In seventeenth-century Holland, it had become common practice to apply the Roman Law – inspired procedure of cessie van goede (from cessio bonorum) for honest bankrupts. This allowed them to cede all their goods to their creditors, in order to escape debt imprisonment. In Amsterdam, the aldermen created a specialized sub-court called Desolate Boedelskamer or ‘Chamber of Insolvencies’, which treated and administered this type of case from 1643 onwards.
Officially, applicants requested to be granted the benefice of cessio at the Hoge Raad, the High Court of Holland and Zeeland in The Hague. Its judges then sent over the case to a local authority, such as the Amsterdam commissaries of the insolvent estates, by means of an official committimus. These could thereupon investigate whether or not the applicant should be granted the benefice through a consultation of his creditors.
If the debtors were indeed granted cessie, they had to provide the chamber with an overview of their debts and possessions, in order to make it possible to carry out the procedure. The archives of the Desolate Boedelskamer contain an interesting series of registers from 1689 onwards, containing large numbers of such lists. Intriguingly, in roughly four-fifths of them a little story of the debtor’s reason to apply for the benefice is included. This provides us with a unique opportunity to venture into the personal lives of those affected by 17th century insolvency legislation. In this blog post I will briefly discuss two especially sad stories from these Staten der Cessionnanten, in which a debtor came into trouble due to the acts of foreign powerful officials.
In 1674, Lambert van Till had been granted cessie, after which he was free to restart his trading career from scratch. Possessing little more than his clothes, he decided to move to Denmark. This proved to be a good decision. Van Till managed to build up a ‘store in expensive wares’ in Copenhagen, which is later specified as dealing in silk and other luxury textiles. The value of the business and its goods were estimated at about 30.000 guilders, a substantial sum when one takes into account that the wage of an average worker in Amsterdam in this period was 20 stuyvers or 1 guilder a day.
It appears that the commercial success and wealth of this foreigner raised the envy of some important servants of the Danish Crown. In 1681, Mauritz van der Tie, assessor of the Danish king, and his accomplice Evert Holst ‘violently hit [Van Till] to the ground, and denuded him of all his goods’. They also destroyed Van Till’s administration, after which he could ‘barely get into safety, nude and robbed of all his possessions’. Not giving up, he traveled through Sweden and Denmark with small parties of textiles between 1681 and 1690. This did not allow him to rebuild his fortune, though, as ‘he made such small profits that he could scarcely keep himself alive’. This continuous misfortune drove him to apply for cessie again, unable to repay his creditors in Amsterdam and other places.
Denmark wasn’t the only dangerous place for early modern businessmen. After the revocation of the Edict of Nantes by King Louis XIV in October 1685, non-Catholics faced severe persecution in France. The Jewish trader Fernando Cardoso was one of the victims of this new policy. For long years, he and his family had lived in Bordeaux, also owning a storehouse in Toulouse. When it became known that he belonged to the Jewish nation, however, Cardoso and some other Jews were sentenced ‘to be burned alive’: om levendig verbrant te werden. Therefore, he immediately flew from France, being forced to leave behind ‘his whole family and all his goods’, having nothing more with him then ‘two shirts and a little travelling money’.
This royal death-sentence also resulted in the confiscation of all of Cardoso’s goods. His creditors, ‘knowing the circumstances wherein he had fled France […] and completely assured that it was not his fault that he now possessed insufficient means’ to repay their claims, should have left him alone, the unfortunate trader argues. However, for some unknown reason they changed their mind, ‘to his great sorrow‘. Because he had been forced to leave behind all his books in France, Cardoso would be unable to effectuate his claims on his debtors there. Because all his goods in Toulouse had been confiscated on royal orders, he did not have any other option than to apply for cessie in his new place of residence.
These are just two examples of the numerous personal stories that can be found in the rich archives of the Desolate Boedelskamer in Amsterdam. In the course of the project, I will strive to disclose more of this fascinating material in my publications.
 Gemeente Amsterdam Stadsarchief, 5072: Archief van de Commissarissen van de Desolate Boedelkamer, inv. nr. 689, f. 150v-152r.
 Ibidem, f. 77v-78v.