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Cutting the rolls

The practice of copying unpaid debts from one year's roll to the next, and adding new debts at the end, naturally tended to make the county accounts grow longer and longer. The Exchequer tried several expedients to deal with this problem. The simplest was to avoid entering all the details of the debts incurred, if they had been paid immediately; instead of copying all the amercements imposed by a law court, the Exchequer just recorded that the sheriff had collected a lump sum from people whose names were marked in the estreat roll. Similarly, when debts listed in a pipe roll had been paid, the Exchequer could avoid copying them into the next year's roll; it marked the relevant entries in the older roll with a t (for totum, all paid), and in the newer roll recorded only the lump sum collected.

Debts which had been carried forward for many years could eventually be recognized as 'desperate' - there was no hope of them ever being paid. Desperate debts were occasionally marked as such, and copied onto separate rolls, rather than remaining in the pipe rolls for ever. The Exchequer carried out such purges of the pipe rolls in the 1240s and the late 1250s, marking the desperate debts in the pipe rolls in pullo, and copying them into the Rotulus pullorum (the roll of offshoots, E 370/2/20).

There was a more radical attack on the bloated rolls in the 1280s. As noted above, the corpus comitatus, the initial part of each county's account concerning the farm and the terre date, had become static, changing very little from one year to the next. The Exchequer therefore copied out the corpus from each county's account as it stood in 1283, together with a list of desperate debts, into a new Rotulus de corporibus. It was then unnnecessary to repeat this information in subsequent pipe rolls.

There were further attempts to trim the rolls in the 1320s, with desperate debts copied into exannual rolls, but the inexorable growth of the pipe rolls continued into the fourteenth century, despite removing the foreign accounts to separate series of rolls.