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Weight and Measurement in Old Norway

Nothing confuses our American school children quite as much as beginning arithmetic classes in weights and measure.

Anyone who has ever taught primary school, or helped a child with his lessons, know it does no good to explain why we have twelve inches in a foot or three feet in a yard; children are incredulous when told a mile is 5280 feet and so on.  Any logic escapes them; the system simply requires memorization.

The subject of switching to the metric system has been discussed in the United States.  European countries such as Norway are often held up as examples of places where the weights and measures systems function smoothly with decimal units.

However, Norway only adopted its metric system in 1875 and before that commerce operated on a plethora of weights and measures which sometimes varied from valley to valley and were far more complicated and confusing than the old English system we inherited.

A barter economy requires standards established by a central authority in which it is essential that both parties agree about the exchange.  Under a strong central govenment, the standards are enforced with effective penalties for transgressions; an administration without power to maintain an orderly system throughout a country and especially in remote areas,  necessarily surrrenders its prerogatives to local government, and this was the case in Norway.

A genealogist, local historian, or cook will be confronted with confusing terms if he uses material recorded or printed before the metric system was adopted in Norway.

In the Middle Ages lengths were measured in the tomme, fod and alen.  The tomme (thumb) and fod (foot) are self-expalantory.  The alen was origianlly the distance measured from the elbow to the point of the thumb finger.  Lare it came to be equal to two feet and 3/4 inches.  Grain was measured in Mæler or (skjepper) and so on.  The first ordinances in "modern" times for Norway and Demark came May 1, 1683; and January 10th, 1698, when it was decreed the fod was to be the same as the Rhineland fuss (foot) for linear measure, 1 pott equal to 1/21 of a cubic fod; and 1 handelspund equal to 1/62 of the weight of 1 cubic fod of fresh water.

On Julyl 24, 1824, Norway got a new system, much more detailed than the earlier laws, in which 1 fod = 12 tomme; and 1 alen = 2 fodder; 1 mil = 18,000 alen; 1 rode = 5 alen; and 1 maal (mål) of land = 10,000 square fodder.  One korn tønne (barrel of grain) was to be 41/2 cubic fodder or 8 skjepper.  One tønne = 144 potter = 130.974 liter.  And one fisketønne = 120 potter or 115.811 liter.  A  kanne had 2 potter each of which had 4 liter pel.  In weights one pund had two mærker.  One pund - 498.112 grams.  One skippund = 20 lispund = 320 pund.  (A lispund = 16 pund).  One vaag = 3 bismerpund (one bismerpund=12 pund).

When the metric system was introduced there were some new words to learn:  the meter was the basis for linear measurement, the liter liquid and dry, they are for areal, and the gram for mass or weight.  But some of the old terms were retained and given metric equivalents.


1 mil = 10 kilometer

1 skjeppe = 20 liter

1 mål = 1 dekar

1 pund = 500 gram

The terms for weights and measures occur most frequently since they are the terms used in daily commerce.

In Norway's barter economy, and in any economy in which the value of the currency fluctuated, the taxes were set in terms of what the gaard (or farm) produced so that if the taxes of one gaard with a lot of grazing land had its txxes as "one hud, two skinn" it meant that the ta was the value of one hud and two skinn when the taxes were due.  Along the coast the taxes might be vevied in the value of the fish, in the mountains, butter.  In actuality the farmer usually did not deliver tanned hides, fish or butter to the official but rather the currency obtained from the sale of such.

by comparing the tax of one farm with those of neighboring farms a relative size can be imagined.  

Meaures in Old Norway 

Measures by Volume:

pel(er) or pægle - one fourth of a pott or about half pint.

pott(er) - 0,965 liter, equal to about one quart.

kanne(r) - a tankard which when used as a volume meaure about two liters.  As a weight measure it was equal to 5 lispund or 36 kilograms.

settung or setting - A measure equal to on ehalf skjeppe or about 12 liters.

skjeppe(r) - in liquid measure aboaut 18 potter or 20 liters (formerly 17.4 listers).  In dry meaure about one half bushel.

mæle(r) - a grain measure which fluctated between 15 to 17 liters.

mål or maal - an old term adapted to metric use.  In volumetric use a unit of one decitliter (6.1 cubic inches, or about one fifth of a pint).

tønne(r) or tunne, or tønde - a barrel, cask or drum measuring about 4 bushels (for fish, grain, potoatoes, etc.).  One tønne was equal to 4 kvart; in the 1600s one tønne if grain was 4 mæler equal to 16 fjerdinger equal to 72 kanner.  About 144 liters, although a tønne of grain is sometimes listed as 139 liters and a tønne of fish 116 liters.

