Capitalist accounting in sixteenth century Holland: Hanseatic influences and the Sombart thesis



Publication Details

Funnell, W. N. & Robertson, J. (2011). Capitalist accounting in sixteenth century Holland: Hanseatic influences and the Sombart thesis. Accounting, Auditing and Accountability, 24 (5), 560-586.


Purpose – The purpose of this paper is to examine sixteenth century Netherlands business organisation and accounting practices, then the most advanced in Western Europe, to test Sombart's theory that scientific double entry bookkeeping was an essential prerequisite for the development of modern capitalism and the emergence of the public corporation during the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries. Rather than being a development of Paciolian bookkeeping, double-entry bookkeeping in sixteenth century Netherlands was grounded in northern German (Hanseatic) business practices. Design/methodology/approach – Sixteenth century Dutch business records and Dutch and German bookkeeping texts are used to establish that north German Hanseatic commercial practices exercised the greatest influence on The Netherlands' bookkeeping practices immediately prior to the development of the capitalistic commercial enterprise in the first years of the seventeenth century. Findings – Contrary to Sombart's thesis, scientific double-entry bookkeeping was rarely used in sixteenth century Netherlands, which became Europe's most sophisticated commercial region during the late sixteenth century and early seventeenth century. Instead, extant commercial archives and the numerous sixteenth century accounting texts suggest that Hanseatic business practices and agents' (factors') bookkeeping were the dominant influence on northern Netherlands' business practices at this time. The organisation and administrative practices of Netherlands' businesses prior to the seventeenth century, especially their decentralised structure and lack of a common capital, were founded on Hanseatic practices that were considerably different to the best Italian practice of the time. Research limitations/implications – North German influences on Dutch accounting and business practices have significant implications for social theories of the development of capitalism, notably that of Bryer, that assume the use of a scientific (capitalistic) form of double-entry bookkeeping was essential to the development of capitalism from the seventeenth century. This is tested in a subsequent paper which examines the accounting practices of the Dutch East India Company (Verenigde Oost-Indische Compagnie or VOC) which was founded in 1602 at the very cusp of modern capitalism. The research presented here was partially constrained by the scarcity of transcriptions of original sixteenth century bookkeeping records. Originality/value – The vigorous debate in the accounting history literature about the dependence of modern capitalism upon a scientific (capitalistic) form of double entry bookkeeping prompted by Sombart has been mainly concerned with England. This paper introduces into the debate material which documents the accounting and business practices of the most commercially advanced region of Europe in the late sixteenth century and the influence of Dutch bookkeeping texts.

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