The definition, meaning and origin of traditional weights and measures.
Definitions of Imperial and Traditional terms for length measures.
28th part of a cubit. Width of a finger. Approx.
To steal (slang). Rhyming slang for "pinch."
10 lines. 1000 thou. or mils. Width of man's thumb, length of 3 barley corns (Anglo-Saxon).
3 inches. Width of man's palm. (Also, slang term for hiding in a hand or stealing.)
4 inches. Width of man's hand; used for height of horse at its withers (shoulders). Formerly, approx. 5 inches.
6 inches. 6½ inches until 12th Century.
9 inches. Width of man's spread fingers.
9.8 inches (approx). Anglo-Saxon.
11.6 inches (approx). Roman. 12 Roman unciae.
12 inches. Length of (large) man's foot.
2 spans, 28 digits. Elbow to middle finger tip. Approx. 18 inches.
30 inches. Single step.
2.72 feet. Proposed by some archaeologists.
3 feet. Length of man's pace. Man's reach from nose to finger tip.
A yard plus an extra inch; ie 37 inches. cf. Baker's dozen.
3 feet 9 inches. Measurement of cloth. Double forearm.
5 Roman feet (pedes). 58 inches (approx). Double step.
5 feet. 60 inches. Modern version of Roman pace.
9½ feet (approx). 6 Hebrew cubits, possibly a measurement tool rather than a unit.
5½ yards. 16½ feet. Anglo-Saxon. Approx. 20 "natural" feet.
22 yards. 4 rods. Width of a strip in the strip field farming system. See also Acre (area), 22 by 220 yards, now simply 4840 square yards.
22 yards. 66 feet. 100 links. Length of cricket pitch. Each tenth link is a brass tag.
100 feet. 100 links. Less common.
40 yards. 32 ells. Measurement of cloth.
125 passus. Approx 608 modern feet. Similar to cable and furlong.
220 yards. 40 rods. 10 chains. Length of an Ox plough furrow; length of a medieval strip field.
5000 Roman feet. 1000 Roman passus. 8 Roman stadia. Approx 4860 modern feet.
5280 feet. 1760 yards. 8 furlongs. 80 chains. Changed from 5000 feet during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I.
5952 feet. 1984 yards. Old measure.
6720 feet. 2240 yards. Old measure. Beware when told that an Irish distance is "a mile and a bit." The bit may be longer than the mile!
A vague, long distance – often much longer than a measured mile.
7500 Roman feet. 1½ Roman milia. 12 Roman stadia. Approx. 7290 modern feet.
1½ miles. As used in the Devonshire Domesday Book.
3 miles (usually). Many different definitions; often approx. the distance a person or horse can walk in one hour.
10 kilometres. Old measure.
Official and slang terms for quantities.
More than 3. Old engineering joke.
We count: 1 .. 2 .. 3 ... lots!
Fist punch. "He'll get a bunch of fives!"
13. ie. One extra loaf to combat suspicion of short measure. cf. Tailor's yard.
20. Man's Biblical life span is "3 score years and 10."
24 sheets. Measure of paper.
100. "Doing a ton" = 100 miles per hour.
6 score. ie. 120.
12 dozen. ie. 144.
20 quires. ie. 480 sheets.
500 sheets. Also, a large quantity of documents.
12 gross. ie. 1728.
1000 million. Was US billion.
Million million. Used in Britain until 1980s.
1000 billion. ie. million million.
Note. This section is still being verified: Any additions and corrections are welcome.
British term for all cereal crops, especially wheat. Note. This is different to eg. USA where "corn" means maize (sweet corn, Indian corn).
Traditional decorative item or figure constructed after harvest using cut straw, usually from cereal crops.
Traditional decorative item or figure made using cut straw, fixed to a thatched roof or thatched hayrick. Often (loosely) called a Corn Dolly.
A few straws, a handful, used to tie around the centre of a bundle. A wisp is cheaper and more effective than string. It also causes less damage to the straws.
A modern bound bundle of hay or straw from a cereal crop, often produced using a combine harvester. Until recently, most bales were rectangular. Many large modern machines now produce large round bales. Material in bales is normally used for purposes such as animal bedding, rather than for decorative or thatching purposes.
A bundle of cut straw, hay or reeds, tied together, often using a wisp. Circumference commonly approx. 24 inches in UK, or 1 metre in Europe, depending on local materials and traditions. Greener or damper material would normally be put into smaller sheaves, to let it dry more easily. A UK sheaf would contain approx. 400 to 500 un-damaged straws which are good enough for decorative work such as weaving into corn-dollies.
