I don’t live in the past—I only visit—and so can you!

Rules & Measurements

Norse measurements and units are non-standardized and ambiguous, and as Christie Ward notes, seem to be oriented more toward larger measures. For more on this, see Gary Anderson’s interpretation or Christie’s own. We know more of Anglo-Saxon measurements.

These give you an idea of how the folk in the Viking Age divided lengths. Keep in mind that there was no zero at the time.

In Britain, at some point, the ell was standardized, possibly by Edward I in the thirteenth century. He commanded that each English town should have an ell-stick, which were all cut to the same length. This indicates to me that such straight-edges were used during the time before measurements were standardized. The ellstick (also known as an ell-wand, a mete-wand or merely as a Stikke) is a bar of wood or metal that is about an ell in length.

References to rules, squares and compasses for woodworkers are not found, but it would appear that such items were known in the Viking Age. These were instruments used by masons in the construction of buildings, although it takes little imagination to know that at least the better educated woodworker knew about them as well.

Such instruments were known to have existed in Roman times, and some from that era are still extant. They were made out of bronze, since the Mediterranean world was fairly iron-poor; by the middle ages in northern Europe, where, iron was more plentiful, the instruments were generally made out of iron. In the sixth century, Isidore of Seville refers “to a compass as a pair of dividers, perhaps not unlike those already noted in Roman times. Theophilus, twelfth-century author of the Schedula diversarum artium, mentions the use of a compass in making a small silver cup.” He also remarks about iron dividers and calipers, which is a big difference from the bronze ones used by the Romans.

Both squares and straight-edges are described by Isidore of Sevile: “It is constructed out of three rules, of which two are two feet long, and the third is two feet and ten inches long. They are…joined together at the ends of each to form a triangle.” This description indicates that medieval folk knew about the square, and the casual use of “rule” probably indicates that straight edges were well known as well.

This blog entry is theoretical and highly speculative. We have a strong suspicion that woodworkers of the time used items similar to these to measure their projects, so we wouldn’t object to woodworkers of today using such devices on the line. The fact that neither a wand nor a square was included in the Mästermyr chest certainly indicates that not all woodworkers of the era would have used them, though I suspect that a few might and certainly encourage modern woodworkers to use one. I would suggest that if you want to use a stick to take a piece of hard wood or metal that is about two feet or an ell in length. Divide it into lengths that fit your purposes: inches, millimeters, finger widths or anything else that is useful. Mark these with scratches, with knife notches or with pyrographic marks. If legends are needed, they can be given those like that you see on later runesticks

The resulting stick can be used in your efforts and may be displayed at events with no problem.

For a note on later medieval rules and squares used by woodworkers, see the Saint Thomas Guild of Woodworkers.

8 responses

  1. Dan

    One thing I find in blacksmithing, as well as other period skills, is the distinct lack for a lot of measuring with rules. Most joinery can be easily accomplished with by trial fitting, or transferring the measurement from the original with dividers or a template. Many times I don’t care what the measurements are, it just needs to the “this big/long/etc” and I can determine that with string, wire or in some other fashion.

    An interesting anecdote about this comes from the blacksmiths at Colonial Williamsburg. They set out to recreate a lock. It was carefully disassembled and measured. They painstakingly created all the parts to the precise measurements they took and yet the recreation wouldn’t go together correctly. Then they took another tact. Instead of recreating all the parts and then assembling the lock, they created each item and fitted it to the one before in sequence using measurement only as a general guideline. Suddenly the whole lock went together; just like the original.

    January 11, 2012 at 09:48

    • Too many compmlients too little space, thanks!

      January 31, 2012 at 16:06

    • You mean I don’t have to pay for expert advice like this anmyore?!

      February 1, 2012 at 09:46

  2. LOL. Many times what I have made for someone must fit in their booth. I have to measure it!

    But I agree. Especially in the illiterate noth–where they constructed ships by rule of thumb–they probably didn’t have levels. The fact that they were mentioned in print, etc., I think it’s more likely that woodworkers had them in England (they were used by masons I am almost certain), and I’m certain metalworkers used scales since they would have had their hands cut off in their scales weren’t true), so it is not a large leap to rulers.

    The existnce of wands and stikkes also indicate their existence. I am certainly not saying that every woodworker had one, but I can see how it might be useful, especially for a modern woodworker if they are doing stuff for a MoP or a reenactor with space concerns. I think this entry is more to ease the conscience of someone who feels a need for a rule and wants to justify it.

    Personally, I’d love to ee one in period…just like I’d like to see period tattoos, shave horses and pole lathes… 🙂

    January 11, 2012 at 12:56

    • Never seen a beettr post! ICOCBW

      February 1, 2012 at 08:12

    • I was so cnofeusd about what to buy, but this makes it understandable.

      February 1, 2012 at 10:55

  3. Now I feel stpiud. That’s cleared it up for me

    February 1, 2012 at 13:55

  4. We definitely need more smart peolpe like you around.

    February 2, 2012 at 02:40

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