Each year, the medieval English Exchequer (the government department concerned with finance) produced a parchment roll known as the pipe roll or great roll. This roll listed the farm, a fixed annual payment owed by the sheriff of each county, together with other debts owed to the government, and any payments made during the course of the year. The roll was called the great roll because of its size and significance; it was probably called the pipe roll because, when rolled up, it looked like a pipe.

The earliest surviving roll is for the year to Michaelmas 1130. It was not the first to be produced: an extract from the roll of 1124 has been discovered in a manuscript from St Albans. The next survivors are from the 1150s, and from then on we have rolls from almost every year, right up to 1832. These are all held in The National Archives, in the document class E 372. The Pipe Roll Society is mainly concerned with rolls of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, and this note will ignore later developments.