Smail’s use of the term repo men for these crier-sergeants may be anachronistic, but his description of their daily lives is evocative nonetheless. He considers their annual cycle of business and the serious question of how, when ordered to collect wagon loads of manure, the officials managed the process. He is equally sensitive to the maneuvres that the poor could take to protect their possessions, from claiming that they were someone else’s (usually a wife’s dowry) to hiding them elsewhere. Mostly, however, he gives a sense of how richly colored and highly decorated the medieval homes and wardrobes proved to be. Even lowly servants would fight hard to retain their bright ribbons and white linens, not just because they represented a store of cash value but also because these items signaled the position of a respectable, credit-worthy household member.

By placing scrawled, barely legible inventories at the heart of this study, Smail offers an important window into the material lives of medieval families and individuals who used their linens, woolens, tables, chairs, pots, and pans (in fact anything that could be moved) to manage their consumer and their credit relationships. From its fascinating information that beds were exempt from seizure to the deeply textured details of household wardrobes, this book is a welcome addition to our understanding of the stuff that backed up the pre-industrial economy.

Evelyn Welch
King’s College London


1. Craig Muldrew, The Economy of Obligation: The Culture of Credit and Social Relations in...


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pp. 248-249
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