Double Entry: How the merchants of Venice shaped the modern world – and how their invention could make or break the planet
WON the Nib Waverley Library Award for Literature 2012
Shortlisted for the New South Wales Premier’s Awards 2013
Shortlisted for the Age Book of the Year Awards 2012
Shortlisted for the Queensland Literary Awards 2012
‘What advantages does the merchant derive from Book-keeping by double entry? It is amongst the finest inventions of the human mind.’ Goethe, 1795
‘Historians often forget. Even the most mundane professions have their history, and those mundane professions increasingly run the capitalist world.’ Norman Davies, 1996
‘The rise and metamorphosis of double-entry bookkeeping is one of history’s best-kept secrets and most important untold tales … Through its logic we have let the planet go to ruin – and through its logic we now have a chance to avert that ruin.’
Our world is governed by the numbers generated by the accounts of nations and corporations. We depend upon these numbers to direct our governments, organisations, economies, societies. But where did they come from – and how did they become so powerful?
The answer to these questions begins in the Dark Ages, with the emergence in northern Italy of a new form of accounting called double-entry bookkeeping. The story of double entry reaches from the Crusades through Renaissance Venice to the factories of industrial Britain and the policymakers of the Great Depression and the Second World War. At its heart stands a Renaissance monk, mathematician and magician, colleague of Piero della Francesca and Leonardo da Vinci, and his celebrated treatise for merchants. With double entry came the wealth and cultural efflorescence that was the Renaissance; a new, scientific worldview; and a new economic system: capitalism.
Over the past one hundred years accounting has flourished to an astonishing degree, despite the many scandals it has left in its wake. The figures double entry generates have become a sophisticated system of numbers which in the 21st century rules the global economy, manipulated by governments, financial institutions and the quant nerds of Wall Street.
And the story of double entry is still unfolding – because today it might be our last hope for life on earth.
Double Entry tells this remarkable story for the first time.
What the critics say about Double Entry:
‘A timely, topical, readable, and thought-provoking look at the history and legacy of double-entry bookkeeping.’ Elif Batuman, author of The Possessed
‘The invention of double-entry bookkeeping provided the foundation for an ordered modern economy. This elegantly written account of its invention and progress charts the epic journey of the humble device that showed how to count the cost of everything, from the Doge’s Palace to the acrobatics of John Maynard Keynes’s General Theory.’ Nicholas Wapshott, author of Keynes Hayek: The Clash That Defined Modern Economics
‘Gleeson-White’s small but perfectly formed Double Entry was my unexpected pleasure of the year. What a pleasure to read an Australian telling of a global story.’ Gideon Haigh, The Australian‘s Books of the Year
Preface: Bobby Kennedy and the wealth of nations and corporations
1 Accounting: our first communications technology
2 Merchants and mathematics
3 Luca Pacioli: from Sansepolcro to celebrity
4 Pacioli’s landmark bookkeeping treatise of 1494
5 Venetian double entry goes viral
6 Double entry morphs: the industrial revolution and the birth of a profession
7 Double entry and capitalism – chicken and egg?
8 John Maynard Keynes, double entry and the wealth of nations
9 The rise and scandalous rise of a profession
10 Gross Domestic Product and how accounting could make or break the planet