Areal Measure:

mål or maal - now 100 square meters (0.247 acres or about one fourth of an acre).  An old term adapted for metric use.

mæling - was the area of a field which it was estimated one could now in a day, or sometimes precisely 100 square meters -- see mål.

tønne(r) - when used in the context of land measure about one acre.

fjerding(er)  - not a unit in istself but often used to mean a quarter of some governmental unit, a parish, county, city, etc.

Lineas Measure:

mil -- after 1824, 18,000 alen or 11.3 kilometersIn 1874 the distance of 10 kilometers or 6.2 English miles.

fjerding(er) - a quarter of a mil, then as now.  Now equal to two and a half kilometers or 1. 5425 English miles.

tomme(r) - about an inch, a term meaning thumb.  There were 12 tommer in a fod (fot).

fod(der) or fo(tter) - a term meaning foot divided into 12 tommer.  Or 0,31374 meters or 1.03 English feet.

alen - two fodder or 0.6275 meters or two feet 3/4 inches in the englisth system.

rote(r) or roder(r) - five alen.

Measure by weight:

lodd(er) - a metal weight on a scale usually equal to 1/32 of a pund.  One half of an unse.  In a cookbook of 1877 it was given the value of 15 grams.

unse(r) - a weight equal to 1/16 of a pund; about an English ounce.

mark - (plural is mærker) - a unit now equal to 1/4 of a kilogram, 250 grams.  Formerly it was 8 unser, about one half an English pound.

pund - a unit equal now to 498 grams or slightly more than an English pound.  Same as the skålpund.

Skålpund or skaalpund - Same as the pund.

bismerpund - a unit usually equal to 12 pund or about 12 English pounds.  However, in Vesby a bismerpund was noted as equal to 13 skaalpund.

lispund - ususlly cited as 18 pund.  However, in upper Østerdalen it was equal to 16 pund or 52 kilograms.

laup - a round wooden box with handles which when used as a measure was about 33 pund.

centner - one hundred pund.

våg or vaag - the weight itself formerly used to balance scales or the arm of the scale.  The våg was equal to bismerpund, 72 mærker, 18 kilograms or 39.5 pounds.

lest -  the nautical weight of about 400 pounds or in dry measure 12 tønne.  When used to weigh timeber it was about 5200 pounds.

skippund - before 1877 when one skippund was set at 160 kilograms, it was equal to one våg, but the weight varied from district to district.  During the Middle Ages the skippund was much larger trade weight in both Scandinavia and Germany and was equal to slightly more than 300 pounds.  In norway it varied in value up to 350 pounds.

Hud and Skinn

The words for hides and skins, i.e., tanned leather, deserve special mention.  Leather in itself appers to have been a trade comodity used as it was for so many finished products from shoes to harness, to furniture, to book covers.  Wealthy merchansts are known to have covered ther walls with engraved and painted leather panels.

One hud (cow hide) was equal to 12 skinn, usually a Kalvskinn (calf skin) to 6 geitskinn (nanny goat hide).  To complicate matters, a fettling was the foot on one skin, a amall piece of very little value.

The abbreviations for all of these terms were not standardized and often depended solely on the writer's recorder's habit.  Kalvskinn might be abbreviated ksk in one place and Klvs in another.  Spelling, oftern phoetic, varies, of course.

The plurals for the terms indicated - not used throughout - were generally formed by adding 'er'.  The exceptions were the maculine nouns which retained the same spelling in the plural form.

This discussion of the old weights and measures may have seemed more complicated whan is warranted, but these are terms which we have found in our use of the older local historical and genealogical source.  An understanding of the terms should make the reference come alive.


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