An extraordinary collection of excessively rare medieval tally sticks.
A collection of twenty-one medieval tally sticks, each stick about 190 mm. long, the larger end cut diagonally, edges roughly squared off, often leaving traces of bark, each inscribed along one side with the name of the payer, and the upper and lower edges cut with notches (‘v’-shaped for pounds, broad grooves for shillings, sharp cuts for pence); each piece then split with a knife by cutting diagonally across the thicker reverse side and pulling away a length which would be retained separately by the payer as proof of payment; all written in thirteenth-century charter hands; in a fitted velvet-lined tray contained in a cloth box.
Representing perhaps the rarest and most unusual class of English medieval manuscript, tallies are medieval royal receipts written on sticks of wood said to have been cut from trees on the banks of the Thames at Westminster. The modern word “stock” meaning a financial certificate derives from this use of the Middle English for a stick. Tally sticks were used principally in the Royal Exchequer from the twelfth century onwards, and there is a contemporary account of how to make them in the Dialogue of the Exchequer would have to be able to produce the corresponding stock which matched the split-away counterfoil retained at Westminster. Since the notches for the sums were cut right through both pieces and since no stick naturally splits in an even manner the method was virtually foolproof against forgery. According to M. T. Clanchy in his From Memory to Written Record, England 1066-1307, 1979, page 96:Tallies were not a primitive survival from the preliterate past, but a sophisticated and practical record of numbers. They were more convenient to keep and store than parchments, less complex to make, and no easier to forge. They were the foundation and origin of the royal financial system of the twelfth century…Of the millions of medieval tallies made, only a few hundred survive.
Tally sticks once survived in vast numbers, with both stocks and counterfoils, in the Exchequer in Westminster; however, with the Reform Acts and the abolition of the office of the Receipt of the Exchequer in 1834, an enormous bonfire of the then-obsolete sticks was held at Westminster; the fire went out of control and burned down the Palace of Westminster and the Houses of Parliament.
In 1925 Sir Hilary Jenkinson knew of only three Exchequer tally sticks in private hands (Archaeologia, LXXIV, 1925, pp. 292-3, 330, and 350). Six were sold at Sotheby’s, 26 November 1985, lot 31 (afterwards H. P. Kraus, cat. 180, 1988, no. 23), and one more was sold at Sotheby’s, 1 December 1987, lot 20.