Measures and Men

Measures and Men

WITOLD KULA
TRANSLATED BY R. SZRETER
Copyright Date: 1986
Pages: 398
https://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt7ztwj8
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  • Book Info
    Measures and Men
    Book Description:

    Measures and Men, considers times and societies in which weighing and measuring were meaningful parts of everyday life and weapons in class struggles.

    Originally published in 1986.

    ThePrinceton Legacy Libraryuses the latest print-on-demand technology to again make available previously out-of-print books from the distinguished backlist of Princeton University Press. These paperback editions preserve the original texts of these important books while presenting them in durable paperback editions. The goal of the Princeton Legacy Library is to vastly increase access to the rich scholarly heritage found in the thousands of books published by Princeton University Press since its founding in 1905.

    eISBN: 978-1-4008-5773-9
    Subjects: Mathematics

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. TRANSLATOR’S NOTE
    (pp. vii-viii)
    R. S.
  4. GLOSSARY
    (pp. ix-x)
  5. PART ONE
    • 1 THE REPRESENTATIONAL AND FUNCTIONAL CHARACTER OF PAST MEASURES
      (pp. 3-8)

      “Who invented measures?” The puzzled reader may well suppose that measures, like the wheel or fire, are an anonymous invention, one that cannot be ascribed to any particular individual. But there he would be mistaken. A source so prestigious that I would not dare question its correctness tells us that the inventor of weights and measures was—Cain! This wicked son of Adam and Eve, having killed his brother Abel, went on to commit many other sins, and “he was”—so Flavius Josephus tells us—“the author of weights and measures, an innovation that changed a world of innocent and...

    • 2 REALISTIC AND SYMBOLIC CONCEPTIONS OF MEASURES AND MEASURING
      (pp. 9-12)

      In stratified societies, even in very early stages of development, honesty in the employment of weights and measures is highly regarded and given all manner of guarantees. Therefore, in addition to a guarantee from the secular authority, one of a sacred nature emerges as well. Very early, too, we find that “the just measure” becomes symbolic of justice in general. Practices bound up with man’s attitude to measurement assume the character of a symbolic expression of many elements of popular "social philosophy.”

      We can easily follow this evolution in the Bible. In the Books of Moses, which constitute a code...

    • 3 BELIEFS ASSOCIATED WITH MEASURES AND MEASURING
      (pp. 13-17)

      It was Cain, then, who devised measures. To count and to measure is sinful. Since it is a well-known fact that the devil himself gave David the idea of counting God’s people,¹ it is clear that to count, and especially to count people, is sinful. Similiarly, it is sinful to measure a human being. “Among the Czechs, at the end of the eighteenth century, a belief was prevalent that a child under six years of age would cease growing, become stunted, a ‘measureling,’* if the cloth intended for his shirt or outer garment was measured.”² Taking a man's measure, or...

    • 4 MEASURES AS AN ATTRIBUTE OF AUTHORITY
      (pp. 18-23)

      The right to determine measures is an attribute of authority in all advanced societies. It is a prerogative of the ruler to make measures mandatory and to retain the custody of the standards, which are here and there invested with sacral character. The controlling authority, moreover, seeks to unify all measures within its territory and claims the right to punish metrological transgressions. It is not by chance that in the Old Testament we find references to “measures of the sanctuary”¹ in periods of ecclesiastical domination, and to “the King's weight”² in periods when the rule of the King prevailed.

      The...

    • 5 MAN AS THE MEASURE OF ALL THINGS (ANTHROPOMETRIC MEASURES)
      (pp. 24-28)

      “Man is the measure of all things.” This sentence of Protagoras had, of course, a dual significance. On the one hand, it was the synthesis of the anthropocentric philosophical stance, perhaps also a declaration of cognitive faith. At the same time, it was a simple statement of the existing state of affairs, a generalized view of a system in which man used himself, the parts of his body, to measure all other objects.

      The author of a recent Greek novel in the realistic genre writes of his heroine, a Cretan peasant woman: “The world had been cut in man’s measure....

