The Story of "Bankrupt"
In honor of the resurgence of COVID-19 in Catalonia, we investigate the origin of the word bankrupt.
The word first appeared in English in the mid-16th century (between 1500 and 1599), taken from “banca rotta” in Italian. Literally, it means “broken bench”.
Banking on benches was so common before modern times that the word for “bench” in Catalan, Italian and Spanish came to be known for financial institutions – which now inhabit buildings.
In the middle ages and in times of Roman hegemony in Europe, banking was conducting not in buildings but on benches in the forum and in plaças.
Deposits were not guaranteed or insured, as they are now. When there was a bank run and bankers could not give to its customers the money they wished to withdraw, they flipped over their bench as a way of saying “We’re closed forever”.
In the Middle Ages in Cataluña, the penalty for going bankrupt was to be beheading publicly, in the same spot where you had your bench, as a symbol of how the banker had defrauded the community and taken advantage of its trust.