Woodcuts, engravings, and other prints reveal the ways in which credit was imagined in the pre-industrial Western world. Images of economic life from the sixteenth through the mid-nineteenth century usually reinforced two related messages. First, seeking credit was a sign of moral weakness. Second, making a business of credit was an enterprise suited only to the greedy and predatory.
Particular themes and tropes recur, suggesting that certain cultural anxieties were more acute than others. Prints mourning the "death of credit," depicted as a human corpse, scold the viewer for destroying the trust on which economic exchange is founded-and suggest that the blanket condemnation of credit was more complicated in practice than in theory. The female debtor unable to repay her creditor except in caresses points to a conviction that debt leads inexorably to immorality. The aristocrat bedeviled by dunning creditors is another popular theme, suggesting the moneylender's power to upset the established social order. Later prints take a more instrumental approach, warning businessmen that doing business on credit is not the way to wealth but the road to insolvency.
Prints such as these would have been sold singly as broadsheets or reprinted in periodicals. Either way, they were popular sources of news, information, and cultural attitudes in times of limited literacy.