Appendix D2: Weights and Measures

© 2020 Jeffrey Love, Inger Larsson, Ulrika Djärv, Christine Peel, and Erik Simensen, CC BY 4.0 https://doi.org/10.11647/OBP.0188.08

The medieval Nordic systems of weights and measures varied considerably over space and time, and with respect to the object(s) being measured. One must distinguish between

A) measures of capacity and volume (‘rummål’),

B) measures of 1) length and 2) surface/area (‘jordmål’) and

C) measures of weight.

Some terms occurred in more than one category, for example tunna and fjärding, which might denote volume as well as area or length, depending on context. The units were generally parts of larger, hierarchically structured terminological systems. As examples of such connections, some terms have been included that are not found in the provincial laws (e.g. tunna, skippund and skálpund). On the other hand, it is virtually impossible, for reasons of space, to accommodate all local variations in a general survey. For this reason, only the more important regional differences are considered.

A) With respect to capacity and volume, dry and liquid goods were measured differently.

OSw measures of grain were sal(d)/soldh (145.8 litres in WSweden), usually divided into 6 skæppor, each containing c. 24.6 litres. Of the same size as the soldh was the tunna. Much used was the unit spander (ODan spand, ON spann) (c. 73 litres), divided into fiærþungar (‘fourths’) of 18.3 litres.

In Denmark the main unit was tunna (ODan tønde), varying in size from 139 to 194 litres. Spand was 1/8 tønde, i.e. c. 17 litres as a measure of oats; usually spand was a measure of butter (1/16 tønde, i.e. 8.7 litres).

In Norway and Iceland the sáld was the largest unit (in Iceland also a measure of liquids), varying in size between 97.2 and 132.4 litres, divided into 6 mælar of 22 litres (Iceland) or 16.2 litres (Norway). The sáld could also be divided into 4 skeppur of 24.3 (SNorway) or 32.4 litres (NNorway). Alternatively, in ENorway (including Bohuslän) the sáld was divided into 12 séttungar (OSw siattungar, known from Norrland); in Magnus lagabætrs landslög, ‘King Magnus the Law-Mender’s Law of the Realm’ (1274) 1 séttungr equalled 1/4 mælir, varying in size between 5. 4 and 12.1 litres.

Towards the end of the Middle Ages, the sáld was replaced by the tunna, varying in size between 97 and 145 litres, in WNorway even 162 litres. The tunna was usually divided into 4 mælar or 6 spæn (pl. of spander); in WSweden 6 skæppor of 24.8 litres; in DL 1/6 tunna was called a trö.

As a measure of butter, spander and tunna were used in all the Nordic countries. The spann varied in Norway from c. 4 to c. 16 litres. The Icelandic skjóla (= spann) contained c. 4 litres.

A third frequent unit was the (OSw) löper (ODan løp, ON laupr), varying in size between 10 and 21 litres (i.e. from 2 up to 4 steelyard pounds, ‘bismerpund’, or from 48 to 96 merkr); in WSweden 1/9 tunna, in Denmark usually 1/6 tønde, in Gotland 1/4 tunna.

As far as shiploads and cargo of salted goods, e.g. fish (but also grain), are concerned, the largest unit was the læst (ON lest) (c. 1,600−2,000 kg), divided into 10 or 12 skippund of 170 kg (in Denmark 126 kg, in ENorway 185, in WNorway 148 kg); 1 skippund equalled 24 li(f)spund (lispound) of 8 kg (Sweden and Denmark) or 9 kg (Norway). The li(f)spund was divided into 16 skålpund of 415 g (Sweden) or 496 g (Denmark) or 428 g (Norway).

An important ON grain measure was the vétt/vætt, ranging from 6 to 46 kg. In weighing fish the vág (18 kg) was a unit in WNorway.

B) 1) Measures of length were the (OSw) alin (ODan alæn, ON öln); (OSw) foter/fiæt (ODan fiat, ON fet/fótr); (OSw) spann, (ON) spönn; (ON) stik(k)a; hundrað; and (OSw) famn (ODan fafn, ON faðmr).

The alin (‘ell’) varied between 47 and 64 cm, in Zealand and Scania 63.26 cm, in Jutland c. 57 cm.

Sweden had at least two types of alin. In addition to the old alin of 55.5 cm and the old Stockholm alin of 52.3 cm, there was (since the middle of the fifteenth century) a newer alin of 60−61 cm.

Norway had also two types of alin, a shorter one (called alin or öln) and a longer one (called stik(k)a); but these three terms were often used interchangeably. The shorter alin, also (in the FrL) called þumalöln, was 47.4 cm, the longer one 55.3 cm.

The OIce öln has been calculated to 49.2 cm, a younger one, the so-called ‘Hamborgaralen’, was usually 57.3 cm in all the Nordic countries. The length of the OIce stika is uncertain, but it may have been identical to the ONorw stik(k)a.

The foter (‘foot’) usually measured 26−34 cm; in Sweden 25.9 cm (‘the Tychonic foot’), 33−35 cm (‘den nordliga foten’), or 26.8 cm (the so-called ‘östsvensk aln’). In addition, a Guthnic foot of 27.5−27.7 cm was used in Gotland and parts of Sweden, and a Zealandic foot of c. 31.4 cm in large parts of Southern and Central Sweden. Due to lack of sources, the length of the Norwegian foot cannot be ascertained. The OIce foot was probably 23−24 cm.

The spann varied from 6 to 8 or 9 inches (‘tummar’).

