Sticks, Stocks, Bonds, and Blocks
What Medieval Economic History Can Offer Economic Re-Design
Anthropologists largely agree that the first economies to naturally emerge were gift economies, where families and communities would take care of each other. This care economy is still alive today, though largely unaccounted for by conventional economic measures like the GDP. However, global remittences, where families earning money abroad send money back home to loved ones, can be counted. In 2018, it represented $689 billion, three times the amount of development assistance and foreign aid combined.
“Economics” doesn’t usually conjure images of the human instincts for care and fairness in most minds. Yet, throughout history, these care economies naturally emerge. Among people with a shared sense of purpose, economies tend to be equitable and sustainable.
If humane economies have emerged throughout history, where did they exist, how did they work, and what can we learn from them? There is still much to explore and uncover, as we peel away the economic assumptions that have colored nearly every narrative about humanity, including basic tenets of human history. What do we really know about how emergent economies have existed, if the dominating forces have overpowered the narrative? What can we know about how our current thinking has been impacted by the systems we are embedded in?
If the modern money story is incentivizing us to invest in our own demise, what are the fundamental design flaws in the flows of finance? Are budgets real? Or have they superimposed a fallacious “budget mentality” where we are forced to sacrifice our ideals at best, and at worst to fight for scarce resources? Is it possible that finance is a yarn of fiction that can be untied and re-woven?
Between and beyond the gift and the gold, what economic history can be retold?
Hazel, elm, boxwood, or willow.
Their abundance and easy accessibility gave them value. Their softness and unique patterns were some of the reasons why these sticks were selected and imbued with the magical power of money: transmutation. Like magic wands, these sticks made things happen. They added faith to wants and trust to relationships. Sticks created wealth.
Each stick was carved and scratched to tell a story of who owed what to whom, why, and when. Then it was split in two, with each twin bound for a unique journey yet destined to return to the other, marking the end of their mission. When the sticks were rejoined, they were often burned, or archived- shelved as a story of what happened, no longer waved as a wand of what could be.
These wands were tally sticks and were imbued with powerful magic- a power that is part of the magical human story of money. Money is the story of possibility.
While possible tally stick relatives have been found around the world and across time in the form of bone, stone, ivory, or rope, and as far back as 40,000 years, their use flourished in the European Middle Ages from the fall of the Roman Empire to the establishment of the Central Bank Empire in the 19th Century.
The appropriate wood for tally sticks was mentioned by Pliny the Elder in 77 AD, indicating that the concept had already been circulating for some time. The time-tested qualities of unique patterns of wood grain, stick sizes, and tally marks that synced up all functioned to make counterfeiting tally sticks nearly impossible. Amidst the rise and the fall of the Roman Empire and the scarcity of coins, tally sticks offered an accessible and incorruptible method of accounting to enabled people to exchange with each other.
Imagine a village bakery selling ten loaves of bread for a penny. Every morning, the young baker’s apprentice walked the town streets, carrying loaves of bread to sell and a ledger of tally sticks around his belt to keep accounts. Much like a Girl Scout records with a pen the neighbors who promise to buy cookies, the apprentice would mark how many loaves went out, how much money was owed, and by whom. But the incorruptible tally stick ledgers meant the apprentice could not fudge his numbers. (Unlike a sneaky Girl Scout who, with her pen and paper, might turn the 7 to a 1 and pocket 6 boxes worth of cookie money instead of submitting it all to her troop leader.)
When the apprentice returns the empty bread bag and full string of tally sticks to the baker, it is time to get paid for his day of work. Now that the baker has a wealth of debt owed to him, he can pay his young apprentice. Handing over a tally stick worth six loaves of bread, the lad takes it and runs off to trade it with an old lady selling onions and cabbage, bringing them home for the family’s dinner. The next day, the old lady is able to pay a carpenter to fix her front door, and the carpenter is able to buy a couple of beers at the pub, and the pub owner can purchase five loaves of bread when she returns the tally to the baker. Without a ready source of money, an economy of tally sticks emergent, reducing risk and building trust.
Like magic wands, these sticks made things happen. The circulating sticks created wealth.
How does this story challenge the textbook assertion that scarcity gives money value? What modern monies might mirror medieval money?