In UK thatching practice, when good bundles are placed alongside each other and pressed together, 7 bundles should cover one fathom. This measure of quality is performed using a fathom of rope.
Sheaves of cut straw, hay or reeds placed on end to dry. 8, 10 or sometimes up to 16 sheaves are grouped into each self-supporting stook. If the ears of grain are still on the crop, sheaves are arranged with the ears at the top.
Harvesting the cereal crop, hay or reeds.
An early agricultural machine which harvested cereal crops and bound them into sheaves.
Separating the cereal grain from the straw and husks. This can be a manual process, often on a threshing-floor or mat. In modern times, often by using a threshing machine.
Separating the cereal grains from the chaff and any pests or weevils; after threshing. In the simplest manual process, the mixture is tossed into the air above the threshing floor or mat. The heavier grains fall to the ground and the lighter chaff blows in the wind.
Modern agricultural machine which performs all stages of harvesting cereal crops: Reaping the crop; threshing, and winnowing. Modern versions produce grain which is ready for drying and storage; bound bales of hay; and chaff.
Note. Many ancient measures, particularly lengths and areas of land, varied in different places. This may have been partly to compensate for the differing productivity or value of the land: Land records were often more about taxation, rather than for recording actual dimensions. Measurements in Britain became better standardised during the second half of the thirteenth century.
(Anglo-Saxon field.) The land area that can be ploughed by one ox team in a day – actually in a morning because the Oxen would need resting in the afternoon: They would trudge 11 miles while ploughing an acre. Traditionally in the strip field farming system, an area 40 rods long by 4 rods wide (ie. 220 yards by 22 yards). Sometimes used as a measure of width: One acre = 4 Rods wide. One tenth of a square furlong. Similar to the French Journal, and German Morgan or Tagwerk. The modern acre is 4840 square yards.
Before measurements became standardised, there were often four different types of acres:
Financial penalty inflicted at the MERCY of the King or his justices for various minor offences. The offender is said to be "IN MERCY" and the monies paid to the crown to settle the matter was called amercement (See also Fines).
A measure of land roughly equal to a modern acre.
A measure of land: The area that could be cultivated by a plough drawn by one ox in one year, or rather during the annual ploughing season. Varied in different regions and different soil types. Approx. 15 acres. Similar to the Dane law term: Oxgang.
Volume. A dry measure of 8 gallons, or 4 pecks.
Weight. See: fother.
Dane law term. A measurement of land, equivalent to a hide. The amount of land that could be tilled during the ploughing season using a team of eight oxen. Varied in different regions and soil types. Approx. 120 acres. Sub-divided into four virgates or eight oxgangs.
The money paid by Anglo-Saxon Britain to persuade the Danes to not invade the South and West. Now means money extorted by threats.
The English silver penny, hence the abbreviation "d" and the coin in most common circulation. Although they were sometimes "clipped" or "debased," the English silver penny contained a standard weight of silver and so could be traded across Europe. Introduced by the Romans.
Financial department of the royal government. The chief officers of the Exchequer were the Treasurer, the Chancellor and the Justiciar. Sheriffs, in their role as regional chief accountants, presented reports to the exchequer at Easter and Michaelmas.
Administrative unit of land. Fourth part of a hundred. (Not necessarily exactly a quarter.)
Literally, quarter of a quarter; normally quarter of a Virgate, itself a quarter of a Hide. But seems to have varied between about two and eight ferlings to the virgate.
Land. Term used in continental Europe. A holding of land or land held through a special grant; normally by an Earl or a tenant-in-chief. Similar to an Honor.
11th century French term equivalent to the term Knight's Fee because of the coat of mail (hauberk) which it entitled and required every tenant to own and wear when his services were needed. This provided a definite estate in France, because only persons who had this estate or greater were allowed to wear hauberks.
Weight. See: fother.
Weight. A cart-load. About 19½ hundredweight, dependent upon material. Also, six sacks where each sack is five fotmal, depending upon material.
Volume. 40 bushels or 320 gallons.
Also, "lots of," "a large quantity," "a huge amount," etc.
Length. One foot (foot-length, foot-print or foot-space).
Weight. About 70 pounds of lead. (Definitions varied between 70 and 72. Weight also depended upon material.) A thirtieth of a fother. A fifth of a sack. 5 stone.
Comment: A fotmal of lead would occupy about one tenth of a cubic foot. This could form an ingot about 12 x 5 x 3 inches. A man could lift and carry this weight a short distance. A pack animal could carry two fotmal as a balanced load – one on each side of its back.
