Before anyone complaints, let me just say some of my best friends work on accounts. Despite their dry and dusty reputation, there’s plenty to be had from them – the accounts, that is; obviously, friends don’t need justifying! I refer you, for example, to an extremely interesting paper recently published by Benjamin Wild drawing on the Wardrobe accounts of Henry III during his captivity (1264–65); and another, by Lars Kjær, drawing on the household accounts of Eleanor, Countess of Leicester, in approximately the same period. These papers show us how accounts can reveal much, much more than the spending habits of ‘the accounted’, and the anal retentiveness of accountants themselves (although, on reflection, I even find that interesting… I mean, after all, as I have said before and will no doubt say again, much of my work is administrative history, and I spend a lot of my life mining for socially-meaningful gold in what most people would regard as the medieval precursor to the form letter, so who am I to talk…?!) Properly read, accounts can actually tell us about ideals and mindsets. I’m presuming that, for those reading, this is hardly news.

What has today drawn my attention to how one reads accounts was my own annual tax return. The taxation year in Australia ends on 30 June, and returns are due in within a couple of months of this date, so I have been filling in my expenses spreadsheet (the one I began several months ago with every intention of being a conscientious and regular recorder, in solidarity with the medieval maintainers of the close or fine rolls).[1] When I established this record I decided, because that’s the kind of gal I am, to include every expense, and not merely those relevant for taxation purposes. So I’ve been going through the giant undifferentiated mass of receipts in my ‘receipts in’ folder. You know the one:

I’m now in a position to report on the data, and interpreting them is what has got me reflecting on the interest that accounts (modern or medieval) can provide. Apparently, for instance, in the last six months I have spent more than three times as much on books as on clothes. For further illustration, my book budget was over thirteen times my budget for hair cuts over the same period. And that’s only counting the books in the ‘professional’ category, many of which were purchased second-hand. About 37% of these purchases were covered by my postgraduate research allowance, and the rest was at my own cost. I can also tell you that, on average, excluding postage, I spent AUD$29.56 per book, and that the cheapest (The Welsh Wars of Edward I, by John E. Morris) set me back just AUD$2.13, while the most expensive (The Acts of Welsh Rulers, 1120–1283, ed. by Huw Pryce) cost me AUD$93.63.[2] I can tell you that 26% of my book expenses went on primary sources relevant to my PhD, and 47% on relevant secondary sources, with other purchases dedicated to teaching, languages, and ‘general’ or broader reading on medieval matters. I can tell you that, numerically speaking, primary and secondary sources each constituted about a third of my purchases, even though primary sources contributed less to overall expenditure than secondary, because the latter tended to be more recent publications and, therefore, to be purchased new, and cost more. Reading my own accounts back to myself, I find myself revealed as someone who cares about having access to the original text (e.g. second hand copies of Latin editions from the Rolls Series) without having to scour the internet or (horror!) make the two-hour commute to Clayton to use the University library. I care about being up to date with scholarship in my specific field; and I care enough about the fate of scholarly publishers to buy the book if and when I can, rather than just infinitely renewing my loans. I care about my professional development and quality as a teacher enough to purchase books that will help me maintain a broad awareness of this chimera we call ‘Medieval Studies’ and design curricula to introduce students to it. Now you can see why I love those conference bookstalls so much!

This is juicy stuff, and I wish I knew this much about the people of interest to me in the past. For instance, if we knew that Katherine Paynel had spent three times as much on parchment and maintenance for her household scribe than on alms, or eels, or thatch, we might be in a position to say something about her activities as a householder and a participant in the kind of estate management that relied on literate pursuits. We might be able to say something about gendered generalizations and lived realities. We might be able to say something about the differences between individuals’ concepts of value and applied prioritization. I hope that, should anyone ever get their hands on the figures and bother to read them, similar judgements will be made of me. I have some nice clothes, and I get my hair done before a new semester of teaching begins, or when conferences are looming. But mostly, I care about ideas, so that’s where I put my money.

Sadly, the Australian Taxation Office does not collect this most interesting data, only the summary numbers. It’s kind of like looking at the Domesday returns and knowing that all the details you’ve scrupulously collected about the number of cows in Bourn are going to be consigned to the historical dustbin in the process of collation. *Sigh*

[1] And we all know where those kinds of intentions end up!
[2] While I think of it, I must make special mention of Hindsight Books in NZ who not only located for me a copy of Powicke’s King Henry III and the Lord Edward which turned out to be in excellent condition, but were also exceedingly pleasant to deal with and deserve global praise just for that!