This 500-year-old book is still the foundation for bookkeeping and accountingSteven Nash
The immaculate cover, the strong spiral binding, the crisp black ink on pristine paper; there’s nothing like one of our brand-new study books. But even though it’s fresh from the printers and the information is bang-up-to-date, some of the core concepts explored were first written down in a book much, much older.
How much older? Over 500 years.
In the city of London, there’s a Grade II listed building at 1 Moorgate Place. This is the headquarters of the Institute of Chartered Accountants in England & Wales (ICAEW) and in their rare book collection they have a copy of the ‘Summa de artithmetica, geometria, proportioni et proportionalita.’
It probably wasn’t cheap; in 2019, a first edition sold at auction for $1.2 million.
This book was written by a Franciscan friar called Luca Pacioli and it summarised the mathematical knowledge of the age. It tackled basic mathematics, geometry, and included an introduction to algebra. Around 1000 copies were printed and it was used in Northern Italy’s schools.
But Pacioli is often regarded as the father of accounting because his textbook also contained one of the very first descriptions of the double-entry bookkeeping system. He may not have invented double-entry bookkeeping, the system was said to have been used in several countries – but he contributed greatly to the widespread adoption of it through education.
This system is still used today.
Even in an age where software can do a lot of work, and artificial intelligence will change the day-to-day work of a bookkeeper, this underpinning knowledge of the double-entry system, what it is and how it works, is as vital today as it was when the ink on Pacioli’s paper was still wet.
Now, I am not recommending that you read Pacioli’s book (that first edition was very expensive and you’d need to be fluent in Latin). But it’s interesting that in an age where change seems to be the only constant, some ideas are so good that they stand firm as the centuries fade away.