In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

Medieval Double-entry Bookkeeping 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 [libro segreti] kept by the Florentine banking family of Alberti, to hide papal debtors [Raymond de Roover, 1955; Florence de Roover, 1956].) The Massari books—so named after the word for city treasury officials—date from 1327 when, according to its devisors, a new system was introduced “after the mode of banks,” perhaps to avert fraud. At the time, the municipality of Genoa was speculating in pepper, sugar, silk, and wax. Over the next two centuries, the procedure was disseminated to northern European trade centers. The vehicle that is said to have “launched the future” was publication of the first textbook on DEB, Particularis de Computis et Scripturis in 1494. Authored by the Franciscan friar and mathematician, Luca Pacioli (1445–1517), it was one of the first books ever printed on the Gutenberg press and, behind the Bible, one of the most influential.1 Indeed, the invention of movable type and the popularity of the “Italian method” were probably linked. Printing visually demonstrated how business records could be tidily aligned in bilateral format and concisely quantified , and how different kinds of accounts—cash, expenses, liabilities, assets, and so forth—could be distinguished. In short, printing promoted the kind of thinking that DEB exemplifies (Thompson, 1991; Mills, 1994). While today accounting usually is performed by electronic computer, five hundred 31 C H A P T E R 4 Business Scruples years after its publication, Particularis de Computis et Scripturis still describes its basic procedures. It was modernity’s first calculative technology. To decipher the motives that might have occasioned the emergence of DEB, it is necessary at the outset to assess first how it was used. I will be brief. As ancient Sumerian clay tablets and (what we know of them) Roman business records clearly demonstrate, permanent, complicated partnerships in credit, trade, and real estate can be conducted successfully without DEB. In fact, according to Basil Yamey, “it is probable that the vast majority of enterprises used a simple form of record-keeping (which may conveniently be called ‘singleentry ’) until well into the nineteenth century . . .” (Yamey, 1949: 105). Even immense corporations like the Dutch East India Company, the Sun Fire Insurance Office of London (1701–1960), the Whitin Machine Company, and the Capital and Counties Bank of England (until 1918) posted their accounts in single-entry (1964: 126). The implication of this is obvious: The popular argument that the “explosive” business climate of late medieval Italy somehow “demanded,” “necessitated ,” “pressured,” or was “ripe for” DEB (Littleton, 1933: 15; Mills, 1994: 83, 89; Bryer, 1993)—is far from a sufficient explanation for its appearance, however accurate it may be in other respects. Even less convincing is the notion that DEB is “rooted in the nature of things” (Raymond de Roover, 1955: 45; Chatfield, 1974: 32–43).2 Second and more to the point, Yamey argues that while DEB definitely can be used to draw up periodic profit/loss reports by which businesses can then rationally adjust their behavior, evidently it was rarely used for this purpose until long after its introduction. What this implies is that the claim that DEB was “eagerly adopted” because its “superiority as a management tool was quickly recognized” is highly suspect at best. Instead, as evidenced by the instructions contained in early bookkeeping texts, the act of posting each transaction twice in the ledger, as a credit to one account and as a debit to another, was superseded by other considerations: “Firstly [to quote an early German textbook] so that the balances of all the . . . accounts 32 Confession and Bookkeeping may be conveniently reviewed at once; and secondly and chiefly, to prove that the books have been kept with accuracy” (Yamey, 1949: 110, my italics). Neither the bilancio del libro (the book balance) nor the summa summarum (known today as the trial balance [Peragallo ,1956]), which Pacioli extols as the two essential bookkeeping operations, have little purpose other than to certify the accuracy of business records. The bilancio tests to make sure that ledger postings comport with their corresponding journal entries. (Pacioli provides elaborate procedures to guarantee that this is the case [Pacioli, 1963: 91–92].) The second procedure , the summa summarum (literally, sum of sums...


Additional Information

Related ISBN
MARC Record
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
Back To Top

This website uses cookies to ensure you get the best experience on our website. Without cookies your experience may not be seamless.