Medieval QuickBooks

Posted on 7/6/2017 by Jennifer Molineaux


Medieval QuickBooks

So apparently, I’m an economics history nerd even on vacation. The family was wandering around Bodiam Castle on the south coast of England. It’s a great place for creeping up steep spiral staircases and eyeing the solidity of the protective gates fixed over the chutes into the moat. There are stockades for family photos and a costumed guide demonstrating medieval construction technology. To my bookkeeping delight, I came across this display:


That checkerboard cloth was the medieval QuickBooks! Brilliant. The Steward of the castle used the cloth to count money and track castle expenses. Coins were sorted on the colored squares.  There would have been rental income from the surrounding farmland. There would have been salaries, supplies, repair and maintenance, and taxes. In fact, they would have needed the whole chart of accounts, and the exchequer cloth would have organized it neatly.

It was a medieval laptop, portable and secure. They would have been able to take it into the village square on rent collection day if they didn’t want every grubby peasant wandering into the innermost castle room to lay their shilling down. If the available table was rough built, the cloth would have kept coins from rolling through gaps into the rushes on the floor. At the end of the day, it could be rolled up and locked in a chest.

In English history, the Exchequer became the name for the cloth accounting tool, for the royal tax accounting office, and for the occasion of a royal audit:  

The Exchequer’s rather unusual name was derived from the chequered cloth on which the confrontational audit process took place between the powerful Barons of the upper Exchequer and the hapless accountants summoned before them, who were regularly interrogated about the state of their accounts. The cloth was used to visually record the sums of money that were demanded and received, and an accountant was only discharged of their debt on the provision of evidence – a writ authorising (sic) expenditure on behalf of the Crown, or a wooden tally denoting that a payment had been made into the lower Exchequer. All these transactions were then carefully recorded on parchment rolls.

Nick Barratt, 14 August 2013 “The Exchequer: a chequered history?”

What bookkeeper can read that without sympathetically picturing medieval accountants nervously rechecking their accounts on their checkered cloth the night before the audit? Technology changes more quickly than human experience.

So what would you do if QuickBooks was lost, and the internet went down, and the electric grid was destroyed? Don’t worry, you could still pay your taxes.

Jennifer Molineaux

Your Director of Finance at ACEDC