That it is good to be in debt – Modernised         

We are fallen into that dotage of the world, in which the worst things do overtop the worthiest, sense doth besot the understanding, drink overcometh the brain, and the eye beguileth and misleadeth the sight. And therefore, in tender commiseration of mankind, I will endeavour to rectify their judgement in a paradox than which there hath none more intricate been discussed and canvassed[1] among the Stoics in Zeno’s[2] porch, that is, that it is better for a man to live in debt than otherwise.

Ordiar ab ovo,[3] I will begin from the egg, that your concoction[4] may be the easier. In the whole course and frame of nature, we see that nothing is made for itself, but each hath a bond of duty, of use or of service, by which it is indebted to other. The sun by his splendour to lighten all the world; by his warmth and heat, to cherish and comfort each living and vegetable thing. Yea, man himself is so framed of God, that not only his country, his parents and his friends claim a share in him, but he is also indebted to his dog, and to his ox, to teach the one to hunt for his pleasure, the other to labour for his profit: so that quicquid habet genii, ingenii, moris, amoris,[5] the abilities of his spirit, the affections of his mind, he hath them for others, as much as for himself; nay the more for others, by how much he desireth to be the greater Lord over others. Let him but look into himself and see how his constitutive parts are debtors each to other, the soul doth quicken and give life to the body, the body like an automaton, doth move and carry itself and the soul. Survey him in his parts, the eye seeth[6] for the foot, the foot standeth for the hand, the hand toucheth for the mouth, the mouth tasteth for the stomach, the stomach eateth for the whole body, the body repayeth back again that nutriment which it hath received, to all the parts, discharging the retriments[7] by the Port-Esquiline,[8] and all this in so comely an order, and by a law so certain, and in so due a time, as if Nature had rather man should not have been at all than not to be a debtor in every part of him; which hath made me resolute that to whomsoever I mean to be a friend, I will strive to be in his debt: and what can I do less? For to him that doth me a good turn,[9] I am bound to return him the greatest pleasure, which I can no way do, but by being in his debt: for what contentment will it be unto him, when I shall repay him his own again? The alchemists, who promise to themselves to turn tin into silver, and copper into gold, how will they be transported out of themselves with joy, if they should but see a happy issue[10] of their attempt? How much more a creditor, when he shall recover a desperate debt? It is like the joy of a father that receives his lost child.

Again, he that is in debt hath this great privilege above other men, that his creditors pour out hearty prayers for him, they wish that he may live, and thrive and prosper, and grow rich, and all for their own advantage. They seem to be careful for their debtors, that they may not lose their principal with the interest, for their money is their life: witness those usurers of France, who, when they heard that the price of corn was fallen, went and hanged themselves for grief.

What a command doth the debtor gain over his creditors? He becometh in a manner their landlord, to whom they cap, crouch, and kneel, as if they did owe him all suits and services, and are as ambitious of their favours, as they who in Rome did canvas[11] the people for their voices to attain the greatest offices. But here is their cunning: laudant ut ledant,[12] they praise them, that they may pray upon. And therefore, you brave gallants and spendthrifts, who find by your woeful[13] experience that no whip gives a shrewder lash than the labels[14] of a bond or obligation, with a Noverint universi[15] Skinner and Lacy. When so ever you fall into the Mercers’ books, never take care, or make conscience of paying your debts, for by that means you shall keep your creditor in awe, and shall have him wonderful courteous and officious, and obsequious towards you, and a great mint-master of fair words.

Without debt and loan the fabric of the world will be disjointed and fall asunder into its first Chaos. The beauty of the stars, what would it be but vastness and deformity, if the Sun did not lend them light? The Earth would remain unfruitful, if she[16] did not borrow refreshing dues from the watery Signs and planets. The Summer is pleasant, and promiseth great hopes of plenty, but it is, because it taketh up much upon trust, from the friendly and seasonable temperament of the elements. And to say the truth, there is nothing good or great in the world, but that it borroweth something from others to make it great, or lendeth to another to make it good. And therefore I marvel why antiquity, who made Mildew, Fever, and Scurfiness goddesses,[17] did not matriculate loan and debt among the rest.

