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How big is a pipe roll?

Typically, pipe rolls were written on parchment, in the form of two membranes of sheepskin sewn head-to-tail to make up a rotulet measuring about 400mm. wide and up to1500mm. long. These rotulets were gathered together and sewn at the head, to produce a large roll. The 1130 roll contains 16 rotulets; by the mid-thirteenth century, rolls were generally between 20 and 30 rotulets long, containing over 200,000 words; and some rolls reached over 50 rotulets early in the fourteenth century.

The rolls were written on both sides of the parchment, usually as a single column with fairly narrow margins and no marginal headings or notes to assist navigation. The beginning of each county's account is marked by a more-or-less ornate heading. The foot of the dorse (the reverse side) of each rotulet carries an endorsement listing that rotulet's contents; this allows the reader to find a particular rotulet without having to unroll the entire roll.


 The heading of the first rotulet of E 372/80 (the pipe roll for 1235-36), from the AALT website

The foot of the dorse of the first rotulet of E 372/80 (the pipe roll for 1235-36), from the AALT website

The size of the rolls makes them unwieldy and awkward to manipulate, particularly when trying to move from the foot of a rotulet to the top of its dorse. The width of the parchment also means that the lines of text are uncomfortably long, and that it is easy to lose one's place when reading from the end of one line to the beginning of the next. The rolls are also difficult to reproduce in print, being wider than a normal printed page size. A readable photographic reproduction on the Anglo-American Legal Tradition website,, requires about 150 photographs to show a typical mid-thirteenth-century roll in full.