The Measure of Realty: Quantification in Western Europe, 1250-1600

Article excerpt

Alfred W. Crosby, The Measure of Realty: Quantification in Western Europe, 1250-1600 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1997, 245 pp., $24.95).

The title of the book, coupled with the vivid reproduction of Barbari's famous portrait of Pacioli on its jacket, conveys the impression that the reader will be treated to a monograph on the European origins of accounting. That expectation is not realized, however, as only the last chapter before the conclusion ["Bookkeeping," pp. 199-233] is dedicated to accounting history topics. Furthermore, that single chapter deals only with the famous friar (at considerable length) and Datini (more briefly). Although the dates provided suggest an inclusion of the exploits of the Medicis, Plantin, the Bracci, Francisco del Bene, the Fuggers, and others, these early pioneers are scarcely mentioned. Moreover, this chapter suffers a diminution of the high research standard that characterizes the remainder of the volume. As the author himself admits, the analysis of the Summa is based almost entirely on the work of Taylor [ 1980] and Brown & Johnston [1984]. Consequently, Crosby's interpretation lacks the breadth and cogency of other recent work of this genre, as, for example, Macve's chapter on Pacioli in Lee, Bishop, & Parker [1996].

It is unfortunate that the book's weakest chapter would be the very one of greatest interest to accounting historians. Indeed, the background Crosby provides through the remainder of the book describing the intellectual climate within which Pacioli wrote is of great value. The author demonstrates convincingly the remarkable transition in Europe from a society almost without hope to one that based its emerging culture, culminating in the Renaissance, on the calculation and quantification of its reality. This transition is richly illustrated in chapters dedicated to changing European perceptions of time and space, accompanied by resultant achievements in mathematics, music, painting, and, last but sadly least, bookkeeping. …