Who would have suspected that bookkeeping would be so fascinating? Apparently the planet’s first accountants were employed by the religious authorities in ancient Mesopotamia, an area that falls into modern Iraq, tasked with making sure the people paid their taxes – usually livestock and foodstuffs – to the religious leaders who oversaw tax matters.
Way back then they’d issue receipts and IOUs in much the same way as we do today, and in the process the Mesopotamians invented one of humankind’s biggest and most profound achievements: writing. Roll on time a few thousand years and, in late medieval Italy, the ancient practice of double-entry bookkeeping emerged, with Luca Pacioli, a Franciscan Friar, the first to commit the method to paper.
Is bookkeeping really ‘revolutionary? You bet!
Double entry bookkeeping might not strike you as revolutionary, but it was back then. It recognised for the first time that every transaction has two sides, a credit and a debit which meant, in turn, that a proper set of ‘books’ always balanced perfectly. Religious types at the time saw this remarkable balancing act as a godly thing, perhaps even divinely inspired.
Although it isn’t the world’s most thrilling thing, double entry bookkeeping had a dramatic effect on the next few hundred years. By the twentieth century it had taken over the civilised world and become one of its most important technologies, a vital cog in the capitalist machine.
Looked at through rose tinted glasses, accounting is a type of storytelling, providing an account that requires an audience, in other words an auditor. In Italy during Pacioli’s time the auditor was god himself, and some experts even believe there’s a close connection between the emergence of compulsory ‘confession’ for Catholics and the use of double entry.
Obsessive measuring and pattern-seeking
Today more than ever our culture in the western world is obsessed with measuring and auditing stuff, from school and hospital league tables to personal and career goals at home and work. Pattern-making is more or less hard-wired into us, even though now we’re accountable to the government not a deity.
Next time you need to think about bookkeeping, don’t yawn. Think back to the ancients in Mesopotamia and marvel at the simple yet world-changing system they dreamed up, without which our modern world would be very different indeed, if not unrecognisable.