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Volume XII, Number 2 | spring 2019


In the eighteenth century, a cash-strapped French government began selling rente viagère, in which an investor paid an up-front sum pegged to someone’s life—sometimes the king or the pope—and received returns until death. A group of Genevan bankers diversified their portfolio in the 1770s by buying rente contracts on the lives of thirty wealthy young Genevan girls. The fund gained popularity; by 1789 a significant portion of French debt was owed on the lives of just these “thirty heads.”

We get a deal o’ useless things about us, only because we’ve got the money to spend.

—George Eliot, 1860

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