I know very little about the law, either criminal or civil. (For all I know there’s a third kind, with its own body of statutes, its own court system and penal code; maybe something that operates only among toddlerfolk.) However, I am learning quickly about a body of law in the civil demesne: bankruptcy. To sum up, bankruptcy is a shelter for people who are terrible at borrowing from people who are terrible at lending. The law in this country, at least since 2005, favors the latter.

I am at the tense point in my bankruptcy where I can do nothing but wait for Mr. H, the attorney, to actually appear at the courthouse and actually file on my actual but absentee behalf. While I’ve been waiting, I’ve spent a good deal of time feeling sorry for myself and pouting and wishing the gods would reroute the destiny of my creditors so that they crash in bankruptcy, too. I’ve also spent a lot of time reading about typical forborne bankrupts.

Let us consider the code as it was approbated in the England of James II, when bankruptcy was not only morally pathetic but a fully criminalized state of being.

The lore of debtors’ prisons is familiar. Say you’re asset-less and can’t pay the village mead-brewer for all the mead you and your fellowmen drank at the hanging. Well, you can be assured that the authorities (“commissioners,” as they were nominated in a bill of 1618 − whose authors included Francis Bacon, famous for being Shakespeare) will find you and dwell you in a dark place until you pony up. Which will be never, because employment opportunities in a dungeon thickly peopled with other Jacobean sponges, like yourself, are zero.

But was it really like that? Worse, it turns out. Which makes me feel both profoundly lucky and a trifle guilty about being profoundly lucky.

The following abstract is from A Brief of the Bill exhibited against Bankrupts, a half-sheet broadside published in London in 1624, and extant in only three copies1 (brackets mine; braces London’s):

The Bill [against bankrupts] inflictith corporall punishment, by standing on the Pillory in the County for two hours, and losing one ear by course of indictment in cases {1. Where he cannot make it appear unto the Commissioners, that he hath sustained some casual loss2 after the buying, and taking up of such wares, moneys and commodities, whereby he is become unable to pay his debts. [Three other cases follow.]} Reason: The trade of Banckrupting is the worm that eateth the heart of all commerce and trade.3

How yucky is that? Imagine how much it would hurt to get an ear filleted from your head. Imagine how it would sound! Today, instead of a pillory dance and de-earing (I have not found a precise medical term for this), the bankrupt in an equivalent scenario would merely be strafed with letters and phone calls from creditors hot with fury at not being allowed to pillory and amputate which is what you deserve.

But what of the character of the bankrupt, as perceived by his contemporaries, then versus now?

“The economy,” as we call the present year-and-a-half-long worldwide Ash Wednesday that followed the even longer Mardi Gras of carousal and money-eating, spreads over the bankrupt in a 5-ply coating of public attitude: contempt, pity, distaste, exasperation, and envy; all of which are lightly salted with curiosity of the sort systemic to those who know by heart the “Most Notorious” section under the “Serial Killers” heading on TruTV.com’s Crime Library.

On the whole, not too terrible for a public attitude. It certainly could be worse − and was, especially during James II’s time, when arraignment of the bankrupt found its loudest honk in the Latin of a certain Dutchman, Mr Daniel Sauter, who in 1615 managed to write an entire book on the depravity and fouls of the class. Moreover, in 1640, a person known only as T.B. found the time to translate Sauter’s book into English and then convince one of London’s largest publishers, John Norton, to print it.

In The Practice of the Banckrupts,4 Sauter defends no other thesis than that bankrupts are heathen buttholes redeemable only by prayer and humility. His book is really just a great pamphlet of crude but quotable indictments cribbed from classical writers. Some of my favorites (all brackets mine):

Fowlers houses are not more full on engines to catch birds, and fill their cages; than Banckrupts heads are full of plots to store their warehouses.

This [so-called] kindness of Banckrupts is like the stinging of the Asp, with whose venom if a man be infected, he falleth in a pleasing sleep, to that venoms disperseth it self through all the veins, and the party dieth sweetly sleeping.

Thus are [bankrupts] whited sepulchers, outwardly beauteous, but inwardly full of rottenness.

Such as [bankrupts] had nothing truly their own, but a tongue to lie and forswear, and fraudulent cunning tricks and wicked devices to rend and tear in pieces other men’s estates, and leave them with bare and naked corps, shall truly appear themselves and shew what they are.

So Satan lost Heaven and Adam Paradise; but more justly [bankrupts] rob others of their estates.

In the epistle dedicatory, Sauter announces that he will pursue the idea that bankrupts can be cured by faith, just as the infirm can be cured by doctors and medicine. So, Invalids: Healthiness :: Bankrupts : God.

Even though the copy of the book I consulted is missing eight of the last nine pages, it is clear from what remains that Sauter has extrapolated his analogy to Bankrupts Need Doctors.

I haven’t had a checkup in a long, long time.

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1 British Library, National Archives (UK), and Guildhall Library. The sheet’s rarity should not surprise. If you were a sucking Jacobean debtor and found this tacked up to your door, wouldn’t you bootcrush it into the dirt, or set it akindle, or simply eat it?

2 What “casual loss” means here is not clear. Let us assume for the purposes of this essay that it is not less than my unpaid and unpayable five-digit obligation.

3 Original spelling and typography was initially copied in quasi-facsimile because I thought it looked neat. However, my editor only learned HTML a couple months and it gave him a headache when he tried to format everything for web viewing, thus he gaveth upeth and changed just about everything to plain old English.

4 Long title: The practice of the banckrupts of these times in whom are considered, 1. Their fraudulent and deceitful actions. 2. The evils accompanying their courses. 3. Laws and punishments ordained to curb them. 4. The charitable cure of so great an evil. A work now very necessary. Written in Latin by Mr Dainel [sic] Sauterius, and made to speak English for the general good of all commerce. London: Printed by John Norton, for William Garret., Anno M.DC.XL.