Medieval weights and measures

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Medieval systems of weights and measures arose from earlier systems.

From medieval guilds and trade associations to banks, and from church to state, everyone had vested interests in keeping weights and measures the same. Over time even nonessential changes, like the definition of the inch as three barleycorns, caused widespread confusion and concern. Every time they changed they changed to the advantage of one group and the detriment of another.

Whenever things were changed, as by a king ordering churchgoers to stand in line so the average of their feet could form the basis of a new standard, the essential parts of much older systems were retained by the administrators and judges because they defined property.

One example of how this worked occurred during the French Revolution when French revolutionaries attempted to use the confusion of definitions to their advantage in order to overthrow the feudal system. They conspired to further confuse the definition of ancient obligations of land in return for service, through their support of the expert authority of various savants who were busily modifying the ancient standards of measure into the metric system.

Up to then it had always been counted among the divine rights of kings and popes to establish the standards of what was right and proper and equitable. Now the ability of scientists to measure, weigh, and judge accurately made it difficult if not impossible for church and state to simply decree rather than measure, weigh, and judge by the standards of science what was due them.

This made it somewhat difficult to establish and collect their tithes and taxes without turning to the experts for the arbitration of disputes.

Earlier during the crusades many Europeans had encountered familiar units of measure in the Ancient Near East. By the Renaissance the study of Greek and Roman measures and canons of proportion had been extended to the study of Egypt.

Sir Isaac Newton was only one of many medieval scholars fascinated by the stability of earlier systems that it was thought might be reestablished and overcome the confusion of the Middle Ages as to what should be the proper standard for the common system.

The French metric system which re-introduced the innovative concept of decimalizing the ancient standards as the Greeks had done was first proposed by the Abbe Mouton in 1670.

English System[edit]

The English mile and its subdivisions of length, area and volume was derived from the Greek Milos which spread widely through Europe North from the Danube as far West as the Rhine by about 800 BC.

Within a millennium the Romans had substituted the milliare for the milos everywhere to the west of that. The so-called Anglo-Saxon (Germanic) system of measure based on the units of the barleycorn and the gyrd (rod) were traced by the Roman surveyor Hyginus Gromaticus back to Claudius Ptolomaeus as the Romans first entered Germanica.

Normanized Roman units from Hispania and Gaul introduced further modifications after 1066 under the influence of William the Conqueror.

Later development of the English system continued by defining the units by law in the Magna Carta of 1215, and issuing measurement standards from the then capital Winchester. Standards were renewed in 1496, 1588 and 1758.

The last Imperial Standard Yard in bronze was made in 1845; it served as the standard in the United Kingdom until the yard was internationally redefined as 0.9144 metre in 1959 (statutory implementation there: Weights and Measures Act of 1963).

Much of the units would go on to be used in later Imperial units and in the U.S. system, which are based on the English system from the 1700s.

Danish system[edit]

The Danes started with a system based on a Greek pous of 308.4 mm which they picked up through trade in the late Bronze Age/early Iron Age. Some early standards of measure can be recovered from measured drawings made of the 52 1/2 foot long Hjortspring boat which though dating to the early Iron Age exemplifies plank built vessels of the late Bronze Age and the 82 ft long Nydam ship. Thwarts are typically spaced about 3 fod apart. From May 1, 1683, King Christian V of Denmark introduced an office to oversee weights and measures, a justervæsen, first led by Ole Rømer. The definition of the alen was set to 2 Rhine feet. Rømer later discovered that differing standards for the Rhine foot existed, and in 1698 an iron Copenhagen standard was made. A pendulum definition for the foot was first suggested by Rømer, introduced in 1820, and changed in 1835. The metric system was introduced in 1907.

