I recently heard the scholar Síle de Cléir speaking on radio about the story of Rumpelstiltskin, which was originally an oral folktale. It came to the attention of many readers when the Grimm Brothers published a written version in a famous collection of folktales in 1812. De Cléir mentioned one element of the story, which is the spinning of straw to gold. Spinning, weaving and work connected with wool was women’s work in days of old. She also mentioned that over 180 versions of the story have been collected in Ireland. I had not realised that the story was found in Ireland and resolved to find some of the Irish versions. I learned that the Irish versions existed long before the Grimms produced their written versions of the oral folk tale. The story is also found in Scotland. To the modern sensibility it is a strange and ridiculous story, but I wondered why it had survived and was still being told orally until late in the 19th century.
In the course of my wondering, I found out that the Rumpelstilstkin story goes back at least 4000 years and that variations on it are found in several Indo-European languages. Its generic title in folklore typology is The Name of the Helper. This story contains an ancient wisdom about the payment of debt, which chimes with the theme of the latest book from economist Michael Hudson: … and forgive them their debts: Lending, Foreclosure and Redemption from Bronze Age Finance to the Jubilee Year.
In the famous Grimm Brothers’ version, a miller has a daughter and, in order to improve her marriage prospects, he claims that she is able to spin straw to gold. The king hears this and says that if she can do so, he will marry her. He puts her in a room with straw and a spinning wheel and tells her he will let her out and marry her when she has completed her task. If she can’t do it, he will kill her. The task is impossible, of course, although for centuries people were obsessed with the idea that it could be done. The girl is in despair when a small strange man appears and tells her that he can do the task. In return, she has to promise him several things, among which is that she will give him her first-born child. But she will be cleared of her debt to him if she can guess his name. Te straw is spun in to gold and the girl then desperately tries to find out the man’s name. A servant observes him dancing and singing in glee because of the debt he is owed, and she overhears his name as part of his song. She tells her mistress, who relays the name to the little man, Rumpelstiltskin, and he is obliged to let her off her debt. He is not pleased, but there is no great harm done to him, the girl gets to keep her first-born (and the king).
In the Irish versions of the story, there is no mention of straw, gold, a king, death or giving up a child. A housewife has a huge pile of wool to spin and she is unable to keep up with the work. Wool and woollen goods played a central role in the economy of the household in times past and they were the responsibility of women.
“… it can be speculated that the Irish versions of ‘The Name of the Helper’, in its simplicity and realism represents an earlier form of the tale which evolved into the fantastical fairytale of ‘Rumpelstilskin’. The glamour of gold and castles, kings and fair maidens, mysterious riddles and drastic threats, seems to have been sprinkled over a homespun story.” 
When the poor woman is at the end of her tether with the work and giving up hope, a small strange-looking man comes to her and tells her that he will do the job for her. All she has to do in return is to guess his name. If she can’t guess it, then she will have to give him all her wool. Her husband overhears him telling his name to somebody, tells his wife, and she is freed of her debt to the small man. Some of the names found in Irish versions of the story are: Snaidhm an Bhundúin, Jackie Trattio nó Billy Towery, Daithí Troulstar, Oilibhéar Houster, Naptúin Houster, Suiplis Stuairplis, Filip a Róla and Trit-a-trot. The little man is annoyed but he survives in the Irish versions of the story also.
Hudson points out that in every era and in every economy, debts of everyday life build up that cannot be paid. One of the biggest economic questions concerns how they should be dealt with. In Near Eastern Bronze Age societies, everyday debts were mostly agrarian – harvest- or crop-related, such as the debt of the woman spinning wool. People had to forfeit their harvests in order to pay off debts.
Hudson asserts that it is not wise economic management to allow private creditors or oligarchs to have an absolute right to repayment, as this gives them far too much power in economy and society. The emphasis on repayment at all costs allows them to appropriate the resources and assets of society, particularly when there is an economic crisis going on. Hudson also points out that no government or monarch that permitted this kind of repayment at all costs and subsequent appropriation of public assets by private creditors has ever survived economically (ancient Rome is a case in point).
Many Bronze Age rulers understood the importance of ensuring that their populations were not crippled by debt and although they did not try to prevent debts from building up, they dealt with the problem by cancelling debts from time to time: declaring a clean slate or jubilee every seven years, or when a new ruler came to the throne.
Commercial or ‘silver’ debts were not cancelled but everyday or agrarian debts were cancelled and people were freed from bonded labour, allowing them to start over again with a clean slate. It was a way to prevent enormous imbalances developing between a small group of creditors and ordinary people. ‘Paying creditors the crop surplus and owing work-time as debt service was anithetical to the Bronze Age palace’s need for corvée and military labour’ . The Bronze Age palace is the rough equivalent of the modern state.