By 1100 AD, without enough Roman gold or silver coins circulating to grow his treasury, much less manage the kingdom, Henry I began to issue and accept tally sticks. For the next 700 years, time-tested tally sticks were officially employed by the Exchequer of England. So when the government wanted goods and services, such as wheat, work, or warriors, it would issue a tally stick as a pre-tax IOU, promising to accept it back when tax was due.
Some refinements were made. The longer half stayed with the crown, who was issuing the credit. This was called the stock. The King was now the “stockholder”. The smaller part, called the foil, stayed with the King’s subject, to be accepted later as tax payment, or tax-return.
Returning to the success of the village baker, imagine the King orders a dozen loaves of bread, which cost a shilling (12 pence). A tally stick is created. The short end of the stick was given to the baker in exchange for a shilling worth of bread, which could be payed back in a year to the King in lieu of taxes. The baker could then take it home and store it for a year until his taxes are due. Or, he could buy two bushels of wheat from the farmer, the farmer could buy cloth, and so on. Each time the stick changed hands, a shilling of wealth is transferred (created).
As noted earlier, the King wasn’t the only one who could issue tally sticks. Business owners also used the stock and foil system.
A refinement of the split tally was to make one-half of the marked stick shorter. The longer half was called the stock and was given to the party advancing the money to the receiver (e.g., the stockholder or stock market) (“Tally Stick,” 2007). The shorter part, the foil, went to the debtor, who “got the short end of the stick.” If holes were placed at one end, many tallies could be strung on a rod or thong. A sixteen- sided tally of 1863 served a Swedish mine foreman as an output record with one side per employee (Baxter, 1989). (Apostolou & Crumbly)
In addition to spending money into existence and accepting them back as taxes, the Crown also generated revenue by making tax assessments on land. Then, the area’s relevant sheriff was required to collect the land taxes and submit them to the Crown. By ordering they be used to evince the correct tax payments, tallies became like a national currency. So tally sticks could create wealth (record keeping between merchants) and ensure the population could pay rent when absolutely no gold coins were available for payment. Whether or not this rent obligation to the Crown was beneficial to the taxpayer is another story.
One such tally for land-based taxes in the archives reads:
“£9 4s 4d from Fulk Basset for the farm of Wycombe”. Fulk Basset was a Bishop of London in the 13th Century. He owed his debt to King Henry III. (BBC)
Tally sticks help to demonstrate the true function of taxes. They weren’t just used as a means of collecting money in order to have enough to pay for expenses. Rather, as tally sticks spent money into existence, taxation periodically removed spent money from circulation to avoid inflationary pooling and hoarding. More about this can be found by investigating Modern Monetary Theory.
What is the difference between spending money (in this case tally sticks are money) into existence, and loaning it into existence? What other questions come up?
Another way for the king to get money without having to wait for tax time was to sell stocks at a discount- bonds! If a stock claims one shilling worth of wealth will be returned to the King as taxes, the Crown could sell the stock at a discount, getting ten pennies now instead of twelve pennies later.
Bought, sold, traded, created as fiat money, used to collect rent, and discounted, the tally stick system became a highly developed financial marketplace. Tally sticks were so ubiquitous they funded the lion’s share of the Bank of England! The central bank was formed in 1697 by selling £1.2 million in ‘bank stock’ to the public. £800,000 of the stock was issued as tally sticks, and the rest in paper notes. According to the Bank of England’s website, in just 11 days, 1,268 members of the public handed coins over to the bank with the government’s promise to buy back the stock with 8% interest. So the Central Bank of England was established by selling sticks (stocks) backed by government issued sticks (bonds). Repayment was easy with borrowed bank notes, and credit could always be extended to the king, creating a perpetual cycle of debt and guaranteed income for the both bank and king.
The legitimacy of the popular creation and trade of tally sticks however competed with the legitimacy of the bank’s paper notes. If people were more reliant on tally sticks because they could not only make them, they could trust them, and the Crown accepted them as taxes, demand for bank notes was insufficient. If people didn’t need back notes, bank notes would not circulate, demand would decrease, and loans would not get made and repaid. If the King wanted to borrow as much money has desired from the bank, and be able to pay it back, bank money had to be the only game in town.