Length[edit]

  • mil – Danish mile. Towards the end of the 17th century, Ole Rømer, Mercator and other contemporaries of the great Dutch cartographer Thisus began following Claudius Ptolomy in connecting the mile to the great circle of the earth, and Roemer defined it as 12,000 alen. This definition was adopted in 1816 as the Prussian Meile. The coordinated definition from 1835 was 7.532 km. Earlier, there were many variants, the most commonplace the Sjællandsk miil of 17,600 alen or 11.13 km.
  • palme – palm, for circumference, 8.86 cm
  • alen – forearm, 2 fod
  • fod – about 313.85 mm in most recent usage. Defined as a Rheinfuss 314.07 mm from 1683, before that 314.1 mm with variations.
  • kvarter – quarter, 1/4 alen
  • tomme – thumb (inch), 1/12 fod
  • linie – line, 1/12 tomme
  • skrupel – scruple, 1/12 linie

Volume[edit]

  • potte – pot, from 1683 1/32 fot³, about 966 ml in 19th and 20th centuries
  • smørtønde – barrel of butter, from 1683 136 potter
  • korntønde – barrel of corn (grain), from 1683 144 potter

Weight[edit]

  • pund – pound, from 1683 the weight of 1/62 fot³ of water, 499.75 g

Miscellaneous[edit]

  • dusin – dozen, 12
  • snes – score, 20
  • gross – gross, 144

Dutch system[edit]

The Dutch system was not standardized until Napoleon introduced the metric system. Different towns used measures with the same names but differing sizes.

Some common measures:

Weight[edit]

  • ons, once – 1/16 pond = 30.881 g
  • pond (Amsterdam) – 494.09 grams (other ponds were also in use)
  • scheepslast – 4000 Amsterdam pond = 1976.4 kg = 2.1786 short tons

Length[edit]

  • duim – 25.4 mm
  • kleine palm – 30 mm
  • grote palm – 96 mm, after 1820, 100 m
  • voet – 12 duim = abt. 295.4 mm, many local variations
  • el – about 700 mm

Volume[edit]

  • pint – 0.6 l

Finnish system[edit]

In Finland, approximate measures derived from body parts and were used for a long time, some being later standardised for the purpose of commerce. Some Swedish, and later some Russian units have also been used.

  • vaaksa – The distance between the tips of little finger and thumb, when the fingers are fully extended.
  • kyynärä – (c. 60 cm) The distance from the elbow to the fingertips.
  • syli – Fathom, (c. 180 cm) the distance between the fingertips of both hands when the arms are raised horizontally on the sides.
  • virsta – 2672 m (Swedish) 1068.84 m (Russian)
  • peninkulma – (c. 10 km) The distance a barking dog can be heard in still air.
  • poronkusema – (c. 7.5 km) The distance a reindeer walks between two spots it urinates on. This unit originates from Lapland.
  • leiviskä – (8.5004 kg)
  • kappa – (5.4961 l) Still in use at market places to measure potatoes.
  • tynnyrinala – (4936.5 m2) The area (of field) that could be sown with one barrel of grain.
  • kannu – (2,6172 l)
  • kortteli – Used for both length (14.845 cm) and volume (3.2715 dl).

French system[edit]

In France, again, there were many local variants. For instance, the lieue could vary from 3.268 km in Beauce to 5.849 km in Provence. Between 1812 and 1839, many of the traditional units continued in metrified adaptations as the mesures usuelles.

In Paris, the redefinition in terms of metric units made 1 m = 443.296 ligne = 3 pied 11.296 ligne.

In Quebec, the surveys in French units were converted using the relationship 1 pied (of the French variety; the same word is used for English feet as well) = 12.789 inches (of English origin). Thus a square arpent was 5299296.0804 in² or about 36,801 ft² or 0.8448 acre.

There were many local variations; the metric conversions below apply to the Quebec and Paris definitions.

Length[edit]

  • lieue commune – French land league, 4.452 km, 1/25 Equatorial degree
  • 1 Roman cubit = 444 mm so 1000 roman cubits = 4.44 km, a closer approximation to 1/25 degree
  • lieue marine – French (late) sea league, 5.556 km, 3 nautical miles.
  • lieue de poste – Legal league, 2000 toises, 3.898 km
  • lieue metrique – Metric system adaptation, 4.000 km
  • arpent – 30 toises or 180 pieds, 58.471 m
  • toise – Fathom, 6 pieds.
  • Originally introduced by Charlemagne in 790, it is now considered to be 1.949 m.
  • pied – Foot, varied through times, the Paris pied de roi is 324.84 mm. Used by Coulomb in manuscripts relating to the inverse square law of electrostatic repulsion. Isaac Newton used the "Paris foot" in his Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica.
  • pouce – Inch, 1/12 pied 27.070 mm
  • ligne – 1/12 pouce 2.2558 mm

Area[edit]

