Medieval weights and measures

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The following systems arose from earlier systems, and in many cases utilise parts of much older systems. For the most part they were used to varying degrees in the Middle Ages and surrounding time periods. Some of these systems found their way into later systems, such as the Imperial system and even SI.

English system[edit]

Before Roman units were reintroduced in 1066 by William the Conqueror, there was an Anglo-Saxon (Germanic) system of measure, of which few details survive. It probably included the following units of length:

  • fingerbreadth or digit
  • inch
  • ell or cubit
  • foot
  • perch, used variously to measure length or area
  • acre and acre's breadth
  • furlong
  • mile

The best-attested of these is the perch, which varied in length from 10 to 25 feet, with the most common value (1612 feet or 5.03 m) remaining in use until the twentieth century.[1]

Later development of the English system continued in 1215 in the Magna Carta.[2] Standards were renewed in 1496, 1588 and 1758.[3]

Some of these units would go on to be used in later Imperial units and in the US system, which are based on the English system from the 1700s.

Danish system[edit]

From May 1, 1683, King Christian V of Denmark introduced an office to oversee weights and measures, a justervæsen, to be 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]

  • skrupel – Scruple, 112 linie
  • linie – Line, 112 tomme
  • tomme – Inch, 112 fod
  • palme – Palm, for circumference, 8.86 cm
  • kvarter – Quarter, 14 alen
  • fod – Defined as a Rheinfuss 31.407 cm from 1683, before that 31.41 cm with variations.
  • alen – Forearm, 2 fod
  • mil – Danish mile. Towards the end of the 17th century, Ole Rømer connected the mile to the circumference of the earth, and defined it as 12000 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 17600 fod or 11.130 km.

Volume[edit]

  • potte – Pot, from 1603 132 foot3
  • smørtønde – Barrel of butter, defined as 136 potter from 1683
  • korntønde – Barrel of corn, defined as 144 potter from 1683

Weight[edit]

  • pund – Pound, from 1683 the weight of 162 fot3 of water, 499.75 g

Miscellaneous[edit]

  • dusin – 12
  • snes – 20
  • gross – 144

Dutch system[edit]

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

Some common measures:

Length[edit]

  • duim –2.54 cm
  • kleine palm –3 cm
  • grote palm –9.6 cm, after 1820, 10 cm
  • voet –12 duim = abt. 29.54 cm, many local variations
  • el – about 70 cm

Volume[edit]

  • Pint – 0.6 L

Weight[edit]

  • Ons, Once116 pond = 30.881 g
  • Pond (Amsterdam) – 494.09 g (other ponds were also in use)
  • Scheepslast – 4000 Amsterdam pond = 1976.4 kg = 2.1786 short tons

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.

Length[edit]

  • 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)
  • poronkusema – c. 7.5 km – The distance a reindeer walks between two spots it urinates on. This unit originates from Lapland (i.e. Sápmi).
  • peninkulma – 10.67 km – The distance a barking dog can be heard in still air.

Area[edit]

  • tynnyrinala – 4936.5 m2 – The area (of field) that could be sown with one barrel of grain.

Volume[edit]

  • kannu – 2.6172 L
  • kappa – 5.4961 L

Weight[edit]

  • leiviskä – 8.5004 kg

Miscellaneous[edit]

  • kortteli – 148 mm (length) or 0.327 L (volume)

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]

  • ligne112 pouce 2.2558 mm
  • pouce – Inch, 112 pied 27.070 mm
  • 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.
  • 1 Roman cubit = 444 mm (so 10000 Roman cubits = 4.44 km, a closer approximation to 125 degree)
  • toise – Fathom, 6 pieds. Originally introduced by Charlemagne in 790, it is now considered to be 1.949 m.
  • arpent – 30 toises or 180 pieds, 58.471 m
  • lieue de poste – Legal league, 2000 toises, 3.898 km
  • lieue metrique – Metric system adaptation, 4.000 km
  • lieue commune – French land league, 4.452 km, 125 Equatorial degree
  • lieue marine – French (late) sea league, 5.556 km, 3 nautical miles.

Area[edit]

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

Volume[edit]

  • litron – 0.831018 litres

Weight[edit]

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

German system[edit]

Up to the introduction of the metric system, almost every town in Germany had their own definitions. It is said that by 1810, in Baden alone, there were 112 different Ellen.

