Measures for Historical Fiction

After writing about the creation of the Metric System, I began to wonder what came before it? In the English speaking world this is simple to see. Many of the measurements continue to be used in certain areas. However, I imagine that more modern readers wouldn’t know what they mean. The old measurements remain embedded in the language through novels, songs, and even proverbs.

So here are some of those measurements, and what they mean, and where they came from.

The Foot

The foot is a basic measurement of length, and the basis of all distance measurement for the United States today, and for most of the British Empire over centuries. This is a gift from the Roman past. The Roman’s had a measurement called a pes or foot. The general modern consensus places the Roman foot at 296 mm.

The foot is about the size an adult male foot, or an average adult male’s foot is about a foot long.

The Inch

The Romans divided their foot in two ways, digitus (finger) or uncia (thumb). The thumb became the English inch, and twelve inches to a foot came from the Romans as well. The earliest reference to this measurement comes from the seventh century where the laws defined the fine for various wounds.

An inch is 25.4 mm.

Other Roman measurements

The Romans has other measurements that have come down to us. These include palmus(hand) cubitus(cubit) passus(pace) stadium (furlong) mille passuum(mile) and Gallic leuga(league). While some of these measurements are not in common usage in even the United States, they remain in our language.

Hand and Furlong

The Hand measurement remains in some use as the unit to measure the height of a horse. You might run into it in American Westerns. However, you might also run into this measurement in historical novels about Ancient Egypt where it originated, along with the cubit.

A hand is 94mm. A cubit is 525mm.

The furlong also ties into horses, and other animals. Horse race distances were measured in Furlongs, and related to the plowing and land area in medieval times. Ontario Canada had major roads laid out every ten furlongs, so two highway exits are often every two kilometers. The furlong is about the same length as the Roman stadium, which they imported from the Greeks. That’s why you’ll find it in the King James Bible.

A furlong is about 201 meters.

Rods and Chains

Now here are two measurements that are obsolete, fun, and almost always misused in historical novels, the Rod and the Chain. Both are tools for surveying land. Why? You could have an actual Rod (or perch or pole) and an actual chain. Furthermore, you can’t stretch a rod or a chain. (Although I’m willing to bet that some scoundrels were not above shortening a chain or a pole if they could get away with it.)

The standardization of the length of a Rod and a Chain in England came in the sixteenth century. Those would have been the tools George Washington used when he acted as a surveyor.

A Rod is 5.03 meters.

A Chain is 20.11 meters

The Mile

So the mile started as a roman measurement of a thousand paces or five thousand feet. Don’t ask me why the English made it longer. The romans marked their roads with milestones and those stones remain to this day from England to the Middle-East. While that is the parent measurement, it has a raft of children.

The land mile is 1,609.34 meters

There is another mile in common usage, the nautical mile. This is approximately one minute of an arc along any meridian. The nautical mile remains in use by sea and air navigators worldwide because of its convenience when working with charts. A distance measured with a chart divider can be roughly converted to nautical miles using the chart’s latitude scale.

Now the nautical mile is a bit of a slippery distance. It varies between 1,842.9 meters at the equator to about 1,861.7 at the pole. (The earth is not perfectly round.) In 1929 it was set to exactly 1852 meters.

In the middle ages the Muslim geographers created a measurement based on the arc of the meridian as well. Caliph Al-Ma’mun commissioned astronomers and geographers to determine the length of this arc, and by calculation, the circumference of the Earth in 830 AD.

In the middle ages the Danish, German, Swedish, and Portuguese had variations on this theme that ranged from two to twelve kilometers.

The league

To the Romans a league was the distance a soldier could march in an hour, about three Roman miles. In English it is three land miles, but at sea it is three nautical miles. The measurement is no longer an official unit in any country. However it remains in our language because of poetry and fiction. Here are two that come to mind:

  • The charge of the Light Brigade by Alfred Lord Tennyson
  • Twenty thousand Leagues under the sea by Jules Verne.
  • The seven league boots of fairy tales



Keep five yards from a carriage, ten yards from a horse, and a hundred yards from an elephant; but the distance one should keep from a wicked man cannot be measured.

Give him an inch and he’ll take a mile.

The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.

Over a distance of a thousand miles only humanity works, not power.

A miss is as good as a mile.

After dinner rest a while, after supper walk a mile.

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