  • arpent – square arpent, 900 square toises, 3419 m²

Volume[edit]

  • litron – 0.831018 liters
  • minot – 34 - 38 liters

Weight[edit]

  • quintal – 100 livres, 48.95 kg
  • livre – 0.4895 kg

German system[edit]

It's interesting how many of the German Meile make a geocentric cluster
around either 5 Greek Milos of 7.4 km. or a whole number subdivision or multiple of it.
While up to the introduction of the metric system,
almost every town in Germany had their own definitions and
it is said that by 1810, in Baden alone, there were 112 different Ellen,
most divide fairly well into a degree.
Length
5 Greek Milos = 7400 m
Meile – A German geographische Meile or Gemeine deutsche Meile
was defined as 7.420 km, but there were a wealth of variants:
Böhmen – 7498 m
Bayern – 7415 m, connected to a 1/15 Equatorial degree as 25406 Bavarian feet.
Württemberg – 7449 m
Reichsmeile – New mile when the metric system was introduced,
7.5 km. Prohibited by law in 1908.
Anhalt – 7532 m
the Danish mile at 7532 m, or 24000 Prussian feet. Also known as Landmeile
Sachsen – Postmeile, 7500 m. Also 9062 m or 32000 feet in Dresden
Hamburg (Prussia) – In 1816, king Frederick William III of Prussia
adopted the Danish mile at 7532 m, or 24000 Prussian feet. Also known as Landmeile
Vienna – 7586 m
6 Greek Milos = 8880 m
Schleswig-Holstein – 8803 m
Baden – 8889 m before 1810, 8944 m before 1871, 8000 m
6.25 Roman milliare of 625 Roman feet = 9250 m
Hessen-Kassel – 9206 m
Lippe-Detmold – 9264 m
7.5 Roman milliare = 11100 m
Westfalen – 11100 m, but also 9250 m
Oldenburg – 9894 m
3 Greek Milos = 4440 m
Rheinland – 4119 m
Pfalz – 4630 m
Brabant – 5000 m
Osnabrück – 5160 m
Other variants
Wiesbaden – 1000 m
Rute – Roman origin, use as land measure.
Schainos – Uncertain use, between 10 and 12 km, (11.1 km = 1/10 degree =)
Wegstunde – One hours travel, used up to the 18th century.
In Germany 1/2 Meile or 3.71 km, in Switzerland 16000 feet or 4,8 km
Stadion – 1/8 Greek Milos
Often definitions appear to be different but are just unit fractions ie;
10, 12, 14, 15, 18 or 20 feet,
The same is true of apparent variations between approx. 3 and 5 m.
Klafter – Fathom, usually 6 feet.
Regional changes from 1.75 m in Baden to 3 m in Switzerland.
Elle – Distance between elbow and finger tip.
In the North, often 2 feet, In Prussia 17 / 8 feet,
in the South variable, often 2 1/2 feet.
The smallest known German elle is 402.8 mm, the longest 811 mm.
Fuss – The foot varied between 23.51 cm in Wesel and 40.83 cm in Trier.
Rheinfuss – Rhine foot, used in the North, 31.387 cm
Zoll – Inch. Usually 1 / 12 foot, but also 1 / 10.
Linie – Usually 1 / 12 inch, but also 1 / 10.

Volume[edit]

  • Klafter – For firewood, 2.905 m³

Norwegian system[edit]

Like the Danes the Norwegians earliest standards of measure can be derived from their ship burials. The 60 ft long Kvalsund boat was built c 700 AD and differs from the Danish boats less than it does from the Oseberg, Gokstad and Tune which are all c 800 AD. Thwarts are typically spaced about 3 fot apart. rast The oldest reference to this road corridor appears to originate in Iceland. The Icelandic abbot Nicolaus travelled in the middle of the 12th century this way by way of Norway to Ålborg and then passing Viborg, Skodborg Å, Hedeby, Slesvig, the Eider river and Itzehoe to the Elbe. It took him two days from Ålborg to Viborg and then a week from there to Hedeby. This must mean a day´s journey of between 30 and 40 km. This distance corresponds well to the distance between night refuges (härbärgen, själastugor) in Swedish Värmland on the pilgrim route to Nidaros or for that matter other experiences like the stages of c 40 km a day on the route to Rome.

