This question is inspired by large discussions about pros and cons of electronic sales records from real world.

It is sure that electronic sales records are not fitting to classical fantasy (that is more or less based on medieval age) - even if I decided to enrich fantasy by few elements from modern ages (but they are based on magic - and thus explainable by magic too).

However, sales records are documented even from medieval age (or older ages too, but those ones are quite rare).

Notches into wooden desks (or wooden rods or so), is one way. It was famous way how to record someone's debt drinking too (I don't know exact term from English language for this).

Any soft type of stone (instead of wood) would be probably usable too - and these records would be permanent, or at least fire-resistant.

What else materials (even fictious) could be usable to record sales - in medieval (and thus also in fantasy) regardless of form of letters? (because only few, well-educated people, can write - meanwhile much more people were able to count, at least a little)

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    $\begingroup$ If I understand it correctly, the question is not specific to sales, and is in fact more generic, like "What people could write on in medieval times?" $\endgroup$ – Alexander Nov 30 '17 at 19:02
  • $\begingroup$ @Alexander: Yes, it is. $\endgroup$ – Václav Nov 30 '17 at 19:24
  • $\begingroup$ @Alexander if you have to start with "if I understand correctly", question is probably not clear enough. $\endgroup$ – Mołot Nov 30 '17 at 19:30
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    $\begingroup$ If you're asking "What writing materials were used in the middle ages?" this question isn't about worldbuilding. Questions on this site should be about building a fictional world not historical fact. $\endgroup$ – sphennings Nov 30 '17 at 19:30
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    $\begingroup$ Asking for any fictitious material that could be used for writing is incredibly broad. I can make up an arbitrarily large number of fictitious materials of the form "[random string]: used as a writing material by the people of [different random string], in the middle ages." $\endgroup$ – sphennings Nov 30 '17 at 21:28

Store owners and merchants did not need durable records.

Sales records are not annals, or church metrics, or legal documents. They were needed to help business operators with their own accounting. After an account with the client is settled, there was no more need to look at the old records. Tax collectors of the day had little interest in these ledgers, partially because there was no GAAP back then and the books could be easily "cooked". Moreover, merchants sometimes kept those books using ciphers, fearing that it can do a lot of damage to their business if fall in wrong hands.

Having said that, the method of sales records keeping should be simple. A merchant should have been able to add new entries quickly, often when on a trip, so methods like wood or stone carving, or metal engraving would have been impractical.

Among ancient writing materials, only clay tablets are fire-resistant. However, they are much less practical than parchment or paper, so the user must be very concerned about this particular hazard to choose clay.

Another common hazard is water, and this is why books and scrolls were sometimes kept in leather bags while being transported.

Wood and bark are easily accessible, but also much less practical than parchment or paper, while providing little to no benefits over them.

Wax tablets are more convenient, but less durable.

Papyrus and bamboo are actually getting close to paper's practicality, and if a particular country has those plants abundant, a merchant can write on those.

But overall, there is no better material than parchment (more expensive, higher quality) and paper (more cheap, lesser quality) in medieval times.

Today, we have artificial writing materials that can resist both water and fire, but they are too much technologically complex for medieval era.

  • $\begingroup$ The National Archive in Kew London still has documents written on vellum a type of parchment from the Middle Ages that are still legiable. This include things such as the account ledgers for the construction of certain castles. $\endgroup$ – Sarriesfan Nov 30 '17 at 21:40


quipu https://culturacientifica.com/2015/09/16/el-quipu-algo-mas-que-un-registro-numerico/

Besides the examples provided by Alexander, the Quipu was another form of storing numerical information. The system itself is based essentially on knots on a rope. It is more durable than paper-based systems, and it is resistant to water, moderate heat, and sun-light.

There are a few other advantages, including knowing whether the record is complete (or whether you lost part of it), the ability to transport it easily, to bend it, roll it, throw it, and to disguise it as something else to hide it from the less knowledgeable, and if the math of the time allows it, one could use compression or error-correction codes as well.

  • $\begingroup$ This is the best answer. I have taken the liberty of adding some frosting. $\endgroup$ – Willk Dec 1 '17 at 1:06

Some of the first known form of writing were records of debt and trade, They used clay tablets, tallies could stamped or carved into the tablet which could then be fired to become hard ceramics. Clay was cheap and common since it was used to make bricks and pottery. Keep in mind such records were only used for large transactions in which debt was involved, as much for legal record as anything else. There was no reason to keep any other records as most store owner would know what they had and what they needed. Daily tallies or such short term records could be kept on carved wax tables or charcoal on wood since they could be reused over and over.

By the middle periods paper was a lot cheaper, more than enough to be used for records. you can see some examples and more information here. https://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/wrtg/hd_wrtg.htm


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