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In 1790, the French National Assembly approved the creation of a simple, uniform and stable system of units, and chose the metre as the basic unit of length, which would be the ten millionth part of the quadrant of the earth meridian. The metre was then used as the basic unit to define the units of volume (the litre), of weight (the grave, which would later be called gram) and of surface (area).

The Decimal Metric System was legally created in 1795 and on its fifth anniversary, in 1800, it became the legal norm in France and the use of any other system was banned. It was implemented as a universal system by the Metre Convention (Paris 1875) and confirmed by the first General Conference on Weights and Measures (Paris, 1889). Its purpose was to unify and rationalise measurement units for their characteristics to be neutral, universal, practical and easily reproducible. There were three basic aspects: the metre as a unit of length, the kilogram as a unit of weight and the second as a measurement of time; and from there, their multiples and submultiples.

As far as Spain was concerned, even though the Weights and Measures Act was passed in 1849, in the reign of Isabella II of Spain, use of the Decimal Metric System took a considerable time to become commonplace given how deep-rooted the old measures were. The traditional measurements and the means and utensils to determine them gave way to the new ones with the gradual introduction of the Decimal Metric System. The first attempts to implement them in Spain occurred in the mid-19th century[1]. One such example is that Viana local council in Navarra received a collection of Decimal Metric System units in 1868 and they had previously been using the old measurements. Many of those old units have survived to the present, or at least until a few decades ago, even though they coexisted alongside the official system and, as we will see, the equivalences were not precisely known.

Furthermore, as this text may led us to believe, the, in principle, same measurements differed from one place to another, but that was not important as products were traded and exchanged in a small territory and the people there knew the equivalences and were not really interested in what the value would be elsewhere.

An attachment could be seen to measures still in use 150 years after they had been officially replaced.

In Zeanuri (B), it was reported that many measures by weighted coexisted with the Decimal System, which became mandatory in the second decade of the 20th century. Up until then, for example, stone weights were used in the mills even though they were officially banned. Weights of that type, with add-ons in the forms of rings or irons stuck to the handle can still be seen in some local mills.

In the last decades of the 20th century, a good number of measurement units still continued to be used in some places. These included the obrero or gizalana (the amount of land one worker could work in a day) as an area unit, the cántara or pitcher for wine, and the azumbre (roughly half a gallon), pound and liquid quart for wine, milk and oil. Fanegas (Spanish bushels) and celemines (smaller bushels with 12 to 1 fanega) were used for grain, flour and potatoes. Many of those measures have lost their currency and even the oldest people surveyed who had used them found it hard to accurately remember them.

The measures collected and described in the field research of the surveyed locations often required a tool to measure. Some, but obviously not all, the homesteads had some measurement instruments.

The human body as a yardstick

The human body is the source of some units such as the inch (from the adult thumb which is about an inch wide), the hand span or palm (half a cubit), the fathom (6 feet) or foot, along with others unknown in the territory studied[2]. Furthermore, it is also common to find people taking measurements using their fingers, hand with fingers outstretched, i.e., the hand span or palm, the foot or step, without their thinking in measurement units that are in anyway comparable to those of the metric system, but rather taking those parts of the body as the yardstick.

In the Valle de Carranza (B), some terms related to the human body were found to be measurement units. The people surveyed said that an inch is the distance between the tip of the thumb and the first joint when the thumb is bent and the hand span or palm the distance between the tips of the thumb and ring finger of the outstretched hand.

When the aim is to measure a distance on land, it is calculated by taking large steps as each one of them is equivalent to a metre. In Bedarona (B), the pausue (step) measurement was also found, is approximately a metre long and is used for distances and lengths of small areas of land.

The people surveyed in Carranza explain that to calculate a metre without resorting to any mechanical device and using their own body as the benchmark, they stretch out their arm horizontally to one side and a metre is the distance between the tip of the fingers of the outstretched hand from the start of the other arm. In a similar way, the vara or yard is the gap between the tip of the fingers and the start of the outstretched arm.

  1. The Weights and Measures Act of 19 June 1839 made it compulsory to use the decimal metric system in all commercial transactions and Royal Order of 9 December 1852 established the official equivalence between the older measurements of all Spanish provinces with the legal metric ones. The equivalences can be found in the following document of the Spanish Metrology Centre (CEM), available at: www.cem.es/ sites/default/files/00000458recurso.pdf.
  2. So much so that if we consider the names of the traditional measurements of length and the proportions between them, we recall Leonardo da Vinci’s well-known drawing, the Vitruvian Man. The fathom would be equivalent to the distance between the tips of both outstretched hand, while that would coincide with the height, and as both are equal, would form a square. The fathom is two yards, so that the length of the latter is the distance between the sternum and the end of the hand; if the arm is bent so the tips of the fingers touch the centre of the chest, the distance is a cubit, half a yard; four palms or spans make a cubit, the same as three feet or a third of a yard. The surface area contained in the square formed by the extended arms and height of the man is the square fathom and if the side of the square is not six feet but rather seven, as can be seen from the bibliography cited in this book, that square times one hundred would be equivalent to an obrero.