Hærvejen was in Scandinavia the first part of the regular pilgrim land route to Santiago de Compostela or Rome. During the passage the church of Kliplev in Sønderjylland served as an important goal in its own right. The cult figure was a statue of Christ, called St. Hjælper, which is mentioned as a recipient in the will of Queen Margaret I in AD 1416. As we shall see this need not be mere coincidence. Queen Margaret I was instrumental in bringing the road organization in order. The end of this kind of traffic came with the reformation (in Denmark in AD 1536; for medieval pilgrimage in the North cf Andersson 1989).

As indicated by its most wellknown name this was a military road as well. At the Hærvejen corridor several important battles took place. One of the most fateful was the battle at Grathe Hede in AD 1157, where king Svend Grathe lost his life and the glorious era of the Valdemars began in Denmark.

In conformity with the common law of Queen Margaret I from AD 1396 the bailiffs of the realm were ordered to build an inn every fourth mil (30 km) at the principal roads. These later developed into the privileged royal inns which in principle also kept this allotted distance. This is approximately what was counted as a normal day´s journey with horse and carriage at the time (more exactly 33 km, which is in fact 4 units of a rast or a vika/ ugesøs at sea; 1 vika being 8,3 km; below). The first regular roads with a continuous causeway or bank were constructed during the reign of king Frederk III in the 1580´s. But this kind of roads was mainly intended for the benefit of the king himself on his travels between various royal residences. Only a few of them were parallel to common roads. During the 17th century a wagon normally was driven with a speed of 4 km an hour. This means that a day´s journey took 8 hours. However, in later ordinances an inn was stipulated for every 2 1/2 mil (=20 km), which meant food, drink and a possible overnight stay for every fifth hour. A daily journey of 8 hours was evidently considered unrealistic even in late historical times. see rast farther down the page-->and local variants flourished. In 1541, an alen in Denmark and Norway was defined by law to be the Sjælland alen. Subsequently, the alen was defined by law as 2 Rhine feet from 1683. From 1824, the basic unit was defined as a fot being derived from astronomy as the length of a one-second pendulum times 12/38 at a latitude of 45°. The metric system was introduced in 1887.

Length[edit]

  • skrupel – scruple, 1/12 linje or approx. 0.18 mm.
  • linje – line, 1/12 tomme or approx. 2.18 mm
  • tomme – thumb (inch), 1/12 fot, approx. 26.1 mm. This unit was commonly used for measuring timber until the 1970s. Nowadays, the word refers invariably to the English inch, 25.4 mm.
  • kvarter – quarter, 1/4 alen.
  • fot – foot, 1/2 alen. From 1824, 313.74 mm.
  • alen – forearm, 627.48 mm from 1824, 627.5 mm from 1683, 632.6 mm from 1541. Before that, local variants.
  • favnfathom (pl. favner), 3 alen, 1.882 m.
  • stang – rod, 5 alen or 3.1374 m
  • lås – 15 favner, 28.2 m
  • fjerdingsvei – quarter mile, alt. fjerding, 1/4 mil, i.e. 2.82 km.
  • mil or landmil – Norwegian mile, spelled miil prior to 1862, 18,000 alen or 11.295 km. Before 1683, a mil was defined as 17600 alen or 11.13 km. Another old land-mile, 11.824 km. The unit survives to this day, but in a metric 10 km adaptation
  • rast –lit. "rest", the old name of the mil. A suitable distance between rests when walking. Believed to be approx. 9 km before 1541.
  • steinkast – stone's throw, perhaps 25 favner, used to this day as a very approximate measure.

Nautical[edit]

  • favn – fathom (pl. favner), 3 alen, 1.88 m
  • kabellengdecable length, 100 favner188 m, or 1/10 international nautical mile, 185.2 m
  • kvartmil – quarter mile, 10 kabellengder, 1852 m
  • sjømil – sea mile, now often the international nautical mile, 1.852 km, but also used for other nautical miles and the geografisk mil
  • geografisk mil – 7421 m or 4.007 nautical miles, defined as 1/15 Equatorial degree or 4 minutes of arc.

