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22.02.11 Epurescu-Pascovici (ed.), Accounts and Accountability in Late Medieval Europe

22.02.11 Epurescu-Pascovici (ed.), Accounts and Accountability in Late Medieval Europe

This edited collection is of papers presented at a conference held under the Castellany accounts project with a focus on the Savoyard accounts from an interdisciplinary perspective and in the larger European context. It is divided into three parts: (1) Financial accountability and late medieval politics; (2) The tools of governance: auditing, information management and budgeting; (3) Financial accounts and local communities. The twelve contributions, plus the excellent introduction, present a broadly informative range of topics that fit like a glove into the title of the book. Contributions range from the English Exchequer 1258-1264; auditing as an instrument of royal power in Catalonia 1318-1419; auditing in the Papal States in the 13th to 16th century; 13th-century Anglo-Jewish moneylending; Transylvanian churchwardens in the 14th to 16th century; and several that focus on Savoy. It is good to see that the timeframe of the book is slightly broader than indicated in the title or the introduction, providing a wider breadth of coverage than might have been expected. The refreshing wake-up call concerning limitations to the transactional approaches of sociology and anthropology in that they tend to omit the larger culture in which they are embedded (16) is particularly welcome at this time when borrowing theories for the social sciences can miss the point entirely in historical research of other disciplines.

The title of the book suggests it would be of particular interest to historians of accounting. They will not be disappointed. For anyone, such as myself, with an interest in the medieval history of auditing or tax, this book generates a wealth of ideas and adds intriguingly to knowledge. After an excellent and thought-provoking opening chapter by the editor, Ionuț Epurescu-Pascovici, contributor after contributor touches on these themes, and goes where accounting historians do not. Even something as seemingly mundane as the use of a fine for non-attendance for military service that more than pays for the costs of the military activity (61) invokes several ideas for worthwhile projects. One reason why so many ideas are invoked, not just there but throughout the book, is the lack of detail or examples of how the accounting was done. That is a plus for someone able to take where the contributors have brought us, and then build new projects into the accounting. It will probably, however, have the opposite effect. Had the accounting been described and illustrated, accounting historians could have used that to write papers and, from there, developed further work themselves using the same archival sources. By its absence, that shortcut to creating a niche within the discipline in this increasingly demanding era of publish-or-perish will likely mean that accounting historians do not get involved. However, this book offers them much more than ideas and some knowledge about medieval auditing and tax. The book offers a laundry list of openings into medieval themes of research most accounting historians will not have considered, not least several medieval avenues to pursue seeking accountability.

Walking through the contributions in the book, Richard Cassidy’s analysis of the changes that occurred in how English Exchequer finances were organised, managed, and audited between 1258-1564 provides a seldom recognised contextual background of rebellion, reformation, and restoration to studies of audit and accountability of the Exchequer. The contrast between an absolute monarchy and enlightened reformation, elections, constraint of corruption, and enforced accountability within such a short period provides a fascinating insight to issues faced by administrations and how they might be addressed. It is a fitting choice of first contribution in the book, and one that heightened my anticipation for what was to follow.

Roberto Biolzi’s coverage of military recruitment and funding in late-13th- to mid-14th-century Savoy opens up a refreshingly different perspective on how states maintained their status and financed their activities. The shift in emphasis from seignorial means of raising resources to direct tax in the 15th century is highlighted, leaving food for thought on how the fiscal management system operated under both the former and the latter, a topic returned to later by Nicolas Carrier.

Vittoria Bufanio’s contribution on accountability in monumental building projects in Piedmont mentions taxes being raised to pay for construction and fines on criminal activities increasing to meet the same need, but it makes no mention of how the inhabitants made their payments. Was it all paid in cash? Accountants might question the conclusion that more efficient financial records of the central administration were developed based on what is contained in the rest of the chapter, but perhaps this highlights where accounting historians could contribute to research projects such as this. Esther Tello Hernández draws attention to the lack of studies undertaken on the account books and records of the 14th-century Aragonese royal estate and, in particular, the opportunities for study of the taxation systems in place and prosopographical studies of the maestre racional (general auditor of accounts) and his subordinates and their relationship with the Crown.

