- Legal Plunder: Households and Debt Collection in Late Medieval Europe by Daniel Lord Smail
"Are secular polities anything but thievery on a grand scale? For what are robber bands but polities in miniature? (quid sunt regna nisi magna latrocinia? quia et latrocinia quid sunt nisi parva regna?)" (Augustine, De civitate dei, 4:iv). There are at least two major approaches to histories of debt and of justice in general. The title of Daniel Smail's magnificently researched and magnificently written book indicates his approach. The author of this review takes the other: credit can liberate as well as oppress.
Smail's impressive study of how fourteenth-century medieval municipal courts in Lucca and Marseille collected debts makes a number of important claims. It shifts our attention from criminal to civil justice, to how states came to be states by guaranteeing and executing private debts (180). Of this regressive redistribution, he asserts: "the volume of court-sponsored plundering suggests that, alongside the market economy, there existed an alternative economy and an alternative mode of second-hand exchange" (13). It is not, however, clear that the redistributive function of civil courts constituted a second economy, for this second mode of transactions in goods, debt, and coin operated in response to debts consequent upon market transactions—often on credit.
Chapter 1, "The Values of Things," illuminates late medieval cultures of property, especially movable property. It explains why the fourteenth century saw a fashion revolution rather than a furniture revolution (28) and demonstrates that some objects were less fungible than others. Furniture was inexpensive, dull, and scanty. Pets and toys do not appear in inventories. In contrast, clothing was closely bound up with the wearer's identity and almost inconceivably expensive to modern readers: for instance, a "very high end houppelande" cost as much as two fields at the median price in 1420 (60). Other textiles were equally expensive, if less tied to an individual's identity or "worship" (in its late medieval meaning): the median price of a plot of land in 1320 would have purchased 12 "nice" tablecloths (60)! Equally precious paternosters were an audacious "value sink" because they were virtually inalienable (84).
Chapter 2, "Credit and Coin," gratifies this reviewer by countering monetarist views of the supply of late medieval credit. Smail affirms that "a substantial amount of debt in arrears was extinguished not by the movement of coin, nor by the movement of paper, but instead by the movement of household goods" (27). [End Page 407] Instruments such as the "vanamentum" allowed for a debt to be settled through the transfer of a third person's debt to the original creditor (90). This is comparable, in the reviewer's opinion, to how the minor credit secured on pain of excommunication operated (Lange, Excommunication for Debt in Late Medieval France, Cambridge, 2016). As Smail puts it, "credit was everywhere. Far from being adjudged a sin, lending to those in need was considered a matter of charity and even a spiritual obligation" (90). He fascinatingly discovers how consumers and service-providers accumulated micro-debts. These micro-debts, on account of the distrust of small change (104) and of the discontinuous rhythms of purchase and payment throughout the agrarian year (106-108), were then bundled into sporadic payments in larger coins. The piles of small change that did accumulate were periodically taken to the moneychanger for conversion into larger coins (111). Smail's always careful reading of notarial documents uncovers otherwise difficult to discern practices that take us to the heart of late medieval economic life.
Chapter 3, "The Pursuit of Debt," explains just how court procedures "swept goods up into the system of exchange and coerced them into moving from one household to the next" (122). Though some actors, notably women seeking to recover dowry property when houses changed ownership (141), engaged in private distraint, it was the sergeants of late medieval courts who valued, who seized, and who humiliated: "it was no news to any of them that the court was like...