Length[edit]

  • Linie – Line, usually 112 inch, but also 110.
  • Zoll – Inch, usually 112 foot, but also 110.
  • Fuss – Foot, varied between 23.51 cm in Wesel and 40.83 cm in Trier.
  • Rheinfuss – Rhine foot, used in the North, 31.387 cm
  • Elle – Ell / cubit, distance between elbow and finger tip. In the North, often 2 feet, In Prussia 178 feet, in the South variable, often 2+12 feet. The smallest known German elle is 402.8 mm, the longest 811 mm.
  • Klafter – Fathom, usually 6 feet. Regional changes from 1.75 m in Baden to 3 m in Switzerland.
  • Rute – Rod, Roman origin, use as land measure. Very differing definitions, 10, 12, 14, 15, 18 or 20 feet, varied between approx. 3 and 5 m.
  • Wegstunde – 'Way's hour', one hours travel (by foot), used up to the 18th century. In Germany 12 Meile or 3.71 km, in Switzerland 16000 feet or 4.8 km
  • Meile – 'Mile', a German geographische Meile or Gemeine deutsche Meile was defined as 7.420 km, but there were a wealth of variants:
  • Reichsmeile – 'Imperial / (The) Realm's mile', new mile when the metric system was introduced, 7.5 km. Prohibited by law in 1908.
  • Schainos – Uncertain use, between 10 and 12 km,
  • Stadion – Uncertain use

Norwegian system[edit]

Before 1541, there were no common definition for length measures in Norway, 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 1238 at a latitude of 45°. The metric system was introduced in 1887.

Length[edit]

  • skrupel – Scruple, 112 linje or approx. 0.18 mm.
  • linje – Line, 112 tomme or approx. 2.18 mm
  • tomme – Thumb (inch), 112 fot, approx. 2.61 cm. This unit was commonly used for measuring timber until the 1970s. Nowadays, the word refers invariably to the Imperial inch, 2.54 cm.
  • kvarter – Quarter, 14 alen.
  • fot – Foot, 12 alen. From 1824, 31.374 cm.
  • alen – Forearm, 62.748 cm from 1824, 62.75 cm from 1683, 63.26 cm from 1541. Before that, local variants.
  • favnFathom (pl. favner), 1.882 m.
  • stang – Rod, 5 alen or 3.1375 m
  • lås – 28.2 m
  • steinkast – Stone's throw, perhaps 25 favner, used to this day as a very approximate measure.
  • fjerdingsvei – Quarter mile, alt. fjerding, 14 mil, i.e. 2.82375 km.
  • rast –Lit. "rest", the old name of the mil. A suitable distance between rests when walking. Believed to be approx. 9 km before 1541.
  • mil – Norwegian mile, spelled miil prior to 1862, 18000 alen or 11.295 km. Before 1683, a mil was defined as 17600 alen or 11.13 km. The unit survives to this day, but in a metric 10 km adaptation
  • landmil – Old land-mile, 11.824 km.

Area[edit]

  • kvadrat rode – Square stang, 9.84 m2
  • mål – 100 kvadrat rode, 984 m2. The unit survives to this day, but in a metric 1000 m2 adaptation.
  • tønneland – "Barrel of land", 4 mål

Volume[edit]

  • skjeppe18 tønne, i.e. 17.4 L.
  • tønne – Barrel, 139.2 L.
  • favn – 1 alen by 1 favn by 1 favn, 2.232 m3, used for measuring firewood to this day.

Weight[edit]

  • ort – 0.9735 g
  • merke – From Roman pound, (pl. merker), 249.4 g, 218.7 g before 1683.
  • pund – Pound, alt. skålpund, 2 merker 0.4984 kg, was 0.46665 kg before 1683
  • bismerpund – 12 pund, 5.9808 kg
  • vette – 28.8 mark or 6.2985 kg.
  • laup – alt. 'spann', used for butter, 17.93 kg (approx. 16.2 L).
  • våg18 skippund, 17.9424 kg.
  • skippund – Ships pound, 159.488 kg. Was defined as 151.16 kg in 1270.

Nautical[edit]

  • favn – Fathom (pl. favner), 3 alen, 1.88 m
  • kabellengdecable length, 100 favner, 185.2 m
  • kvartmil – Quarter mile, 10 kabellengder, 1852 m
  • sjømil – Sea mile, 4 kvartmil, 7408 m, defined as 115 Equatorial degree.