    • 6 HOW WAS LAND MEASURED? (AGRARIAN MEASURES)
      (pp. 29-42)

      Relatively underdeveloped systems of surface measures for cultivable land have generally been associated with low density of population. In the Spanish New World colonies of the sixteenth century, pastures were marked out with the aid of a circular measure. There were but two sizes, large (hato) and small (corral). Such measures would be unthinkable in long-settled and densely populated regions. In Europe, from the early Middle Ages until the introduction of the metric system, there were two types of measures for cultivable areas: those derived from the labor-time for plowing and those derived from the amount of seed required.¹

      Measurement...

    • 7 HOW WAS GRAIN MEASURED?
      (pp. 43-70)

      Scales are an instrument of ancient lineage; they were wielded by the archangel on the day of the Last Judgment—as depicted for the admiration of the faithful on the pediments of many Gothic cathedrals—and earlier still, they were an attribute of Amon, the god of Justice personified. However, before the meter came to reign supreme, they were used by virtually no one but merchants, and even by them only for a limited range of articles. Many goods that we are now accustomed to buy by weight used to be purchased by customary measures of capacity or by the...

    • 8 HOW WAS BREAD MEASURED?
      (pp. 71-78)

      “Give us this day our daily bread. . . .” In medieval and modern Europe bread was not quite so ineluctably the basis of human existence as it may appear. A variety of biscuits, cakes of oats or of oats mixed with barley, and especially gruels and soups seasoned with fats—or soups, anyway—supplied the masses with their basic diet of carbohydrates if, or when, they could not afford bread. Yet those foodstuffs were always looked upon as substitutes, surrogates,ersatzbread, in the pejorative sense of these terms. It was bread that was considered the norm, the desirable...

    • 9 STANDARDS AND THE GUARANTEES OF THEIR IMMUTABILITY
      (pp. 79-81)

      Traditional doctrines required that measures be immutable. Yet there is no immutability in life, for time wears away all things; this is the context of man’s eternal struggle with the destructive power of time. Polish ethnographers, however, are familiar with measures made of perishable material. The nomenclature alone, with several terms derived fromkora(tree bark),¹ bears witness to this. In Silesia, some measures were made of copper, brass, or iron, but others of outer or inner tree bark, wood, woven straw or osiers.² Writing in the eighteenth century on the measures used in grain transactions, K. Kluk lists measures...

    • 10 SYSTEMS OF DIVISION AND GROUPING (MNEMOTECHNICS)
      (pp. 82-86)

      All modern quantitative thinking relies upon the decimal system. It is a system that, to us, appears perfect in its simplicity and ready applicability. Nevertheless, mastering its principles proved extremely difficult for the masses—a question we shall deal with at length in discussing difficulties encountered by the related metric system. As early as the seventeenth century, Leibnitz demonstrated that perfection was not so much a property of the decimal system but rather inhered in the “invention” of zero, and, indeed, that systems no less perfect could be constructed with the numbers eight or twelve at their center. But, for...

    • 11 THE MAGNITUDE OF THE MEASURE AND THE VALUE OF THE SUBSTANCE MEASURED
      (pp. 87-89)

      The attitude of today’s civilized man towards measures reveals a highly developed capacity for abstract quantitative thinking. Of the many features exhibited by every object in a variety of contexts, we abstract one, and consequently, objects qualitatively as diverse as, say, a man’s pace, a suit of clothing, a stretch of road, or the height of a tree, acquire a commensurability in our eyes, for we view them from but a single perspective, that of their length. The perfect divisibility and cumulativeness of the metric system enables us to “compare” very great magnitudes, such as the length of the terrestrial...

