Inscribed wooden tally stick
Medieval, 13th-14th century
The split tally was a technique which became common in predominantly illiterate medieval Europe in order to record bilateral exchange and debts. A stick 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. Using this technique each of the parties had an identifiable record of the transaction. The natural irregularities in the surfaces of the tallies where they were split would mean that only the original two halves would fit back together perfectly, and so would verify that they were matching halves of the same transaction. If one party tried unilaterally to change the value of his half of the tally stick by adding more notches, those notches would not be on the other tally stick and would be revealed as an attempted forgery.
This example is notched £2. 13. 4 = 32 sheep at a tithe of 20d each and bears an inscription that describes the deal: 'Contra decenar de Prestonecandovere pro XXXII Multon prec(ii)ca. XXd(enarios). Written on the same edge 'viiis. ivd' (or perhaps xiiis. ivd.). Written on the opposite edge 'xxii(i?) die Novembre.
Medieval documents describe the manner of cutting the notches 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.'