Reflections on Debtors’ Prisons


“Of course, seamen were not the only person imprisoned for debt. In those days, it was the usual way of forcing collection, and service on the galleys had for some time been one way of getting out of debtors’ prison. In fact, so many people avoided paying debts by taking service on a galley and thus acquiring an immunity from arrest that, in 1312, this privilege was limited to those whose debts did not exceed 20 lire (about what a seaman earned in a month or two). … Behind all these outbursts [revolts by seamen] lay the impoverishment and loss of status of a part of the seafaring population, a degradation rooted in the widespread changes in business organization, in the art of war, and in nautical technology” (Lane, Venice: A Maritime Republic, 169).


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