In Praise of Debt: Affective Economics in Early Modern English Literature Public Deposited

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  • March 19, 2019
  • Garrett, Lauren
    • Affiliation: College of Arts and Sciences, Department of English and Comparative Literature
  • This dissertation examines texts that thematize the crises of trust resulting from the pressures of early modern England's expanding credit economy. A century before the founding of the Bank of England, early modern credit remained an emotive and moral currency, presumably dependent on affective ties, moral obligations, knowledge of a potential debtor's character and a concern for their well-being. And yet, in this period of widespread mobility, immigration, urbanization, conspicuous consumption, and heightened levels of debt litigation, creditors and debtors were often strangers bound only by a legal bond that carried penalties of surprising severity. At this critical moment of emerging capitalistic practices and their attendant social and moral disruptions, Elizabethan and Jacobean authors are drawn to the discursive interplay between the legal problem of debt and those debts of love and social obligation it threatened. As an emerging ethos shaped by market relations and commercial culture pervades, complicates, and reconfigures traditional structures of affective relations - Christian fellowship, friendship, marriage, kinship, and service - early modern writers exploit the age-old interdependence of economic and moral discourses. The resulting discourse of debt is characterized by a strategic slippage between debt's economic and emotive registers. The texts included in this study deploy this discourse to achieve ends at once self-interested and moralistic. Some debtors use the discourse to perpetually defer payment by reorganizing their debt relations, while others use it to resist disenfranchisement by reorienting the basis of credibility. Through its inscription into law with the 1571 Act Against Usury, this discourse enables the advancement of predatory lending as an acceptable violation of traditional social obligations. At the same time, its inscription into genres such as city comedy and domestic tragedy show the discourse to be a rhetorical antidote for the worst excesses of both economic and affective debt relations. On a broader scale, this project reveals a relationship between economic and affective bonds that is more complex than we have previously understood. As the two begin to move towards increasingly distinct fields, the implications of their shared rhetorical and conceptual basis become imbued with an unprecedented signifying power for social intervention.
Date of publication
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Rights statement
  • In Copyright
  • Floyd-Wilson, Mary
  • Matchinske, Megan
  • Baker, David
  • Wolfe, Jessica
  • Barbour, Reid
  • Doctor of Philosophy
Degree granting institution
  • University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Graduate School
Graduation year
  • 2015
Place of publication
  • Chapel Hill, NC
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