A tally (or tally stick) was an ancient memory aid device to record and document numbers, quantities, or even messages. While the origin of this technique is lost in prehistory, archaeological proof of the existence of such devices is ample. One of the most famous ancient artifacts is the so called Ishango Bone. The oldest known device is the Lebombo bone and is dated from 35,000 BC. Historical reference is made by Pliny the Elder (AD 23 - 79) about the best wood to use for tallies and Marco Polo (1254-1324) who mentions the use of the tally in China.
Kinds of tallies
Principally there are two different kinds of tally sticks, the single and the split tally.
The single tally stick was an elongated piece of bone, ivory, wood, or stone which is marked with a system of notches (see: Tally marks
). The single tally stick serves predominantly mnemonic
purposes. Related to the single tally concept are messenger sticks (e.g. Inuit tribes), the knotted cords - khipus
- as used by the Inca
(485 (?) – 425 BC) reported the use of a knotted cord by Darius I of Persia
(521 (?) – 486 BC). The rosary
is a remnant of the technique represented in the knotted cord.
The split tally was a technique which became common in medieval Europe, which was constantly short of money (coins) and predominantly illiterate, in order to record bilateral exchange and debts. A stick (squared Hazelwood sticks were most common) was marked with a system of notches and then split lengthwise. This way the two halves both record the same notches and each party to the transaction received one half of the marked stick as proof. Later this technique was refined in various ways and became virtually tamper proof. One of the refinements was to make the two halves of the stick of different lengths. The longer part was called stock
and was given to the party which had advanced money or (other items) to the receiver. Hence the word stockholder
The shorter portion of the stick was called foil and was given to the party which had received the funds/goods. Using this technique each of the parties had an identifiable and tamper-proof record of the transaction. The split tally was accepted as legal proof in medieval courts and the Napoleonic Code (1804) still makes reference to the tally stick in Article 1333. Along the Danube and in Switzerland the tally was still used in the 20th Century in rural economies.
Split tally in England
The most prominent and best recorded use of the split tally was in medieval England as a tool of the Exchequer
for the collection of taxes by local sheriffs (tax farmers “farming the shire”). The split tally of the Exchequer was in continuous use until 1826. In 1834, the tallies themselves were ordered to be burned in a stove in the Houses of Parliament
, but the fire went out of control, setting the building afire
The system of tally marks of the Exchequer is described in The Dialogue Concerning the Exchequer (see External links below) as follows:Royal tallies (debt of the Crown) also played an infamous role in the formation of the Bank of England at the end of the 17th century when these royal tallies—trading at a hefty discount of up to 60 percent—were engrafted into the Bank’s capital stock.
Tally sticks feature in the design of the entrance gates to The National Archives at Kew.
- Thomas Madox, ed.: The History and Antiquities of the Exchequer of the Kings of England, in two periods: To wit, from the Norman Conquest, to the End of the Reign of K. John; and from the End of the Reign of K. John, to the End of the Reign of K. Edward II: Taken from Records. London, 1711
- T.W. Baxter: Early Accounting, The Tally and the Checkerboard, in: The Accounting Historians Journal Vol. 16, (1989), pp. 43-83.
- Hilary Jenkinson: Medieval Tallies, Public and Private, in: Archaeologia or Miscellaneous Tracts relating to Antiquity, published by the Society of Antiquaries of London, 74 (1924), pp. 289-351, 8 Plates....