Pounds of Flesh in English Actions for Debt

face of a prisoner

The “pound of flesh” subplot in Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice has been traced to earlier plays, medieval folk stories, and Table III of the ancient Roman Law of the Twelve Tables. Apart from such literary and legal sources, physical threat to the body from debt law was a well-understood practical reality for Merchant of Venice playgoers in England about 1600.

By the sixteenth century, imprisonment for debt was a well-established, but controversial practice in England. The statute of Acton Burnel, enacted about 1285, provided for the imprisonment of a merchant’s debtor. The nearly contemporaneous Statute of Merchants allowed such imprisonment even if the debtor did not have the means to pay. By the early sixteenth century, statutes provided for imprisonment for debt in a wide variety of legal circumstances. Bankruptcy acts passed in 1540 and 1570 were designed not for relief from debt, but to help creditors take action against debtors.^ To provide a means for release for impecunious imprisoned debtors, the Elizabethan Council established Commissions for Poor Prisoners in 1576. The Commissions, however, were largely ineffective, and debtors instead sought the help of Courts of Equity.^ Court actions for debt, and probably also prisoners for debt, increased greatly from 1550 to 1600.^

A petition in 1622 to the King and Parliament from imprisoned debtors complained vehemently against action against men’s bodies for debt. The thirty-four-page petition declared:

Debt, as the practice of England
now stands;
Cap.1. Against the Law of God.
Cap.2. Against the Law of Man.
Cap.3. Against the Rule of Justice.
Cap.4. Against the Law of Conscience and Christian charity.
Cap.5. Against the practice of other Countries.
Cap.6. Against the Creditors own Profit.
Cap.7. To the Prejudice of the King & Common-wealth
  The Conclusion.

The petition emphasized the unreasonableness, futility, and wastefulness of imprisoning debtors. It detailed debtor-prisoners’ corporal sufferings. It analogized imprisonment for debt to cutting off part of the King’s body:

For the body of every subject belongeth to the King, and every subject is a member or single part of the body of the Common-wealth. Now to take the body of the Kings subject, and a member of the Common-wealth, and to cast him into prison for Debt, where he must lie rusting and rotting idly and unprofitably all the days of his life, and die miserably, is no other than to strip and rob the King and Common-wealth of their limbs, and members, and consequently of the services and endeavors of a great number of good Subjects yearly.^

In England about 1600, imprisonment of debtors was publicly discussed in terms of actions against the body — against the debtors’ body, and against the body politic. That was important social context for the “pound of flesh” in the Merchant of Venice.

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