debt, obligation in services, money, or goods owed by one party, the debtor, to another, the creditor. When contested, debts are collected by a civil suit upon which the judge renders a judgment, and an execution is levied on the debtor's property. In ancient nations debt was associated with slavery because the insolvent debtor and his household were in many cases turned over to the creditor to perform compulsory services. In early Rome the insolvent was given into custody of the creditor for 60 days prior to his sale as a slave, subject to such treatment as pleased the creditor. That arrangement was mitigated in 494 B.C. by the first of the uprisings of the Roman people; turbulence in Rome afterward was to a large extent occasioned by the desire to restrain creditors. In Greece the reforms of Solon had a similar origin. In ancient Israel, every 50th year—the year of jubilee—Jewish debtors were freed and their obligations were canceled. Sumerian and Babylonian kings also periodically proclaimed jubilee periods when debts over seven years old were forgiven. Imprisonment for debt, which once crowded prisons, was ended in theory in England and the United States by laws enacted in the 19th cent. The laws of bankruptcy are designed to apply the resources of debtors to their debts and thereafter to remove such legal obligations.
See D. Graeber, Debt: The First 5,000 Years (2011).
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.