The History of Bankruptcy: From Ancient Times to Modern Law

Bankruptcy is a term that most people associate with financial hardship and legal proceedings. But did you know that the concept of bankruptcy dates back thousands of years? In fact, the idea of debt forgiveness can be traced all the way back to ancient civilizations. In this article, we’ll take a closer look at the history of bankruptcy and how it has evolved over time.

The Origins of Debt Forgiveness

The origins of debt forgiveness can be traced back to ancient Sumeria, which was located in what is now modern-day Iraq. The Sumerians practiced a form of debt forgiveness known as amargi, which meant “return to the mother” in their language. Under amargi, all debts were forgiven every seven years, which allowed people to start over with a clean slate.

This concept of debt forgiveness was also present in other ancient cultures. In ancient Greece, for example, a debtor could be sold into slavery to pay off their debts. However, every four years, a general amnesty was declared, and all debts were forgiven. Similarly, in ancient Rome, a debtor who could not pay back their debts could be imprisoned or even killed. However, in 367 BC, the Lex Poetelia Papiria was passed, which abolished debt slavery and provided for a form of debt forgiveness.

Bankruptcy in Medieval Europe

The concept of bankruptcy as we know it today first emerged in medieval Europe. During this time, merchants and traders would often go on long voyages and accrue significant debt in the process. If they were unable to pay back their creditors, they could be thrown in debtor’s prison or even executed.

To address this problem, several European cities developed laws that allowed for bankruptcy proceedings. In Venice, for example, the first modern bankruptcy law was passed in 1542. This law allowed for a debtor to surrender all of their assets to their creditors in exchange for forgiveness of their debts. Similar laws were passed in other European cities, including Genoa, Amsterdam, and London.

Bankruptcy in the United States

In the United States, bankruptcy law was first codified in 1800. However, the modern bankruptcy system was not established until the Bankruptcy Act of 1898. This law established the framework for modern bankruptcy proceedings, including the creation of bankruptcy courts and the appointment of bankruptcy trustees.

The Bankruptcy Act of 1898 remained in effect until it was replaced by the Bankruptcy Reform Act of 1978. This law overhauled the bankruptcy system and introduced several important changes, including the creation of Chapter 11 bankruptcy, which allows businesses to restructure their debts and continue operating.


Q: What is the difference between Chapter 7 and Chapter 13 bankruptcy? A: Chapter 7 bankruptcy is a liquidation bankruptcy that allows individuals to discharge most of their unsecured debts. Chapter 13 bankruptcy is a reorganization bankruptcy that allows individuals to repay their debts over a period of three to five years.

Q: What happens to my assets in bankruptcy? A: In a Chapter 7 bankruptcy, your assets may be sold to pay off your creditors. In a Chapter 13 bankruptcy, you can keep your assets, but you must repay your debts over time.

Q: How long does bankruptcy stay on my credit report? A: Bankruptcy can stay on your credit report for up to 10 years.


Bankruptcy has a long and fascinating history that spans thousands of years and multiple cultures. While the concept of debt forgiveness has been present throughout history, it was not until the medieval period that bankruptcy laws began to emerge. Today, bankruptcy law is an essential part of the modern financial system, providing individuals and businesses