Anna Paulina Orłowska: Everything in its Proper Place? – Topological Evolution in Medieval Account Books at the Example of Johan Pyre. Abstract # 8 (random order)

“A common challenge in editing medieval merchant books arises from their intended purpose: in contrast to other account books and modern mercantile bookkeeping the merchants of that era often wrote accounts solely for their own record keeping rather than because they were accountable to a higher level of organisation. Especially in the Hanseatic League, where most merchants worked as individual actors that were not employed by a larger firm, the writing and notation style of a merchant was entirely his own choice. Thus a merchant could employ methods he deemed best adapted to his needs. A direct consequence of this freedom is a (sometimes gradual, sometimes punctuated) evolution of merchant’s account methods over time, as his needs changed and he also gained experience that allowed him to better adjust his methods to achieve the desired outcome.

Johan Pyre, a Hanseatic merchant active in Danzig from 1421 to 1455, constitutes a notable case study for such a development. Over the course of his career his bookkeeping underwent an evolution in eight significant steps which were furthermore underpinned by slow gradual changes in his bookkeeping.

In the context of TEI the topological evolution of his accounting methods is of particular importance. On the one hand the structure of his notations often contained significant information regarding his business and his partners. Especially the Methode der Gegenseiten (i. e. method of opposite sides, a method in which Pyre wrote down the basic information on a bargain on the left side of the page and the transactions in detail on the right side) utilised the potential of efficiently structured notes to convey details of a transaction. This method developed by Pyre can be seen as a step towards modern capitalist bookkeeping, yet it still bares the clear imprints of Hanseatic trade practice.

On the other hand these tools underwent a drastic change over time in which methods were introduced and later on ceased again. This process led to a source which is fluctuates highly in text content as well as structure.

The analysis of the merchant book yields a number of relevant facts which can be useful for other projects: it constitutes a rich source for the usage of coins and currencies of its time and allows for evaluating their values and exchange rates over time. Additional numeric data can be obtained for units of measurement, although many declared values can be problematic to convert into modern units due to incomplete information noted down by Pyre.

This talk will describe these processes in detail and systematically analyse the challenges they pose to a future digital editing. This edition will be carried out in an additional project at the University of Warsaw and will be intertwined with teaching this methods in a master-level course.

Because the temporal information given by the merchant is often inconclusive the temporal analysis contains inevitable uncertainties. Together with the long-term gradual changes in the text structure they constitute hurdles that demand the careful search for proper algorithms for their translation into digital media, where clear-cut distinctions are preferred by the very nature of computers. This will facilitate the development of better methods for editing difficult and highly variable sources.”


Anna Paulina Orłowska (Universität Kiel)

Presentation: Oct 23, 2.50 – 3.10 p.m., University of Regensburg, Großer Sitzungssaal des Philosophikums (PT 3.0.79) [PROGRAMME]


Picture credits: Late Medieval structures at Gdánsk harbor, by Nikater (Own work) [GFDL ( or CC BY-SA 3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

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