Area[edit]

  • mål – 100 kvadrat rode, 984 m². The unit survives to this day, but in a 1000 m² adaptation, synonym for the metric dekar.
  • kvadrat rode – square stang, 9.84 m²
  • tønneland – "barrel of land", 4 mål

Volume[edit]

  • favn – 1 alen by 1 favn by 1 favn, 2.232 m³, used for measuring firewood to this day.
  • skjeppe – 1/8 tønne, i.e. 17.4 l.
  • tønne – barrel, 4.5 fot³, 138.9 l.

Weight[edit]

  • ort – 0.9735 g
  • merke (pl. merker) – , 1/2 pund, 249.4 g, 218.7 g before 1683.
  • pund – Pound, alt. skålpund, 2 merker 0.4984 kg, was 0.46665 kg before 1683
  • laup – used for butter, 17.93 kg (approx. 16.2 l). 1 laup is 3 pund or 4 spann or 72 merker.
  • spann – Same as laup, for other commodities such as grain
  • bismerpund – 12 pund, 5.981 kg
  • vette – 28.8 mark or 6.2985 kg.
  • våg – 1/8 skippund, 17.9424 kg.
  • skippund – ship's pound, 159.488 kg. Was about 151 kg in 1270.

Monetary[edit]

  • ort – See riksdaler and speciedaler.
  • riksdaler - Until 1813, Norwegian thaler. 1 riksdaler is 4 ort or 6 mark or 96 skilling.
  • skilling – Shilling, see riksdaler and speciedaler.
  • speciedaler – Since 1816. 1 speciedaler is 5 ort or 120 skilling. From 1876, 1 speciedaler is 4 kroner (Norwegian crown, NOK).

Miscellaneous[edit]

  • tylft – 12, also dusin
  • snes – 20
  • stort hundre – Large hundred, 120
  • gross – 144

Romanian system[edit]

The measures of the old Romanian system varied greatly not only between the three Romanian states (Wallachia, Moldavia, Transylvania), but sometimes also inside the same country. The origin of some of the measures are the Latin (such as iugăr unit), Slavic (such as vadră unit) and Greek (such as dram unit) and Turkish (such as palmac unit) systems.

This system is no longer in use since the adoption of the metric system in 1864.

Volume[edit]

  • Oca - 1,5 litres (Moldavia); 1,25 litres (Wallachia)
  • Litră - 1/4 oca
  • Baniţă - 21,5 litres (Moldavia); 33,96 litres (Wallachia)
  • Chiup - 30 - 40 litres (a chiup was a large clay pot for liquids)
  • Câblă - A bucket of wheat
  • Merţă - 110 - 120 ocale (Moldavia); 22,5 litres (Transylvania)
  • Feredelă - 1/4 bucket (Transylvania)
  • Obroc mare - 44 ocale
  • Obroc mic - 22 ocale
  • Giumătate - 80 - 100 vedre (poloboc)
  • Vadră - 10 ocale; 12,88 litres (Wallachia); 15 litres (Moldavia)
  • Pintă - 3,394 litres (Transylvania)
  • Tină - Vadră (Transylvania)

Weight[edit]

  • Dram - 3,18 - 3,25 g sau 3,22 - 3,80 cm3
  • Font - 0,5 kg (Transylvania)

Area[edit]

  • Falce - 14,300 m²
  • Pogon - 5,000 m²
  • Prăjină - 180 – 210 m2
  • Feredelă - 1/4 pogon
  • Iugăr - the area ploughed in one day by two oxen - 7166 m2 (Transylvania in 1517); 5,700 m² or 1600 square stânjeni (later)

Length[edit]

  • Palmă (palm) - 1/8 of a stânjen
  • Stânjen - 2 m (approximately)
  • Palmac - 3,48 cm (Moldavia)
  • Poştă - 8 – 20 km (depending on the country)
  • Pas mic (small step) - 4 palme (Wallachia)
  • Pas mare (large step) - 6 palme (Wallachia; Moldavia)
  • Lat de palmă (palm width) - 1/2 palmă
  • Cot (cubit) - 0,664 cm (Moldavia); 0,637 cm (Wallachia)
  • Funie (rope) - 20 – 120 m (depending on the place)
  • Leghe (league) - 4,444 km;
  • Deget (finger) - the width of a finger
  • Prăjină - 3 stânjeni
  • Verstă - 1067 m
  • Picior (foot) - 1/6 of a stânjen

Russian and Tatar systems[edit]

Scottish system[edit]

Length[edit]

  • inch – 2.554 cm
  • foot – 12 inches, 30.645 cm
  • ell – Elbow, 37 Scots inches. 94.5 cm
  • fall – 18 Scots feet
  • mile – 320 falls, 1814.2 m

Spanish system[edit]

There were several variants. The Castilian is shown.

