How tally sticks were used in medieval England

Originally published at: How tally sticks were used in medieval England | Boing Boing


Fascinating. But he did not make enough of a point about how to match two halves. They must have been signed or annotated, otherwise how to find the one that matched with the one presented? (Yes he mentioned writing on it “in some cases”.) At a time when presumably most people were not literate, were there a lot of tally sticks signed ‘X’?

And there must have been an interesting filing system!

how to find the one that matched with the one presented

The sticks are natural so have a grain and twists. Split a stick (not saw it) and the two sides will match like puzzle pieces.

must have been an interesting filing system

I watched this a while ago, so I don’t remember if he mentions it, but the bundles of tally sticks were tied with red ribbons, that’s where we get the term “red tape” for bureaucratic rigamarole. They kept the bundles in the basement of parliament for hundreds of years and when they tried to clean it up by burning the dried bundles of sticks, they set fire to the building and burned it down. They re-built it and that’s where Big Ben is now.

edit: the part in bold is incorrect. Red tape was used for paper documents and the idea was used in England but came from Spain. Red tape has nothing to do with tally sticks.


Yeah, but how to find the one you think will match. Once you’ve found it it’s easy to see whether it matches. But when you’ve filed thousands…

He did not mention the ribbons but did relay the story about the disposal and fire, etc.

1 Like

Turns out the ribbon thing is wrong. The red tape comes from Spain and was paper documents only. Just looked it up to be sure.

1 Like

The Shakri serve the tally sticks!


The concept of backing up data to the cloud was not fully understood at the time.


This reminds me of the movie Minority Report, how they had the Precog’s names laser etched on wooden balls, because each ball was unique and could not be counterfeited.

Nor burning a copy, it seems.


I get why people would use the sticks to record numbers, and I can see that splitting the stick would be a convenient way of making a carbon copy. I can’t really think of a case where it would prove anything, though.

If I’m lying that you never paid me for that cow, I will just pretend not to have my half of the stick.

If I say you paid me two shillings, but you say you paid two and sixpence, then one of us will discover that we are wrong as soon as we get the relevant stick out of the filing cabinet, so there’s no need to physically authenticate them, unless one of us is lying, in which case see above.

If the tax collector asks to see my receipt stick, I can just show him anyone’s stick, unless he knows who I am, in which case he can just consult his own records (unless he is dishonest).

It’s a bit like getting a receipt when you take money out of an ATM – regardless of whether it’s hard to forge, there’s no scenario where it can prove anything to your advantage.

This is why the stick is split between the two parties, so one cannot lie against the other. I think it’s important to note that they signify deals that have been struck, not promissory notes.

Exchequer tallies were ordered replaced in 1782 by an “indented cheque receipt,” but the Act of Parliament (23 Geo. 3, c. 82) thereby abolishing “several useless, expensive and unnecessary offices” was to take effect only on the death of the incumbent who, being “vigorous,” continued to cut tallies until 1826.

Exchequer tallies were ordered replaced in 1782 by an “indented cheque receipt,” but the Act of Parliament (23 Geo. 3, c. 82) thereby abolishing “several useless, expensive and unnecessary offices” was to take effect only on the death of the incumbent who, being “vigorous,” continued to cut tallies until 1826.

It did work, though. I remember there were a series of large scale frauds when the paper “indented cheques” came in . This is partly because they were new, and people were unused to the possibility of forgeries. I have had a quick dig for the history, but no luck yet.

But proving to each other that one of you is lying is not useful (except in cases of amnesia). You both already know that.

Suppose you took someone to court, and the judge asked to see the sticks. The liar would present a fake half-stick, so the two wouldn’t match, but the judge doesn’t know which stick is fake.

The only thing you can prove with matching sticks is that everyone is in agreement, and if that’s the case, no one needs to prove anything anyway.

I think you’re putting too much of a modern spin on medieval tax collection practices. If you didn’t pay taxes, you don’t get a summons to London to appear before a magistrate. There were no audits. Some filthy guys from the castle show up once a year with swords, and everyone pays. Or else.

I’m guessing, but it seems sensible that when the tax collector was sent to a village, anyone could count there were 23 houses. He would be responsible for turning in 23 sticks, and all the money. If he only turned in 22, or if he was short a penny, he would be in Most Serious trouble with the lord.

If there was a dispute, the lord’s men could show up in force and verify every stick in the village’s bundle, if need be. Every householder would be waving their stick around like mad, saying “I paid my taxes, here’s my proof! It’s that thieving tax collector who stole the money!”

1 Like

These would be great for keeping track of me banana.

If you claim I never paid for the cow, then you need to present the tally first. If I present a tally, then it’s on you to prove mine is fake.

The whole trick is to be nontrivial to forge, but not so hard to make that it’s not worth the effort.

…if you never paid me, the evidence would be that I didn’t have a record of your payment. And I don’t see why this system would place the burden of proof on me, when a stick is even easier to forge than a written document.

It is a little bit closer to making sense if you check the whole village’s sticks at once; but again, the actual stick-comparing would only come into play if the tax collector somehow knew that someone owed tax, but didn’t know who it was.

I feel like this stick business is turning into a kind of medieval bitcoin. I don’t dispute that splitting a stick is a neat solution to a problem, I’m just not seeing how that problem would ever be relevant.

I think you’ve got it. It made you feel good that there was this nebulous “proof” of payment of taxes, even though there was nothing practical that could be done with that info. It sounds like the stick was more like a medieval NFT.

1 Like

But the claim is that every branch grows a little differently, and is split differently. I think it would be mighty hard to grow a counterfeit branch to match another.

1 Like

No I get that, but it doesn’t have to match! If you’re forging a receipt, there’s nothing to match it to. And if you don’t want people to know you have half of a stick, you just burn it when no one’s looking.