How do you verify a debt or payment in a mostly illiterate society? What records can you rely on? Trade and credit in the medieval world required some way of tracking amounts due and paid without the aid of written records. In medieval England, wood sticks were used to represent debts and by a simple yet elegant method they actually proved to be more useful than paper records. Thus, tally sticks were put to use until the 19th century.
Notches on ‘tally sticks’ have been used since ancient times to keep count of things. A baboon bone found in Swaziland with 29 notches cut into it, perhaps tracking the lunar phases, dates to 35,000 BC. Wood tally sticks were used to keep records of loans and payments. They were put into regular use in England during the reign of Henry I, son of William the Conqueror, in the early 12th century. In England, tally sticks or ‘tallies’ were standardized and adopted for official use at large scale.
An English tally stick was cut from hazel or willow. Cheap and abundant, willow was harvested from trees along the Thames not far from central London where tally sticks were vital to official business. The sticks were used to keep records of debts and payments. Notches of different widths were cut into the stick to represent an amount and the names of the parties were carved onto each side. This was an appealing way of recording transactions in an illiterate society.
Usually, a tally stick would be split down the middle lengthwise and each party to a debt would keep one half, each with the notches exposed. The two halves could be matched only to each other. The precise location of the notches, the thickness of the stick, its length, the profile of the fracture, and the grain of the wood all served to confirm that the holder was in fact the rightful owner, or obligor, of a specific debt. Thus, a debt represented by tally sticks was clearly owed only to a single creditor at any time; tally sticks protected someone from accidentally paying the wrong person and still not having their debt properly extinguished.
Splitting the stick in two also prevented the holder of one piece from altering the amount represented by adding or hiding notches without the other party noticing when time came to match the two. Unlike written text on two copies of a paper record, the wood on a tally stick could only be removed and not added to, so it was always possible to tell who altered their stick to commit a fraud.
Sometimes, a hole was made at the thicker end of the stick so that thread could tie tally sticks together. Another common alteration was to split the wood starting only a bit down its length so that one half was a bit shorter than the other, the longer piece was called a ‘stock’ and the shorter a ‘foil’. Customarily, the stock was given to the creditor and the foil to the debtor in the transaction represented by the stick.
The government itself would issue tally sticks as recognition of its debts. When the Peruzzi, a Florentine banking firm, lent the government £4,000 in 1339, they were given at least two tallies in return showing their right to receive repayment from tax collections due from the county of Northumberland. These tax collections essentially secured their loan. Centuries later, in the 17th century, a community of bankers developed advancing money against government tallies.
Like so many debts evidenced in a physical form, the tally sticks could have circulated as money. A right to receive £5 in the near future should be worth nearly £5 itself and could be used to satisfy a payment. Though it isn’t clear to what extent tally sticks were used in this way, they were certainly offered as payment on some occasions.
Near the end of Edward I’s reign in the early 14th century, when the King’s butler William Trente was due some money, he was given a tally recognizing money due from the citizens of London and from whom he would obtain payment. Transactions like this seem to have become a regular practice, for state business at least, in the 14th and 15th centuries, perhaps because the government was more hard-pressed for money
Tally sticks were not only used for debts but also to record payment of taxes. In medieval England, sheriffs were tasked with collecting taxes and fees. Twice a year, at Easter and Michaelmas (September 29), the sheriffs would be called to the Exchequer, the royal treasury, to pay about half of what was owed by their respective counties in taxes. The money was passed onto the Exchequer and tallies used as proof these transactions took place even if they might also be entered into a parchment, and later paper, receipt roll.
Thus, these tally sticks functioned as a kind of receipt. When the sheriffs would return for the second payment of the year, at Michaelmas, the tally served as proof of what they had already collected, and paid into the treasury, on behalf of their county. As with debts, the sticks prevented fraud by officials. In 1297, William de Brochose was entrusted by a sheriff with sixty shillings of tax money along with a tally showing what had already been paid to the Exchequer, each to be taken to London. He altered the tally to show that the sixty shillings he carried had already been paid to the Exchequer and pocketed the money. This was discovered and de Brochose was sentenced to a year and a day in prison.
A medieval treatise dating back to the 12th century, the Dialogue of the Exchequer, laid out how tally sticks for use at the Exchequer were to be made. The sticks were required to be as long as the distance between a thumb and an index finder. Denominations were identified by the length of the notches made in the wood. A notch indicating £1,000 would be the thickness of a palm, £100 the breadth of a thumb, £20 as thick as a little finger, £1 the size of a swollen grain of barley, and one shilling and one penny even smaller still, minor scores in the wood. Larger numbers, and thus larger amounts, would be recorded on the underside of the stick, (underside with respect to the writing) and smaller numbers on the top.
While rising literacy during the late Middle Ages, at least among officials, may have rendered tally sticks obsolete, they continued to be used for centuries longer. Tax receipts would now be recorded on paper as well of course. For the government, the decision to abandon tally sticks for good came in 1783, but only upon ‘the death or surrender of the then two chamberlains’. Six centuries worth of tally sticks had accumulated in the Palace of Westminster when use of the sticks by the Exchequer was finally discontinued in 1826.
In 1836, to save space, the decision was made to dispose of the sticks in a stove. Not only were six centuries of financial records destroyed but, in the process of burning them, the old Palace of Westminster itself caught fire and most of it, including both houses of Parliament, burned to the ground. Some Exchequer tally sticks survived intact, recovered from sweepings after the fire; some dated to the 14th century and are now stored in the United Kingdom’s National Archives.
Tally sticks came to be a symbol of medieval English finance. Their longevity is clearly a reason but instruments freely used must justify their own existence. Tally sticks provided a control as ingenious as it was simple. Representing a debt or a payment made on a piece of paper may seem a superior option, since far more information can be conveyed in far less space. However, unlike paper, a tally stick is unique and impervious to forgery. Because wood can only be removed from and not added to a stick, it also makes it obvious to determine which party had the altered version and which the true representation of the debt. There is something to be admired in the utility of simple sticks.
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In time, the term ‘tallies’ came to mean short-term government debt. Thus ‘tallies’ could have been found on the 1697 balance sheet of the Bank of England. Another example of debts circulating as money were the ‘calabashes’ of the Australian outback. Consider subscribing to this blog’s newsletter here.
1. Apostolou, Nicholas, and Larry Crumbley. “The Tally Stick: The First Internal Control?” The Forensic Examiner, Spring 2008, pp. 60–62.
2. Azizo, Emma. “Tally Stick.” Medieval London, Fordham University, 2017.
3. Harford, Tim. “What Tally Sticks Tell Us about How Money Works.” BBC News, 9 July 2017.
4. Jenkinson, Hilary. “Exchequer Tallies.” Archaeologia, vol. 62, no. 2, 26 Jan. 1911, pp. 367–380.
5. Roger, Euan, director. Unboxing the Archive: Tally Sticks. The National Archives UK, 2 Feb. 2021.