I recently found myself at a banker’s table signing an enormous stack of papers to refinance our house. As I wrote out my signature for the twenty-fifth time, I couldn’t help but wish for hot wax and a seal, something to make it all even more medieval. Then upon a page appeared the word “mortgage” and perhaps due to distraction or just general waywardness I launched into how wonderful that word is in its French medieval origins. It was Friday afternoon and we were the banker’s last meeting and so he let me go on and on about the difference between mort-gag and vif-gage which I presented to him as the difference between something inert being held while a debt is owed vs. someone alive being held while a debt is owed. Warming to my subject, and to inexcusable neo-medieval fantasizing, I went on about duke’s nephews being held in vifgage while the duke paid his debts, and about how glad we are that it’s all mortgage today, no more vifgage.
Somewhere at some point I realized that this was more my financial fantasy that historical accuracy, so I looked a few things up. Arhum. Vifgage… well, I have to give up my images of forlorn duke’s nephews in towers. Vifgage turns out to be the holding of a possession that is allowed to be lively and productive while a debt is owed. For example, if your land is held in vifgage, the products (the liveliness) of that land are allowed to pay off your debt. If your land is held in mortgage, on the hand, the products of your land are used to pay off only the interest, not the principal, of the debt. Constance Berman explains this really well on page 380 of Medieval France: an Encyclopedia and of course made me want to read much more on this topic. For now, though, I newly understand that the liveliness in vifgage is the ability of the land’s products to free you of your debt; the inertness in mortgage is the dead-end arrival of your land’s products in your debt’s interest.
Two realizations occur at this point, aside from a serious talk I need to have with my neo-medieval fantasies of human drama. The first is that the land’s products have a trajectory: they are not simply products of the land, they go somewhere, towards something, either towards the debt or its interest. They have a fate, a narrative, that makes them more than transactional objects. I’d go so far as to say they have a subjectivity, that there is a moral care for these products of the land. For, mortgage was seen as usurious, morally reprehensible, and exploitative – it was downright “condemned by 12th-century church councils” (Berman): condemned! Which leads me to the second realization: are we so glad that vifgage is gone and mortgage is our state of debt? We still pay off the interest long before we pay off the principal of a debt. And, well, vifgage sounds interest-free to me, which would be nice. More than nice when you think about the activism of debt forgiveness for nations (or people!): downright ethical. I’m completely taken now with the idea of land freeing debtors of their debts, of the fruits of trees and the vegetables of the soil working to return to the possession, use, and tending of their original care-takers; of land and its moral agency.
Three realizations, actually: I owe a banker in Indiana a long phone call.