    • 12 THE HISTORY OF HISTORICAL METROLOGY
      (pp. 90-93)

      The history of the studies of past weights and measures is in itself an interesting chapter of the history of historiography—one that is not without some practical as well as ideological features. The earliest large group of such studies was part and parcel of the Renaissance burgeoning of textual criticism of the writings of antiquity,¹ in particular of the Bible. Thus, endless toil was expended in attempts to ascertain the true weight of the pillars of Solomon’s temple! And countless uncommonly hirsute young men were forbidden to cut their hair for a year in order to establish the weight...

    • 13 HISTORICAL METROLOGY AS A BRANCH OF THE STUDY OF HISTORY
      (pp. 94-101)

      Historical metrology is concerned with past systems of measurement. This definition, in which the emphasis is on the term “system,” postulates that in our investigations we take into account all the elements associated with measuring: systems of counting, instruments of counting, methods of using these instruments (we have already noted that the methods may often be more important than the dimensions of the measuring instruments), the different methods of measuring in different social situations, and finally, the entire associated complex of interlinked, varied, and often conflicting social interests. Our definition incorporates also the conviction that all those elements combine into...

    • 14 THE FUNCTIONS OF MEASURES IN THE PRE-CAPITALIST COMMODITY AND CREDIT MARKETS
      (pp. 102-110)

      To repeat: modern man conceives of price as the relation between an amount of money and a quantity of a commodity, the former being variable and the latter fixed. Thus, if the price of bread goes up, or down, then to us this means that the amount of money we have to pay for a constant quantity of bread increases or decreases. Yet the assumption that a change in the market situation will be reflected in a change in the amount of money to be paid for a given measure of some commodity is socially neither necessary nor universal. Changes...

    • 15 THE INERTIA OF MEASURES AND THEIR VARIABILITY
      (pp. 111-113)

      “The persistence of measures is closely bound up with the questions of communal memory (mémoire collectif),” maintained M. Bloch,¹ using Durkheim’s terminology. The following hypothesis may be ventured: that the tremendous diversity of measures coexisting at any given point in time in the pre-capitalist epoch, coexisting indeed in neighboring villages or within the estates of a single landowner or monastery, would be matched by a persistence of measures that was at times nothing short of astonishing.² A French student, for instance, demonstrated the absence of change in the land measures in a single parish in Normandy, according to evidence dating...

    • 16 THE TENDENCIES TOWARDS STANDARDIZATION
      (pp. 114-119)

      Thus, in the long period, traditional measures oscillate between inertia and change. At the same time, however, other factors cause the standardization of measures to spread over larger areas. Basically, there are two such factors: commercial ties and the will of the state.

      It is, by and large, usual that imported goods are measured by the standards of the exporter. Accordingly, in Flanders one measure was applied to the home-grown corn and another to corn imported from overseas;¹ salt was measured by the measures of its place of origin;² the measures of Flanders and of Cologne coexisted, and which one...

    • 17 SOCIAL CONDITIONS AND THE EMERGENCE OF CONVENTIONAL MEASURES
      (pp. 120-124)

      To reiterate, early measures, roughly until the beginnings of capitalism, partook of substantive character, “signified” or represented something, expressed something human relating to man’s personality or the conditions of his existence. Modern measures, however, have no meaning other than that of sheer convention; what matters is the acceptance of the system, and not the magnitude of the basic unit, which might equally well be large or small. The units of conventional measures are defined in terms of physics or astronomy (the weight of a certain volume of water at a specified temperature and pressure, or a stated part of a...

  6. PART TWO
    • 18 CLASS STRUGGLE IN THE POLISH COUNTRYSIDE FROM THE SIXTEENTH TO THE EIGHTEENTH CENTURY
      (pp. 127-146)

      Whichever preindustrial society we consider, particularly in its rural aspects, our immediate impression is one of metrological chaos, since the situation is so utterly remote from what we are used to. And, indeed, there are many historical works that bewail the “chaos,” and leave it at that. Yet the chaos is only apparent and “there is method in this madness.” Feudal measures are not as inaccurate as they may at times appear to us, and the differences in them, as well as the coexistence of different methods of measuring, have a profound social significance. More than that, the rules are...

