Curator: Patricia Akhimie (Columbia University)
This exhibit complements "Reading the Hand of Human Capital," Amanda Bailey (University of Connecticut, Storrs) abstract


First appearing in England in the 1340s, by the late fifteenth century the penal bond had become the standard form for contractual agreements in England and Europe. The form remained in widespread use through the mid eighteenth century. The document itself consisted of a written promise to pay a sum of money if the condition of the bond was not fulfilled. A kind of backward contract, instead of detailing the action to be performed—John will build a house for James within one year—the penal bond detailed the penalty that would take effect if the action or "condition" were not performed—John will pay 50 pounds unless he builds a house for James within one year. The penalty could be enforced if the condition of the bond was not met, not met on time, or not met in its entirety. English men and women of all classes and occupations utilized bonds to ensure performance of all kinds of actions, but one of the most common uses of bonds was for loan transactions: the "money" or "debt bond."

In the case of the debt bond the debtor received a sum in the present to be repaid to the creditor. If the debt were repaid within a certain window of time the bond would be null and void, if the debtor waited, then on a certain date the amount due would increase. Finally, if the debtor failed to repay either the initial or the larger sum then the creditor might attempt to recoup the loss by seizing the debtor's goods, lands, or person. The steep increase from the mid-sixteenth to mid-seventeenth centuries in lawsuits resulting in imprisonment for debt inspired works both literary and political, satiric and heartfelt. In 1650 William Leach (fl. 1631-1655), an attorney and pamphleteer, estimated that around 20,000 were currently in prison for debt. Frequently in debt himself, he argued for the reform of debtor's law.

Each of the three bonds exhibited here have been "endorsed" with the condition that the debtor will pay a particular amount by a set date, and the debtors have affixed their seals. The attachment of the obligor or debtor's seal made the document binding. In effect, the document was the obligation so that if the seal were destroyed, or the document lost or tampered with it became non-binding. The creditor named in each of the three bonds is Richard Hale, who is identified only as a "citizen of London."

Images from the Exhibit

Edward Dore and James Carter are bound to pay Richard Hale 30 pounds
William Cuffley is bound to pay Richard Hale 20 shillings per year for four years
Theylos Walcott is bound to pay to Richard Hale 50 pounds

Leach, William. Propositions. London, 1651.

and More...
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Barbour, W.T. The History of Contract in Early English Equity. Oxford: Clarendon P, 1914.

Barty-King, Hugh. The Worst Poverty: A History of Debt and Debtors. Wolfeboro Falls, NH: A. Sutton, 1991.

Biancala, Joseph. "The Development of the Penal Bond with Conditional Defeasance." The Journal of Legal History 26.2 (2005): 103-117.

Blackstone, William. Blackstone’s Commentaries on the Laws of England in Four Volumes. London: Cavendish, 2001.

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The Chronological Index to the Statutes of the Realm: from Magna Carta to the End of the Reign of Queen Anne. London: G. Eyre and A. Strahan, 1828.

Cohen, Jay. "The History of Imprisonment for Debt and Its Relation to the Development of Discharge in Bankruptcy." Journal of Legal History 3.2 (1982): 153-71.

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Pendry, E.D. Elizabeth Prisons and Prison Scenes. Salzburg: Institute für Englische Sprache und Literatur, Universität Salzburg, 1974.

Plucknett, T.F.T. Legislation of Edward I. Oxford: Clarendon P, 1962.

Postan, Michael. "Private Financial Instruments in Medieval England." Vierteljahrschrift fur Sozial- und Wirtschaftgesiche 23 (1930): 26-75.

Reisbord, John Philip.
"Petitions to Conscience: Imprisonment for Debt and the Pursuit of Justice in Early Modern England, 1560-1625." Diss. Northwestern U, 1997.

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Simpson, A.W.B. A History of the Common Law of Contract: The Rise of the Action of Assumpsit. Oxford: Clarendon P, 1975.

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Turner, Richard Walter. Equity of Redemption: Its Nature, History and Connection with Equitable Estates Generally. Cambridge: Cambridge UP,1931.

West, William. Symboleography. New York: Garland Publishing, 1979.