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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 how this calculative practice emerged from the moral milieu of the late Middle Ages; how Roman Catholic moral theology insinuated itself into commerce via sacramental confession; and how both commerce and morality were changed as a result: morality becoming, as it were, commercialized (more accommodating to the merchant), and commerce “Christianized.” I am not arguing that confession caused DEB in a mechanistic way. Nor am I searching for the “origin” of DEB in medieval business records, à la conventional accounting historiography . Instead, I am concerned with weaving DEB into a larger social/cultural context, showing how what appears to be simply another mathematical technology once had great religious and moral significance. In taking up this subject, I grapple with an argument first advanced by Weber, and that eighty years later has become virtually a dogmatic injunction in sociology, namely, that Catholicism has been (and remains) a poor host to the forces of economic change. By implication, I confirm the thesis promulgated by Weber’s not always friendly adversary, Werner Sombart. Relying on his understanding—which Weber rebuked as giving “a painful impression of superficiality”—of Thomistic moral theology, Sombart shows that far from being inimical to the rational pursuit of wealth, medieval Catholicism actually encouraged it (Sombart, 1924; cf. Nussbaum, 1937). While historians (some of whom are cited later) have 1 C H A P T E R 1 The Problem since tempered Weber’s argument, providing independent corroboration of Sombart’s claim (cf. McGovern, 1970), with few exceptions their findings have yet to penetrate the reaches of popular sociology.1 This book addresses a subject that to my knowledge, at least, few if any sociologists have ever addressed: accounting procedures. As mentioned in the preface, structural functionalism and its stepchild, organizational sociology, traditionally have displayed a blithe indifference to calculative technologies in business, taking it for granted that “the formal rationality of accounting, . . . is built into the nature of things, [as] the perfection of the means for achieving societal ends; ends which [to them] are self-evident[ly]” valid and good (Colignon and Covaleski, 1991: 153). Richard Colignon and Mark Covaleski suggest that this complacency grows from the politically compromised status of functionalists and organizational sociologists as research handmaidens to corporate management. However this may be, the following pages are intended as a corrective to this bias. It problematizes what heretofore has been passed over with silence by my own discipline. Weber and Sombart on Penance The narratives of Weber and Sombart occupy a middle range between abstract theory and particularism. Instead of attempting to derive economic activity from the ideal-typical (read: nonexistent) utility maximizer, or of remaining at a purely descriptive level, both seek to trace the psyche of the medieval merchant back to a specific institutional setting, the workings of which are susceptible to indirect observation. And for both of them, the locus out of which the late medieval mind is presumed to have arisen is the sacrament of penance. The Weber-Sombart controversy, as inherited by us, revolves around their conflicting interpretations of the meaning of this ritual for its participants. To Weber, it was the “sacrament of absolution,” as he calls it, which explains why “inner-worldly asceticism,” the 2 Confession and Bookkeeping heart of the “capitalist spirit” (a term I discuss later) allegedly failed to flourish in the Catholic world. Sombart disagrees. It was precisely this sacrament, he submits, which nurtured an incipient capitalist spirit in Catholic lands; a spirit which, when implanted in the fertile soil of the Italian trading centers, burst into history’s first modern business enterprises. In his sociology of religion, Weber distinguishes between the systematic effort by the individual to secure his or her own salvation on the one hand, and the distribution grace through “magical sacraments” on the other, wherein devotees are relegated to passively observing the manipulations of priests. In Protestantism, where the first salvific technique prevails, radical ethical conversion—today’s so-called born again experience —is common. In Catholicism, by contrast, where the second form predominates, “the level of personal ethical accomplishment must . . . be made compatible with average human qualifications,” which is to say, “quite low” (Weber, 1963: 151–53). According to Weber, the Catholic...


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