In 1783, King George III decreed the discontinuance of tally sticks. The Crown would no longer issue tally sticks, nor accept them in payment. Yet, tally sticks continued to be traded among the people. So in 1826, the Crown took more drastic measures and their use was abolished. This required all tally sticks to be gathered up and brought to back the Parliament, completely taking them out of circulation. In 1834, it was decided that they be burned.
Charles Dickens himself describes the event:
Ages ago a savage mode of keeping accounts on notched sticks was introduced into the Court of Exchequer and the accounts were kept much as Robinson Crusoe kept his calendar on the desert island. A multitude of accountants, bookkeepers, and actuaries were born and died… Still official routine inclined to those notched sticks as if they were pillars of the Constitution, and still the Exchequer accounts continued to be kept on certain splints of elm-wood called tallies. ….. it took until 1826 to get these sticks abolished. In 1834 it was found that there was a considerable accumulation of them; and the question then arose, what was to be done with such worn-out, worm-eaten, rotten old bits of wood? The sticks were housed in Westminster, and it would naturally occur to any intelligent person that nothing could be easier than to allow them to be carried away for firewood by the miserable people who lived in that neighborhood. However, they never had been useful, and official routine required that they should never be, and so the order went out that they were to be privately and confidentially burned. It came to pass that they were burned in a stove in the House of Lords. The stove, over-gorged with these preposterous sticks, set fire to the paneling; the paneling set fire to the House of Commons; the two houses were reduced to ashes; architects were called in to build others; and we are now in the second million of the cost therof. ~Charles Dickens, 1855
When England decided to officially discontinue the their stick and notch economy for a more spectacular specter of financial speculation, the final burn was foreboding. Perhaps there was still some magical life in those shelved and storied sticks. When the remaining bundles were set to be burned, the enormous economic bonfire burst, burning the empire’s Parliament buildings to the ground and costing the British government millions to repair.
According to historians, the late 1830’s ended the First Industrial Revolution as the British Empire falls into an economic recession. A recession is by definition a drop in trade due to the insufficient circulation of a trusted medium of exchange.
What correlation was there between the recession, the abolition of tally sticks, and the subsequent inequality and poverty fueled by the next Industrial Revolution?
The factors of finance are an under-examined part of how the story of human history plays out. In addition to tally sticks and the rare gold or silver coins, tokens of lesser metallic quality were issued by the church, enabling the poor to eat and Cathedrals to be built.
How might we learn from this ability for the people themselves to create and trade money, create relational and productive value and equitable equity without speculation, hoarding, and devaluation?
The ability to make our on computer-based anti-counterfeit ledgers was made available by the blockchain was first described in 1991, and actualized in 2008 by the pseudonymous Satoshi Nakamoto as Bitcoin, (valued at the time of this writing at $64,880.90).
The subsequent growth of the speculative crypto-currency marketplace, today valued at $3 trillion USD, has proven our faith in the technology.
But just as the technology of tally sticks could be created by anyone who wanted to trade, issued by a King as debt-free money, demanded by the Crown as rent, or traded as stocks and bonds, the technological power of the blockchain’s crytographic ledger depends on the purpose it is given.
The amount of energy and hype that Bitcoin extracts is not pretty. We are throwing money at an energy suck, perpetuating environmental collapse just to get more of the money we just threw away. There are better ways. It is the very idea that mining a scarce resource creates value that makes Bitcoin mining so environmentally destructive and inequitable. It is a death and destruction paradigm, riding on the same coattails as the sickness created by gold.
As the value of Bitcoin rises, more and more people are incentivized to become miners. And because the difficulty of solving each cryptographic problem grows with the network (among other factors), more and more energy is then used by miners. (2021)
From sticks to blocks, what uses of the blockchain can point us toward true economic empowerment?
Here are just some ideas to inspire us as we heal the economic trauma of empire and design economic ecosystems for purposes such as peace, prosperity, and regeneration:
Grassroots Economics- an open-source humanitarian organization empowering communities in Kenya to create their own blockchain-based community currencies.
Cambiatus- an open-source platform for community exchange in Costa Rica.
Simbi- a non-profit time bank that is free and easy to use, connecting people’s gifts and services locally and internationally.
Circles- platform for creating local UBI/community currency
KlimaDAO- incentivizing open investment in carbon sequestration.
Seeds- a currency that aligns money with value.
Celo- making money with a purpose: prosperity for all.