DCM Holy Island account 1408-9
Account of dom. John of Newburn Prior of Holy Island from the feast of Pentecost A.D. 1408 to the same feast the year round
Numerous accounts survive from the fourteenth century onwards in the monastic archive for the various departments of the monastery (terrar, bursar, cellarer, granator; almoner; chamberlain; communar; feretrar; hostiller; infirmarer; and sacrist) and its cells (Coldingham, Farne, Finchale, Holy Island, Jarrow, Lytham, Stamford, Wearmouth, and Durham College Oxford). With minor variations they follow the common pattern of such documents, which was designed to not reveal not the state of the department's or cell's financial health but to ensure that the accountant did not engage in financial malpractice; it is a pattern that calls for care if reliable financial data is to be extracted.
The heading of the account names the office-holder responsible as accountant and specifies the period covered; although it resulted in years of unequal length the usual accounting year at Durham ran from a day between Ascension and Whitsun to the next because this was when the annual chapter was held. The principal elements of the account are identified by headings in the left margin. The first in the Receipts section is 'Remanentia', the balance remaining in hand at the end of the previous year's account; in this instance there was none. 'Arreragia' follow; these "arrears" were recorded in the balance of the previous account and were five sums that the accountant had failed to collect during that year, most probably in rents, but which it was believed were collectable and hence should be included among the amounts to be received during the current year. Next comes the main 'Recepta', thirteen entries in all, among which the largest appears to be the third, 'Et de xxxiiij libris Receptis de firmis et redditibus huius anni' [view]; in fact the £33 was not the amount actually received but a set amount, probably based on an old rental, and it emerges from the final balance that this was wildly unrealistic. Eleven of the thirteen entries for receipts appeared regularly in each account, notably those for tithes and other ecclesiastical revenues such as mortuaries, and the accountant would not have been able to elude the auditors' scrutiny over these, but with the two irregular, unpredictable receipts there was scope for malfeasance, particularly when no other monk from the cell was present at the annual chapter; the tenth entry records 'Et de liij s iiij d Receptis de Vicario de Whittyngeham pro mensa sua a festo Michaelis vsque festum Pentecostes' [view], while the next is a similar receipt, again for "board", and had either of the men making these payments been willing to collude with the accountant the auditors might well have hard to put to it to detect payments going directly into the accountant's pocket. The final element in Receipts is 'Mutuaciones'; the recording of borrowings among receipts was unusual at Durham, perhaps because, although undoubtedly highly desirable, it was very difficult for the auditors to monitor, particularly when the indebtedness was simply a matter of those due to be paid under entries included as expenditure being willing to accept late payment, as the great crisis of 1438 showed all too clearly (Dobson pp. 285-86). The Receipts end with totals, one without Arrears and Borrowings, and the other with them; these are conspicuously placed in a wide space, and to the right, making it easy to glance from these totals to the Expenses total and back again.
The Expenses are undivided, but in fact the first entry fulfils the same function as the Remanentia at the beginning of Receipts since 'In primis in superplusagio vltimi compoti liij s xj d ob' [view] refers to the balance remaining at the end of the previous year, a balance which showed that the accountant had in theory spent more than he had actually received and so could carry this amount forward as the first call on the revenues in the current year. Most items of expenditure were standard, but the last four less so. 'Item in Solucione facta studentibus Oxon- xl s Item in Contribucione facta domui comune xiij s iiij d' [view]; the former refers to the regular payments made over a long period by the cells and monastic departments to support Durham monks studying in Oxford, while the latter concerns contributions made in this particular year to increase the funds of the monastic common house for which the communar accounted, contributions which in other years could be devoted to a whole range of projects, often architectural. The penultimate entry concerns the repayment of debts, and the last to the purchase of a flock of 'iiijxx ouibus matricibus emptis precio capitis xvj d' [view].
The total of Expenses follows, written well to the right, and continuing with the balancing items. Here the writing runs close up to the right-hand edge of the parchment and the continuation lines start further to the left in regular steps, making it vitually impossible to surreptiously add at the beginning or ends of the lines. The balancing process is most revealing. When the Receipts and Expenses are first balanced 'sic excedunt recepta expensas in xvj li xvij d' [view]. In fact, however, far from actual receipts greatly exceeding expenses, the figure used included £16 2s. 4d. of rents for property that was decayed or waste and the accountant was allowed to exonerate himself from answering for this amount, putting the figure for actual receipts at £82 16s. 2½d. This reversed the position: 'Et sic superexpendit xj d'. Thus it can be seen that John of Newburn, a seasoned administrator, achieved a considerable amount in this his eighth out of sixteen years as prior of Holy Island: he had eliminated arrears, of which there is no mention in the balance, he had reduced overexpenditure from 53s. 11½d to a mere 11d., and had nonetheless held outgoings down to the point where he was able to invest £5 6s. 8d. in 80 sheep.