The Medieval Review 16.12.07

Smail, Daniel Lord. Legal Plunder: Households and Debt Collection in Late Medieval Europe. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2016. pp. xvi, 326. $39.95 (hardback). ISBN: 978-0-674-73728-0 (hardback).

Reviewed by:

Sharon Farmer
University of California, Santa Barbara

Drawing on approximately one hundred household inventories that were compiled in Marseille between the early fourteenth and the mid-fifteenth century, and on over a thousand inventories of debt seizures that were carried out in Lucca and the surrounding countryside between 1333 and 1342, Daniel Lord Smail has made a major contribution to our understanding of the mechanics of the late medieval economy, levels of everyday numeracy among civic administrators and householders (both in the countryside and in the city), the social and symbolic life of things, the material history of late medieval households, the administrative and coercive growth of the late medieval state, and strategies of resistance to the coercive powers of the state and the creditors for whom it worked.

Like other scholars of late medieval consumer debt--such as Julie Claustre--Smail argues that in the fourteenth century nearly everyone went into debt and nearly everyone lent out credit. Moreover, even in towns, such as Marseille, which had a significant Jewish population, the overwhelming predominance of loans took place between Christians. Small change was almost impossible to come by, so shopkeepers kept cartularies in order to track the debts of their clients. But neighbors also lent to neighbors, and employers held off on the distribution of wages, thereby putting themselves into the debt of their employees. In Lucca, at least, creditors were willing to take risks with even the poorest of borrowers because they knew that the state would back them up with a process of state-induced plunder, should the borrowers default on their loans. Such plunder put ordinary household goods--clothing, bedding, table linens, wine casks--into circulation. The circulation of those goods, Smail argues, lubricated the circulation of wealth. Thus, much as Craig Muldrew has argued for early modern England, Smail concludes that the shortage of bullion in the late medieval period was hardly a detriment to economic growth, because material goods easily substituted for the circulation of coin.

Smail also concludes that moveable goods constituted a much larger proportion of a household's value than we might have expected. He estimates that in the average household of the period, moveable goods constituted about three fifths of total household wealth. Most surprising of all is the relative value of clothing items vis-à-vis landed wealth. As Smail states, "the median price of a plot of agricultural land in 1350 could be paid off with a dozen fairly nice tablecloths, and a very high-end houppelande [an outer garment] in 1420 was worth more than double the median price of a field" (60). Because small goods stored so much value, because they could be sold off or given away more quickly than a piece of land, and because they enabled their owners to display their prestige on their backs and at their tables, they came to play a major role in personal and household thesaurization.

In Lucca, as Smail makes clear, the entire system of legal plunder hinged on public servants known as crier-sergeants. These men traveled throughout the city and its surrounding countryside carrying with them court orders to enter households, where they were to assess and mark bundles of goods equal to the value of the debts (plus about four percent in court fees). Three days later they returned to the households to assure that either the debts were paid or the goods were seized and handed over to the creditors. Locally elected communal consuls were often charged with storing the goods during the three-day waiting period, and if the goods were particularly bulky, those consuls were charged with handling the risk of transporting those goods from the household of the debtor to the household of the creditor.

Sergeant-criers, creditors, and debtors alike exhibited an extraordinary ability to assess the value of a wide range of household, sartorial, and agricultural goods. Indeed, as Smail's close study of one woman's account book demonstrates, ordinary householders were often able to calculate values within multiple monetary systems.

Household goods, Smail argues, held not only monetary, but also symbolic value--thus, crier-sergeants, as well as the creditors who often accompanied them on their plundering expeditions, tended to favor the seizure of some categories of goods over others. Clothing was particularly popular because it held its value over long periods of time and it was easy to transport. When the debtor was a married man, crier-sergeants and creditors often favored the seizure of the clothing of the wife, precisely because of the humiliation that that could entail. Smail is also sensitive to the silences in the records: crier-sergeants almost never listed pets (even valuable ones like birds of prey) or children's clothing--not because they were absent altogether, but because the crier-sergeants did not bother to "see" them. With the exception of paternosters (which were almost never seized or pawned, despite their considerable value), devotional objects are also noticeably absent from the Lucchese and Massiliote records.

Smail's discussion also contributes to our understanding of the material conditions of everyday life and the growing gap between rich and poor. Despite the enormous investment that many householders made in clothing, textiles, and wall decorations, furniture itself was poorly made and of little value. Among poor residents of the countryside, moreover, total household worth (at least in terms of what crier-sergeants could seize) was often reduced to a few roof tiles or wall planks, or to the very containers with which they stored their agricultural produce and alimentary provisions.

Smail argues that having one's goods plundered by crier-sergeants was actually a rational choice for many debtors, since the state tacked on a mere four percent, or so, to the original value of the loan. In the case of unredeemed objects that were taken to pawnbrokers, by contrast, debtors gave up objects that were worth two to three times the value of the original loan. Despite this rational "choice," debtors often resisted the efforts of crier-sergeants--hiding their most precious possessions, sheltering their worth in the dowries of their wives, slamming the door on crier-sergeants, or calling upon their neighbors to assist in violent attacks upon the agents of the state.

Copyright (c) 2016 Sharon Farmer

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