Amanda Bailey, University of Connecticut, Storrs

Reading the Hand of Human Capital

In late sixteenth-century England, there was not one but many cultures of credit. While most people relied on casual arrangements, those needing small amounts of sales credit or loans of at least a few pounds looked to the bond, a written document signed and sealed in the presence of witnesses. According to Craig Muldrew, the total amount of credit extended on bond grew rapidly from the late sixteenth century, and the increasing use of bonds is reflected in the number of debt cases brought before the central courts. Traditionally, each locality honored vague customary practices, allowing borrowers to meet their obligations in their own way and on their own time. How and when a debt would be satisfied was left largely to the borrower’s conscience. As more people at all social levels sought access to credit, however, cultural codes of cooperation were bolstered by juridical mandate.

My paper explores an emerging culture of written contract that was developing alongside a tradition of verbal agreement, and I suggest some of the ways that the formal administration of debt reoriented the body’s relation to capital. In the first half of my talk, I will consider the constellation of forces and range of responses to the penal debt bond, a form of economic contract described in early modern juridical discourse as obligation secured “in terrorem.” This part of my discussion will focus on the bond’s propriety provision, which allowed the creditor inordinate power over the body of the borrower. In the second half of my talk I will show how the bond provided a conceptual framework for identifying property in person by examining the ways in which it produced the conditions for social bondage. In conclusion, I will turn to various dramatic representations of the bond in order to consider how this new form of economic contract came to be imagined as bodily inscribed by a theater that associated the strictures of bonding with torture and death.