The Medieval Review 16.01.10

Dobie, Alisdair. Accounting at Durham Cathedral Priory: Management and Control of a Major Ecclesiastical Corporation 1083-1539. Palgrave Studies in The History of Finance. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015. pp. xii, 341. $115.00 (hardback). ISBN: 9781137479785 (hardback).

Reviewed by:

Jens Ulff-Møller
Columbia University (retired)

The spectacular Durham Cathedral occupies a strategic position on a promontory high above the River Wear in North-Eastern England. Bishop William of St. Calais founded the Norman cathedral in 1093. The bishopric itself dates from 995, when the see of Lindisfarne relocated to Durham. After the Norman invasion, prince-bishops held worldly authority over the district, and had the obligation to defend the area against Scottish attacks. The bishops resided at Durham Castle opposite the cathedral on Palace Green from 1072. A double ecclesiastical administration emerged in 1083, when Bishop William St. Calais brought in Benedictine monks from Jarrow and Monkwearmouth, thereby establishing Durham Cathedral Priory: the secular jurisdiction of the bishops at Durham Castle, and the monastic at the priory south of the Cathedral nave. The Priory lasted until 1539, when it surrendered to the commissioners of Henry VIII. The medieval archives of the Priory amount to 124 meters (of a total of 357 meters in the archive as a whole). The archive contains large amounts of accounting documents, and it is one of the most complete monastic archives to survive in Britain.

Alisdair Dobie earned his PhD at the University of Durham with a thesis on the Priory's accounting material. Dobie's strength is that he is both a trained accountant and a historian. He had previously studied history at Edinburgh University, and he wrote the chapter "Bookkeeping" in The Routledge Companion to Accounting History, together with David Oldroyd (2009). He is currently teaching accounting and advanced financial reporting at the University of Stirling in Scotland.

Alisdair Dobie's command of the literature on English Church history is impressive, but in contrast his knowledge of the literature on medieval arithmetic and accounting is wanting. His book is an expansion of his thesis from 2011, which he has kindly made available on the internet. [1] Dobie has used several sections from his thesis in the book, as well as two of his previously published studies of the bursar's and the granator's account books (grain and bakery). [2] These publications have many illustrations, and therefore complement his book, which has no illustrations. The book has seven chapters, an introduction, seven appendices, and thirty-two tables.

The publications that have appeared since Dobie wrote his thesis are not extensively used in the book but they appear in the bibliography. For example, his fellow student at Durham A. T. Brown has published an article comparing the income of the bishop with that of the priory. [3] The access to his thesis is blocked. It is probably the basis for his forthcoming book to be published by Boydell & Brewer. [4] The most important book on the subject is the late Richard Britnell's text edition of Durham Priory Manorial Accounts 1277-1310, which came out in 2014 (abbreviated hereafter as DPMA). [5]

The first three chapters of Dobie's book are studies of English church history based on already published materials that are not directly relevant for the study of Durham accounting. Dobie has a basic understanding of medieval arithmetic counting methods, as well as the weight and measurement system, which is essential for establishing debit and credit and to make a trial balance. Other topics that an accountant looks for are assets, liabilities, and equity. Management accounting, cost control, and profit calculation came up in the eighteenth century, but may be interesting to explore in relation to medieval accounting.

Dobie opens by asking what accountability is. The Rule of St. Benedict merely puts accountability toward God at the heart of the role of the abbot and the cellarer. Dobie then introduces John Sabapathy's concept of 'accountability' (1)--that rulers in medieval England began holding officials 'to account' for their management using accounting records and auditing processes. [6]

Dobie surveys the literature on English church history and its relation to Durham Cathedral Priory and its bureaucratic development (chapters 1-2). Based on the archive's guidebook (the Handlist, available on the internet), he creates a twenty-one-page table of years from which documents are preserved for the period 1270 to 1539 (table 3.1a). He first discerns among the administration officers at the priory (the terrar, bursar, cellarer, and the grantor), and the sixteen main estate manors. In table 3.1b, he specifies the records by type, proctors, obedientiaries, and cells. The list is organized according to calendar year, but the accounts were not divided by the calendar year, as can be ascertained from Britnell's book DPMA; the documents from 1290 concerning Wardley (86) actually covers three years and not one year. [7] It is not clear what these tables can be used for.

Accounting at Durham Cathedral Priory is particularly important because Dobie proves that medieval accounting was accurate (chapter 4), refuting Marc Bloch's idea that there was no arithmetical accuracy in medieval accounts (147): "...among the computations that have come down to us--and this was true till the end of the Middle Ages--there are scarcely any that do not reveal astonishing errors. --although the inconveniences of the roman numerical system were to an extent circumvented by the use of the abacus, the regard for accuracy and the respect for figures, remained profoundly alien to the minds even of the leading men of that age." [8] The concept of lack of numerical accuracy may have permeated the Annales School.