The OIce hundrað was equivalent to 120 ells of wadmal. It was the measure for the value of a cow or six sheep, and also for a certain quantity (weight) of fish (see below).

The famn (‘fathom’) was usually 3 ells (in Hälsingland and Iceland 3 1/2), i.e. c. 1.5 m. This was the square measure for the height and breadth of a woodpile. In Iceland, the fathom was also a cubic measure of hay (málfaðmr), 42.875 ells3.

A fiærþunger (‘quarter’, namely of a mile) varied between 1,500 and 3,750 m, dependent on the size of an old Nordic mile. This term (fiærþunger) was also used as a measure of volume (see above).

Much used were also the stång (‘stick, pole’, OSw, ODan stang, ON stöng) and the rep (‘rope’, ON reip), both usually of 4.5−9 (in Norway 6 or 8) alnar. In Norway, the stöng equalled 2 faðmar, in Denmark 10−18 feet.

B) 2) The area of a surface was measured in different ways. Arable land was often measured in terms of i) the amount of seed sown, ii) the size of the crop or harvest, or iii) worth (land rent).

i) The amount of seed sown. Sædesland (from sæde ‘seed’) is used as a general term for land sowed with a certain amount of grain, specified in the first part of the compound in question. Under this term may be subsumed, e.g., mælisland and sáldsáð. A mælisland (Norway) was sown with 1 mælir, its size equalled 4.7 are; a sáldsáð (Norway) with 1 sáld, possibly c. 4 decare (c. 1/4 acre); a pundssáð (Norway) with 1 skippund. The same pattern is shown by OSw spannaland and tunnland (c. 4,000 m2). A special OSw term is seland (Ångermanl.), for which the quantity of sowed grain is not known; its size has been estimated to 800 square fathoms.

ii) The size of the crop or harvest. OSw snesland (from snes, ‘score, set of twenty’, 1 snesland = 9 bandland) (measured according to the size of the harvest), and the OFar tunnulendi (64 square fathoms).

iii) Worth (land rent). Much more frequent are measurements based on rent (‘landskyld’, the tax or fee paid by the tenant to the landowner), where the first part of the compound denotes the size of the rent. Examples are (OSw) löpsbol, (ONorw) laupsból, laupsleiga, (OSw) markland, (OGu) laupsland, marklaigi, (OSw, ODan) öre(s)land, (ODan) ørebol, (ONorw) ørtuga(r)ból, (OSw) örtoghaland, (OSw) pænningsland, (ONorw) mánaðarmatarból, merkrból, markaból, øyrisból, auraból.

The OSw öresland equalled 3 örtoghaland, each comprising 3,000−4,000 m2 (= 1 tunnland or 1 dagsværk (‘day’s work’) or 36 snesland). The ONorw merkrból equalled 8 auraból (= 24 ørtogaból or 480 penningaból). 1 mánaðarmatarból equalled 1 laupsból (= 1/3 merkrból).

The central ODan unit was bol, the value of which was normally (in Zealand) 1 mark ‘skyldjord’, in Zealand it corresponded to c. 110 tønder (sown) grain. But the size of the bol varied considerably. Those valued less than 1 mark ‘skyldjord’ were divided into fjerdinger (fourths) or ottinger (eighths).

The OSw attunger was originally 1/8 of a village (by) or of the smallest conscription unit of the levy (the hamna). It was primarily not an area measure, but a measure of wealth, a unit used in the taxation of farms as a base for the military levy. As an area measure, it expressed the size of fields. In the Early Middle Ages a normal attunger was equal to the size of a field sown with 2 tunnor each year, when half of the field lay fallow, and the crop was 12 tunnor. In the High Middle Ages it became a norm for the rent (OSw avrad), in Sweden and Denmark normally 24 spand. It was equal to 1/2 markland in Svealand, 1/8 bol in Denmark.

The OIce kristfé (‘Christ’s properties’) constituted a special case. These were freeholding foundations ad pios usus, properties or parts thereof encumbered with servitudes implying that the rent should be used to pay for the maintenance of paupers in the local district. Dependant on the size of this rent the property in question was called karlgildr (196 ells) or kvengildr (144 ells), irrespective of the gender of the recipient.

C) Measures of weight were partly the same as the units mentioned in the Appendix D1 (q.v.). This especially applies to the mark, öre and örtogh. The mark had the weight of c. 210 g, varying somewhat over time and regions (in Sweden 213.3 g (Skara), 207.2 g (Stockholm); in Denmark 217.5 g (1282), 210.47 g (1332−33) and c. 230 g (‘the Cologne mark’); in Norway c. 214.3 g (1287) and 214.5 g (1329)). The öre was 1/8 mark, the örtogh 1/24 mark. Larger measures were the skálpund, li(f)spund, skeppund, vétt/vætt and vág (see above). In Iceland, larger quantities of fish were weighed in hundruð (pl. of hundrað). 1 hundrað equalled 120 gildir fiskar (40 of 4 merkr and 80 of 5 merkr).

Refs: Ericsson 2007; 2008a, 8−10; 2008b, 39−63; KLNM s.v.v. bol, byamål, fiskhandel, hundrað, hömått, jordmått, kornmål, kristfé, mil, sædesland, tegskifte, ytmått; all with further references; NK 29, passim; NK 30, passim; Pettersen 2013, 142, 224−25; Riddersporre 2008, 23−38; Siltberg 2008, 85−117; Sporrong 2008, 242−47; Tollin 2008, 139−48.