Debt & Credit in Post-Revolutionary France

A review of In the Red and in the Black: Bankruptcy, Debt Imprisonment, and the Culture of Credit in Post-Revolutionary France, by Erika Vause.

Erika Vause brings the world of post-Revolutionary France alive with her vibrant and thoughtful dissertation on the treatment of debt and debtors between the Revolution and the Second Empire. As Vause argues, the spread of capitalism in the early nineteenth century and the societal changes it provoked contributed to new ideas about commercial failure, which was no longer based on personal deficiencies, but on circumstantial hardships. The dissertation focuses on two processes—the procedure of filing for bankruptcy and the application of contrainte par corps, i.e., sending debtors to prison. Using the notion of credit and its place in the political, social, and cultural context of the period, she explores how the expansion of capitalism and the legacy of the Revolution affected notions of honor, liberty, and self-interest. Changing ideas about credit derived both from the state’s attempts at regulating debt repayment, but more importantly, from the way that the French applied these laws and envisioned notions of credit.

Vause begins her narrative in the aftermath of the Revolution. Although the Convention had outlawed contrainte par corps, it was reestablished in 1797. To its opponents, contrainte par corps was reminiscent of the arbitrary power that nobles enjoyed during the Old Regime, but its supporters felt that it could help reestablish the social order following the social upheaval of the Revolution. The reinstitution of contrainte par corps gave the commercial world a fair amount of autonomy to regulate its affairs without state intervention. Bankruptcy law, which was codified in Napoleon’s Commercial Code of 1807, placed the resolution of the question of debt in the courts rather than between individuals.  The code’s formation of bankruptcy law was an important step in establishing a distinction between personal and commercial insolvency. Vause’s next chapter explores the landscape of debt and credit following the Revolution. Debt was common, but settlement less so. When the courts failed to compel debtors to settle their accounts, creditors were left to their own devices and might take recourse to agencies that would track down debtors.  The third chapter turns to debtors’ prison and examines both its imaginaire as well as the actual institution debtors encountered. In an era in which prison reformers were trying to improve the conditions of incarceration, individuals imprisoned for failing to pay their debts were still treated in a haphazard way.

Chapter 4 examines the representation of the process of contrainte par corps in popular culture, government debate, and the public sphere. Although the Directory, the legislative government that preceded Napoleon, reestablished the contrainte par corps to restore the moral order in the commercial realm, its opponents throughout this period viewed it as inhumane and illogical. To a certain extent, the fears over the employment of contrainte par corps were related to anxieties about the morals of the commercial world affecting the non-commercial. Vause shifts to the process of bankruptcy in Chapter 5 and its significance in the first half of the nineteenth-century. Filing for bankruptcy was seen as shameful, but such attitudes were because many bankrupts wound up working outside official legal channels. Commercial tribunals were notoriously lenient and bankrupts often resorted to negotiating with their creditors outside these tribunals. An 1838 reform tried to standardize the procedure for filing for bankruptcy and also marked a turning point whereby bankruptcy increasingly applied to the failure of a corporate entity as a whole rather than to its individual members. To illustrate the complex economic, legal, and social aspects of bankruptcy, Vause devotes an entire chapter (Chapter 6) to depicting the fall of the Demiannay Bank in 1830s Rouen. In a technique employed by many microhistorians, Vause uses a trial to provide a window on society, offering a concrete example of the fluidity of the bankruptcy law and how bankruptcy was increasingly treated as commercial failure rather than as a personal one. Vause’s final chapter follows the debates over debt law through the 1848 Revolution. In spite of a growing desire to republicanize credit and make it more widely available, contrainte par corps was only outlawed in 1867 under the Second Empire. But Napoleon III’s abolition was only partially motivated by a recognition of the changing economic and credit landscape. It was also an attempt to assert the state as the sole actor capable of incarceration.

Vause’s dissertation is an engaging read. I especially enjoyed how she interspersed sections on legal debates over credit with satire from Balzac or the stories of the unfortunates.  By also beginning each of her chapters in this way, she helps to situate the discussions of debt in the nineteenth-century cultural climate. Vause’s approach shifts the scholarly focus from political change to long-term cultural and social patterns in nineteenth-century France. Vause contends from the start that she’s addressing the effects of both the French Revolution and the Industrial Revolution, I took away from the dissertation that the changing attitudes towards the contrainte par corps derived primarily from the developing industrial economy. Politics only play a role at the beginning and end of her story. Although this means that non-specialists in French history may have had a hard time placing her narrative within historical context, it provides a much larger contribution to shifting our interpretation of post-revolutionary economic change in France.

Vause is primarily responding to economic historians who have traditionally painted early nineteenth-century France as commercially conservative. While Vause’s account of debt and debt repayment attempts to reevaluate the nature of credit in France, she’s also approaching the topic from a different methodological approach than these other historians. As a cultural history of debt, this dissertation perhaps changes the contours of the conversation by showing how commercialization permeated society, rather than addressing these other historians directly.

Given that credit and finance are now returning as subjects for historians of the Old Regime and Revolution, Vause’s dissertation is appearing at a timely moment. Vause’s dissertation makes an important contribution by continuing the discussion about credit from the Old Regime into the nineteenth-century.

Miranda Sachs
PhD student in History
Yale University

Primary Sources

Gazette de Tribunaux
Archives Nationales
Archives de Paris
Archives de la Banque de France
Bibliothèque Nationale Française

Dissertation Information

University of Chicago, 2012. 366 pp. Primary Advisor: Jan Goldstein.

Image: François Georgin, “Crédit est mort,” circa 1822,  MuCEM (Marseille) 

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