18 December 2011

A sixteenth-century I.O.U.

Archaeology explains the use of a "tally stick."
Imagine going to the local store in Wittenberg, Germany, in the midsixteenth century and not having enough cash to pay for the pig you wanted to roast for dinner. You might have to borrow some money and, in order to record your debt, the person making the loan would use a tally stick like this one. The stick was notched in the presence of both the lender and the borrower and then split in two, so that each person retained half. According to Andreas Hille, the state archaeologist responsible for Wittenberg, the contours of the stick and the distinct split guaranteed that only these two particular halves could be fit back together—insurance against anyone trying to cheat by adding more notches. When the borrower was ready to repay his debt, the two halves were put back together. The stick was then thrown away or destroyed.


  1. This reminds me of the chirographs used for medieval contracts, where the same contract would be written multiple times on a single sheet, with ribbons and seals for witnesses attached to each copy. A word would be written down the "seam" between the copies, and an irregular cut would be made down this word. If the words and edges aligned properly later, then legal officials could be sure the copies were genuine.

  2. Chirograph is a new word for me, and I found this -

    "The cut itself would often be made to produce a wavy or serrated edge, in order to further reduce the scope for forgery, and this practice gave rise to the document description "indenture", since these edges would be said to be "indented."

    Thanks, AF.

  3. It's probably worthwhile pointing out that this device is still very much present in the German language as well. "Etwas auf dem Kerbholz haben", i.e. to have something on the tally stick. Interestingly, however, this now no longer denotes "Schulden" (debt), but rather "Schuld" (guilt).

  4. May I suggest reading Margaret Atwood's book "Payback: Debt and the Shadow Side of Wealth".

    It's a fascinating look at debt and lending through historical, cultural, environmental and religious lenses. I had never heard of "Sin Eaters" or that in the Bible in Deutoronomy, it is decreed creditors should forgive debts every seven years (debt amnesty).


  5. Some legal records needed no duplicate copy - such as a deed changing your name in the UK. Not needing to be tamper-evidence, these were cut straight across, a poll cut, the usage being similar to pollarding trees.

    In the UK people still refer to changing your name by deed poll.

  6. Thank you! (you learn something every day...)

  7. Indeed, learning something new every day is traditional in uk.rec.sheds where YLSNEDITS is oft uttered.


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