While debt among each other was normal for English villagers, it was associated with criminality in government and commerce circles
Cold cash was employed largely between strangers, or when paying rents, tithes, and taxes to landlords, bailiffs, priests, and other superiors. The landed gentry and wealthy merchants, who eschewed handshake deals, would often use cash with one another, especially to pay off bills of exchange drawn on London markets.
Above all, gold and silver were used by the government to purchase arms and pay soldiers, and amongst the criminal classes themselves.
This meant that coins were most likely to be used both by the sort of people who ran the legal system—the magistrates, constables, and justices of the peace—and by those violent elements of society they saw it as their business to control.
Over time, this led to an increasing disjuncture of moral universes.
For most, who tried to avoid entanglement in the legal system just as much as they tried to avoid the affairs of soldiers and criminals, debt remained the very fabric of sociability. But those who spent their working lives within the halls of government and great commercial houses gradually began to develop a very different perspective, whereby cash exchange was normal and it was debt that came to be seen as tinged with criminality.
English villagers in Elizabethan or Stuart times did not like to appeal to the justice system, even when the law was in their favor—partly on the principle that neighbors should work things out with one another, but mainly, because the law was so extraordinarily harsh.
Under Elizabeth, for example, the punishment for vagrancy (unemployment) was, for first offense, to have one’s ears nailed to a pillory; for repeat offenders, death.60 The same was true of debt law, especially since debts could often, if the creditor was sufficiently vindictive, be treated as a crime.
In Chelsea around 1660, Margaret Sharples was prosecuted for stealing cloth, “which she had converted into a petticoat for her own wearing,” from Richard Bennett’s shop.
Her defense was that she had bargained with Bennett’s servant for the cloth, “but having not money sufficient in her purse to pay for it, took it away with purpose to pay for it so soon as she could: and that she afterwards agreed with Mr Bennett of a price for it.”
Bennett confirmed that this was so: after agreeing to pay him 22 shillings, Margaret “delivered a hamper with goods in it as a pawn for security of the money, and four shillings ninepence in money.” But “soon after he disliked upon better consideration to hold agreement with her: and delivered the hamper and goods back,” and commenced formal legal proceedings against her.
As a result, Margaret Sharples was hanged.