Hudson writes that the jubilees had three results: 1. Financial balance was restored by negating crop or agrarian (that is, everyday) debts. 2. People obliged to enter bonded labour because of debt were freed. 3. Land was restored to the possession of those who had lost it because of debt. All of this meant that the population was able to live and work productively on the land, to support themselves and to pay their taxes. And they would be able to fight in the rulers’ armies instead of being under the control of the creditors.
The custom of clean slate and jubilee was gradually eroded over 2000 years but the biblical Books of Deuteronomy and Leviticus propounded these ideas again. Leviticus 25 decrees that land should be restored to the people, that slaves should be freed and that debts should be cancelled every seven years. The first sermon given by Jesus Christ was about proclaiming that news from Leviticus (Luke 4:16–21). The ruling Romans and the Pharisees of the time were opposed to any system of debt cancellation and that was the reason that Christ had enemies and was eventually put to death.
In the Lord’s Prayer, the phrase ‘forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us’ originally referred to the forgiveness of debt. ‘Trespass’ came to be associated solely with sin in later interpretations of the prayer and in the New Testament, even though in many languages the words for ‘sin’ and debt’ are the same (in German, Schuld, in French, devoir, for example). And over time, the Catholic Church put a huge emphasis on the holiness of the poor, elevating poverty. Redemption would come to be associated with forgiveness of sin, rather than Christ’s message of redemption, which was freedom from debt.
In modern times in many countries, it is still the practice that children to have to work as bonded labourers to pay off the debts of their families. Creditors – banks and private finance companies – are also allowed to foreclose on mortgages or to seize assets and although practices vary from country to country, this is widely considered morally and economically acceptable. But the individual debtors cannot get on with their lives in ways that contribute to society. There is a good case to be made for examining cases of individual debt, including mortgage debt, with a view to writing it off. The creditors may be annoyed but they will survive, as Rumpelstiltskin did. And if they lent irresponsibly in the first place, they must be prepared to take some responsibility for the outcome. Moreover, ‘a basic archaic principle was that debts that could not be paid as a result of misfortune should be wiped off the books’. Some aspects of misfortune regarding the ability to repay a mortgage in Ireland are discussed by Jack Horgan Jones.
This insight about debt was the driver of the Jubilee 2000 campaign aimed at persuading lenders to cancel the debts of the most impoverished countries on a case by case basis. A campaign of Britain’s mainstream Churches and sections of the Jewish community, this campaign was a reclamation of Christ’s original message.
The Rumpelstiltskin story is 4000 years old story and it reflects some of the ways that debt was dealt with in some successful Bronze Age economies. No matter what the debt, it was not permissible for a creditor to take a child into bonded labour as a debt servant, as Rumpelstiltskin tries to do in the Grimms’ version of the story. Neither was a creditor allowed to take a woman’s wool, a peasant’s plough or a warrior’s armour as payment of a debt. That would deprive the person of the resources necessary to fend for themselves and maintain their position. Bronze Age rulers sought to prevent creditors from impoverishing populations, because this would stifle economic activity and the prosperity of the population. It would also deprive the rulers of the services of the population for building work and for armies, because the creditors would have demands on their time. Creditors had to absorb losses and this is the permeating and meticulously researched theme of Hudson’s book.
It would be easy to dismiss the various versions of the Rumpelstiltskin story as silly amusement devised by our ancestors. But folklorists understand that folk tales do not survive if they are not of some use to the public and if they don’t have some kinds of insight to offer. There is every chance that this story survived and was widely told in Ireland and elsewhere until late in the 19th century, because of the economic wisdom it contains about debt cancellation.
The retention of land of land in kinship-based communities was recognised as important by Bronze Age rulers and Hudson asserts that this was gradually eroded and land made ‘alienable’ so that it could be forfeited for debt or sold under duress. ‘The right of citizens to self-support on the land was replaced by its opposite principle – the right of creditors to foreclose, or buyers with money to buy land irreversibly.
This development became a basic economic feature of the modern world.
“The 16th to 18th centuries saw a series of Enclosure Movements privatizing England’s Commons … Today the World Bank is facilitating a modern Enclosure Movement by promoting land registries in Third World and post-Soviet countries. Official registration of title is a precondition for privatizing land ownership. … Giving squatters in villages or urban slums legal title is a precondition for stripping them of their customary rights.
It turns out that the absence of formal property rights has been a major virtue for such families. Nobody can dispossess them, because they are protected by custom. Registering their homes as their personal property would indeed enable them to borrow emergency money to make ends meet – but also to be evicted when they could not earn enough to pay for their mortgage (with interest).
Forfeiture is the aim, of course!”
Hudson’s book takes a sweeping view and traces the role of debt in this long and problematic transformation of property rights. The dominant modern understanding of time is part of the problem here, as it works with a linear conception, so that there is no going back and ‘the loss of personal liberty cannot be reversed by restoring a status quo ante in good order.’. Debt cancellation is embedded in a more circular view of time that is capable of renewing basic social balance Hudson. Interestingly, the circular view of time is also implicit in folklore, myth and many indigeneous ways of knowing the world.
