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Delanceyplace: Money

Over the last few thousand years, contrary to popular belief,
the predominate form of money was not gold or silver coins, but instead such things as clay tablets and -- in the case of England -- notched tally sticks. However, metal coins survive more readily than tablets and sticks, and so many historians
have falsely assumed that most money was in the form of coins. In the case of England, a lack of understanding of this led to the wholesale destruction of one of the most important collections of source material in the history of money -- and indirectly led to the construction of London's beautiful Houses of Parliament so familiar to us today, writes Felix Martin.

[Almost all the money that survives] from earlier ages [is] of a single type --
coins. Museums around the world heave with coins, ancient and modern. Coins and
their inscriptions are one of the main archaeological sources for the understanding
of ancient culture, society, and history. ...

But of course the ... reason why coins are so important in the study of ancient
history, and why they have dominated in particular the study of the history of
money, is that coins are what have survived. Coins are made of durable metals --
and very often of imperishable metals, such as gold or silver, which do not rust
or corrode. As a result, they tend to survive the ravages of time better than most
other things. What is more, coins are valuable. As a result, there has always been
a tendency for them to be squirreled away in buried or hidden hoards -- the better
to be discovered decades, centuries, or even millennia later by the enterprising
historian or numismatist. The problem is that in no field so much as the history
of money is an approach fixated upon what physically survives likely to lead us
into error. The unfortunate story of the wholesale destruction of one of the most
important collections of source material for the history of money ever to have existed
shows why.

For more than six hundred years, from the twelfth to the late eighteenth century,
the operation of the public finances of England rested on a simple but ingenious
piece of accounting technology: the Exchequer tally. A tally was a wooden stick
-- usually harvested from the willows that grew along the Thames near the Palace
of Westminster. On the stick were inscribed, always with notches in the wood and
sometimes also in writing, details of payments made to or from the Exchequer. Some
were receipts for tax payments made by landowners to the Crown. Others referred
to transactions in the opposite direction, recording the sums due on loans by the
sovereign to prominent subjects. '9 4s 4p from Fulk Basset for the farm of Wycombe'
reads one that has survived, for example -- relating a debt owed by Fulk Basset,
a thirteenth-century Bishop of London, to Henry III. Even bribes seem to have been
recorded on Exchequer tallies: one stick in a private collection bears the suspicious-sounding
euphemism '13s 4d from William de Tullewyk for the king's good will'.

Historians agree that the vast majority of fiscal operations in medieval England
must have been carried out using tally sticks; and they suppose that a great deal
of monetary exchange was transacted using them as well. A credit with the Exchequer,
as recorded on a tally stick, would after all have been welcomed in payment by anyone
who had taxes of his own coming due. It is, however, impossible to know for certain.
For although millions of tallies must have been manufactured over the centuries,
and though we know for sure that many thousands survived in the Exchequer archives
up until the early nineteenth century, only a handful of specimens exist today.
The ultimate culprit for this unfortunate situation is the famous zeal of England's
nineteenth-century advocates of administrative reform. ...

An Act of Parliament of 1782 officially abolished tally sticks as the main means
of account-keeping at the Exchequer -- though because certain sinecures still operated
on the old system, the Act had to wait almost another half-century, until 1826,
to come into effect. But in 1834, the ancient institution of the Receipt of the
Exchequer was finally abolished, and the last Exchequer tally replaced by a paper

Once the tally-stick system had finally been abolished, the question arose of what
to do with the vast archive of tallies left in the Exchequer. Amongst the partisans
of reform the general feeling was that they were nothing but embarrassing relics
of the way in which the fiscal accounts of the British Empire had been kept, 'much
as Robinson Crusoe kept his calendar on the desert island', and it was decided without
hesitation to incinerate them. Twenty years later, Charles Dickens recounted the
unfortunate consequences:

'It came to pass that they were burnt in a stove in the House of Lords. The stove,
overgorged with these preposterous sticks, set fire to the panelling; the panelling
set fire to the House of Lords; the House of Lords set fire to the House of Commons;
the two houses were reduced to ashes; architects were called in to build others;
we are now in the second million of the cost thereof.'

The Houses of Parliament could be rebuilt, of course -- and were, to leave the
splendid Palace of Westminster that stands on the banks of the Thames today. What
could not be resurrected from the inferno, however, was the priceless record of
England's fiscal and monetary history constituted by the tallies.

Author: Felix Martin
Title: Money: The Unauthorised Biography
Publisher: The Bodley Head a division of Random House
Date: Copyright 2013 by Failu Ltd.
Pages: 15-18

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