What happens when a debtor does not pay back what he or she owes? As Margaret Atwood's chapter on “The Shadow Side” shows, the unpaid debt—in the broadest sense—is a recurring theme of history and literature. This review essay looks at the fourteenth-century village, a world which, perhaps contrary to expectations, turns out to have been characterized by a large number of outstanding interpersonal debts of money and goods. We know about these debts because the creditors were obliged to use local courts in order to recover them. Remarks are offered on the circumstances that led to so many individuals being sued for debt, in particular English villages in this period. Discussion then focuses on the extent to which the proliferation of unpaid debts between villagers led to tensions or a breakdown in trust within rural society. The essay concludes with comments on the character and functions of institutions and rules that have developed in this and other societies to deal with the “won't pay” tendencies of human beings.

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