Measures and Men

Measures and Men

by Witold Kula

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Measures and Men, considers times and societies in which weighing and measuring were meaningful parts of everyday life and weapons in class struggles.

Originally published in 1986.

The Princeton Legacy Library uses the latest print-on-demand technology to again make available previously out-of-print books from the distinguished backlist of Princeton


Measures and Men, considers times and societies in which weighing and measuring were meaningful parts of everyday life and weapons in class struggles.

Originally published in 1986.

The Princeton Legacy Library uses the latest print-on-demand technology to again make available previously out-of-print books from the distinguished backlist of Princeton University Press. These paperback editions preserve the original texts of these important books while presenting them in durable paperback editions. The goal of the Princeton Legacy Library is to vastly increase access to the rich scholarly heritage found in the thousands of books published by Princeton University Press since its founding in 1905.

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Measures and Men

By Witold Kula, R. Szreter


Copyright © 1986 Princeton University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-691-05446-9



"Who invented measures?" The puzzled reader may well suppose that measures, like the wheel or fire, are an anonymous invention, one that cannot be ascribed to any particular individual. But there he would be mistaken. A source so prestigious that I would not dare question its correctness tells us that the inventor of weights and measures was — Cain! This wicked son of Adam and Eve, having killed his brother Abel, went on to commit many other sins, and "he was" — so Flavius Josephus tells us — "the author of weights and measures, an innovation that changed a world of innocent and noble simplicity, in which people had hitherto lived without such systems, into one forever filled with dishonesty." Our source is indeed worthy of respect, and reliable in telling us how, in the simple reasoning of the Biblical tradition, the notion of measure is associated with cheating; how it symbolizes the loss of primeval happiness, and how it derives directly from original sin. (This Biblical tradition was undoubtedly transmitted faithfully to posterity by Josephus who, although he collaborated with the Romans, did come from a priestly family in Jerusalem.) As we go on to consider a selection of fragments from the social history of weights and measures, we shall indeed come to see the extent to which that history is replete with injustice and dramatic struggles.

It is a matter of common knowledge that old measures bearing the same names can signify vastly different magnitudes, depending on the time, the place, and the substance measured (ratione loci, ratione temporis, and ratione materiae). It is not enough merely to be aware of this, nor yet even to be able, whenever necessary, to translate the old measures into their metric equivalents; what is additionally necessary is an understanding of their varied, but hidden, social content. The core of this understanding is to be found in their derivation from concrete phenomena in daily life, in contrast to our meter, which has been agreed by convention.

Today's standard measures signify nothing more than a common denominator for all the dimensions measured, e.g., length, area, mass, time, and exchange value. The size of the unit is a matter of indifference; what matters is that the unit should be invariable. The fact that the kilogram stands for the weight of ten cubic centimeters of water at the temperature of 0º centigrade, or that the meter stands — or, strictly speaking, initially stood — for 1/40,000,000 part of the meridian, has no inherent social significance whatsoever. The overwhelming majority of people who employ measures are ignorant of these facts — and none are mindful of them when actually using such measures. By contrast, the measures of primitive societies, the early medieval European measures, and folk measures that ethnographers have uncovered for us do have a certain definite social significance that explains the size of units, their variety across space, and, in some cases, their mutability over time. To appreciate this is more valuable for historians generally, and for economic historians in particular, than is the otherwise highly serviceable ability to translate traditional measures into the units of the metric system. After all, the metric system, whose acceptance meant that the unit of measurement was based on an astronomical phenomenon independent of man, has been with us only for a century and a half.