    • 19 THE STRUGGLE OF THE NOBILITY WITH THE BOURGEOISIE IN THE URBAN MARKET
      (pp. 147-155)

      The centuries-long struggle for the control of measures in the urban market in Poland is of the greatest interest. It forms a chapter in the history of metrology, and at the same time, it reveals the multifarious conflicts that were tearing apart Polish society at the time. For the market—although attracting some groups more than others—was the meeting place for all: the peasant and the burgher, the noble and the cleric. It was in the market that the goods produced would be invested with value, and shifts in the distribution of the national income would take place. To...

    • 20 The History of the Standardization of Measures in Poland from the Sixteenth to the Twentiethth Century (Summary)
      (pp. 156-158)

      [This chapter opens with a discussion of the 1507 reform.] The sweeping reform of 1565 did not affect the measures being used in the countryside. Evidence suggests some attempt to implement the reform in the towns. In the seventeenth century, regional assemblies of nobles were criticized for their relevant resolutions by political commentators, who pointed to the proliferation of measures, continuing as though the 1565 reform had never been passed, and who called for more uniformity. These demands multiplied in the second half of the eighteenth century, leading finally to the statute of 1764, which, for its time, was highly...

  7. PART THREE
    • 21 ATTEMPTS TO STANDARDIZE MEASURES IN FRANCE FROM 789 TO 1789 AND THEIR FAILURE
      (pp. 161-184)

      In Part One of the present work, we tried to indicate the manysided social involvement of traditional weights and measures, their associations with man, with his work, beliefs, and values. In Part Two, we outlined the metrological vicissitudes in Polish lands from the beginning of the sixteenth century until the early twentieth, and the introduction of the metric system in a Poland restored to independence after 1918. Our next task is to examine the manner in which the new, modern, and indeed revolutionary metric system was “thought up” and introduced into daily life with high hopes that it would, at...

    • 22 “ONE KING, ONE LAW, ONE WEIGHT, ONE MEASURE!”
      (pp. 185-227)

      Ten years after Necker’s report, and a year away from the diatribe of the nobles’ assembly of Sens at the time of the preparation of thecahiers de doléances,it turned out that the entire nation wanted standardization of weights and measures, believed it to be attainable, was convinced that it was indispensable and even that it would be relatively easy to carry out. As de Tocqueville was to write: “Thecahiers de doléanceswill stand as the testament of the French society of the ancien régime, as the most perfect manifestation of its desires, and as an authentic expression...

    • 23 “ONE OF THE BLESSINGS OF THE REVOLUTION”
      (pp. 228-264)

      The seigneurial monopoly of weights and measures was toppled, along with the feudal system itself—that is, the feudal system viewed narrowly, as in the enactments of the night of 4 August 1789. Those enactments were followed by the ones of 15 and 28 May 1790, which completed the abolition of feudalism.¹ The void thus created had somehow to be filled, and the task was a gigantic one, the new powers seeking to fulfill the dreams of progressive thinkers and simultaneously to satisfy the aspirations of the masses, powerfully expressed in thecahiers de doléances.Not all the concomitant difficulties...

  8. PART FOUR
    • 24 “FOR ALL PEOPLE, FOR ALL TIME!”
      (pp. 267-288)

      The reader will recollect that Talleyrand’s initial plan for the standardization of measures envisaged collaboration between the French Academy and the English Royal Society. He hoped, moreover, that “perhaps this scientific collaboration for an important purpose will pave the way for political collaboration between the two nations.”¹ Indeed, he was not the only writer in the field to whom, apparently, the main appeal of the metric reform lay in being a means ofrapprochementwith England. For example, La Rochefoucault, speaking in the National Assembly on 8 May 1790, felt that “we cannot make enough haste over promulgating this decree,...

  9. NOTES
    (pp. 289-338)
  10. SOURCES AND BIBLIOGRAPHY
    (pp. 339-374)
  11. INDEX
    (pp. 375-386)
  12. Back Matter
    (pp. 387-387)