The answer to last week’s Crocodile mystery is, as some of you guessed, £135 15s 0d (or 135 pounds, 15 shillings). This amount is a snippet of one entry made on a page in Folger MS V.b.308, the account book of Elizabeth Hardwick Talbot (a.k.a. Bess of Hardwick), the Countess of Shrewsbury. Her steward, Edward Whalley, apparently kept the accounts in this bound manuscript, dated ca. 1591. The items recorded in the account book and on this particular page (p. 12) almost certainly refer to costs involved in the building of Hardwick Hall, a magnificent country house in Derbyshire that is now part of the National Trust in the U.K.
The £135 15s figure is a rather substantial one–the largest monetary entry by far on the page.
Item paid for hanginges Bought the same
& day of William DeMilmener as appeareth
by his Bill of the particulars thereof } 135-15-00
These must have been some impressive “hanginges,” possibly expensive tapestries hung to decorate a room or rooms in the hall. Checking this amount with an online historical currency converter set up by Eric Nye, 135 pounds would correspond to approximately $37,700 (American dollars).
Considering this one line made me curious about the page as a whole and all of the items, as well as some elements of its structure.
For instance, this manuscript page has a tally at the bottom on the left-hand margin (as many account books do), in this case: £202 18s 1d.
I wondered, was that sum correct? How specifically did Whalley (or his clerk or whoever) arrive at this number? Was a separate scratch sheet used for adding the various columns up and computing a grand total? Doing so is not as easy as one might expect: after all, sixteenth-century England was not widely using base 10. Since 12 pence = 1 shilling and 20 shillings = 1 pound, conversions have to be done in addition to the addition, as it were.
I counted my blessings that no marks or groats were involved on this page and got to work to check, enlisting some help from a spreadsheet program. After transferring the numbers, and using the INT and MOD functions (for “carrying” the shillings and pence) along with the standard total feature, I got a result of £203 4s 1d. Assuming that the numbers were transcribed correctly during this past December’s advanced paleography workshop (transcriptions were vetted), the tally as written on the page was six shillings off. Not bad, considering the original account-keeper didn’t have the benefit of computer accounting software.
Keith Thomas’ excellent article entitled “Numeracy in Early Modern England”1 reminds us how taxing such computations could be during the period and how relatively few people deigned to learn such things. Arithmetic was apparently not considered suitable for the aristocracy nor for most others; it was seen as somehow demeaning or simply too difficult and best avoided if possible or left to the younger generation and … merchants. Thinking about this prevailing attitude and staring at the numbers on the page, I couldn’t help but think of a similar divide today among many in regards to computers.
Beyond checking the tally, I began to see that I could do further analysis on the account book now that I had the data from it tabulated. It was a simple matter to sort the items from highest to lowest, for example. After those lavish hangings, the next most expensive item was for “xx loades & a halfe of hay” at 18s 6d per load. The original account keeper gets the multiplication of this total exactly right: £18 19s 3d. The third costliest item, perhaps not surprisingly, is taxes: £10 7d for “first fruytes of Whytchurch due at Michelmas.” Some aspects of life apparently don’t change much.
On the other end of things, the least expensive items are also interesting. The service of “crossinge the Water” cost only 2 pence while “two Iron Candlestickes” and “a pounde of Candles to pyle the billetes” each came to four pence.
As I was working with the numbers and transcribed descriptions, I added another descriptive column to break the items down into types, mostly goods or services. A small measure of analysis from that shows that at least for this page, the goods are generally the more expensive items and the services the least. Whether this trend would hold up for the rest of the account book (or other account books in the period) would be interesting to consider along with a number of other research questions.
Examining data from early modern account books would seem to have great potential for informing us about not just economics in the period but the larger culture as well, especially as the quantity of transcribed manuscripts grows. Monetary amounts are one of the content tags in the EMMO encoding tag set, so inquiries along these lines should be particularly feasible across the entire EMMO corpus. Of course, additional coding and analysis for more in-depth investigations would be most welcome. The MEDEA group (Modeling semantically Enriched Digital Edition of Accounts) has been meeting and sharing accounting information in various forms over the course of the past year with some very interesting projects. Unlocking the information of account books through digital analysis may just be one of the next big things.