Medieval Weights and Measures

market

I’m sorry, but there is really no way to make this interesting.  In my novels the characters talk about how far they’ve travelled, how much things weigh and how much ale is left in a barrel. In order to do this convincingly, they can’t talk about kilometres, kilogrammes and litres. It turns out that they can talk about feet, yards and miles, though, which is a relief.

Measurements were starting to become standardised in the fourteenth century. Weights were supposed to be standardised to what was used in Winchester, but many towns retained their local weights and measures. I can see that there might have been some very great misunderstandings when people from different parts of the country had dealings with one another.

These are the most common medieval weights and measures:

Distance

Furlong – the length of a furrow of a field ploughed by a team of eight oxen. It was forty perches or 220 yards. This was the long side of the acre. The other side was 22 yards.

League – approximately three miles.

Mile – there were officially two different miles. One was the statute mile and the other was the Old French mile, which is 1.25 statute miles. There were also, of course, local miles of varying lengths. The length of a mile wasn’t fixed formally until the end of the sixteenth century.

Rod/perch/pole – five and a half yards.

Length

Ell – used for measuring cloth. It was usually forty-five inches, but could be twenty-seven inches for Flemish cloth. The ruler used for measuring cloth was known as an ell-wand.

Foot – twelve inches.

Inch – the French word for inch will help us here. It’s ‘pouce’, which also means thumb. An inch was the width of an adult thumb.

Yard – three feet, but originally the length of an outstretched arm. Henry I is supposed to have used his own arm as the standard.

Weight

Bushel – eight gallons.

Chaldron – 36 bushels.

Hundredweight – 112lb except in Devon, where it was 120lb.

Pound (lb) – 16 ounces (oz), except in Devon, where it was 18oz.

Quarter (or core) – eight bushels. It was used for weighing grain.

Stone – 14lb, except in Devon, where it was 16lb.

Liquids

Gallon – varied depending on whether it was ale or wine being measured.

Hogshead – sixty-three wine gallons, fifty-two-and-a-half ale gallons. In London it was usually forty-eight ale gallons.

Area

Acre – the amount of land a team of 8 oxen can plough in a day.

Ploughland – the amount of land a team of 8 oxen can plough in a year.

Both of these will clearly vary greatly across the country. An acre in Norfolk will be larger than an acre in Yorkshire or Devon simply because Norfolk is flatter and easier to plough. Edward I tried, and failed, to standardise the size of an acre.

Rood – quarter of an acre.

You’ll have noticed that some of these measurements are almost meaningless. It’s all very well knowing that a bushel is eight gallons, but what was a gallon?

Apart from allowing my characters to discuss their journeys and the amount of land they hold, why is this important? Imagine you’re a merchant travelling from one market to another to sell your wares. You need to know what the units of measurement are in the towns you visit regularly. You will be accused of short-changing your customers if their expectations of what a bushel is exceed what you give them.

 

Sources:

The Time Traveller’s Guide to the Fourteenth Century – Ian Mortimer

A Dictionary of Medieval Terms and Phrases – Christopher Corèdon with Ann Williams

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43 Comments

Filed under Fourteenth Century, Medieval Life

43 responses to “Medieval Weights and Measures

  1. Ably (and despite protestations, interestingly) demonstrating the chaos that is the ‘imperial’ measurement systems that people try to hold on to.
    My parents say, ‘I don’t know what a kilometre is, you know where you are with a mile..’
    To which we can answer ‘Which mile?’ (being that there is a nautical one as well the medieval ‘about that far…’ local ones and the Old French)

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you. I still can’t do kilometres and I’ve lived abroad. I can almost do litres, but I can only do centimetres by remembering that 30cm is more or less a foot. I’m in that unfortunate age group that learnt everything in imperial and then had to learn decimal at 11 or 12. I do very well in centigrade, though.

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  2. On the contrary, I found this fascinating! Especially the definition of an acre. So when and how did it become standardized? It’s also amusing that there are deviations, mainly in Devon! And if even things like measurements vary, what can one count on?

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thank you, Marina. I don’t know why Devon persisted in having totally different measurements.

      Things were supposed to be standardised during the fourteenth century, but they weren’t. It wasn’t until the sixteenth century that things began to be a bit more ordered. There had been loads of attempts in earlier centuries to have standards, as it made things easier for trade. There were various Acts of Parliament during the 18th and 19th centuries and the imperial measurements for length were literally set in stone in Trafalgar Square in 1876.