Dobie's proof of accuracy in medieval accounting is based on his study of medieval arithmetic, which scholars have not understood. He proves that errors and inaccuracies in calculations may be a misinterpretation of the values of Roman numerals, which had different meanings when counting commodities. When counting money, the number words "hundred" and "thousand" have the traditional meaning (100, 1,000), but "...the long hundred of 120 is used in the measurement of physical quantities, although not for monetary amounts" (119). The Roman numeral 'm' stands for 1,200, 'd' for 600, 'c' for 120, whereas 100 is expressed as vXX (five twenties) (205; thesis, 223). Britnell also affirms that "the use of the long hundred (C=120) is pervasive in these records"; [9] he also expounds the system of measures, which Dobie does not. [10]

Dobie demonstrates the difference between short and long hundreds using the bursar's account, which handles money in short hundreds (appendix 4) versus the granator's account, which calculates grain in long hundreds (chapter 6, 197-210). Fowler (DAR), being ignorant of the 'long hundred,' notes a 'discrepancy' in the additions of a granator's account. Dobie comments that "Fowler's 'discrepancies' disappear when the 'long hundred' of 120 is used, and a recalculation of the tables 4.1 and 4.2 has not revealed any significant errors" (147); a reworking of addition and subtraction of the bursars' income and expense confirms the accuracy of the accountant (appendix 4).

In many text editions, the Roman numerals are replaced by Arabic numerals for convenience, but the conversion leads to errors when long hundreds were used. For example, according to the granator's account, the customary yield from one burceldrum (measure) is vC lx loaves (560 panes), and the yield of 20 burceldra would be xiM panes (11,000). That converts to: 660 loaves per burceldrum, which multiplied by 20 = 13,200 loaves (205). When Fowler added the different entries for the year 1455/6, the total was 158 quarters, whereas the total stated in account roll was 138 (cxxxviii), which is 158, because 'c' here is a long hundred (206).

The long hundred was also used in iron production, which Dobie does not analyze (193, 300 n. 37). The summa expensarum, being ccc v score iiij stone, reveals that the long hundred was used as five score equals one normal hundred (the number should thus be 464 stones, not 454).

Edmund King also provided examples of 'long hundred' in Peterborough accounting, published in the Harlaxton symposium edited by "Ormod" (the spelling error for Ormrod occurs in the thesis too!) (304 n. 105). The documents clarifies the use of 'long hundreds' in the statement per magnum centum computate. [11] For convenience, King converted the Roman numerals into Arabic, but such conversions lead to confusion: did he already convert "4,796 per magnum centum" or should the amount be 5,736?

Dobie does not mention literature concerning Scotland but only deals with information concerning England, even though the priory had close relations to Scotland, and had the same long-hundred arithmetic as Dobie has found in Durham. A number of articles relating to accounting are mentioned in Gemmill & Mayhew. [12] The best article in English on long hundreds by Julian Goodare is unknown to Dobie. [13] Peter Goldesbrough was the first to warn about that 'long hundreds' have been ignored when converting Roman numerals to Arabic in text editions. [14]

Calculations took place on an abacus (counting board), which was a cloth divided in lines or squares. Table 4.6 presents an outline of an abacus (Dobie's thesis presents the original drawing in illustration 10, p. 287). This abacus drawing was for monetary calculation only; it misrepresents the drawing by not having dots above the numbers, and a later hand has added '1 s', which did not belong to the original. Dobie does not know Francis Pierrepont Barnard's book: Plate XLIV reproduces a similar chequer-table from London, British Library, Sloane MS 213. In the extracts from inventories, Barnard found evidence of more than forty counter-cloths in Durham wills, several owned by merchants. [15] Karl Menninger's book has the same illustration. [16]

Dobie then presents a representation of what he calls 'Dot' numerals in the 1418/19 bursar's schedule of waste and decay (table. 4.7, p. 149). The amount shown is £33 19s 4d. We are not told if the example is unique or appears elsewhere in the archive. The example is, however, what Robert Recorde in The Ground of Artes (1542) calls the Auditor's Form. [17] Only addition and subtraction can be performed, so the pupil asks "Howe shall I multiply and divide after these forms?" Recorde answers: "You can not duely do none of bothe by these muste resort to youre other artes' that is to ciphering" (fol. 104). Dobie does mention that tally sticks were used extensively, a record type of which there are no survivals in the Durham archives (80).

The tables on the components of total expected income and expenses in the bursar's office (tables 4.1-4) appear before the presentation of the abacus, a sign of poor editing. The accounts are separated in the years 1278/9-1416/7 (identical with table 8 and table 9 in his thesis), whereas the coverage of the years 1420/1-1536/7 is new (tables 4.2 and table 4.4). The various sources of receipts and types of expenditures are described in detail. There are four major types of income: rents, labor, and customary dues from tenants living on the land of the priory; tithes and other miscellaneous receipts, such as sales of livestock and grain, as well as borrowing (131). In the table, the incomes are unspecified, except for tithes, bondage, borrowing, receipts in advance, other, and arrears. The arrears fluctuate significantly, with high points around 1300, 1400, and 1460-1490. After 1500 the arrears were miniscule. The source for the information is the bursar's account books. Dobie does not explain how he calculated the amounts of income and expenditure that are only whole numbers of pounds.

