Measuring

Today we measure lots of things: time, distance, weight, height, area, volume, days of the year.

500 years ago, how would you manage to tell the time without watches, clocks, phones, radio or television?

If you lived in a village the local church bell would tell you when it was time to pray.

In a monastery the monks would pray up to eight times a day, reminded by a bell.

Read about the earliest domestic clocks here.

If you went to a market to sell the wool from your sheep, how would you know if you were getting a fair price for the amount of your wool?

One method shown in this image is to compare with a local ‘stone’. We still sometimes refer to weights in stones.

If you were a ‘wandering journeyman’ and travelled from town to town to find work as a stonecutter, how do you know the distance you have to travel?

In practice the distance was less important than the amount of time it would take for the journey because that would depend on the state of the roads and how fast you could walk.

How did people know what date it was 500 years ago? The medieval calendar was almost the same as our own (except that in leap years they had 24 February twice instead of a 29 February). Rather than using the day of the month to identify a day, they quite often used the name of a saint whose feast was celebrated that day. For example, “The Feast of St John the Baptist” for 24 June. 

Although New Year’s Day was 1 January, the numbering of a year did not change on that day. There were two main ways of numbering years. One is the AD system we use today: AD is a Latin abbreviation for “In the year of our Lord” and this calculates years from the time they believed Jesus Christ arrived on Earth. Each year AD usually began on 25 March, Lady Day (nine months before Christmas). The other way to number years was according to the king’s reign e.g. The first year of the reign of Edward IV was 4 March 1461 to 3 March 1462.

View of the 15th century dome of Florence Cathedral.

Find out about medieval calendars here.

The change from the Medieval (Julian) calendar to the modern (Gregorian) calendar was not a simple task: it took hundreds of years until all European countries agreed to change.

In the Middle Ages, many units of measurement were used for distance and area. See which ones you recognise and are still in use today.

How accurate were these measurements of length, weight, height? The dome of the Cathedral in Florence, Italy was built in the 15th century and is evidence that medieval architects and masons did a pretty good job. This is one of the world’s most popular tourist destinations.

15th century weighing balance using a stone.
By Deutsche Fotothek
The calendar page for August in Lady Margaret Beaufort's prayer book
This is the calendar page for August in Lady Margaret Beaufort's prayer book. The numbering of the days is still that used by the Romans - they counted down to the Nones, Ides and Kalends (in August the Nones was the 5th and the Ides was the 13th. The Kalends was the 1st of the next month). A scribe has added notes about Henry Tudor landing at Milford Haven and the Battle of Bosworth. BL Royal MS 20 A xviii f. 31.