Length[edit]

  • punto – Point, 1 / 12 línea
  • línea – Line, 1 / 12 pulgada
  • pulgada – Inch, 1 / 36 vara, 0.02322 m
  • pie – Foot, 12 pulgadas, 0.2786 m
  • vara – Yard, 0.8359 m
  • paso – Pace, 60 pulgadas
  • leguaLeague, 5000 varas, approx 4.2 km

Swedish system[edit]

In Sweden, a common system for weights and measures was introduced by law in 1665. Before that, there were a number of local variants. The system was slightly revised in 1735. In 1855, a decimal reform was instituted that defined a new Swedish inch as 1/10 foot. It did not last long, because the metric system was subsequently introduced in 1889. Up to the middle of the 19th century there was a death penalty for falsifying weights or measures.

Length[edit]

  • aln – Forearm (pl. alnar). After 1863, 59.37 cm. Before that, from 1605, 59.38 cm as defined by king Carl IX of Sweden in Norrköping 1604 based on the Rydaholmsalnen.
  • famnFathom, 3 alnar.
  • kvarter – Quarter, 1 / 4 aln
  • fot – Foot, 1/2 aln. Before 1863, the Stockholm fot was the commonly accepted unit, at 29.69 cm.
  • linje – Line, after 1863 1/10 tum, 2.96 mm. Before that, 1/12 tum or 2.06 cm.
  • mil – Mile, also lantmil. From 1699, defined as a unity mile of 18000 aln or 10.69 km. The unified mile was meant to define the suitable distance between inns.
  • nymil – New mile from 1889, 10 km exactly. Commonly used to this day, normally referred to as mil.
  • kyndemil – The distance a torch will last, approx 16 km
  • skogsmil – Also rast, distance between rests in the woods, approx 5 km.
  • fjärdingsväg – 1 / 4 mil
  • stenkast – Stone's throw, approx 50 m, used to this day as an approximate measure.
  • ref – 160 fot, for land measurement, was 100 fot after 1855.
  • stång – 16 fot, for land measurement
  • tum – Thumb (inch), after 1863 1/10 fot, 2.96 cm. Before that, 1/12 fot or 2.474 cm.
  • tvärhand – Hand, 4 inches.

Area[edit]

  • kannaland – 1000 fot², or 88.15 m²
  • kappland – 154.3 m².
  • spannland – 16 kappland
  • tunneland – 2 spannland
  • kvadratmil – Square mil, 36 million square favnar, from 1739.

Volume[edit]

  • pot – Pot (pl pottor), 0.966 l
  • tunna – 2 spann
  • ankare – Liquid measure, 39.26 l
  • ohm – Also åm, 155 pottor
  • storfavn – 3.77 m³
  • kubikkfavn – 5.85 m³

Weight[edit]

  • skeppspund – Ships pound, 20 lispund or 170.03 kg.
  • bismerpund – 12 skålpund, 5.101 kg.
  • lispund – 20 skålpund
  • skålpund – Pound, 0.42507 kg
  • mark – 1 / 2 skålpund or 212.5 g. Used from the Viking era, when it was approx 203 g.
  • ort – 4.2508 g

Nautical[edit]

  • kabellängd – Initially 100 famnar or 178 m, Later, a distansminut or 1 / 10 nautical mile.
  • kvartmil – Quarter mile, 1852 m, identical to nautical mile.
  • sjömil – Sea mile, 4 kvartmil, 7408 m

Monetary[edit]

  • daler – From 1534, Swedish thaler. From 1873, replaced by the krona (Swedish crown, SEK).
  • riksdaler – From 1624, 1 1/2 daler, from 1681 2 daler, from 1715 3 daler, from 1776 6 daler
  • skilling – From 1776, 1 / 48 riksdaler
  • mark – From 1534, 1 / 3 daler.From 1604, 1 / 4 daler.
  • õre – From 1534, 1 / 8 mark. Subsequently replaced by the skilling, but from 1855 reintroduced as 1 / 100 riksdaler.

See also[edit]

References[edit]

External links[edit]