The elements who are linked together by a league of association, and by their symbolising qualities, do barter and truck, borrow and lend one to another, as being the burse and Royal Exchange of nature: they are by this traffic and intercourse the very life and nourishment of all sublunary bodies, and therefore are called Elimenta quasi alimenta,[18] whose happy concord and conjunction hath brought forth those, whom the world for the good done to mankind, hath esteemed gods, as Bacchus the great Vintner, Ceres the Meal-mother, Flora the Tutty-maker,[19] Vertumnus[20] and Pomona Costermongers.[21]

Now, if every man would render and repay in full weight, that which by due debt he oweth and hath borrowed from others, Saturn’s golden age[22] would return again, in which there was no difference of metals, but gold and silver were all one ore, and made the yolk of the earth, Nature’s great egg, neither did Meum and Tuum[23] bound out, and apportionate lands and lordships, by mere-stones,[24] and diversity of tenures of socage and socage;[25] since when, Qui habet terras, habet guerras, and the King of Heaven’s peace hath been disturbed amongst men: but then all things were all men’s, as Necessity did allot and award, who was then the only judge and arbitrator, competently allowing to every man, that which he stood in need of.

With what dearness have both gods and good men countenanced and graced debtors? To whom Diana, the great goddess of Ephesus,[26] granted her temple for a sanctuary, to keep them out of Bagwell:[27] pigeon-houses. Or if they were caught, Solon[28] by a solemn law enacted, would not have their bodies to be fettered or manacled amongst malefactors, but that they should enjoy their liberty throughout all the parks and purlieus[29] of the prison, or to speak more mildly, of their restraint and endurance: for the prison is built purgatory-wise, after the architecture of Rome, with a limbus[30] and tullianum.[31] The dungeon is the Devil’s pinfold[32] and the very suburbs of Hell, where varlets,[33] roarers,[34] and stiletto-stabbers[35] are let down, as the proper food that stuffs that great greedy maw. The next room is the lollard[36] of trunk-hosed[37] Familists[38] and separatists, who after they have been rowelled in the neck, to cure them of the megrim[39] of the head, they are by the gentle flame of this stove, and the heat of their own zeal, made to sweat out their contumacy[40] and other peccant[41] humours. The upper skirt and stage of this building is the garret of expenseful wasters, gamesters and unthrifty debtors, where though they live robbed of their liberty, as they rifled others of their money. Yet is it their great happiness, that being glutted, as it were, with an apolaustic[42] voluptuary life, they have an easy overture made to the contemplative and practic life of virtue. Whoever lived more like a souced-gurn-head[43] amongst men, then Diogenes the Cynic,[44] barrelling himself up in his tub like a keg of sturgeon? Yet was the happiness of his contented life envied of the greatest monarchs, who having made their throats the through-face and the colanders[45] of meats and drinks, found an overgorged belly, to be Wit’s clog, Reason’s sepulchre, Lust’s arsenal, the magazine of lewd practices, and the nursery of all vices: all which provocations are defaulted by Debt’s wants and indigency.

And lastly, the Lombards,[46] Usurers, and Scriveners,[47] who are the beadles[48] of beggars, and are accounted the tetters[49] upon the body politic of the Common-weal,[50] who turn the calends and new moons, and the festival days of quarter-gaudies,[51] into the octaves[52] of disaster and Doomsday reckonings, when any of these come to Heaven, there is a wonderment amongst the angels, and they cry out with Sr. Guzman of Alfarache:[53]fruta nueva, fruta nueva”, here is a new kind of fruit start up, a pome-paradise[54] upon a crab-stock, Lombards and Scriveners are become the Pope’s canonised and beatified saints.

Farewell then, Ulpianus,[55] Modestinus,[56] and other pettifoggers[57] of the law, solicitors, and molesters of causes, who account being in debt a kind of bondage and servitude. I pity Seneca’s weakness, who blushed to borrow; miserum verbum et dimisso vultu proferendum, Rogo.[58] That Poet Laureate[59] forfeited his wreath of bays and ivy twine, who made his prayers to his purse to keep him out of debt, in this manner.