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  3. Interesting indeed. I like the old imperial measures – though of course when I learnt them they were standardised. Once we can visualise a distance or an amount, as in, “That bottle looks like it holds a pint” it’s tricky to change.
    And I know how far I’ve walked in an hour, if I go at a steady pace without pushing myself. Three miles. So much easier than: errmm, a bit under 5k.

    Another huge complicator for people moving from one part of the country to another would have been making themselves understood. Local dialects must have been nigh on incomprehensible.

    Liked by 2 people

    • I can’t do kilometres either. I must learn. I also learnt imperial as a child. Pints, quarts and gallons make sense to me. Litres don’t quite do it for me. At the moment I’m drinking 500ml of cider, but it’s a pint in my head.

      I often think about the dialect problem. I studied French at university, so I’m always thinking about how people communicated. I think there would have been two problems: dialect and accent. I don’t have much of an accent, but I use words that mean nothing to people from other parts of the country. Travel, radio and television have done quite a bit to destroy local accents, but there are still regional differences. That must have been much more pronounced in the Middle Ages.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Pints! They’re still confusing. English pints, American pints, a pint glass for alcohol as opposed to a pint bottle of milk… 700ml, as I recall.

        Sad about the way UK regional accents are disappearing. They’re a delight.

        Liked by 1 person

        • Accents are interesting. One of my parents came from a large town in Hampshire, the other from a village a few miles away, but their accents were different, if you paid attention. Mine was destroyed by growing up in Wales, Cheshire and Kent.

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  4. I agree with M.L.

    I wonder why Devon decided to make their own rules about how many ounces were in a pound, pounds in a stone, or pounds in a hundredweight?

    Liked by 1 person

    • I don’t know. It seems very odd. I can understand why they might want to have a different definition of things like acre. Devon is quite a hilly county. Why they would want a different way of measuring weight is beyond me. It might be because Devon and Cornwall were always slightly separate from the rest of the country. I don’t think the Romans penetrated very far into Devon and Devon became part of Anglo-Saxon Wessex quite late. Perhaps it was a way of maintaining their independence.

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  5. You always make things interesting, April. How odd that Devon threw a spanner in the weight measurement works. No mention of Cornwall, though.

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    • I suspect that things were so different in Cornwall that it was almost like going to another country. Cornwall hardly ever comes up in the books I read about the Middle Ages. I’d quite like to know what was going on there then. I used to go there on holiday as a child and it would be lovely to go back and do some research.

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  6. The one that tips me over the edge is the hundredweight. You’d think there’d be a hundred somethings in it.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I never came to grips with it as a child. I didn’t mind 16oz to a pound and 14lb to a stone, but 112lb to a cwt just confused me. I think there probably were attempts to make it 100lb, but the hundred somethings must have been something else that was a little bit more than a pound. I think I might need to delve deeper. It might have been the Romans. They liked 10s and 100s.

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      • Maybe it was standardized before the pound, so it was a heavier pound?

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        • Perhaps. My reference books are almost unanimously silent about weights and measures. Google helped me to find out that a quarter is a quarter of a hundredweight, but that’s not really much help.

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      • thinkum

        The hundredweight really stood out to me, as I was reading this fascinating piece (seriously, I love this stuff). I am, for some unknown reason, illogically delighted that a measure called a “hundred weight [of something]” is then defined as *not* a hundred of pounds — even in Devon. 😉 I’m quite curious as to what the original “something” was, back in the mists of time — simply a pound of a different weight? A particular rock someone tripped over in the road? A fruitcake?

        I grew up in an era when the US was attempting (in vain) to convert to the metric system, and as a result, my internal measuring system is utterly screwed up. More out of annoyance at this fact, than anything else, I still prefer imperial to metric in my personal life. I have, though, learned to use metric when dealing with medical issues — seems like it’s really only in the sciences that the metric system fully took hold, in the US.

        Liked by 1 person

        • It’s a wonder to me that we ever got to a position where there was a standardised system of weights and measures. It’s not a wonder that it didn’t make sense.

          I didn’t realise that the US had ever flirted with metrication. I’m sure that when we leave Europe there will be people who want us to go back to imperial.

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  7. Pingback: The joys of pre-metric measurements | Notes from the U.K.

  8. You are right April, not the most interesting of subjects no matter how you phrase it 🙂 Though it is necessary to give such details as you cover all aspects of medieval life.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Val

    How curious that an inch was the width of an adult thumb, my mother who was a sculptor taught me to measure in inch using the top part of my thumb (though length of thumb, not width). I have very small hands and it’s still almost exact. I wonder if Medieval thumbs were broader?

    Oh and I see one of your sources was the Time Traveller’s Guide… I have that, it’s a great book.

