The National Archives
The Origin of the Name ‘Pipe Roll’
THE origin and meaning of the name Pipe Roll as applied to the sheriffs’ accounts of the landed and feudal revenues of the Crown seems to have escaped notice. In fact the name should be ‘Roll of Pipes’ as the pipes were not the Roll itself, but the individual membranes of which the Roll consisted. This comes out clearly from passages in certain ordinances of the Exchequer issued by Edward II on 14 June anno sexto decimo (1323), and printed in the Red Book of the Exchequer, iii. 858, where we have the following direction given,
Quant (?Que) le Grant Roule soit escrit saunz rascure et les Pipes annuelement examinez;
while further on the officials are more explicitly directed to see that
soient desore annuelment tutes les pipes de tutz les accomptes renduz en lan bien et pleynement examinez avant qe eles soient mises ensemble, et roule fait de eles.
Each ‘pipe’ of the Roll must be examined before they are put together and the Roll made up. So again on p.860 we have the ‘pipes’ of the Foreign Accounts as well as those of the sheriffs’ accounts. From these passages we also learn that the proper name of the series was Le Grant Roule or Magnus Rotulus, but we also find it spoken of as Le roule annal; but it soon came to be known as La Pipe (Rot. Pari., ii. 101, A.D. 1348). The ‘pipes’ or membranes of which each Roll consists are strips of parchment about 6 feet long, sewn together at one end, and not continuously, as the Patent and Pell Rolls are. Each strip bears at its head the name of the county whose account it contains, as EBOR. If one strip does not suffice the supplementary strip is headed ITEM EBOR , and if a third is requisite then it will be ADHUC ITEM EBOR, and so on. That the ‘pipes’ are the individual membranes, and not the accounts, as suggested in the Oxford Dictionary, seems clear: further, as they were flat strips of parchment, in seeking for the meaning and etymology we may keep clear of the notion of anything tubular and cylindrical on which previous suggestions have run.
Excerpt taken from The English Historical Review Volume 26 – 1911
Further Reading and External Links
The Pipe Roll Society: Rolls for 8 Richard I and 3 John have been printed in full by the Pipe Roll Society. The earliest record dates from 1129-30, and then continue in an almost unbroken series from 1155 until 1833.
The National Archives: The Pipe Rolls are the oldest series of English governmental documents, and were created by the most ancient department of the English government, the Exchequer, which existed by 1110. The earliest survivor dates from the reign of Henry I, and is second only to Domesday Book itself in its antiquity as a public record. They were created principally to record the accounts of the sheriffs of the counties of England, which they made annually before the barons of the Exchequer, but came also to include the accounts of other officials. The National Archives have extensive information on the Pipe Rolls. Visit their website to find out more
Pipe Rolls on Google Books