Old measures, when we stop to consider them, may appear to us to be very inexact and to offer much scope for misunderstanding. But let us not look at them just through late twentieth-century spectacles, for under different circumstances, different degrees of exactitude are socially requisite. The very great exactitude of the metric system was more than sufficient for the construction of ferro-concrete buildings and of airplanes, but it proved far from adequate in the planning of lunar landings by interplanetary rockets. However, the representational nature of old measures — especially anthropometric ones [see the title of chap. 5 — Trans.] — always ensures that different measures are used in the measuring of different kinds of objects. For instance, in discussing old Slavonic measures, K. Moszynski writes: "Every measure served a different purpose. The foot marked the distances when potatoes were sown, the pace, distances in general, and the elbow, abbreviated to 'ell,' was applied to cloth. The peasant fisherman would refer to his net as being 30 fathoms long and 20 ells wide." Further examples of this kind could readily be provided. The matter is of the greatest importance. The system was derived from nothing other than daily tasks: it was easier to measure the length of the net by the fathom and the width by the ell.

To simplify, and to present the matter in strictly evolutionist terms, we may say that the earliest stage in the development of man's metrological concepts is the anthropomorphic, in which the most important measures correspond to parts of the human body. It is in a later stage that reference is made to units of measure derived from the conditions, objectives, and outcomes of human labor. Naturally, the conditions of life and work dictated the lines along which the metrological system, or its component parts, would develop. In societies where land was relatively abundant, the system of area measures tended to be poorly developed. The Ashanti of Ghana, in whose economy the extraction of gold dust played a major part, had a very advanced system of weights. On the other hand, the Saharan nomads, for whom the exact distance from one water hole to another may be a matter of life or death, have a rich vocabulary of measures for long distances. Thus, they reckon in terms of a stick's throw or a bowshot; or the carrying distance of the voice; or the distance seen with the naked eye from ground level, or from a camel's back; or walking distances from sunrise to sunset, or from early morning, mid-morning, or late morning; or a man's walking distance with no load to carry, or with a load to carry, or with a laden ass, or with an ox; or a walk across an easy or a difficult terrain. Such measures are still in use today, and we find reference to them in historical sources going back a thousand years or more.

The social content inherent in the prevailing system of measures served to ensure their longevity. The Gauls, although they received from the Romans their art of surveying and the institution of the cadaster, retained their own traditional unit of measurement (the arepennis, the unit of land for one plow to till; penn-os, "the head"; hence, today's arpent). Similarly, the Roman mile (equal to 1,000 paces or double steps) found no use in Gaul, since that country — renowned for horse breeding, the manufacture of wagons, and for its cavalry — preferred to retain the traditional leugae (the later French lieue) of approximately four kilometers. "Even the Roman administration of highways had to accept as official the country's unit of measurement, and took to marking on the milestones distances in leugae as well as in miles, or sometimes in leugae alone, for the drivers of the imperial postal services, the road overseers, and, in general, all those associated with transport in Gaul were, after all, local people."

The association of measures with the techniques of production and the productivity of labor is, of course, also apparent outside agriculture. This is quite striking as far as textiles are concerned, for the width of the cloth is determined by the width of the loom, and the length of the piece also partly determined by technical considerations and partly by those relating to the social organization of production. The length of the piece commonly coming off the loom becomes, in turn, the customary unit of length for textiles. When the determinants change, so does the length of the unit in question — albeit without a change of name; and naturally, that length will not be uniform for different textiles, such as linen and woolen cloth, since the looms employed in their making differ. If the pane is the measure of glass, then the size of the pane is determined by that of the milling equipment in the glassworks. The size of the pig with which raw iron is measured depends upon the technique of releasing molten metal from the primitive smelting furnace (or, in later time, from the blast furnace). The bar, however, which is the measure of wrought iron, has dimensions derived from a particular technique of smelting. The same applies to the kiln as the measure of lime, or again, to the load in measuring charcoal.

Transport arrangements may also determine the units employed to measure certain products. Units of measurement derived from this source are found in the commodity market. In the wholesale trade of commodities whose production is dispersed, it is the large units that are so determined, but some commodities produced within a small area and sold by retailers are measured in relatively small units that are also derived from transport. Corn is an example of the former category: here, transport determines the very large unit of the last. On the other side, charcoal exhibits the latter characteristic, being measured by the basket, and so do the various products measured by the wagon-load. A boatload, by which sand is often sold, is, again, a transport-determined measure. And if salt from the Ruthenian saltmines is sold by the cartful, then, to be sure, the cartful will before long be standardized.

