Francesco Guidi-Bruscoli: Digitalising Late Medieval Account Books: the Borromei Bank Research Project

MEDEA Spring Meeting, Wheaton College, Norton, Mass.
Thursday, April 7, 2016 [return to program overview]

Francesco Guidi-Bruscoli
Università degli Studi di Firenze

This paper intends to present two pieces of software – Historic Accounts I® and Historic Accounts Enquiry® – specifically designed by a private firm (Roundhouse Software) for Queen Mary University of London. The software, based on MS Access, can be used for any ledger or account-book kept in double-entry and in money of account, medieval or modern.

At the moment the software is been used for the Borromei Bank Research Project, carried out by Jim Bolton (Queen Mary University of London) and Francesco Guidi-Bruscoli (University of Florence) and centred on the activity of an Italian bank in North-Western Europe in the fifteenth century. The sources being digitalised are two monumental ledgers of ‘Filippo Borromei & Partners’, one for London (1436-9) and one for Bruges (1438).

In the fifteenth century Bruges, Antwerp, Bergen-op-Zoom, Middleburg and Arnemuiden in the Low Countries, and London, Sandwich and Southampton in England, were the northern ends of the Italian banking and trading nexus that stretched from the Black Sea and the Gulf of Smyrna through the Mediterranean to the Atlantic and the North Sea. Raw materials for industry, spices and luxury goods came by galley and carrack for redistribution by local merchants. For their return voyages English wool, cloth and tin were loaded for sale in Italy, North Africa and the Levant.

Italian companies based in Bruges and London controlled the international money exchange market, and couriers rode back and forth carrying the bills necessary for their operations. There was also an active land and river trade to southern and central Europe, and across the Alps to Italy. Fustian came from Ulm and Augsburg to be sold at the international fairs at Antwerp and Bergen, and then re-sold locally or sent on to London and Barcelona. But the Italian banks in the north had other functions as well. Among their clients were substantial numbers of English, Flemish and other northern merchants, including one or two Hansards. They bought from and sold to the Italians and Catalans, they were extended credit by the banks, they paid each other through their accounts by ‘paper’ transfers, and they transferred funds to and from the Low Countries and the Staple at Calais.

The Italian banks had both ‘international’ and ‘local’ functions, as it were, and they kept full entries of their operations in double-entry ledgers made up from day books, receipts, the original bills of exchange, and statements of account from clients overseas, nearly all of which have now disappeared. The ledgers were once thought to have gone the same way, but more and more of them are coming to light in public and private archives in Italy. Historians have largely shied away from using them, however, simply because they contained too much unmanageable evidence. Now, thanks to advances in desktop technology, it is possible to create electronic databases from them.

Together the two pieces of software allow, among other things: searches of the database by account name; accounts to be viewed and printed, if required, in report form; searches of the text of the entries by keyword or name, and the findings viewed in card form; accounts to be analysed by transaction code, to determine how much of any one account or groups of accounts for one client involved trade, international exchange, or book transfers; the value in the money of account of the ledger (£flemish or £sterling) of any account or group of accounts to be calculated, and movements from debit to credit displayed on charts; analysis of any account or groups of accounts; exchange rates to be tracked between Bruges and London and any of the other European centres where the Borromei had banks or correspondents; the value, in money of account, of monetary flows between Northern and Southern Europe, or between specific centres, i.e. Bruges-Barcelona, Bruges-Venice, and vice versa, to be calculated; analysis of trading operations, to show commodities of trade, trade flows, and transaction costs.

 

 

[Image credit: Donar Reiskoffer, Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 license via Wikimedia Commons.]

 


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