Why do people get into debt?
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Why do people get into debt?

Sumerian man plowing
Sumerian man plowing

The three demands that poor people made whenever they were able to make demands were for the cancellation of debts, the abolition of debt bondage, and the redistribution of land. What does that mean, and why did they do it?

Let me tell you a little story:

At some point, people began to live in villages, and they began to get their food from farming. But some years there was not enough rain to grow enough food. Rather than starve to death when there was no rain, this one couple, Imgua and Iltani, who only had a small farm on poor land, got in the habit of asking their neighbors for food. Imgua and Iltani had these neighbors, Bittatum and Baba, who had really good land, and they always seemed to have enough food to give Imgua and Iltani. So they didn't starve, and they were really grateful to Bittatum and Baba and gave them presents in return as much as they could.

Then after a while, when there was a bad year Imgua and Iltana went to Bittatum and Baba to ask for food, and Bittatum and Baba were just getting sick of lending Imgua and Iltani food all the time, and they said, "Okay, but you will have to pay us back TWICE as much food when you have some." Rather than starve, Imgua and Iltani agreed. So then when the rain fell, Imgua and Iltani worked hard to pay back the debt. But their land wasn't that good, and they just could not seem to ever get that debt paid off.

herders
Shepherds on the Royal Standard of Ur (2000 BC)

Then another bad year came, and again Imgua and Iltani went to Bittatum and Baba to ask for food. This time, Bittatum and Baba said, "Okay, but you already owe us a debt, you know. This time, if you don't pay off the debt we will take your land, okay?" And Imgua and Iltani said okay, because otherwise they would starve.
But again they couldn't really pay off the debt. One day Bittatum and Baba came with some big mean guys who worked for them and took the land. But they said Imgua and Iltani could still live there, only now they would have to pay rent on it to Bittatum and Baba.

Well, the next time a bad year came, not only did Imgua and Iltani owe Bittatum and Baba money, but they also got behind on the rent. Bittatum and Baba said, " We'll give you food, but if you don't catch up on the rent and pay off your debts, we'll make you and your kids our slaves, okay?" And Imgua and Iltani said okay, because otherwise they would starve. But they didn't feel so friendly toward Bittatum and Baba anymore.

But again they couldn't really pay off the debt. One day Bittatum and Baba came with some big mean slaves of theirs and said that now Imgua and Iltani and their kids were all slaves. They could stay on the land and keep farming it, but all the food would go to Bittatum and Baba, and they would just give back just enough to keep Imgua and Iltani and their kids going.

Well, when Baba decided he wanted to be tyrant, and asked Imgua and Iltani to support him, he asked them what he could do for them in return. And they said: "Cancel our debts, make us not be slaves anymore, and give back our land!" and those are exactly the demands that poor people always made, all around the world, whenever they got a chance.

Some examples are Greece under Solon and Pisistratus, Rome in the time of Tiberius Gracchus, the revolt of Wang Mang in China, the French Revolution, and the Russian Revolution.

Learn by doing: Where would your family fit into this story? Do you own land?
More about usury

Bibliography and further reading about the cancellation of debts:

Sharecropping
More about Usury
More about Indenture
More about Slavery
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Karen Carr is Associate Professor Emerita, Department of History, Portland State University. She holds a doctorate in Classical Art and Archaeology from the University of Michigan. Follow her on Instagram, Pinterest, or Twitter, or buy her book, Vandals to Visigoths.
Karen Carr is Associate Professor Emerita, Department of History, Portland State University. She holds a doctorate in Classical Art and Archaeology from the University of Michigan. Follow her on Instagram or Twitter, or buy her book, Vandals to Visigoths.
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