The expenditures incurred by the bursar's office are remarkably consistent throughout the period 1278-1537 (table 4.3 and table 4.4). The expenses include collecting tithes, clothes and food, purchase of grain, payment of salaries for pasturage and hay, traveling expenses, payment of debts and payment by tally (135-158).

Dobie then turns to waste and decay (table 5.2). Initially vacant tenements were a problem, but from the 1360s downward pressure on rents became more significant until 1421, when waste became the greater problem (164-165).

Dobie presents a balance sheet from the bursar's overall receipts and expenditures, adjusted for arrears for the period 1278-1536 (table 5.3 and table 5.4). From table 4.1 and table 4.2, he obtains the amounts of receipts, which he subtracts the expenses (table 4.3 and table 4.4), which gives the surplus or deficit. In the next line Dobie enters the arrears and bad debts, which is withdrawn from the revenue due. The amounts must be taken at face value as I cannot observe any table that provides that information. Then Dobie subtracts the expenses from the total revenue received in order to find out how much the actual surplus or deficit was. In the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, the surplus was minuscule, and for the period 1420 to 1537 there was an average deficit figure of £164 (167).

To stress the point furthermore that the accounts were real, Dobie studies visitations, which led to objections to financial and management matters.

Medievalists in general have ignored these accounting materials, and consequently misinterpreted and misquoted figures taken from the account-rolls. In his publications, Dobie has shown that the bursar's and granator's accounts reveal substantially more sophisticated accounting techniques than was hitherto assumed. His book is directly relevant when questioning the existence of Perry Anderson's "feudal mode of production," when laborers received payment, and monetary payments increasingly replaced feudal services. [18]




2. Alisdair Dobie, "A Review of the Granators' Accounts of Durham Cathedral Priory 1294-1433: An Early Example of Process Accounting?," Accounting History Review 21 (2011): 7-35; idem, "An Analysis of the Bursars' Accounts at Durham Cathedral Priory, 1278-1398," Accounting Historians Journal 35 (2008): 181-208.

3. A. T. Brown, "Estate Management and Institutional Constraints in Pre-industrial England," The Economic History Review 67 (2014): 699-719.

4.; A. T. Brown, Rural Society and Economic Change in County Durham: Recession and Recovery, c. 1400-1640 (Rochester, NY: Boydell & Brewer, 2015).

5. Richard Britnell, ed., Durham Priory Manorial Accounts 1277-1310 (Surtees Society, 218; Martlesham, Suffolk/Rochester, NY: Boydell & Brewer, 2014).

6. See John Sabapathy, Officers and Accountability in Medieval England 1170-1300 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014).

7. Britnell, Durham Priory Manorial Accounts, 27-46.

8. Marc Bloch, Feudal Society: The Growth and Ties of Dependence, Vol. 1, 2nd ed., trans. L.A. Manyon (University of Chicago Press, 1964), 75.

9. Britnell, Durham Priory Manorial Accounts, lxiv.

10. Ibid., lxiv-lxx.

11. Edmund King, "Estate Management and the Reform Movement," in England in the Thirteenth Century: Proceedings of the 1989 Harlaxton Symposium, ed. W. M. Ormrod (Harlaxton Mediaeval Series; Donington, Spalding UK: Paul Watkins Publishing, 1991), 13-14.

12. Elizabeth Gemmill and Nicholas Mayhew, Changing Values in Medieval Scotland: A Study of Prices, Money, and Weights and Measures (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995), 394-395.

13. Julian Goodare, "The Long Hundred in Medieval and Early Modern Scotland," Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland 123 (1993): 395-418. See also Jens Ulff-Møller, "The Use of an Archaic British-Scandinavian Counting System in the Icelandic Non-Monetary Economy, Exemplified by the Icelandic Land Registers," in Cashless Payments and Transactions From the Antiquity to 1914, eds. Sushil Chaudhuri and Markus A. Denzel (Stuttgart: Steiner, 2008), 33-68.

14. Peter Gouldesbrough, "Long Hundred in the Exchequer Rolls," Scottish Historical Review 46, No. 141, Part 1 (April 1967): 79-82.

15. Francis Pierrepont Barnard, The Casting-Counter and the Counting-Board (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1916), 248-252.

16. Karl Menninger, Number Words and Number Symbols: A Cultural History of Words and Numbers (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1969), fig. 181. The German edition is Zahlwort und Ziffer (Göttingen 1958).

17. Barnard, Casting-Counter and the Counting-Board, 164; Menninger, Number Words and Number Symbols, figs. 202-203.

18. Perry Anderson, Passages from Antiquity to Feudalism (Brooklyn, NY: Verso Books, 1996), 147ff.

Copyright (c) 2016 Jens Ulff-Møller

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