To you my Purse, and to none other wight
Complain I, for you be my Lady dear:
I am sorry now that you be light,
For certes ye now make me heavy cheer,
Me were as lief laid upon a beer.
For which unto your mercy thus I cry,
Be heavy again, or else mote I die.

Now vouchsafe this day, or it might be night,
That I of you the blissful sound may hear,
Or see your colour, like the sun bright.
That of yellowness had never peer,
Ye be my life, ye be my heart’s flare;
Queen of comfort and of good company,
Be heavy again, or else mote I die.

Now Purse, that art to me my life’s light
And saviour as down in this world here,
Out of this town help me by your might,
Sith that you will not be my treasure,
For I am shown as near as any frere:
But I pray unto your courtesy,
Be heavy again, or else mote I die.

Yet farewell the prodigal unthrift, who is magis promus quam condus,[62] and serves at the buttery-hatch,[63] whatsoever is in his bin or his barrel, and therefore could never endure the complaint of his Purse, who thus bemoaned herself unto him.

Materia infœlix, detracta cadavere; forma,
tam varia, ut nec ego me mihi nosse queam.
Haud melius fatum, nam pendeo more latronis,
ingenium sic me fueris habere putant.
Si dederis servo; servatum redo petenti
non nisi at auriculis tracta referre volo.


A skin flayed off, yield my materials,
my form is various, where myself I loose,
My doom’s a felon’s death and funerals,
for at a belt I am hanged by a noose.
I do not filch for mine own thrift and gain,
but what you give, I closely keep and bear,
And when you ask, I it restore again,
yet not, except you pluck me by the ear.

For the altumal[65] and foot of the reckoning, this is the summa summarum: Debemur morti nos nostraque.[66] So that whilst I live, I must resolute to live in debt, in debt to God, for my being; in debt to Christ, for my well-being; in debt to God’s sanctifying Spirit, for my new-being, and I will ever be ready to pawn my life for my country’s liberty, I will owe obedience to my parents, faith and loyalty to my Prince, and when I shall pay my great debt unto Nature, I will render my spirit into the hands of God, bequeath my body to be deposed in the lap and bosom of the earth, and cry: Domine, dimitte debita mea.[67]


