Medieval Traders as International Change Agents: A Comment

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INTRODUCTION

Parker [1989: 107-18] presented a case which showed that Medieval Jewish traders located in the Muslim Empire influenced the development of accounting in Italy because they had previously established the conditions which Littleton [1966: 1221] identified as the antecedents of double-entry bookkeeping. The existence of Littleton's [1966] antecedents in important trading centers of the Muslim Empire was confirmed by the works of a distinguished scholar of Medieval Judaeo-Arabic philology, society and culture. Goitein [1955: 7] found that:

the civilization of the Middle East during early medieval times was characterized by its commerce, industry and bureaucratic organization, at a time when western Europe was mainly agricultural and was dominated by knights and feudal lords.

Goitein [1955] indirectly addressed the antecedents of double-entry in his analysis of the relationships between Jews and Arabs in the Muslim Empire. He described the talmudic and Arabic law related to property [Goitein, 1955: 40]; the accumulation of capital [Goitein, 1955: 101]; the distribution of trade and commerce [Goitein, 1955: 100-107]; and the role of Jewish bankers in the provision of credit [Goitein, 1955: 116]. Given our knowledge about the emergence of double-entry in Italy, it is of interest to note Goitein [1966b: 288] found that "Arabic speaking Jews regularly travelled on Genoese or Pisan ships."

In contrast to his received knowledge of the existence of the antecedents, Parker [1989: 112] made clear that he could not present a case "that accounting methods in the Moslem Empire were directly influential in the development of accounting in Italy...because the actual nature of accounting in Islamic lands seems to be a mystery." In the case of Old Cairo, an important and far-reaching Judaeo-Arabic trade center, this contention must be qualified in the light of direct evidence provided by Goitein [1966a, 1973] and Gil [1970, 1976]. This evidence was not cited by Parker [1989: 112] who stated that he had "been able to find only conjectures about accounting in the Moslem Empire." Given this statement there can be no doubt that Parker [1989] believed that further research was needed.

Goitein [1966a, 1973] and Gil [1970, 1976] devoted many productive years to studies of thousands of fragments from the Medieval period which were deposited in the Genizah at Old Cairo. However they made no claim to be accounting experts, nor did they profess a detailed knowledge of the history of accounting, other than the major steps on the road to the development of the double-entry system. As a consequence, they did not produce a definitive study of the nature of accounting used by Jewish traders and bankers who occupied prominent positions in Medieval Mediterranean trade and commerce. A comparison of their works and perceived accounting skills to that of de Roover [1956, 1963], who translated and analyzed Medieval Italian business records, suggests that they might not have recognized significant early uses of important accounting techniques. If this suggestion is correct, then further research is needed for three reasons. First, to verify the findings of Goitein [1966a, 1973] and Gil [1970, 1976]; second, to solve Parker's [1989] mystery; and third, to illuminate fully the history of Medieval accounting. This new research, for which Parker [1989] made an implicit call, must be conducted by scholars with the skills required to present complete and verifiable descriptions and analyzes of the form and content of the Genizah fragments. The skills required include a thorough understanding of accounting techniques and their early development, and the ability to translate Hebrew and Arabic words and business abbreviations written in Hebrew script.

GENIZAH COLLECTIONS

The existence of a store of letters and documents at the Ben Ezra Synagogue was suspected by scholars throughout the nineteenth century. However, as Gil [1970: 12] recounted, they were unable to access the fragments until Solomon Schechter made his decisive visit to Cairo in 1896-7 and the fragments were collected and distributed to different university libraries. …

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