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See, our tally stick is whittled nearly end to end;
delicate as scrimshaw, it would not bear you up.
Regrets have polished it, hand over hand.
Yet, let us take it up, and as our fingers
like children leading on a trail cry back
our unforgotten wonders, sign after sign,
we will talk softly as of ordinary matters,
and in one another’s blameless eyes go blind.
from The tally stick by Jarold Ramsey
Tally sticks store information. Humans have used them since at least paleolithic times. Messages, contracts, financial information, family histories, and other important data were recorded. Notches or marks on a piece of green wood were used, with different notches of different lengths corresponding to different amounts of money. This is a description from the late 12th century of how the marks work:
The manner of cutting is as follows. At the top of the tally a cut is made, the thickness of the palm of the hand, to represent a thousand pounds; then a hundred pounds by a cut the breadth of a thumb; twenty pounds, the breadth of the little finger; a single pound, the width of a swollen barleycorn; a shilling rather narrower; then a penny is marked by a single cut without removing any wood.
At some point, people began using split tally sticks in order to verify information, such as payment of taxes. After the payment was recorded, the stick was split. The two pieces would then match perfectly each other only. Tally sticks were so reliable and widely used that they were accepted as legal proof in the Napoleonic Code of 1804. The British Exchequer used this system of split tallies for hundreds of years, from the 1100s until it was abolished in 1826.
In 1834, the clerk of the Exchequer determined that the hundreds of years of sticks were worthless. In the words of Charles Dickens,
The sticks were housed at Westminster, and it would naturally occur to any intelligent person that nothing could be easier than to allow them to be carried away for fire-wood by the miserable people who live in that neighbourhood. However, they never had been useful, and official routine required that they never should be, and so the order went forth that they were to be privately and confidentially burnt. 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 national pig is not nearly over the stile yet; and the old woman, Britannia, hasn’t got home to-night.
I can’t say I agree with Dickens that the sticks were never useful, but I certainly agree with him that “obstinate adherence” to that which is now longer useful has within it a “pernicious and destructive” spirit which can be ruinous. The whole event is one of those tragic ironies of history.
(As an aside, I will say I like Dickens use of the old chain folktale of the old woman and the pig to illustrate his point. Charming and silly.)
I enjoy the YouTube channel of Jason Kingsley, OBE, also CEO of game development company Rebellion, who loves the medieval period and participates in reenactments with war horses and armor and the like. His recent video about tally sticks got me interested in the topic.