Academic journal article Accounting Historians Journal

An Analysis of the Bursars' Accounts at Durham Cathedral Priory, 1278-1398

Academic journal article Accounting Historians Journal

An Analysis of the Bursars' Accounts at Durham Cathedral Priory, 1278-1398

Article excerpt

Abstract: This paper is based upon an examination of a selection of the bursars' accounts from Durham Cathedral Priory covering the period from the first extant account (1278-9) to the end of the 14th century. The accounts selected have been transcribed from the original documents and translated from Latin into English. A traditional focus of accounting historians in the medieval period has been on manorial accounting and the system of charge and discharge. This paper examines a series of non-manorial accounts and a variety of supporting accounting materials, analyzing them for evidence of the development and refinement of controls. After an introduction which reviews the background of the accounts and the extent to which they have been utilized for historical research, this paper describes the various sources of receipts and types of expenditure which are revealed. The format of the accounts is traced, and a review of total receipts and expenditure is conducted to gain an understanding of the overall financial position of the bursar's office. Next, the accounts are considered within the context of other accounting records to explore the financial controls in place. Finally, areas for further investigation and analysis are identified. The accounts selected reveal that actual receipts and actual expenditure were kept closely in tandem, and that an extensive network of other accounting material and documents allowing a system of cross-checks enabled auditors to ascertain the veracity and accuracy of the accounts.

INTRODUCTION

The bursars' accounts at Durham Cathedral Priory surviving from the period 1278 (the earliest surviving complete roll) (1) to 1400 number in excess of 250 separate items, including some items which exist in duplicate and others that might be called subsidiary accounts and schedules. The bursars' formal accounts of the receipts and expenses of their office for this period cover some 85 years. These accounts and schedules vary enormously in size. Among the smaller items is an indenture issued in the year 1351-1352 witnessing the receipt of 10.5s [pounds sterling]. by the bursar from the proctor of Norham (Illustration 1) that measures barely four inches by six inches. The account-roll of 1379-1380 would count among the larger items, being 11.5 inches wide and over 21 feet in length. Extracts from these rolls, edited by Fowler, were published between 1898 and 1901. However his selection was influenced by his interest in building work, and the extracts have been criticized as unreliable in detail [Lomas and Piper, 1989, p. 7], of little use for economic or statistical purposes [Knowles, 1955, p. 315], and confusing rather than clarifying Durham Cathedral Priory's financial organization [Dobson, 1973, p. 251].

The accounts are written on parchment with legibility and completeness varying extensively between accounts. Legibility may be affected by the faintness of the ink or by damage due to damp and other causes. Even by the 1430s, it was noted that many of the records "consumpti sunt, partim per pluviam, partim per ratones et mures" (have been destroyed, partly by rain, partly by rats and mice) [Dobson, 1973, p. 3]. These factors have had an impact on the selection of records for review and transcription. The accounts for 13 individual years have been examined along with supporting schedules. This sample cannot claim to be scientifically selected; the incidence of survival prevented the selection of an account on a regular basis every ten years. Incomplete rolls or those whose legibility were more problematic were passed over in favor of those more immediately decipherable. The objective was to examine an account-roll not too far removed from each of the decade ends between 1280 and 1400. Although at the start of this period the selection is not so evenly spaced, from 1310 onwards the accounts selected are approximately ten years apart. A list of the accounts selected may be seen in Table 1. …

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