Academic journal article The Accounting Historians Journal

John Johnson's Letters: The Accounting Role of Tudor Merchants' Correspondence

Academic journal article The Accounting Historians Journal

John Johnson's Letters: The Accounting Role of Tudor Merchants' Correspondence

Article excerpt

Abstract: This article examines the role that correspondence played in the accounting systems of Tudor merchants. Merchants relied heavily on letters as a means of controlling their businesses at a distance by making agents accountable. Written accountability, as well as information for business decisions, was encouraged by agency relationships in mercantile enterprises. The system could be undermined by the breakdown of communication through the negligence of a factor or the lack of involvement by the principal. The time delays between the sending and the receipt of letters, on the one hand, and the procurement and conveyance of goods, on the other, were additional problems.

This article examines the role that correspondence played in the accounting systems of Tudor merchants, taking John Johnson as an example. It therefore approaches such issues as accountability, control, and decision making from the wider perspective of the total information available to merchants, beyond that contained in their books of account.

In this respect, the article concurs with Miller and Napier [1993, p. 631], who criticized traditional studies for taking too narrow a view about what "counts as accounting." The records of Tudor merchants are a case in point, as previous studies have tended to focus on account books, such as journals and ledgers [Ramsey, 1956; Vanes, 1967; Winjum, 1971, 1972], whereas more portable sources of accounting information were also necessary (i.e., abstracts and the post) because of the distances over which merchants operated. Contemporary authors recognized this correspondence as part of the accounting process. Ympyn (1547), Weddington (1567), and Peele (1569) listed the copy letter book among the merchant's other account books [Yamey et al., 1963, pp. 21, 25, 44]. Weddington in particular referred to the need for abstracts and letters from factors in order to manage the merchant's affairs [Yamey et al., 1963, pp. 48, 97]. He said that merchants ought to write on any letters received:

the daie of the receat and from whom, and then the daie of the answere, that don laie them up in pressus to them apertaininge, and everi yere ons, to sort out al mens leteris severalli, and to binde them up in papers writtinge upon them the yere of owre lorde, and from whom thei have byn receavid &c. and then to laie them upon shelvez in your counttinge hous, or other ther unto apertaininge and as you do this so maie you do withe all other accomptis and writtingis [Yamey et al., 1963, pp. 48-49].

This practice was followed by Johnson, who annotated his correspondence in the manner described. The letters were sometimes numbered in sequence, so that the correspondents would know the order in which they were written, and whether any were missing. Every letter dispatched was copied into a letter book by an apprentice, who sometimes made a third copy in case the original went astray [Winchester, 1955, pp. 233-234]. Merchants therefore exercised systematic control over letters, which they retained with other accounting documents as part of a unified information system. When Johnson went bankrupt in 1553, both account books and letter books were impounded by the courts to prove the interests of his creditors.

The main problem for accounting historians of the period is the lack of documentary evidence, a fact that should be borne in mind when forming general conclusions. Ramsey's [1956] study was based on the accounts of Thomas Howell, John Johnson, Thomas Laurence, and Thomas Gresham. Winjum [1972] added to these the records of John Smythe [pp. 120-125], a Bristol merchant, and Sir William Calley [pp. 147-155], who was trading in the early years of the 16th century. The books of John Isham, a London merchant between 1542 and 1572, are another example [Yamey, 1963, p. 228]. Finally, Hooper [1995] reviewed the Cely shipping accounts relating to a voyage from London to Bordeaux in 1486-1487. The lack of surviving evidence is not surprising given that trade was heavily concentrated through the port of London in the Tudor period [Ramsay, 1982, p. …

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