03.12.30, Mayhew, and Schofield, eds., Credit and Debt in Medieval England

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Ian Blanchard

The Medieval Review baj9928.0312.030


Mayhew, N.J., and Phillipp R. Schofield, eds.. Credit and Debt in Medieval England c.1180-c.1350. Oxford: Oxbow Books, 2002. Pp. x, 164. ISBN: 1-84217-073-2.

Reviewed by:
Ian Blanchard
University of Edinburgh

The years ca. 1180-1350, covered by this important book, witnessed fundamental changes in Western European capital markets. An expanding and enriched population, characterized by high savings levels, allowed base interest rates, measured in terms of the price of land or rather in terms of the price of a perpetual fixed-rent charge secured on land, to fall heavily. Unlike in contemporary Central- Eastern Europe where base interest rates of 15 per cent continued to prevail, in Western Europe they established themselves at a new equilibrium-level of about 10 per cent per annum. At this time, moreover, money was cheapest in England and in the lands of the Lower Rhine. By the middle of the thirteenth century the English capital market, already widening and deepening, was, moreover, becoming well endowed with an institutional infrastructure servicing the financial and monetary requirements of all members of society.

In ca 1160, when for the first time in more than half a century Henry II had been able to assure sound money and stable prices to ALL of his subjects, jurists began the process of defining the legal framework for the operation of contemporary capital markets (see P Brand, "Aspects of the Law of Debt, 1189-1307"). Pre-dating this in the eastern counties, where Steven had been able to institute a similar regime of sound money and stable prices, the 1130s and 1140 had already seen the establishment of an extensive financial-monetary network located in the territory under his control. At London the organization of financial- monetary and commercial activity as one element of an extended international specie distribution system is revealed. Here, in the parish of St Antonin, there was gathered in the 1130s a group of moneyers-exchangers and goldsmiths whose business, exemplified by the activity of one of its prominent members Deorman, involved not only the provision of financial services but also encompassed a not inconsiderable volume of commercial activity. In terms of this commodity trade, only the most valuable of commodities, particularly spice-medicines, were involved. Far more important to members of this group was their financial dealings and commerce in specie. Utilizing that access, which their peripatetic work as moneyers gave them to a wide range of money exchanges, they were able to accumulate large stocks of silver, which they either put out at interest or exported. Nor were they alone in taking advantage of these opportunities. Jewish merchant-financiers, who were excluded from the office of moneyer, found no obstacle to their participation in the exchange of silver for coin, whether this took the form of accepting silver vessels in pawn, or exchanging ingots or foreign coin for English pennies. In the 1130s and 1140s, Jewish settlements may be discerned in many a town containing a mint-exchange. Indeed, the specie supply systems of the Jewish and Anglo-Saxon bullion dealers formed a closely interwoven network, the former group settling and acquiring silver in those centers, which lay outside the itineraries of the peripatetic "royal" moneyers, where either the burgesses or "local" moneyers farmed the mints-exchanges. When in ca 1160 Henry II was able to assure sound money and stable prices to all of his subjects, the operations of these Christian-Jewish financiers began to transcend their previously spatially restricted networks. The impact of this spatial extension in financial networks is revealed in the activities of two of the greatest financiers of the age, Aaron of Lincoln and William Cade (see R. R. Mundill, "Christian and Jewish lending patterns and financial dealings during the twelfth and thirteenth centuries"). Aaron, who already had made massive loans between 1140-1152, totalling well over #4,374. 13s 4d to the Cistercian foundations of Rievaulx, New Minster, Kirkstead, Louth Park, Revesby, Rufford, Kirkstall, Roche and Biddlesden, was far more than just a money lender. His financial activities included buying the debts of other Jews, lending both large and small sums, securing rent charges, property development, pawnbroking and even speculating in grain. Yet by the time of his death in 1187 such activities paled in significance. At that time he had outstanding debts amounting to #15,000 (22,500 marks) scattered all over the country, his outstanding loans in Rutland alone amounting in eleven transactions to #361 in individual sums ranging from #115 to 13s 4d. A similar distribution characterized the financial dealings in the 1160s of the Christian moneylender William Cade. His debts, which amounted to #5,000 (7,500 marks), were similarly widely distributed across the realm and amongst all social classes whose members owed him both large and small sums.

