Bread, Butter and Bookkeeping

European urban civilization as we know does not find its roots in London or Paris, let alone in Berlin, but in three relatively small cities, all ports, all energetic, individualistic, and outward-looking places. These cities, in the chronology of their commercial and creative flourishing, were Venice, Antwerp, and Amsterdam. In each of these cities a strong tradition of printing developed and they all produced outstanding printers, Aldus in Venice, Plantin in Antwerp, and the Blaeu family in Amsterdam. That is no coincidence. Creativity – interpreted in the widest possible sense – and cosmopolitanism go hand in hand.

Historians tend to focus on the highlights of the past; historians of the book point at specimens of perfect printing or outstanding typography. Perfection however is a ladder of a thousand treads. Moving upwards is a slow and often risky process. Many have laboured in relative obscurity to develop the skills and techniques necessary to print a book, but few reached the top of the ladder. At the same time, a master such as Plantin was not only capable of undertaking spectacular projects, but also willing to use his talent for basic ‘bread and butter’ printing, the importance of which in the European-wide dissemination of ideas and techniques cannot be overestimated. The skill of printing, for example, was fundamental to the development of early capitalism. One of the most notable Antwerp printers preceding Plantin was Gillis Coppens van Diest. During three decades between roughly 1540 and 1570 he produced numerous books on a variety of subjects and in various languages. He was closely involved with Abraham Ortelius’s grand project of the Theatrum Orbis Terrarum for which, between 1570 and 1570, he produced a number of beautiful maps. His work on that project was to be continued by Plantin. At the same time, Antwerp was a centre where the technique of bookkeeping was introduced from Venice. As shown by Robert Henry Parker’s Bibliographies for Accounting Historians (1903), both Coppens and Plantin were involved in the publication of such vitally important and yet, aesthetically, less than glorious books.

The early history of double-entry bookkeeping and banking is another way of showing the impact the three cities mentioned above made on the development of European civilization. Venice taught Europe financial management. Tuscan-born Franciscan friar Luca Pacioli was a mathematician (and teacher of Leonardo da Vinci) who had moved to Venice around 1464. His Tractatus mathematicus ad discipulos perusinos is a textbook of almost 600 pages, written between December 1477 and April 1478, containing sixteen sections on merchant arithmetic, such as barter, exchange, profit, mixing metals, and algebra. In 1519, Jan Ympyn Christoffels returned from a twelve years stay in Venice where he had been sent by his father, the merchant Christoffel Ympens, to learn commercial practices and the art of bookkeeping. Jan settled in Antwerp where he prospered as an exporter of silks, woollens, and tapestries. Although much of his business was directed towards England, there is no record that he himself ever crossed the Channel. Today he is remembered as the author of the first Flemish manual on bookkeeping, entitled Nieuwe instructie ende bewijs der looffelijcker consten des rekenboecks, printed posthumously in Antwerp in 1543 by Gillis Coppens van Diest for Anna Swinters, the widow of the author. Parts of the book are literally taken van Pacioli’s Tractatus. A French version of the book appeared in the same year, also in Antwerp. Four years later this manual was translated into English as A Notable … Woorke, Expressyng and Declaryng the Forme how to Kepe a Boke of Accomptes or Reconynges (‘rekeningen’ in Dutch!), printed by Richard Grafton, the King’s Printer under Henry VIII and Edward VI.

Antwerp being the commercial centre of Europe, served as training ground for many youths, including young Englishmen bent on a mercantile career. Parents sent their sons to the Low Countries to learn the current commercial methods that were applied over there. Knowledge of bookkeeping methods was spread among English merchants through treatises and manuals printed in the Low Countries. The English version of Ympyn is the oldest extant text on accounting in English. Merchants from the Low Countries themselves had learned their skills in Italy. It is probable that Sir Thomas Gresham, who was resident in Brussels in 1543, was familiar with Ympyn’s book. It has even been suggested that he may have been responsible for the translation of the French version into English. London-born John Weddington’s instruction on ‘how to kepe marchantes bokes’ was also published in Antwerp by Pieter van Keerberghen (1567). A grocer and member of the Merchant Adventurers in Antwerp, Weddington spent many years in Antwerp as a merchant and, for a period, as factor of Sir Thomas Gresham. He also worked as a professional bookkeeper and probably taught bookkeeping as well. How relevant were these books at the time? Were these just bread and butter publications or do they reflect the prestige of printer and publisher?

A striking aspect of Chaucer’s Shipman’s Tale is its stress on the technical aspects of commerce. There are numerous references to the business world in the story reflecting the accelerating development of European trade and commerce. The focus on economics brought with it the formulation and regulation of aspects contractual commercial law: the use of the tally, a theory of debtors and creditors, and the necessity for witnesses, gages, and written contracts in actions involving loans. Chaucer witnessed one of the commercial innovations of the modern world – the development of double-entry bookkeeping. This system transformed the accounting of transactions in Western Europe. Its impact was probably no less radical than the impact of computer technology on modern commercial transactions. Most of the account books in England at the time still used comparatively primitive accounting systems, but Chaucer’s dealings with international finance had made him familiar with new Continental techniques and he elevated this knowledge to the level of poetry.

The close financial involvement between the Low Countries and Britain was established early in history and has lasted through the ages. From the beginning, in this ‘marriage of convenience’ the Low Countries set the pace, Flanders first and the Northern Netherlands subsequently. In 1608, for example, Robert Norton’s translation of De Thiende (1585: it is interesting to note that such publications were written in the vernacular rather than in Latin) by Bruges-born mathematician Simon Stevin appeared in London, entitled Disme: the Art of Tenths; or, Decimall Arithmatike. In his pamphlet – the original Dutch version was published by Plantin who himself had started his career as a bookkeeper – Stevin had argued the value of introducing a decimal system for ‘Money-masters, Marchants, and Landmeaters’. His revolutionary proposal had to wait almost two hundred years before it was adopted in Thomas Jefferson’s United States (where a tenth of a dollar is still known as a ‘dime’) and another two centuries before Britain decided to drop the shilling.

The real history of banking starts in the seventeenth century. The foundation of the Bank of Amsterdam (Amsterdam Wisselbank) in 1617 and the introduction of the gulden (bank-guilder) as a universally accepted unit of account produced an economic stability that would make the city the commercial capital of the world. Banking and finance became Dutch specialities attracting talent to the Netherlands from all over Europe and beyond. William III of Orange chartered the foundation of the Bank of England in 1694. The Bank of Amsterdam served as an example of how to bring economic stability and prosperity to the nation. Dutchmen resident in England and in the Netherlands itself were financial backers of the Bank for a substantial period. During the Bank’s early trying years the States of Holland continually bailed it out of debt, as did Flemings and Walloons living in England. Low Country merchants had been in the forefront of the establishment of the Bank of England, both financially and intellectually. The first governor of the bank was John Houblon who was of Flemish descent. The offices in Threadneedle Street were built in 1734 on an estate which had formerly been home to the Houblon family.