In 1391, each votmel of old lead roof sheets taken from the roof of Marlborough Castle was valued at 4 shillings.
Lead sheeting a tenth of an inch thick weighs 6 pounds per square foot. At this thickness, a fotmal of lead would produce about 12 square feet of lead sheets.
Comment: This unit does not seem to match the Roman practice: Lindsey Davis's entertaining novel "The Silver Pigs" is set during the Roman occupation of Britain. These Silver Pigs are actually lead ingots made from British lead ore which also contained about 130 ounces per ton of valuable silver. The ingots are said to be 20 x 5 x 4 inches with the Emperor's name and date stamped on one long edge, to weigh 200 Roman pounds, and to contain 24 ladles of molten ore.
(Anglo-Saxon field.) 220 yards or 40 rods. The length of a plough furrow - ie. Furrow-long. In the strip field farming system, the length of the field strip ploughed before turning the ox team to plough the next furrow.
Also, sometimes a measure of area, apparently meaning square furlongs. So, when the Hemyock entry in the Domesday Book refers to 8 furlongs of woodland, it probably means 8 square furlongs: eg. 8 x 1 or 4 x 2 etc.
Sometimes confused with or a mistranslation of ferling.
Tax. As in Danegeld, the money raised and paid by Anglo-Saxon Britain to persuade the Danes to not invade the South and West.
Colloquial term for a churchyard or graveyard.
A unit of measurement for assessment of tax, theoretically 120 acres, although it could vary between 40 and 240 acres. Equivalent to a carucate. By the late Anglo-Saxon, early Norman period, the hide was chiefly a unit for taxation, rather than an actual area of land.
By custom it was the land that could be cultivated by a plough team of eight oxen in one year, or rather during the annual ploughing season; or alternatively the amount of land required to support one peasant household. (Sometimes ten families.) Hides seem to have been larger in eastern England than in the west. In the Devonshire Domesday Book, it seemed to average about 64 acres., although many were as small as 48 acres.
Land. Holding or group of holdings forming a large estate, such as the land held by an Earl or a tenant-in-chief. Similar to a European feudum. At times, Hemyock was within the Honor of Plympton.
Anglo Saxon institution. Subdivision of a Shire. Theoretically, but hardly ever, equalled one hundred hides. Generally had its own court which met monthly to handle civil and criminal law. Equivalent to the ancient Norse Wapentake. There was a Hemyock Hundred.
Weight. 4 quarters ie. 8 stones or 112 pounds.
Electrical unit. Admiralty practical unit of electrical capacitance until mid 1930s. Based upon the Leyden Jar. A standard Admiralty glass pint tankard covered with tin-foil as the outside electrode and filled with 1 pint of brine as the inside electrode had a capacitance of about 1 Jar. Now replaced by the Farad. 900 Jars = 1 micro Farad.
In theory, a Fief which provided sufficient revenue to equip and support one knight. This was approximately twelve hides or 1500 acres, although the terms applied more to revenue a fief could generate than its size; it required about thirty marks per year to support a knight.
2 wey. Definitions varied, usually about 2 tons, or 60 fotmal, or 80 bushels, or 640 gallons.
In the Devonshire Domesday Book, usually 1½ miles; elsewhere, often approx. 3 miles. Traditionally, the distance a person or horse can walk in one hour. So the Devonshire definition presumably allows for Devon's hilly, winding lanes!
Note. The Roman League has been about 1½ English miles. Perhaps this old definition had remained popular in Devon?
Also a measure of area, where a "league" is one square league.
(Artificial) Open water course supplying water; eg. for irrigation, to a mill, etc.
The term used for a subdivision of land in Kent equivalent to a hundred.
The lords of some manors held a regular court leet to collect fines etc., once or twice a year.
Weight. See: fother.
Weight. See ton.
Soldier holding his land, generally 60-120 acres, specifically in exchange for military service. Sometimes called a Yeoman.
Small holding, typically 1200-1800 acres, with its own court and probably its own hall, but not necessarily having a manor house. The manor as a unit of land was generally held by a knight (knight's fee) or managed by a bailiff for some other holder. In later years, the power of the manor declined progressively in favour of the vill.
Money. Normally means the silver mark, a measure of silver, generally eight ounces, accepted throughout medieval western Europe. Although they were sometimes "clipped" or "debased," the English silver penny contained a standard weight of silver and so could be traded across Europe. In England the mark was worth thirteen shillings and four pence, ie. two thirds of £1. Equivalent to present value of the Euro.
The gold mark was worth £6.