This meditation on debt leads to the conclusion that economic liberty for all is a prerequisite for living more sustainably. Many people all over the world are vulnerable because they are in debt or in another form of bondage, which is wage slavery. People engage in all kinds of paid work, some of which is very harmful to society and to the earth, because they have no choice; they are paying very high mortgages or rents or they are unable to support themselves on the land, in the case of displaced farmers. This amounts to the control of labour by very small financial elites that seek to centralize control and manage the economy in predatory, extractive ways. The cancellation of debt and the provision of basic securities is essential if economic liberty is to be extended to all. Taking the economic pressure off people and providing basic securities, including a basic income, as a matter of right of residency or citizenship would mean that populations would have choices and could refuse to engage in work that is personally unacceptable, or environmentally or socially harmful. This is an essential step on the road to an earth- and people-friendly world of work.
Different levels of readiness and awareness exist among people about the need to avoid harmful work and engage in useful work. There is a large avant garde already pioneering useful work such as small-scale farming and horticulture, urban gardening, habitat restoration, cooperative energy projects, tool libraries, local repair and maintenance facilities, farmers’ markets, community health and fitness, forest education, community drama and music projects, mental wellbeing projects, conventional libraries and bibliotherapy projects. This list gives just a taste of what people are doing but the overall effect is an ecologically positive one of contributing positively to human wellbeing, supporting community and using as little as possible in the way of materials and energy .
Unfortunately, most of the people in this avant garde are barely making a living from the work they are doing, and in some cases are not making any money at all from them but engaging in the projects in their free time from ‘bread and butter’ jobs. These pioneering projects the seeds of a future economy that is essential for continued human and ecological life on the planet. The provision of guaranteed basic securities including a basic income would be a huge boost to this avant garde. And for those who are not in the avant garde, the provision of basic securities and the lifting of economic pressure would open up breathing spaces for reflection and in the longer term for new demands and for enterprises that we may not be able to envisage or predict from where we stand right now.
Modern historians have for the most part removed the ancient Near East from the mainstream of history. Modern economic systems have sanctified the payment of debt but this is not some natural or God-given rule, rather a situation designed by financial elites. The wisdom of Rumpelstiltskin needs to be revisited and adapted for modern times.
1. de Cléir, Síle 2019. Radio interview, An Saol Ó Dheas 19/2/2019. RTÉ Raidió na Gaeltachta.
2. Ní Dhuibhne, Éilis 2012 ‘The Name of the Helper: “Kinder- und Hausmärchen” and Ireland’. Béaloideas 80: 1-22
Ní Dhuibhne, Éilis 2012 ‘An Irishwoman’s Diary’. The Irish Times Dec 29.
3. Da Silva, Sara Graça and Tehrani, Jamshid J. 2016) ‘Comparative phylogenetic analyses uncover the ancient roots of Into-European folktales’. Royal Society Open Science 3. https://royalsocietypublishing.org/doi/full/10.1098/rsos.150645 Accessed 22/3/19
4. Ní Dhuibhne, Éilis 2012 ‘The Name of the Helper: “Kinder- und Hausmärchen” and Ireland’. Béaloideas 80: 1-22
5. Hudson, Michael 2018 …and forgive them their debts: Lending, Foreclosure and Redemption — From Bronze Age Finance to the Jubilee Year. Dresden: ISLET-Verlag.
6. Ní Dhuibhne, Éilis 2012a: 17
7. Corvée labour is labour exacted in lieu of taxes
8. Hudson 2018: 264
9. Hudson 2018: 60
10. Horgan-Jones, Jack 2019 ‘Life with mortgage arrears in Ireland: I had “seizures from stress” ’. Irish Times February 2.
11. Anglican News 1997 ‘Jubilee 2000 Campaign Gains Momentum’. October 31. https://www.anglicannews.org/news/1997/10/jubilee-2000-campaign-gains-momentum.aspx
12. Hudson, 2018: 78, 84
13. Hudson, 2018: 45
14. Hudson 2018: 53
15. Hudson 2018: 264
16. Hudson 2018: 265
17. Hudson 2018: 266
18. Hudson 2018: 266
19. Hudson 2018: 262
20. See for example, Griffiths Jay 1999. Pip Pip: A Sideways Look at Time. London: Harper Collins
21. Hudson 2018: 266
22. Jackson, Tim 2015 ‘New Economy’, in D’Alisa, Giacomo, Demira, Federico and Kallis, Giorgos (eds) Degrowth: A Vocabulary for a New Era. London: Routledge
23. Hudson 2018: 266
Teaser photo credit: By Joridma – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0