In the 12th century, a senior official in the English treasury wrote a book describing the inner workings of his institution, likely for the benefit of decades of successors. It is also of great help to historians. The Dialogus de Scaccario, or ‘Dialogue of the Exchequer’, is a window into the English treasury in the High Middle Ages and has also allowed historians to better understand other financial records that survive from that period to today. Together, they reveal a surprisingly sophisticated and professional organization.
The author of the Dialogus de Scaccario was Richard FitzNeal. Born sometime around 1130, Richard FitzNeal was the son of Bishop Nigel of Ely. His father was an official who had himself served in the Exchequer, the English treasury created early in the 12th century, and had returned to the post later in life to help restore the efficiency of an institution that had declined while its importance had only grown.
Richard FitzNeal himself was known to his contemporaries in the 12th century as Richard of Ely. He had grown up in the Ely monastery and was well educated for the time. He authored a legal work since lost, the Tricolumnis. FitzNeal became the King’s treasurer, though according to one source only after his father purchased the position for him around 1158. Whether the position was bought or not, he served the King for a long time and would obtain further posts. FitzNeal later became Bishop of London in 1189 but continued to serve as treasurer until nearly the time of his death in 1198.
Dialogus de Scaccario
As the name implies, the Dialogus de Scaccario is written as a dialogue, in this case taking place entirely in one day “at the window of a tower next to the River Thames” between a junior and a senior official. It is a training text. As such, it simplifies or defines terminology and mechanisms that would have been common knowledge among officials at the time but would be hardly obvious today.
The dialogue is set in 1177 but FitzNeal wrote it perhaps in 1179 or in the 1180s. It was likely worked on over a long period of time, perhaps added to by Richard FitzNeal or others in subsequent editions. No manuscript of the true original work without any of its later insertions exists but the book largely reflects the state of the Exchequer in the second half of the 12th century.
This was a time when the financial administration of England was becoming more complex and centralized following the myriad of reforms introduced with the Norman conquest of England in the prior century. The Dialogus de Scaccario may also have been written to codify administrative and accounting rules for the maintenance of records held at the Exchequer. The Exchequer existed to maintain the integrity of the public finances; as such, the text reveals how England’s public finances were handled in the 12th century and, as it happens, for centuries thereafter. The most significant overhaul of this medieval system would not take place until the 19th century.
The Dialogus de Scaccario addresses the responsibilities of various officials. First were the sheriffs, each a royal appointee charged with collecting taxes on estates and towns in a particular county, or shire.
Land holdings and the value of property was kept on the famous Domesday Book, an account of nearly all property in England as it existed in the late 11th century. Each sheriff was charged a certain amount by the treasury, specifically the yearly value of expected tax collections from their jurisdiction minus the expected costs of collection, and they could keep any surplus tax collections for themselves. Sheriffs and Exchequer officials were also exempt from certain taxes themselves, a privilege that came with the office.
“a diligent description of the whole land was made with regard to its woods as well as its pastures and meadows, also its agriculture; and this description having been noted down in common words, it was collected into a book; in order, namely, that each one, content with his own right, should not with impunity usurp that of another … This book is called by the natives Domesday; that is, by metaphor, the day of judgment … when the book is appealed to its sentence can not be scorned or avoided with impunity”Description of the Domesday Book in the Dialogus de Scaccario
The sheriffs reported to the Exchequer twice a year, at Easter and at Michaelmas in late September, paying half of their county’s share of the tax burden each time. At the Exchequer, there would be a large table, ten feet by five feet, covered with a checkboard cloth on which calculations would be performed with counters placed and moved across the grid-patterned cloth. Tax collections would then be recorded on parchment rolls, known as ‘pipe rolls’ because they were rolled into a pipe shape, as well as on wooden tally sticks, used as a receipt.
The sheriffs’ tax collections and related calculations would be scrutinized by a bench of twenty-eight royal officials, many seated along the Exchequer table. These officials were variously responsible for presiding over the Exchequer, receiving amounts from the sheriffs, testing the coined monies’ purity, moving counters representing amounts along the Exchequer cloth, running calculations, maintaining the pipe rolls, and much more. The Exchequer functioned like a courtroom; officials were to question a sheriff’s accounts like a judge a witness.
On the theme of courts, other officials described by the dialogue were iterant judges. Six circuits of travelling judges were created and Richard FitzNeal had himself served as one. The iterant judges would levy assessments on counties and verify any tax exemption granted either by charters or royal writs.
Royal writs could discharge someone of an obligation to pay taxes. These exemptions would be noted in the pipe rolls each year and the manner in which they were recorded was dictated by the Dialogus de Scaccario. The standard formulation for recording an exemption from tax charges was to write ‘in perdonis per breue Regis’ (‘in pardons by writ of the king’) in the record, though scribes were sometimes more specific about the details of such an exemption.
