When cash wasn’t readily available in medieval times, merchants came up with an ingenious way of lending money and keeping track of who owed them. It was an ingenious kind of ancient credit card called a tally stick.
These became popular in Europe when people obviously overspent just like they do today. Although I have a feeling they were far more desperate and starving than most of us are in our modern world.
They used a clever way of tracking how much was owed by making notches on a stick. The stick was then split into two, with the merchant keeping one half and his customer the other.
When the debtor made a payment, the sticks were put together and the transaction was marked on the stick. This was pretty much forgery-proof as every stick had its own markings and grain, so it was easy to see if someone tried to replace his half of the tally stick.
England became a big user of the tally stick and right up until 1826 local tax records were kept in this way. That’s 700 years of usage, so the method must have been effective.
After the tally stick was abandoned, the English government decided to get rid of its old stock by burning them. It seemed a good idea to burn them in the furnace beneath the House of Lords, thus providing free heating to keep their Lordships warm.
What had no doubt seemed like a good idea at the time turned to disaster when the huge fire burned down most of the building! The worst London fire since 1666.
You see, that’s what happens when you use too much credit rather than cash! Whoever heard of money setting fire to our Capital?
In actual fact, forms of tally sticks were used far earlier when our ancestors used bones to carve notches. Of course we can’t be certain what they were used far so long ago, but it’s thought they were even used for primitive messages.
One of the earliest examples of an ancient tally bone was found in a cave in South Africa and thought to date back to 30,000 bc. It was on a baboon leg bone and had 29 notches. It’s fascinating to wonder what that tally stick was used for and to reflect that they could obviously count!