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Confession and Bookkeeping

The Religious, Moral, and Rhetorical Roots of Modern Accounting

James Aho

Publication Year: 2005

Double-entry bookkeeping (DEB), modern capitalism’s first and foremost calculative technology, was “invented” during the Middle Ages when profit making was morally stigmatized. James Aho examines the problematic of moneymaking and offers an explanatory understanding of the paradoxical coupling of profit seeking and morality by situating DEB in the religious circumstances from which it emerged, specifically the newly instituted sacrament of penance, that is, confession. Confession impacted the consciences of medieval businessmen both through its sacramental form and through its moral teachings. The form of confession produced widespread habits of moral scrupulosity (leading to compulsive record keeping); the content of confession taught that commerce itself was morally suspect. Scrupulous businessmen were thus driven to justify their affairs to church, commune, and themselves. With the aid of DEB, moneymaking was “Christianized” and Christianity was made more amenable to the pursuit of wealth. Although DEB is typically viewed exclusively as a scientifically neutral account of the flow of money through a firm, it remains as it was originally devised, a rhetorical argument.

Published by: State University of New York Press


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Title Page, Copyright, Dedication

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pp. iii-v


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p. vii

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pp. ix-xvii

In American business schools, accounting is treated primarily as “accountingization” (Power and Laughlin, 1992), that is, as a body of technically refined calculations used by organizations to efficiently accomplish goals such as profit maximization. What, if any, theory that is taught reduces largely...

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pp. xix-xx

The one person most responsible for this book being in print is Kerry Jacobs, professor of accounting in the School of Business at La Trobe University, Melbourne, Australia. I had long given up on the project when out of the blue Professor Jacobs (then at Edinburgh University in Scotland) e-mailed me in spring...

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1. The Problem

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pp. 1-11

The conditions giving rise to rational bureaucratic capitalism, or to what Max Weber calls “the most fateful force in modern life” (Weber, 1958: 17), remain perennially interesting to social historians. What follows is a sociology of one of its pivotal features, double-entry bookkeeping (DEB). My object is to show...

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2. Roman Catholic Penance

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pp. 13-22

Virtually from the moment of its founding, Christianity has endorsed the practice of penance both for the debasement of self and its purification. Not until 1215, however, under the auspices of Pope Innocent III and the Fourth Lateran Council, did a particular kind of penance, this involving the confession...

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3. The “Scrupulous Disease”

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pp. 23-29

Soon after confessional penance was made compulsory, reports began to be sounded about a peculiar neurosis (as it would be called today) exhibiting itself among the laity. By the end of the thirteenth century, the occasional reports had exploded into an “epidemic” (Delumeau, 1990: 1): Moral scrupulosity—an...

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4. Business Scruples

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pp. 31-42

Double-entry bookkeeping (DEB) first appeared in several Italian cities simultaneously (Raymond de Roover, 1955; Florence de Roover, 1956; Chatfield, 1974: 13–16). Its first documented use is in the Massari accounts of Genoa (Melis, 1950: 527). (These may be anticipated by fragments from the secret books...

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5. Medieval Morality and Business

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pp. 43-54

In the medieval life-world, commerce was morally questionable. As this Latin aphorism by Gratian reads: “Seldom or never can a man who is a merchant be pleasing to God.” Mercury (Gr.: Hermes), the deity whose name supplies the root for the vocabulary of commerce—merchant, market, merchandise,...

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6. The Notary-Bookkeeper

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pp. 55-62

By 1340 in Tuscany and Umbria alone, nearly one hundred major credit institutions were extending credit and in doing so, implicating themselves in “usury of the most dreadful sort” (Martin, 1936: 47–53). If not outraged by the situation, many Church-going denizens of the region nonetheless...

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7. The Rhetoric of Double-entry Bookkeeping

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pp. 63-79

The object of this chapter is to show how the major stylistic features of DEB (double-entry bookkeeping), as expounded upon in Luca Pacioli’s Particularis de Computis et Scripturis, were modeled after the principles of Ciceronian rhetoric. This is not to suggest that the treatments of their respective subjects are identical. While Pacioli...

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8. Confession and Bookkeeping

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pp. 81-94

During the reign of Pope Gregory VII (1073–1085) and continuing into the middle of the thirteenth century, the Roman Catholic Church undertook a far-reaching program to remake the world. Harold Berman considers it Europe’s first modern revolution (Berman, 1983: 49–84), the model for all those that would eventually follow: the Lutheran,...


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pp. 95-98


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pp. 99-106


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pp. 107-120


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pp. 121-131

E-ISBN-13: 9780791482797
Print-ISBN-13: 9780791465455
Print-ISBN-10: 0791465454

Page Count: 151
Publication Year: 2005

OCLC Number: 63161498
MUSE Marc Record: Download for Confession and Bookkeeping

Research Areas


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Subject Headings

  • Economics -- Religious aspects -- Catholic Church -- History.
  • Christian sociology -- Catholic Church -- History.
  • Bookkeeping -- History.
  • Capitalism -- Moral and ethical aspects.
  • Accounting -- Moral and ethical aspects.
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