This past week I:

– Worked on The Dogwatchers. Muddled through a scene that is supposed to be subtle. Repeat after self: “First draft.”

– Officially accepted place at the school of Information and Library Science at UNC Chapel Hill. Will start in January. Exciting!

– Read Farenheit 451.

I’m also reading, for world-building purposes, an excellent book called What Jane Austen Ate and Charles Dickens Knew. Their time periods are later than my world’s analogous period, but the book is fascinating in its own right as well as providing insight on how a number of extinct institutions and traditions actually functioned. It’s really intended to be a reference while reading the works of Dickens, Austen, Trollope, Thackeray, and so on – some of its detailed explanations (English currency, brief rules of whist and other card games) are hard to take in. In some cases, though, as with the rules of social precedence, this is the point – people living at the time had trouble with them, too.

The most interesting thing I’ve learned so far is that debtors’ prison was a less-nonsensical concept than I had imagined. I used to think, “Wait, they can’t pay, so you put them in jail? Now they can’t work or do anything to get money to pay! This isn’t even a vicious cycle, it’s a dead end!”

What actually happened depended on whether you were a “debtor” or a “bankrupt,” a distinction relying on whether you were considered legally to be a tradesman. A “bankrupt” would have all of his or her possessions seized, sold, and used to pay creditors as much as was possible. Any extra money went to the bankrupt person. If the debts weren’t covered, oh well; they’d done all they could, and no one could get more from them. (Interestingly, if someone failed to pay rent, the owner of the establishment could go in to take and sell the person’s furniture to make up the rent money.)

In the case of a “debtor,” things started when a creditor paid a shilling for an arrest warrant, which they gave to the sheriff, who arrested the owing party and put him or – well, okay, generally him – into custody. It wasn’t always bad custody; he might even be put up in the sheriff’s house. This was just to ensure that the person appeared in court, where he might yet be found not to owe money at all. No one seems to have checked these things, so the whole situation reminds me of those charity events at college where you pay to have one of your friends “arrested,” and the friend then has to get someone to pay “bail.”

Once you were found a debtor, and without cash on hand to pay, you were asked to sell your possessions and pay as much of the debt as possible, like a bankrupt. The difference was that a debtor could refuse, at which point it was off to debtors’ prison. The prison actually acted as a coercion device to encourage people to sell their belongings and pay off their debts. Once they had nothing to sell – no way that they potentially could pay their creditors – they could no longer legally be held in prison.

So, huzzah for learning things!

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