Magna Carta and Our Weights and Measures

Happily re-blogged from the Magna Carta 800th news letter

John Frewen Lord, Acting Chairman of the UK Metric Association

The Magna Carta embodies the freedom that many of the people of eleventh century England were greatly missing: being treated equally and fairly, rather than arbitrarily, not only by the law and the ruling monarch, but by each other.

There those who argue that the Magna Carta was only about the Barons and the King and that it did not affect the common people; not so. The Magna Carta enshrined that freedom by setting out the one (and only one) particular unit of measure to be used for many of the typical dealings of the day. In this way, anyone buying those items listed in this clause had some assurance that they would not be cheated by having to deal with what could well be quite obscure and arbitrary measurement units. Instead, those customers now had a way of comparing prices between one merchant and the next for the same item, as well as being assured of receiving full measure should they choose to buy. This clause, clause 35, reads:

“There shall be one measure of wine throughout our whole realm, and one measure of ale and one measure of corn – namely, the London quart; and one width of dyed and resset and hauberk cloths – namely, two ells below the selvage. And with weights, moreover, it shall be as with measures.“

This all looks rather quaint some 800 years later. Of course this clause (along with most other clauses) has long been repealed, but the basic doctrine of one unit of measure is just as true today as when Magna Carta was created. It is why virtually every country in the world specifies a single set of measurement units for most commercial and official life. With the exception of the USA, Liberia and Burma, that single set of measurement units is the metric system, and in that respect, the UK is (almost) no different from any other country. Few parts of life in the UK are not officially measured in metric units.

Today, we see that basic doctrine of ‘one measure’ that was enshrined in Magna Carta whenever we visit the supermarket, fill our car up with fuel, buy materials to repair and redecorate our houses, measure how much gas, electricity and water we have used, buy our medicines at the pharmacist, and buy a pint. All these, in order that all of us are treated fairly (and safely), are measured using agreed common measurements. Apart from a couple of specific exceptions, particularly for motoring and roads, these are defined solely in one set of measurement units – today’s metric system.

The 800th Anniversary of the Magna Carta could provide the occasion to remove the last remaining exceptions to the ‘one measure’ doctrine. Even King John would have approved of that.


About Roger Nield MBE

Safety Director for the SMPL Organisation and supporting our Vulnerable Veterans Programme.
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