Ceremonial coins given to the poor by the British Monarch, on Maundy Thursday, the Thursday before Easter. Consists of silver 4, 3, 2, and 1 pence coins. Each recipient is given coins which total the Monarch's age.
Dane law term. A measure of land: The area that could be cultivated by a plough drawn by one ox in one year, or rather during the annual ploughing season. Varied in different regions and different soil types. Approx. 15 acres. Similar to the Anglo Saxon term: Bovate.
Volume. A dry measure of 2 gallons, or ¼ bushel.
Also, a "large" amount.
For a standard perch of 5½ yards; 30¼ square yards. There are 40 to the rood; 160 to the acre.
In Sri Lanka, often rounded down to 25 square metres.
The area of arable land capable of being tilled by one eight-oxen plough team. Equivalent to one Hide. But also used as a notional unit for taxation.
16 ounces (Avoirdupois), 7000 grains (Troy). Many other weights have been used at different times, in different places, and for weighing different materials.
2 stones ie. 28 pounds.
Administrative unit of land. Third part of a shire, eg. the Yorkshire Ridings (North Riding, East Riding, West Riding) which were established in the 9th century by the Danes. (Not necessarily exactly a third.)
See square perch.
Quarter of an acre. 40 square perches or square rods.
Weight. Five fotmal (of lead). A sack of wool was 364 pounds. But other commodities used different weights: For example, a sack of grain was 280 pounds.
Unit of cultivation in a medieval strip farming field. Often about half an acre.
Measure of money used for accounting purposes and equal to 12 old pennies. Until modern times, there was no actual coin. Small silvery coin. (Now replaced by 5 new pence.)
British engineering unit. 32.174 pounds mass. A mass numerically equal to the acceleration of standard gravity (32.174 feet per second per second). When subjected to a force of 1lb weight, a 1 slug mass will accelerate at 1 foot per second per second.
Middle ranking peasant, farming more land than a cottager but less than a villein. A typical small holder would have 10-20 acres of land, often as separate strips in different fields. He was also required to work on his lord's land or to provide a service to his lord. Also known as a Bordar.
Usually 14 pounds Avoirdupois, as decreed by King Edward III in 1340 when Flemish / Florentine measures were adopted to aid England's vital international wool trade.
Other definitions have been used in other places and for different materials. At least two of these survived into the 20th century:
Measurement of land in Kent. Roughly equal to two hides, although still considered to be the area of land which could be cultivated using a single plough-team of eight oxen.
The local earl's one-third share of fines in shire or hundred courts, often allocated afterwards to a particular manor or church as income.
One tenth of a person's produce and income, due as a tax to support the church.
20 hundredweight or 2240 pounds. The "Long Ton."
Administrative unit containing about 5 to 10 Hides and inhabitants. Equivalent to the secular parish. The vill usually contained several manors. As the feudal system declined, the vill took over importance from the hundred and manor. Later, the parish took on the duties and responsibilities, for example during the nineteenth century, the sick, poor, and destitute sometimes relied on the parish for aid.
In Devonshire at the time of the Domesday Book there were 980 vills containing about 9000 hamlets or farms.
Ideas return! The UK government policy in recent years has been to devolve many duties and responsibilities to secular parish councils. (Note. These secular parish councils may share common boundaries with the Church of England parishes, but are different institutions.)
Wealthiest class of peasant. They usually cultivated 20-40 acres of land (sometimes as much as 100 acres), often as separate strips in different fields. He was also required to work on his lord's land or to provide a service to his lord.
One quarter of a hide, or two oxgangs. The amount of land that could be tilled during the ploughing season using two oxen. Varied in different regions and soil types. Approx. 30 acres.
However, in the Devonshire Domesday Book, was used as a unit of tax rather than of land area. Hemyock was assessed as paying Geld for one Virgate.
Also called a yardland or yard of land.
Weight. About 70 pounds of lead. See: Fotmal.
Weight. See: Cart-load. About 19½ hundredweight, dependent upon material. Also, six sacks where each sack is five fotmal.
Also, "lots of," "a large quantity," "a huge amount," etc.
Weapon-taking. Sub-division of land in areas formerly under Norse control - including Northern and Eastern areas of Britain -equivalent to Anglo Saxon Hundred.
Weight or volume. See: Cart-load. About 19½ hundredweight, dependent upon material. Also, 320 gallons, or 40 bushels, or 30 fotmal.
A measurement of land in Kent equal to one quarter of a sulong. Roughly equal to two virgates, although still considered to be the area of land which could be cultivated using two oxen.
Hemyock Castle, Hemyock, CULLOMPTON, Devon, EX15 3RJ, UK.
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