Socio-historic researchers should identify several potential projects into accountability in governance of 15th-century Sicily described by Alessandro Silvestri. In the section comparing bookkeeping and auditing methods, he describes the extensive inclusion of signposting in evidence in transactions recorded (138) that highlights the unrecognised importance of evidence to support account book entries in the medieval accounting history literature. The importance of supporting evidence to auditing is made very explicit and the inclusion of scanned images of entries adds to a sense that the archive examined in this study has great potential for further investigation.

Armand Jamme’s contribution on bookkeeping and auditing in the Papal States provides a fascinating insight into how intrigue was wrapped-up in the account records, and of the steps taken both to audit them and to hide fraud. More detail of the form of the accounts would have been helpful. Nevertheless, this contribution offers great potential to further studies on audit and corruption in the keeping of accounts. The promotion of a codicological (i.e., concerning itself with the materials, as well as techniques used to make books) approach to auditing in Ekatarina Nosova’s contribution of the Duke of Burgundy’s household accounts of 1476 is illuminating, and demonstrates how to go beyond the text in meaningful and informative ways. The importance of context is highlighted by Guido Castelnuovo, as is a lacuna in financial historiography relating to medieval Savoy, where the accounting has been largely ignored by historians who have mined the financial records for information on other matters. His concluding description of secrecy and restricted access to princely archives reveals a layer of protection over royal records even a duchess cannot break. It would have been interesting to know of any instances of this type concerning the financial records across all the studies in this book, particularly given its focus on accounts and accountability.

Nicolas Carrier’s contribution on fiscal reform in late medieval Savoy brings the history of taxation into full view with its revelation of the normalisation of direct taxes in the 15th century, which also featured in the contribution from Roberto Biolzi. Aude Wirth-Jaillard’s enlightening well-structured discussion of different types of banna (fines) adds an unusual dimension and emphasis to complement the rest of this book. In not placing the useful background material on fines that it offers before earlier contributions introduced fines as part of their discourse, the editor has, perhaps, missed a trick. I certainly understood better what I had read earlier after I read this contribution. I would recommend anyone reading this book to read it after the first contribution from Richard Cassidy.

The penultimate contribution from Dean Irwin returns the reader to 13th-century England for the first time since the first contribution by Richard Cassidy. In it we are presented with a fascinating description of how Jewish moneylending was overseen by the Crown and how debtors and creditors, and the Crown itself could make use of the records kept. On the basis of the rest of this contribution, the call at the end for research to gain a better understanding of Jewish moneylending in the 13th century using the official scrutinies summarising records of debt is well worth pursuing. Yet another potential project area for historical researchers from several disciplines identified in this excellent book.

The final contribution from Adinel C. Dincă looks at churchwardens and their accounts in Transylvania. It presents a stimulating overview of what is to be found in these records and of their importance in recreating the religious and social experiences and activities of communities around their churches, not just in Transylvania but also elsewhere in Europe, including the UK. The chronologically-ordered annex providing 160 archival sources in Transylvania for this material from 1359 to 1560 is an invaluable guide for anyone with a developing interest in this under-researched topic.

The fascinating interwoven tales across several contributions in this book provide illuminating contrasting treatments. The editor, Ionuț Epurescu-Pascovici, has done very well in establishing a recognisable foundation upon which to build the individual contributions. At times, a map would have helped, the first and second graphs in the second contribution are identical despite that being impossible, and the table in that contribution omits a decimal point in the percentage column that overstates all the entries by a factor of ten. These are minor issues. The lack of an index is irritating and, some no doubt would see that as a major oversight. However, let none of these detract from the wealth of interesting material presented throughout this well-written, and well-edited book. No contribution fails to deliver and the introductory chapter by Ionuț Epurescu-Pascovici merits considerable attention in its own right.