What distinguished Jewish from Christian lending in the late twelfth century was not the size or nature of their financial dealings, however, but was the legal framework within which the former operated. The experience gained in the collection of Aaron of Lincoln's estate through the Scaccarium Aaronis had revealed to the Crown the sophisticated legal framework within which Jewish financial transactions took place. It was in the context of the wholesale destruction of such financial records in the massacre of Shabat ha Gadol in 1190, however, that this was translated into an institutional form. Walter Hubert set up in 1194 a far safer system to protect the Jewish credit market and established one of the earliest archive systems in England--the Scaccarium Judaeorum. At the close of the twelfth century, therefore, Christians' financial dealings continued to form a part of the general business of the royal courts (the Common Bench and also the Eyre), cases of debt being tried in accord with the newly delineated case law, illustrated in Glanvil. All Jewish transactions, on the other hand, were now to be recorded by a bi-partite chirograph or bond and copies were to be kept in strong-boxes or archae located in each major borough of the realm, which were administered by both Christian and Jewish officials. These documents, which defined the corpus of Jewish financial dealings, moreover, provided the evidential basis for those court cases (recorded on the Jewish Plea Rolls) brought before the Justices of the Jews. By the close of the twelfth century those attempting to obtain investment funding thus enjoyed access to English capital markets, well endowed with an institutional infrastructure within which their financial contracts could be enforced in accord with a substantial body of law. Nor did this situation significantly change for almost a century.

Then, in an increasingly anti-Semitic environment, the activities of Jewish merchant-financiers began in 1269 and 1271 to be restricted and in 1275, by the Statute of the Jewry, lending by them was finally banned, their business being limited to commercial dealings in the subsequent years before their expulsion in 1290. To fill the void in the capital market so created, however, the Chancellor, Robert Burnell, now created a new system for Christian merchant- financiers. In 1283, at Acton Burnell he produced radical changes in the provision of credit. He provided a new instrument--the recognizance--and a system for recording transactions was established, centers for the recording of debts in this form being established in almost all the towns with Jewish archae. He also provided Christian merchant-financiers with the means of obtaining immediate recourse for retrieving debts, backed by the government and debt collectors. The statute of Acton Burnell (1283), reinforced by that of Merchants (1285), made access to credit both wider and easier, encouraging lending by Christian merchant-financiers and providing government approval for their activities (See C. McNall, "The business of statutory debt registries, 1283-1307"). In spite of the restrictions imposed on Jewish merchant-financiers in English capital markets, these continued to operate in the late thirteenth century in much the same way as before. As in the twelfth century, those seeking investment funding who could offer interest rates above the 10 per cent base rate, could raise loans on English capital markets, well endowed with an institutional infrastructure within which their financial contracts could be enforced in accord with a substantial body of case-law.

Nor was such activity restricted to the well to do. At this time, the 40-shilling limit imposed on actions, which could be brought in manorial courts other than royal ones, merely provided an arbitrary line in a capital market where transactions involving far smaller sums were undertaken. In royal or municipal courts financial contracts involving as little as seven to ten shillings represented the lowest quartile in a distribution in which the upper quartile amounted to #650-1,000. In manorial courts even smaller sums were involved. In village society in Suffolk, Cambridgeshire, and Bedfordshire debt, either in cash or kind was mostly worth less than five shillings (See P. R. Schofield, "Access to credit in the early fourteenth-century English countryside" and C. Briggs, "Creditors and debtors and their relationships at Oakington, Cottenham and Dry Dayton (Cambridgeshire), 1291-1350"). These transactions were not only diminutive in value, however, but were of a very specific kind, providing an "alternative" money supply, obviating the necessity of using coin. About half of all these debt transactions, recorded on the manorial court rolls involved credit sales--deferred payments on goods, usually animals or cereals--not loans for investment purposes. Deferred payments for services comprised about 20 per cent, as did leases, most often of land but also animals. Loans of cash or chattels only made up the residual 10 per cent (See E. Clark, "Debt litigation in a late medieval English vill", in J. A. Raftis, ed., Pathways to medieval peasants (Toronto, 1981)). In the case of some 80 per cent of the pleas, moreover, the actions were never completed, the manorial court merely acting as a court of record registering the peasantry's everyday transactions, settlement of which would be made when the peasants sold their marketable produce. Coin entered at this time into rural society in return for these cash crops and livestock products and returned to the towns almost immediately in payments for rents or consumer good purchases. During the late-thirteenth and early fourteenth centuries, villagers probably only experienced the use of coin for perhaps a week or two each year. For most of the year transactions were carried out in terms of records maintained in the villagers' collective memory. This was reinforced, moreover, by the use of the manorial court in its capacity as a court of record, only outstanding balances being settled in coin when the peasantry disposed of their marketable produce. For the villager of the late thirteenth century the normal experience of money was not of coin but rather money of account.

The contributors to this important volume, whose papers have been selected from those presented at the conference on "Credit and Debt in Medieval and Early Modern England" held at St Cross College, Oxford, 14-15 September 2000, have provided the reader with a marvelous overview of the evolution of the institutional infrastructure of English capital markets, which during the years 1180-1350 came to service the financial and monetary requirements of all members of English society. The conference organizers, N. J. Mayhew and P. R. Schofield, should be encouraged to organize a second conference investigating what the population did with the money they raised.

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Ian Blanchard

University of Edinburgh