Monetary[edit]

  • skilling – Shilling, see riksdaler and speciedaler.
  • ort – See riksdaler and speciedaler.
  • riksdaler – Until 1813, Norwegian thaler. 1 riksdaler is 4 ort or 6 mark or 96 skilling.
  • 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

Portuguese system[edit]

The various systems of weights and measures used in Portugal until the 19th century combine remote Roman influences with medieval influences from northern Europe and Islam.The Roman and northern European influences were more present in the north. The Islamic influence was more present in the south of the country. Fundamental units like the alqueire and the almude were imported by the northwest of Portugal in the 11th century, before the country became independent of León.

The gradual long-term process of standardization of weights and measures in Portugal is documented mainly since the mid-14th century. In 1352, municipalities requested standardization in a parliament meeting (Cortes). In response, Afonso IV decided to set the alna (aune) of Lisbon as standard for the linear measures used for color fabrics across the country. A few years later, Pedro I carried a more comprehensive reform, as documented in the parliament meeting of 1361: the arrátel folforinho of Santarém should be used for weighing meat; the arroba of Lisbon would be the standard for the remaining weights; cereals should be measured by the alqueire of Santarém; the almude of Lisbon should be used for wine. With advances, adjustments and setbacks, this framework predominated until the end of the 15th century.

Further information: Portuguese customary units.

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.

Length[edit]

  • Cot (cubit) – 0.664 cm (Moldavia); 0.637 cm (Wallachia)
  • Deget (finger) – the width of a finger
  • Palmac – 3.48 cm (Moldavia)
  • Lat de palmă (palm width) – 12 palmă
  • Palmă (palm) – 18 of a stânjen
  • Picior (foot) – 16 of a stânjen
  • Pas mic (small step) – 4 palme (Wallachia)
  • Pas mare (large step) – 6 palme (Wallachia; Moldavia)
  • Stânjen – 2 m (approximately)
  • Prăjină – 3 stânjeni
  • Funie (rope) – 20 – 120 m (depending on the place)
  • Verstă – 1067 m
  • Leghe (league) – 4.444 km;
  • Poştă – 8 – 20 km (depending on the country)

Area[edit]

  • Prăjină – 180–210 m2
  • Feredelă14 pogon
  • Pogon – 50000 m2
  • Iugăr – the area ploughed in one day by two oxen – 7166 m2 (Transylvania in 1517); 5700 m2 or 1600 square stânjeni (later)
  • Falce – 14300 m2

Volume[edit]

  • Litră14 oca
  • Oca – (pl. ocale), 1.5 litres (Moldavia); 1.25 litres (Wallachia)
  • Pintă – 3.394 litres (Transylvania)
  • Vadră – (pl. vedre, in Transylvania 'Tină), 10 ocale; 12.88 litres (Wallachia); 15 litres (Moldavia)
  • Baniţă – 21.5 litres (Moldavia); 33.96 litres (Wallachia)
  • Chiup – 30–40 litres (a chiup was a large clay pot for liquids)
  • Obroc mic – 22 ocale
  • Obroc mare – 44 ocale
  • Merţă – 110–120 ocale (Moldavia); 22.5 litres (Transylvania)
  • Giumătate – 80–100 vedre (poloboc)
  • Feredelă14 bucket (Transylvania)
  • Câblă – A bucket of wheat

Weight[edit]

  • Dram – 3.18–3.25 g sau 3.22–3.80 cm3
  • Font – 0.5 kg (Transylvania)

Russian and Tatar systems[edit]

See:

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, 112 línea
  • línea – Line, 112 pulgada
  • pulgada – Inch, 136 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 110 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]

  • linje – Line, after 1863 110 tum, 2.96 mm. Before that, 112 tum or 2.06 mm.
  • tum – Thumb (inch), after 1863 110 fot, 2.96 cm. Before that, 112 fot or 2.474 cm.
  • tvärhand – Hand, 4 inches.
  • kvarter – Quarter, 14 aln
  • fot – Foot, 12 aln. Before 1863, the Stockholm fot was the commonly accepted unit, at 29.69 cm.
  • 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.
  • stång – 16 fot, for land measurement
  • ref – 160 fot, for land measurement, was 100 fot after 1855.
  • stenkast – Stone's throw, approx 50 m, used to this day as an approximate measure.
  • fjärdingsväg14 mil
  • skogsmil – Also rast, distance between rests in the woods, approx 5 km.
  • nymil – New mile from 1889, 10 km exactly. Commonly used to this day, normally referred to as mil.
  • 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.
  • kyndemil – The distance a torch will last, approx 16 km

