A Frael Of Figs - Or - A Handful Of History
    By Patrick Lockerby | August 9th 2011 08:38 PM | 10 comments | Print | E-mail | Track Comments
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    Retired engineer, 60+ years young. Computer builder and programmer. Linguist specialising in language acquisition and computational linguistics....

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    A Frael of Figs
     - or -
    A Handful of History

    If history consisted only in lists of the dates when "important people" did earth-shattering things such as kicking the bucket from a surfeit of lampreys, then I would agree with Henry Ford that history is bunk.

    However, history at large can run from the present day all the way back to the big bang - assuming there ever was a big bang.

    Working from a simple principle, geologists figured out the geological processes which have made the face of our planet what it is today.  That simple principle states that the processes which we observe today must have operated the same way in the past and will certainly operate the same way in the future.

    That is the essence of uniformitarianism, a principle of geology first formulated in a scientific manner by James Hutton.

    Uniformitarianism admits a rule of uniformity of process operation throughout geological history.  By extension, it can be formulated as a law of universal and cosmic application: the laws of physics are the same for all observers under the same conditions across time and space.

    Some of the historical evidence accumulated by geologists came from archives.  Processes operating today were seen to have operated in a similar way in the past according to eye-witness accounts.  But the planet itself is the most wonderful illustrated history book that one could wish for.  The language which is found in its ages-old pages is universal.

    And so it was that history gave value to geology and geology gave value to physics.  

    Without history, science is bunk.

    I have no time for bunk, so I like to check up on what is presented as historical fact by checking up on the available evidence.

    Scientific evidence can be found in the strangest places.  The strangest of all places, perhaps, is the archive of tax laws and payments where one can find evidence of  geological and climatic processes in historic times.  Bad times make bad markets.

    I leave it as an exercise for the reader to determine whether my delving into tax archives is to be taken as evidence of the past, or as evidence of my need to get a life.

    Historic weights and measures

    My recent articles on Ignaz Venetz show that he adopted the metric system some time after 1821.  His 1821 paper uses Swiss leagues and feet, while his posthumous paper uses those units together with meters.  The French word lieue (league) is often translated as mile, but that is imprecise.  A league is not necessarily the same measure in all lands.

    I often wonder how scientists managed to communicate measurements with precision in an even more remote past.  If you think it's bad enough converting between British, U.S. and metric units, try going back to the times when not just every region, but every trade had its own preferred units of measure.

    Here is a small sample of oddball archaic units compiled from old tax and toll-related documents and various web sources.

     - 70,000 cochineal insects
     - of cocoa 1 cwt

     - of bullion, 15 to 30 lb

     - of anchovies 30 lb
     - beef 25 stone
     - butter 224 lb
     - candles 120 lb
     - coffee 3 to 11 cwt
     - flour 196 lb
     - gunpowder 1 cwt
     - herrings 32 gall
     - Malaga figs 96 to 360 lb
     - pork 28 stone
     - potashes 120 lb
     - resin 2 cwt
     - soap 256 lb
     - tar 261 imp. gals
     - tapioca 1.1/4 cwt
     - turpentine 2 to 2.1/2 cwt
     - Valencia raisins 1 cwt

    chaldron ( a kind of coal wagon)
     - of coal 25.1/2 cwt
     - Newcastle chaldron of coal 52 1/2 cwt or 3 wains (a kind of farm wagon)

    cubic yard
     - of new hay 6 stone (84 lb)
     - of old hay  8 stone (1 cwt)

    faggot - of steel 120 lb

    firkin - of soap 64 lb

    frael or frail (various other spellings: a basket made from rushes)
     - of Faro figs 32 lb
     - of Malaga figs 56 lb

    jordan (a box)
     - of almonds 25 lb

     - of bricks 100 pieces

    long hundred
     - of fish 132

      - of hops 1.1/2 to 2 cwt

     - of  glass 120 lb

     - of almonds 1.1/4cwt
     - of cochineal 140 lb

     - of lead 2,400 lb

     - of fish 4 pieces

    And there are many hundreds of local and trade-special units which would take a whole book to list.  It would, of course, be the most 'remaindered' book in the history of publishing.  Boring wouldn't even begin to describe it!


    If you have enjoyed this article, you may enjoy other articles from my blog.



    Have you read:

    The Extraordinary Voyage of Pytheas the Greek
    (ISBN: 0142002542)
    Cunliffe, Barry

    I’ve just finished it.  Quite enjoyable.
    Robert H. Olley / Quondam Physics Department / University of Reading / England
    Robert: thanks for the tip.  I'll see if I can get a cheap copy on ebay.  I've read a lot about Pytheas, but it's always good to read somebody else's take on history.
    Thanks for the link, Aitch.
    I leave it as an exercise for the reader to determine whether my delving into tax archives is to be taken as evidence of the past, or as evidence of my need to get a life.

    put a smile on my face at least. :-D

    I love those fabulous units like a MURDER of xxanimals. Sounds so brutal...:-)

    Bente Lilja Bye is the author of Lilja - A bouquet of stories about the Earth
    Bente: that's a murder of crows.  A whole lot nastier than a squabble of seagulls.  :-)

    What do you make of a fesnyng of ferrets?  Does that word seem scandinavian to you?
    I thought a firkin was a half a keg, so about 9 gallons. (Of course Wikipedia has the answer, both.)

    Would the volumes be roughly similar for each sort of barrel? They are not even the same for beer and ale. (Side trip to Wikipedia while commenting)
    Does a tun of beer (216 imperial gallons) weigh a ton?

    This is getting confusing, is a litre still a litre?

    Tony: some of those weights and measures that I cite go back to at least the 14th century.  In the course of time the king and parliament set standards so that a firkin or a barrel would be the same measure for the whole country.  Before that, barrels of many different sizes were used for different products.

    In passing: 'as easy as shooting fish in a barrel' is wonderfully ambiguous.  Is it easy to sit in a barrel in a river and shoot fish?  Is it easier to shoot fish which are swimming in a barrel?  I suspect that the expression comes from the days when 'shooting' implied the use of a bow and arrow and when fish was packed in layers in barrels with salt as a preservative.  Shoot an arrow into that lot and you 'catch' enough for a week!

    I love language.  It's a keg butt firkin cask hogshead barrel of laughs!

    Talking of barrels, you will surely remember this. The sound is a bit soft on this posting, but it contains the full intro.

    Here’s a derivative* Irish song (originally by Pat Cooksey, but I can’t find him on YouTube.)

    *strictly speaking, derived, but I had yo have a go at the financial markets!
    Robert H. Olley / Quondam Physics Department / University of Reading / England
    Robert: I am familiar with the Dubliners version of this song, but I have never before come across Gerard Hoffnung's excellent 'lecture on the physics of pulleys'.  Many thanks for that!  :-)