Monday 8 June 2020

From Acres to Virgates - a History of Land Measurement!

Over a series of blog posts we will be sharing with you what we have been doing whilst working from home, and giving you an insight into some of the interesting collections and items we have come across whilst the Record Office has been closed.

Size matters - old measurements

During the past few weeks staff have been busy working on a range of projects, finding different ways for people to discover and enjoy our collections online. One particular project has been to improve and update our online catalogue listings, and while inputting descriptions on our D accessions (click here for more on these!) I came across a few unfamiliar terms for land measurement.

When looking at leases and deeds, the archaic terms used to describe units of land can be confusing. Back in the day (way back!) I remember the cover of my school exercise book printed with tables of measurement and weight, so I am familiar with the terms rod (16½ feet), chain (4 rods), furlong (10 chains) and acre (1 furlong x 1 chain, 4840 sq yd). But what are selion, bovate, virgate and carucate?

Selion is a medieval term for an open strip of land the same size as an acre (1 furlong x 1 chain). It was usually owned by a peasant, or rented to them and was used to grow crops. 

A bovate or oxgang was the amount of land workable by one ox in a ploughing season, most usually 15 acres, though this could vary depending on terrain. The holder of an oxgang could be obliged to supply one ox to be used in the plough-team.

Above you can also see mentioned messuage, a dwelling house with outbuildings and land; toft, a homestead; croft, a farm or farmland and garth, a yard or garden.

A virgate was the amount of land that could be worked by 2 oxen (2 oxgangs).

A carucate was the amount of land workable by a team of 8 oxen, so a carucate was equal to 4 virgates or 8 bovates.

It is also worth noting that although an acre was supposed to be the amount of land that could be ploughed by one person with one ox in one day, here in Cheshire our farmers are bigger, stronger and more industrious, getting twice as much work done in one day than the average mortal! 

A statute acre is 4,840 sq yd, but a Cheshire acre is more than double that at 10,240 sq yd. This larger acre is also seen in Staffordshire and South Lancashire and is sometimes referred to as a Forest acre. We have on occasion had searchers looking at land agreements and getting confused when their calculations don’t seem to correspond with what they are seeing on maps. Once they discover that we do things bigger and better in Cheshire then their calculations start to make sense.

Happy measuring!

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