Area[edit]

  • kvadratfamn – square famn or 3.17 m2
  • kannaland – 1000 fot2, or 88.15 m2
  • kappland – 154.3 m2.
  • spannland – 16 kappland
  • tunneland – 2 spannland
  • kvadratmil – square mil, 36 million square famnar, from 1739.

Volume[edit]

  • pot – Pot (pl pottor), 0.966 L
  • tunna – 2 spann
  • ankare – Liquid measure, 39.26 L
  • ohm – (alt. åm), 155 pottor
  • skogsfamn – for firewood, 2.83 m3 = 6×6×3 fot
  • storfamn – for firewood, 3.77 m3 = 8×6×3 fot
  • kubikfamn – 5.65 m3 = 6×6×6 fot

Weight[edit]

  • ort – 4.2508 g
  • mark12 skålpund or 212.5 g. Used from the Viking era, when it was approx 203 g.
  • skålpund – Pound, 0.42507 kg
  • bismerpund – 12 skålpund, 5.101 kg.
  • lispund – 20 skålpund
  • skeppspund – Ships pound, 20 lispund or 170.03 kg.

Nautical[edit]

  • kabellängd – Initially 100 famnar or 178 m. Later, a distansminut or 110 nautical mile.
  • kvartmil – Quarter mile, 1852 m, identical to nautical mile.
  • sjömil – Sea mile, 4 kvartmil, 7408 m

Monetary[edit]

  • skilling – From 1776, 148 riksdaler
  • õre – From 1534, 18 mark. Replaced by the skilling, but from 1855 reintroduced as 1100 riksdaler.
  • mark – From 1534, 13 daler. From 1604, 14 daler.
  • daler – From 1534, Swedish thaler. From 1873, replaced by the krona (Swedish crown, SEK).
  • riksdaler – From 1624, 1+12 daler, from 1681 2 daler, from 1715 3 daler, from 1776 6 daler

See also[edit]

References[edit]

  1. ^ Fernie, E. C. (1985). "Anglo-Saxon Lengths: The 'Northern' System, the Perch and the Foot". Archaeological Journal. 142 (1): 248–249. doi:10.1080/00665983.1985.11021064. Retrieved 1 November 2021.
  2. ^ Magna Carta
  3. ^ Knight, Charles (1840). The Penny magazine of the Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge, Volume 9. London: Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge. pp. 221–2. In 1758 the legislature turned attention to this subject; and after some investigations on the comparative lengths of the various standards, ordered a rod to be made of brass, about 38 or 39 inches long, graduated (measured) from the Royal Society's yard: this was marked “Standard Yard, 1758,” and was given into the care of the clerk of the House of Commons. For commercial purposes another bar was made, with the yard marked off from the same standard; but it had two upright fixed markers, placed exactly one yard apart, between which any commercial yard measures might be placed, in order to have their accuracy tested: it was graded in feet, one of the feet was graded in inches, and one of the inches in ten parts. This standard yardstick was kept at the Exchequer. In 1760, a copy of Bird's standard, made two years before, was constructed.
  • Measure for Measure, Richard Young and Thomas Glover, ISBN 1-889796-00-X.
  • Masse und Gewichte, Marvin A. Powell
  • The Weights and Measures of England, R. A. Connor
  • World Weights and Measures. Handbook for Statisticians, UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs
  • Lexikon der Münzen, Maße, Gewichte, Zählarten und Zeitgrößen aller Länder der Erde, Richard Klimpert, 1896
  • Grand dictionnaire universel du XIXe siècle, Pierre Larousse, 1874
  • De gamle danske længdeenheder, N.E. Nørlund, 1944
  • Mål og vægt, Poul Rasmussen, 1967.
  • Med mått mätt - Svenska och utländska mått genom tiderna, Albert Carlsson, ISBN 91-36-03157-7.

External links[edit]