An interesting case was that of the use of the strip in the Cracow market by the sellers of cabbage and turnips. A measure derived from production is here used in commercial transactions.

The practical functional character of such measures is often striking. For instance, in Geneva in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, the measure employed in the assessment of taxes on traveling traders arriving in the town was the sack, as carried in double pairs by the pack-ass. Here, we have a system imposing upon the taxpayer himself, namely the trader, the necessity to observe the standard. After all, it is primarily in his interest to see that the ass should be neither too lightly loaded nor overburdened, for he might well end up on an Alpine pass with his wares strewn on the rocky ground beside his fallen beast of burden. To take another example of a measure that is derived from the forces of production in transport, in Brazil (Nordeste) today, the cartful serves as the unit of measurement. It is a small unit, but the interested party dare not increase it, for the cart's construction is flimsy and the draft animals weak.

More generally, the sack (or bag), being the instrument of both preservation and transport, would be used as a measure and, with the passage of time, would come to be accepted as a more-or-less standardized conventional measure. One example of this process is found in medieval Pisa, and another comes from Silesia. Sometimes the functional character of a measure is linked with the nature of the product it measures: wine is measured by the cask, which also serves as the container for it; accordingly, in areas such as Languedoc, where wine does not keep well and goes sour quickly, the cask tends to be small. Salt affords an interesting example of a commodity where the determinant of measure is, on the one hand, production-related, and, on the other, institutional: the dimensions of a block of salt in the Wieliczka mines in Cracow were dependent upon natural factors and the techniques of hacking the salt out of the deposit, but large blocks were prized partly because they would be proportionately less damaged in transport. The limiting factor here, however, was the strength of the carts as well as reluctance to incur a higher rate of customs tariff.

Finally, we come across measures determined by the needs of consumption. In the sixteenth century, French agriculturalists advised landowners to bake individual loaves for their laborers to insure that nobody would cut an unfairly large portion, as happened when a large loaf had to be divided.

The diversity of representational measures in different periods and countries is astonishing. In old Ethiopian recipes, we find the following description of the measure of salt: "enough to cook a chicken." The bowshot has been found almost everywhere as a measure of distance, but the measure disappears with the demise of the bow. A hatchet's throw as a measure will not surprise us; but a hatchet's throw backwards from a sitting posture is a more unusual unit. A stone's throw in the measuring of distance is still used today in Slovakia. Ethnographers confirm that both the stone's throw and the bowshot were still in use as measures in Latvia in the fifteenth century, although the bow had long since fallen into disuse. Indeed, an ethnographic expedition in Latvia as recent as 1947 found distance measured by the neighing of the horse or the bellowing of the bull ("two bull's bellows away").

We shall be discussing the most important groups of representational and functional measures, namely anthropometric and agrarian ones, in more specialized chapters. Certainly, here too, the real-life context was a source, though not the only one (as chap. 2 will show), of the diversity and variability of measures. The area measured by the time taken to work it may depend on the quality of soil, or the quality of tools and the main produce. Dry measures of capacity related to sowing will vary for different grains, and measures of cloth will vary depending on the model of the loom commonly used in the locality, and so forth. For instance, in 1790, within the single département of Basses-Pyrénées, nine different sizes of the arpent were found, the ratio of the smallest to the largest being 1:5;25 and in the district that was to form the département of Calvados there were as many as sixteen of them! The "length" of foreign cloth in Poland in the sixteenth century varied between 32 and 60 ells. Thus the range and diversity of measures simultaneously in use, within even a small district, is often truly amazing. This is not a matter to deplore, but one whose social, indeed human, significance demands our attention.


Excerpted from Measures and Men by Witold Kula, R. Szreter. Copyright © 1986 Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission of PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESS.
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