    Like others, I’m struck by how different Devon was from the rest of the country… but as I’ve been delving into at least one part of Devon recently (Oxton House, near Kenton, apropos something in my current blog post), I’m not surprised…. they did seem to have different ways.

    Liked by 1 person

    • That made me get out my ruler. My thumb is just over three-quarters of an inch wide. I have fairly small hands, so a man’s thumb would be more or less an inch.

      The Time Traveller’s Guide is very useful. It’s also quite entertaining. Ian Mortimer is responsible for the Devon facts.

      Liked by 1 person

  10. Reblogged this on Elisabeth Hobbes -Writer of naughty knights and brooding heroes for Harlequin Mills & Boon and commented:
    A very useful resource and interesting to see the measurements we no longer use.

    Liked by 1 person

  11. And I worry about US vs Metric units – yikes.

    Fascinating post.

    Liked by 1 person

  12. John Kitcher

    Now there is more to find out about this than you imagine! House bricks remain to be the old imperial size (9” x 4 1/2”). The powers that be did try to bring in a metric brick back in the 70’, but they never caught on for some reason.

    Liked by 1 person

  13. John Kitcher

    And here is another construction type bit of information – the modern day quantity surveyor has his roots back in the Middle Ages somewhen, as craftsmen employed “measurers” to determine how many of whatever they were making had been made, as they were being done out of money by unscrupulous builders: this step was so successful, that builders then employed their own measurers to ensure that were not overcharged by unscrupulous tradesmen! 100’s of years later we have contractor’s quantity surveyors and client’s quantity surveyors fighting and arguing tooth and nail!

    Liked by 1 person

  14. bblackmoor

    I quite enjoyed reading this. Thank you.

    Liked by 1 person

  15. Shaunn Munn

    I can see why cheating was so rife in medieval times! It’s no wonder the markets and fairs were so important! The lord of the area would send his officers around to check the scales and rules. Still, the honesty of the officers could also be put to question! And who knew if the lords beam and other measuring devices were accurate. Who would contest him? It was a good way for bailiffs, sheriffs and seneschals to collude in skimming opertions!

    Bakers had to make loaves that cost a certain price at a certain weight. In times of famine, in order not to go under, they often added questionable ingredients such as sawdust, dirt, or dried, ground, seeds & pits. Avaricious bakers would do it regardless of the economy, or the meal could have been adulterated by the miller. Both professions tended to be eyed askance by the public! Remember Chaucer’s miller!

    Even today, aerial views of farmlands clearly show the patterns of medieval agriculture. It was easier to plow long, continuous, narrow strips than the plots of modern days. Turning the heavy, clunky plows was difficult. And if the ox(en) died or were eaten in a famine, humans might to do the labor of pulling! Horses were expensive, not as strong, and rare for the lower sort to own. The poorest had to hope that they could use a better-off neighbor’s oxen. But they would pay dearly if the animals were overworked, underfed, injured or died!

    And woe to the cotter with only one beast (even a goat or piglet) when HE died! The dreadful heriot would snatch the animal away to compensate the lord for the loss of a worker. The poor widow and children often became a burden on the rest of the community. They might get a few mites from his Lordship’s purse during the Holy Days, but generally, the parish had to find gainful employment for all, often breaking up the family. And if the Church owned the land the treatment of villeins was no different.

    It’s no wonder some holdings were measured in fractions of furlongs! The poorest barely had enough to stay alive. The Black Death would wreak everlasting changes to , the demenses and serfdom! Hurrah for the survivors, from whence so many of us descended!

    Love this, Ms. Abernethy! It clarifies many of the things I’ve read! You mightn’t have researched the monetary systems as well? Especially equivalencies to today’s systems?
    Or perhaps you can direct me to an online resource, please? I’m sure this question is fraught with challenges. I won’t be offended if you sweep it under the rug! Anyway, thank you!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hi Shaun, I haven’t done monetary systems yet. Most sources say that it’s impossible to give equivalents due to the different values of things today, but I might do something about it next year.

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  16. Shaunn Munn

    My apologies Ms. Munday! I had just finished with a reply to Ms. Abernathy & spaced out!
    Both of you ladies write such interesting things I am so, so sorry to not give you the credit!

    Liked by 1 person

  17. Hello April. I have an even more difficult time writing as I do about the early 13th c.!
    Have you come across the person of the pinter, in your researches. The man responsible in a town for the adherence to the ‘laws and usages’ of weights and measures?
    If so when did he appear…do you know?
    Thanks
    Susanna M. Newstead

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