Weight and Measurement in Old Norway

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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