While long overlooked by historians of accounting, one can argue the Dialogus de Scaccario is also an accounting textbook, perhaps the first in the Western world. In it, FitzNeal addressed how the accounts of sheriffs, and others charged with collecting taxes on behalf of the state, would be recorded and audited. Of course, this dates to before the advent of double-entry bookkeeping; indeed, double-entry bookkeeping would only be adopted by the British government for its own purposes in 1830. Instead, records were kept using a system of ‘charge and discharge’ accounting. Audits of these accounts were performed with numerous officials present.
The pipe rolls are a treasure chest of information; they were fairly detailed records of the revenues and debts due to the king. Literacy not being widespread, keeping detailed secular records in writing was novel. The Dialogus de Scaccario set rules for maintaining these records as well as the wooden tally sticks used as receipts given to the sheriffs when amounts due were paid into the treasury. Pipe rolls were produced every year in a consistent format. A pipe roll would start with Michaelmas and would carry forward any debts from the prior year; from there, it would record tax charges and discharges for the current year. Separate pipe rolls would be maintained on a shire-by-shire basis.
“then, in the great yearly roll, the separate items are marked in order; some memoranda, however, which frequently occur, are written apart by the clerk of the treasury; so that, when the exchequer of that term is dissolved, the greater barons may decide concerning them; which things, indeed, on account of the number of them would not easily be recalled unless they were committed to writing. Furthermore there is written what part of his farm the sheriff pays into the treasury; and then, if he fully [discharges] his obligation, in the same line: ‘and is quit’; if not, his debt is distinctly put down on the lower line, so that he shall know how much of the total of that term is wanting; and straightway he shall render satisfaction according to the judgment of those presiding. For each sheriff is to pay at that term the half of that farm which accrues from his county in a year.”The annual pipe rolls in the Dialogus de Scaccario
As mentioned before, discharges of a tax obligation could be made by payment or by royal writ or other reasons. Records show and the Dialogus de Scaccario explains that certain religious orders were exempt from tax under their charters and that similar relief might be offered to others by the king. The iterant judges and the officials at the Exchequer validated these and entered them into the pipe rolls. Though not a payment but the absence of a payment, a discharge by royal writ being recorded on the rolls nonetheless was a sign of sophistication, both reduce an amount due after all.
“For our lord king Henry II, at the Michaelmas term of the 24th year of his reign, ordered that the knights of the Temple and the brothers Hospitallers, and the monks of the Cistercian order, to whom, by the privileges in their charter, he had long since indulged quittance of all things pertaining to money … By the authority of this mandate, there fore, they will henceforth be quit, throughout the several counties of all things which pertain to money: so that that which we mentioned above may rightly be spoken of in the yearly roll as ‘remitted by writ of the king.’”Exceptions from tax in the Dialogus de Scaccario
Sheriffs were also responsible for collecting special assessments, such as one in 1110 used by King Henry I to collect money to pay for the dowry of his daughter, along with other escheats or fines. These included the moveable assets of criminals, which would be seized by the treasury while his lands would be taken over by the criminal’s feudal lord.
The treasury could also seize the assets of usurers. Pipe rolls show that not very much revenue arose from this rule but a substantial part of the Dialogus de Scaccario is devoted to this topic. This is likely because the law had recently changed, around the year 1170, to protect usurers from confiscations during their lives but required that their movable property be forfeited to the king upon their death.
“when any one having a lay estate, or also a citizen, practices public usury, if he die intestate, or also if, not giving satisfaction to those whom he has defrauded, he is seen to have made a will concerning his unrighteous acquisitions, … his money and all his movables are straightway confiscated, and, without a summons, are carried by officials to the exchequer.”Escheats from usurers in the Dialogus de Scaccario
The pipe rolls provide historians a fairly detailed picture of medieval England’s royal finances. They survive to today because they were meticulously kept; two or three copies of each roll were maintained. However, it would not be the same without the Dialogus de Scaccario; Richard FitzNeal’s dialogue provides an interpretive text which simplify the officials and processes behind the pipe rolls.
The Dialogus de Scaccario documents the medieval English treasury, with its officials and mechanisms, and focuses especially on proper recordkeeping and controls. The pipe rolls that survive to today are also evidence of this sophisticated system. The importance of proper records and controls was no doubt increased by the growing complexity and centralization of the English treasury during the High Middle Ages, which would have heightened the risk posed by unscrupulous officials. Untrained officials could have been equally as dangerous though and Richard FitzNeal’s dialogue was a protection against this. His training text is evidence of a great deal of professionalization of finance, even in the 12th century.
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1. Henderson, Ernest F. Select Historical Documents of the Middle Ages. G. Bell & Sons, 1896.
2. Jones, Michael John. “The Dialogus De Scaccario (C.1179): The First Western Book on Accounting?” Abacus, vol. 44, no. 4, 2008, pp. 443–474.
3. Richardson, H. G. “Richard Fitz Neal and the Dialogus De Scaccario (Continued).” The English Historical Review, XLIII, no. CLXXI, July 1928, pp. 321–340.
4. Richardson, H. G. “Richard Fitz Neal and the Dialogus De Scaccario.” The English Historical Review, XLIII, no. CLXX, Apr. 1928, pp. 161–171.