In the 23rd year of the reign of King Henry II, as I was sitting at a turret window overlooking the Thames, I was addressed by someone who said, very earnestly, ‘Master! Have you not read that “wisdom that is hid and treasure that is not seen are both profitless?”
‘Yes,’ said I; and he went on: ‘Why, then, do you not to teach others that knowledge of the Exchequer for which you are famous, and put it in writing lest it should die with you?’
I replied, ‘Why, brother, you have long sat at the exchequer yourself, and nothing is hidden from you, you are so precise. And the same is probably true of the others who sit there.’
‘But,’ said he, ‘as those who “grope in the dark without light” often stumble; so there are there many there who seeing do not see, and hearing do not understand.’
‘You speak profanely,’ I replied, ‘for my knowledge is not so great, nor of such importance; but perhaps those who, so to speak, hunt big game, have minds like eagle’s claws, which let slip small things and keep hold of big ones.’
‘Be it so!’ said he, ‘but though eagles fly high, they rest and refresh themselves on a lower level, and for that reason we beg to have these lower matters expanded to us, and the eagles may profit by them too.’
‘I was afraid,’ I replied, ‘to write a book about these matters, which are objects of sense, and of which familiarity breeds contempt, affording no scope for fine distinctions, or pleasing novelties.’
‘Those,’ said he, ‘who delight in novelties, or in hunting for fine distinctions, have Aristotle and Plato’s books. Let them hear them! Your book is not to be theoretical but practical.’
‘but,’ I objected, ‘what you want can only be expressed in vulgar and commonplace language.’
Then he almost lost his temper, for an eager heart brooks no delay, and said, ‘Writers on the liberal arts have compiled large treatises and wrapped them up in obscure language to conceal their ignorance and to make the arts more difficult. You are not undertaking a book on philosophy, but on the customs and laws of the exchequer, a commonplace subject in which you must needs to use appropriate and therefore commonplace language. Moreover, though it is generally permissible to invent new terms, I beg you not to be ashamed to employ the common and conventional words for the objects described, so that no additional difficulties may be created by the unusual language.’
‘I see you are vexed,’ said I, ‘but to be of good comfort; I shall take your advice. Get up, and sit down opposite me, and ask any questions which occur to you. If you ask anything out of the way, I am not ashamed to say, “I don’t know, but let us both consult wiser folk.”’
‘Just what I want,’ said he. ‘It may be disgraceful and laughable for an old man to be learning his alphabet, but I shall begin with my ABC.
Scholar. What is the Exchequer?
Master. The Exchequer (chessboard) is an oblong board measuring about ten feet by five, used as a table by those who sit at it, and with a rim around it about four finger breadths in height, to prevent anything set on it from falling off. Over the (upper) exchequer is spread a cloth, bought in Easter term, of a special pattern, black, ruled with lines a foot or a full span apart. In the spaces between them are placed the counters, in their ranks, as will be explained in another place. But thought such a board is called ‘exchequer,’ the name is transferred to the Court in session at it; so that if a litigant wins his case or a decision on any point is taken by common consent it is said to have happened ‘at the Exchequer’ of such a year. But where we know say ‘at the exchequer,’ they used to say ‘at the Tallies.’
Master. I can think, for the moment, of no better reason than that it resembles a chessboard.
Scholar. Was its shape the only reason why our wise forefathers gave it a name? For they might equally well have called it a draught board.
Master. I was justified in calling you ‘precise.’ There is another less obvious reason. For as on the chess board the men are arranged in the ranks, and move or stand by definite rules and restrictions, some pieces in the foremost rank and others in the foremost position; here, too, some (the barons) preside, others assist ex officio, and nobody is free to overstep the appointed laws, as will appear later. Again, just as on a chess board, battle is joined between the Kings; here too the struggle takes place, and battle is joined, mainly between two persons, to wit, the Treasurer and the Sheriff who sits at his account, while the rest sit by as judges to see and decide.
Scholar. Does the Treasurer really take the account when there are many present who appear by their power to be more important?
Master. It is obvious that the treasurer takes the account from the Sheriff, because it is from him that an account is required when the King so pleases. Nor would that be demanded of him unless he had received it. Some say, however, that the Treasurer and Chamberlains are only accountable for those sums which are entered in the Roll as ‘in the treasury.’ But the more correct view is that they are answerable for all that is written in the Roll, as will appear later.
Scholar. Is the Exchequer where this conflict takes place the only Exchequer?
Master. No. For there is a lower exchequer also called the Receipt, where the money received is counted and entered on rolls and tallies, in order that the account may be made up from them in the Upper Exchequer. But both spring from the same root, because whatever is found in the Upper Exchequer to be due, is paid in the lower, and what is paid in the Lower is credited in the Upper.’
More to come another occasion! Interesting I thought that the word changed from ‘Tallies’ to the ‘Exchequer’ in the 12thC.