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Credit market in medieval and early modern towns

Written sources concerning debts and loans in late medieval Czech towns


Towns in medieval Bohemia developed relatively later than towns in west and south Europe and the surrounding regions. They were unable to build on the legacy of ancient town settlements; however, they were often linked to an older settlement, which was usually a settlement with production and market functions, which was converted into the form of a legal town, governed by town law. The 13th century was an important period in relation to the origin of towns, even though they also continued to originate subsequently (well-arranged by Hoffmann 1992, pp. 31-42; Hoffmann 2009, pp. 21-60). With regard to town law, both North German, so-called Magdeburg law, and South German law was enforced in the territory of Bohemia. The law of mining towns had certain particularities, Bohemian mining towns were governed by the law of the town of Jihlava, and subsequently by the law of the town of Kutna Hora (Haas 1952; Hoffmann 1975).

The beginnings of town official documents

The oldest evidence of official papers originating in towns comes from the 13th century. The oldest town seals, demonstrating that the town was able to issue documents, have been preserved from the 1240s (Vojti'sek 1928; Carek 1985). Sporadic documents have survived from the second half of the 13th century. The oldest mention of a town ledger dates from the turn of the 1270s and 1280s; this ledger was allegedly kept in Prague, or more precisely Prague Old Town. However, it has not survived and it is not certain whether it actually existed (Vojti'sek 1953a). There is also information from as early as the end of the 13th century about town scribes, a list of duties of the scribe of Prague Old Town has survived from 1296. He was to write Charters and letters for the town and its residents and be involved in collection of town taxes. Major changes in regard to written sources occurred in the 14th century. The oldest actually preserved town ledger - the ledger of Prague Old Town - was kept from 1310 (Archiv hlavm'ho mesta Prahy, ms. 986;

Pâtkovâ 2011). Town ledgers from other towns have also survived. Five of them from the period before 1350 have been preserved in Prague Old Town, Novÿ Bydzov, Louny, Litomerice, and Kolin (Pâtkovâ 2011; Kapras 1907; Herold 1971; Kocânovâ & Tomas 2006; Blâhovâ 1978; Vojtisek 1953b), however, it is certain that these ledgers were kept quite commonly. The number of preserved ledgers rises steeply from the middle of the 14th century and they were also commonly kept in smaller towns. It is evident from the content of the oldest five ledgers that the content of the ledgers soon began to be specialised. As well as ledgers with a mixed content, a number of more or less specialised volumes, kept depending on the needs of the specific town in the specific period, originated depending on the type of administration. With regard to the relationship to the topic of the chapter, that is debts and loans, their utilisation is quite diverse. Ledgers of privileges and statutes (liber privilegiorum, statutorum) have quite a limited evidential value. Loan administration only appears in these if it is affected by a town statute. Market ledgers (libri contractuum, libri emptionum et venditionum, libri traditionum), which record purchase and sale, particularly purchase and sale of real estate, are a much more abundant source. And, finally, specialised types of ledger, recording debt administration - ledgers of entries or obligations (libri obligationum, libri cautionum) - were also created in some towns. Ledgers of pledges (libri additionum), which contain records of claims raised by creditors, are similar to these. Testaments, usually preserved in volumes of testaments, record debts and receivables of specific town residents. Ledgers originating during administration of the financial and economic affairs of the town are a completely separate group. This mainly concerned collection of various types of taxes, of which there were several in medieval Bohemian towns - either intended for the territorial lord, or the lord of the town, or intended for the needs of the town itself. Written sources originating on the basis of activities by other institutions residing in the town must also be taken into consideration. This particularly concerned guilds and brotherhoods. These corporations collected regular contributions from their members and could also provide them with a loan or contribution if necessary. However, sources arising from the activities of individuals also very rarely survived, these being several fragments of merchant’s ledgers. However, these existed in much greater numbers, as evidenced by mentions of lost papers in other sources, particularly in testaments.

This very general outline must be followed by a more detailed description of various types of sources.

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