[1] Here: “To debate; to discuss” (OED v., 3.4d).
[2] Zeno of Citium (c. 334-262 BC), a Hellenistic philosopher who was the founder of Stoicism.
[3] Latin for “I will start from the origins”.
[4] “Digestion (of food)” (OED n., 1a).
[5] The line is taken from Robert Turner’s “Encomivm Debiti Seu Paradoxon. Melius est debere, quam non debere” published in 1602. The text was included in the collection Amphitheatrum sapientiae Socraticae ioco-seriae.
[6] In witness A mistyped as “ſeeeth”, it was corrected in the 1617 edition in “ſeeth”.
[7] The word is an obsolete term for “waste material, rubbish” (OED n.).
[8] Metaphor for “anus”, it was originally introduced by Spenser in The Faerie Queene (2.9.32) (Knutson, Roslyn (2001), Playing Companies and Commerce in Shakespeare’s Time, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 79).
[9] “An act of good or ill will, or that does good or harm to another” (OED n., 1.23).
[10] Here: “Something which proceeds or results from any source; the product of any activity or condition” (OED n., 1.8).
[11] Here: “To solicit support, contributions, orders for goods, etc.” (OED v., 3.6).
[12] From the Latin verb laedo, “to damage”, “to injure”.
[13] “Afflicted by grief, distress, or misfortune” (OED adj., 1).
[14] The collation was made from comparison with witness B77, as witness A is unreadable.
[15] The incipit, or opening words, of a common Latin formula used in bonds and some other legal instruments from medieval times onwards: Noverint universi per presentes, “Be it known to all men by these presents”. (Beal, Peter (2011), “Bond”, A Dictionary of English Manuscript Terminology 1450-2000, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 42-43)
[16] Here it is the Earth that borrows her fruits, in witness B the subject is changed to “we”.
[17] “1. Aerugo. 2. Febris. 3. Psora.” [Cornwallis’s own note]. Aerugo: “Rust or mildew of plants” (OED n., 1); Febris: Latin word for fever; Psora: “Any of various skin disease characterized by the presence of scabs or scales, usually with itching” (OED n.).
[18] Latin for: “Elements, almost nourishment”.
[19] References to Bacchus, the Roman god of wine and fertility, Ceres, goddess of agriculture, and Flora, goddess of flowers and Spring.
[20] The tale of the Roman god of seasons and Pomona is told in Book 14 of Ovid’s Metamorphoses. Read the text here.
[21] Historical term, originally indicating “one who sells his or her fruit in the open street” (OED n., 1), here it is attributed to the Roman goddess Pomona, patron of fruits and fruit trees.
[22] In classical mythology, the reign of Saturn (the youngest of the Titans and supreme god until dethroned by his son Jupiter) was identified with the Golden Age.
[23] I.e. mine and yours.
[24] “A boundary stone” (OED n., 1.a).
[25] “The tenure of land by certain determinate services other than knight-service” (OED n., 1a).
[26] Diana, the Roman goddess of the hunt, the moon and nature, was associated with the Greek goddess Artemis, to whom the temple in Ephesus was dedicated. The Artemision is known for carrying on different activities, one of which was acting as a bank lending money out at interest, hence being considered here as a “sanctuary” for debtors. (Davies, J.K. (2011), “The Well-Balanced Polis: Ephesos”, in Archibald, Davies, Gabrielsen (eds), The Economies of Hellenistica Societies, Third to First Centuries BC, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 182)
[27] The reference here is not clear and was probably obscure also to Thomas Jordan, who in 1644 published an appropriated version of Cornwallis’ text: he wrote “Pagwell” instead of “Bagwell”. It might be an allusion to William Bagwell, a merchant and chronic debtor frequently imprisoned for insolvency, who wrote about his life in prison, but his work The Distressed Merchant, and Prisoners Comfort in Distress was published only in 1645. Furthermore, his birth is dated c. 1593: he was too young when Cornwallis wrote his paradoxes to be already known as a famous insolvent (see his ODNB entry).
[28] Athenian statesman and lawgiver noted for his economic, constitutional, and legal reforms.
[29] “In plural. The outskirts or surroundings of any place; the environs, the borders” (OED n., 2a).
[30] In Roman Catholic theology, the border place between heaven and hell where dwell those souls who, though not condemned to punishment, are deprived of the joy of eternal existence with God in heaven (“limbo”, Encyclopædia Britannica).
[31] The underground execution cell of the prison, at the foot of the Capitoline hill in Rome.
[32] “A pen or enclosure for stray or distrained livestock; a pound for animals, a fold.” (OED n., 1.1). In a general sense: a trap.
[33] “A knave, rogue, rascal” (OED n., 1.2a).
[34] “A noisy, riotous reveller; a person who indulges in wild drunken behaviour” (OED n., 1.1b).
[35] One who stabs with a “stiletto” (“a short dagger with a blade thick in proportion to its breadth” OED n., 1a); here it is used in the sense of traitors, cowards.
