Academic journal article Accounting Historians Journal

Personal Accounts, Account Books and Their Probative Value: Historical Notes, C. 1200 to C. 1800

Academic journal article Accounting Historians Journal

Personal Accounts, Account Books and Their Probative Value: Historical Notes, C. 1200 to C. 1800

Article excerpt

Abstract: This paper discusses a number of topics pertaining to personal accounts in account books in the period roughly between 1200 and 1800. The main emphasis is on two topics, namely the use of account books as evidence in courts of law, and bad and doubtful debts and their accounting treatment. Examples from various countries and periods are provided to illustrate the discussion, which is not intended to be exhaustive.


The majority of accounts in surviving business account books of the period 1200 to 1800 in Western Europe are personal accounts. They record dealings of the firm with individuals, one-man businesses, partnerships, joint stock companies, religious establishments, and government bodies. In many of the account books there are only personal accounts, and in some there are mainly personal accounts together with a sprinkling of non-personal accounts.

This paper considers and illustrates a selection of topics that pertain to personal accounts in the period covered: personal accounts in single entry and double entry bookkeeping systems; the use of account books as evidence in law courts; how a merchant could increase the probative value of his account books; bad and doubtful debtors and debts, and the various accounting treatments given to them; and some concluding observations, mainly about ledgers in flames.

The word "merchant" is used here, for convenience, to include merchants large and small, wholesalers and retailers, as well as banks and manufacturing businesses. The main focus, though, is on merchants in the narrow sense.

Again for convenience, the word "merchant" is used here in the masculine form, i.e. "he", "his" and "him", in contexts which were by no means exclusive to men. Some women ran their own businesses. For example, in eighteenth century Paris the widow of a baker often continued the bakery business when the husband died: "In the midst of the trauma and grief, the widow had to think first of continuing business as usual. Competition for customers was keen; any interruption of service threatened to damage the business durably". (1) Many more women contributed significantly to the businesses conducted by their husbands. Professor Olwen Hufton has written as follows [1995, pp.149-150]: "The bookkeeping side of many businesses was, right through our period [i.e. 1500-1800], very often the work of the wife...." She gives a specific example, that of the gifted Mrs Thrale, friend of Dr Johnson: "Mr Thrale the brewer, who could well afford the services of a clerk, left the bookkeeping to his talented wife and was well advised to do so as she had a far better business head than he did ...". The French historian, Professor Serge Chassagne, has described the accounting skill, business sense, and dedication of the cultivated Mme Marie-Catherine-Renee de Maraise, who in 1767 married a partner in the famous Oberkampf textile manufacturing business [Chassagne, 1980, ch.iv]. Towards the other end of the spectrum, as it were, was Frau Margarete Bodeker in Kiel (around 1600) who worked regularly in the business and took her husband Ulrich's place when he was away [Kleyser, 1978, p.416]. There were many like her.


Single entry and double entry

Matthieu de la Porte, described as professeur teneur de livres de comptes and maistre ecrivain jure, published the first edition of his La science des negocians et teneur de livres ... in 1704. It proved to be a best-seller, and was re-issued (with changes) in several editions. According to de la Porte, single entry bookkeeping (parties simples) consists only of accounts for those persons with whom one traded (... son usage est d'dtablir seulernent des Comptes pour les personnes avec qui on negocie ...) [De la Porte, 1704, p. 1 ]. He provided a detailed illustration of his method.

The term "single entry bookkeeping" in due course came to acquire a different meaning. …

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