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Why were pipe rolls produced?

The origins of the pipe roll system, and the reasons for adopting their distinctive format, are unknown. Our earliest evidence for their existence comes from a time when the rolls were already a routine part of government business. Their continuation in an inconvenient and unwieldy form can only be attributed to bureaucratic inertia. Their role was simply to record the amounts owed to the royal government, and the payments made against those debts. These payments could be either cash paid into the Treasury, or cash spent in accordance with government instructions. This list of debts and payments, updated annually, was retained and referred to as a permanent record, the authoritative source of information as to who owed money, and who had paid.

Pipe rolls were not intended as a record of total income and expenditure; much government revenue and spending fell outside their scope. They did not necessarily record the events of a single year; as noted above, each account could include events after the nominal year end, up to the date of the audit, and some accounts covered several years. There was no attempt to add up the total amounts of debts and payments. The concept of national accounts would have made little sense at the time; until the 1280s, there was not even an attempt to draw up a budget, in the sense of an estimate of the expected revenue for the year. Retrospective attempts by historians to use the pipe rolls as a guide to overall government finance are necessarily highly uncertain.