[36] Originally it indicated a follower of John Wyclif, lecturer at Oxford (1361-82), who criticized the wealth and power of the Church, upheld the Bible as the sole guide for doctrine, and questioned the scriptural basis of the papacy; it was also used later for anyone seriously critical of the Church (Kerr, Wright (ed.) (2015), A Dictionary of World History, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 395).
[37] I.e. old-fashioned, out-of-date. Trunk-hose were worn by men in the sixteenth and early seventeenth century.
[38] Members of the Family of Love, a religious sect of Dutch origin led by Hendrik Niclaes during the sixteenth century. He claimed that religion consisted in the exercise of love and invited his followers to join in peace and give up dogma.
[39] I.e. migraine.
[40] “Contumary” in witness A, it was corrected in witness B: “Perverse and obstinate resistance of or disobedience to authority; rebellious stubbornness” (OED n., 1a).
[41] Unhealthy or corrupt.
[42] “Concerned with or wholly devoted to seeking enjoyment; self-indulgent” (OED adj.).
[43] The term, similar to “sowse-crown”, indicates a fool.
[44] Greek philosopher and one of the founders of Cynic philosophy.
[45] “A vessel, usually of metal, closely perforated at the bottom with small holes, and used as a sieve or strainer in cookery” (OED n., 1).
[46] Banker or money-lender. In the Middle Ages, the term indicated bankers and money-lenders from Lombardy (Italy) and then was applied generally to anyone engaged in banking and money-lending. Lombard Street in the City of London, the location of the principal London banks, was so named because it was formerly occupied by bankers from Northern Italy. (Knowles, Elizabeth (ed.) (2006), “Lombard”, The Oxford Dictionary of Phrase and Fable 2 ed., Oxford: Oxford University Press, n. p.)
[47] Here: “A person engaged in the business of moneylending, investing money at interest on behalf of clients, etc.” (OED n., 1c).
[48] “One who delivers the message or executes the mandates of an authority” (OED n., 2), spec. a parish constable.
[49] “A general term for any pustular herpetiform eruption of the skin” (OED n., 1.1).
[50] “The whole body of the people, the body politic; a state, community” (OED n., 2).
[51] Quarter days are each of the four days fixed by custom as marking off the quarters of the year. In England and Ireland, they are traditionally Lady Day (March 25), Midsummer’s Day (June 24), Michaelmas (Sept. 29), and Christmas (Dec. 25).
[52] “Octanes” in witness A, then corrected in witness B in “Octaues”, it refers to “the period of eight days beginning with the day of a festival” (OED n., 1).
[53] Reference to the picaresque novel by Mateo Alemán. Published in Spain in two parts in 1599 and 1604, the novel was so popular that it was also translated into different European languages: the English translation by James Mabbe, however, appeared only in 1622, so Cornwallis must have known the original version (which he quotes).
[54] Perhaps after the French pomme de paradis, it indicated a sweet variety of apple but most probably referred to paradise apple (see OED pome n.,1).
[55] Ulpian (170-223 AD) was a Roman lawyer and jurist. He influenced more than any other author the Justinian Digest, main source of law in Europe until the 1800.
[56] Herennius Modestinus was a celebrated Roman jurist and a student of Ulpian.
[57] “A lawyer who engages in petty quibbling and cavilling, or who employs dubious or underhanded legal practices; a lawyer who abuses the law” (OED n., 1.1).
[58] Line from Seneca’s De Beneficii (2.2.1). It translates to: “Asking is a miserable word, to be pronounced looking down”. Read the texthere.
[59] “Th. Ocleve in Chaucer” [Cornwallis’s own note]. Reference to Thomas Hoccleve, or Occleve, English poet and clerk. For long seen as a poor imitator of Chaucer, he has lately been reconsidered as a key figure of fifteenth-century Middle English literature.
[60] “The action or quality of flaring, or giving forth a dazzling and unsteady light; dazzling but irregular light, like that of torches; a sudden outburst of flame. Also figurative.” (OED n., 1.1a).
[61] The poem is To My Empty Purse by Chaucer. Cornwallis, following the 1602 edition of the works of Chaucer in which Occleve is indicated as the author, attributes it to him.
[62] Latin proverb: Promus (an officer who dispenses stores) rather than condus (one who collects and keeps them). The distinction refers to Roman household terms.
[63] “An opening in the wall, or above the half-door, of a buttery at which drinks and other provisions are served” (OED n.).
[64] Enigma from Julius Caesar Scaliger’s “Poemata in duas partes diuisa”. Cornwallis in his essay “Of trappes for fame”, calls him an “excellent head of our time”. (Hall, Vernon Jr. (1950), Life of Julius Caesar Scaliger (1484-1558), Philadelphia: The American Philosophical Society, 155).
[65] From the Dutch adverb altemaal, “with everything taken together, altogether, completely” (OED adj.).
[66] Line from Horace’s Ars Poetica (v. 63). It translates to: “All things considered: we and all our things are destined for death”.
[67] Litt. “Lord, forgive my debts”. It refers to the verse “Et dimitte nobis debita nostra” from the Latin prayer “Pater Noster”.