Magna Carta

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June 15th 1215: Magna Carta sealed

On this day in 1215, King John of England put his ‘Great Seal’ on the Magna Carta (‘The Great Charter’) at Runnymede. The charter required the King to respect the liberties of the barons and, crucially, stated that everybody, even the king, is subject to the law. The Magna Carta was the result of political crisis, as the feudal barons had rebelled against the king - even capturing London - and forced him to accept the charter to ensure their privileges and curtail royal power. However, the charter’s declaration of equality before the law and right to a fair trial makes it a vital piece of the history of British democracy.  It was certainly limited, as its famous provisions securing legal rights of ‘free men’ would only have applied to an elite few. The Magna Carta also failed to cease hostilities between King John and the barons, as John’s reluctance to implement the charter led to civil war between the groups. The charter was largely rewritten by various monarchs through the years, though some of the original clauses remain law today, making it a key part of Britain’s uncodified constitution. Despite its limitations, the Magna Carta remains a crucial piece of British history, marking a defence against tyrannical power and assurance of individual liberties.

800 years ago today

Culinary History (Part 24): History of Measuring

During Anglo-Saxon times, the Winchester measure was established in England (Winchester was the capital at the time). It was based on the Winchester bushel, which was 64lb (29kg) of wheat.  It was better to use wheat than flour, because the density varies less.  The Winchester measure was the volume that a Winchester bushel took up.  It was then subdivided down into:

bushel = 4 pecks

peck = 2 gallons

gallon = 4 quarts

quart = 4 pints

So, there were 128 pints in a bushel.  A pint is 473ml, and a bushel is 35.24 litres.

There is a old saying, “A pint’s a pound the world around”.  A pint of wheat is actually half a pound (as there are 128 pints in a bushel, and a bushel of wheat is 64 pounds).  But a pint of water weighs a pound (i.e. twice as much as wheat).  Hence the saying.

The Winchester gallon was also called the corn gallon. And it wasn’t the only type of volumetric measurement!  There was also the wine gallon (about 3.79 litres) and the ale gallon (about 4.63 litres).  The difference between them may have been because ale was drunk in larger volumes than wine.

The lack of standardization was a problem, both for customers and for the state, because it mucked around with the duty charged on goods.  In 1215, the Magna Carta tried to fix it: “Let there be one measure of wine throughout our whole realm; and one measure of ale; and one measure of corn.”  It didn’t work.  From 1066 to the end of the 1600’s, there were over twelve different gallon measurements, some for liquids and some for solids.

The wine gallon was also called the Queen Anne gallon (from the 1700′s).

In the 1790’s, after the French Revolution, the French began to establish the metric system.  The metre was meant to be one ten-millionth of the Earth’s meridian (an imaginary line between the North & South Poles), but it’s actually a bit smaller, because of a miscalculation.

The French were now measuring everything in tens.  (There was even an attempt at a ten-day week, the décade). The new measures were laid out in a law of the 18th Germinal.  They would use litres, grams and metres, and throw out the old chaotic measurements.  This was to show how rational and scientific France now was.

In 1790, George Washington asked Thomas Jefferson (Secretary of State) to work out a plan for reforming weights and measures.  They already had decimal coinage.  But Congress couldn’t agree on either of Jefferson’s reform proposals, and for the next several decades they couldn’t decide on a solution.

In 1824, the British Parliament voted to use a single imperial gallon, for both dry and liquid measurements.  This was defined as “the volume occupied by ten pounds of water at specified temperature and pressure”, which ended up as 277.42 cubic inches, or 4.55 litres. This was close to the old ale gallon (and bigger than the corn gallon).  The other measurements (peck, etc) were shuffled to fit.  Now the saying was:

A pint’s a pound the world round

Except in Britain where

A pint of water’s a pound and a quarter.

The imperial gallon was in place for the whole British Empire.

In 1836, America finally reformed their measurements (somewhat).  But they weren’t going to follow Britain.  Instead, they used the old corn gallon for dry goods, and the old wine gallon for liquids.

Because of the two different systems, Britain and America have had problems with understanding each other’s cookbooks.  In 1969, Britain officially adopted the metric system, and this just made things harder.  Nowadays, only America, Liberia and Myanmar still use the imperial system.


Measurements of size, as well as of volume, were non-standardized for a very long time.  Since the middle ages, recipe-writers would write things like “finger-breadths of water”, “butter the size of a pea”.  Of course, medieval cooks had no rulers, digital scales or measuring jugs.  So they had to rely on comparisons that other people would understand.

The also left out things that they assumed the reader would already know. Hannah Wolley wrote The Queen-Like Closet, or Rich Cabinet in 1672.  In it, she gives a recipe to make “pancakes so crisp as you may set them upright.”  The recipe goes:

Make a dozen or a score of them in a Frying-pan, no bigger than a Sawcer, then boil them in Lard, and they will look as yellow as Gold, and eat very well.

This is barely a recipe at all.  It gives no details on how long to cook them, how much lard to use, or how hot they should be cooked at.  It wasn’t intended for a beginner cook, but rather for someone who already knew how – more of a memory aid.

Frontispiece of The Queen-Like Closet.

Back further, in the time of Ancient Rome, the situation was the same. It’s very difficult to reconstruct old recipes because of this.  A recipe by Apicius for “another mashed vegetable” goes:

Cook the lettuce leaves with onion in sode water, squeeze, chop very fine; in the mortar crush pepper, lovage, celery seed, dry mint, onion; add stock, oil and wine.

Measurements have often been based on the body, because so long as one person is doing the measuring, the ratio works out just fine.  The Sumerians used the width of the pinky and of the hand; and the distance between the pinky-tip and thumb-tip on an stretched hand.  The basic Greek measurement was the daktylos (width of a finger), and 24 of them made a cubit. The Romans used the daktylosbut called it a digit.

The finger was a common kitchen measurement.  Martino de Rossi (1400’s Italian culinary expert) said, “take four fingers of marzipan”. Pellegrino Artusi (late 1800’s cookbook writer) began one of his recipes with, “Take long, slender, finger-length zucchini”.

Handfuls were also used.  Many Irish cooks still use handfuls of flour to make soda bread.

Moving away from the body – the walnut was a very common measurement, from France, Italy and England to Russia and Afghanistan.  It’s been used at least since the Middle Ages.  This is because walnuts tend to be about the same size, and they were seen often enough to remember how big they were.  There are some small varieties, such as the French noix noisette (about hazelnut size).  But the common walnut is what the comparison is for.  It is usually 2.5-3.5 in diameter.

The walnut (Juglans regia) was imported from Persia to Ancient Greece, and reached China by 400 AD.  It was an important crop in medieval France, but didn’t reach Britain until the 1400’s.

Butter was often measured walnut-size.  In 1823, Mary Eaton used a piece of butter “the size of a walnut” to stew spinach.  In 1861, Mrs. Beeton said to use a walnut-sized butter for grilling rumpsteaks.

There were many other objects used for measurements.  Peas were common, and so was the nutmeg (about a modern teaspoon).  In the 1600’s, bullets and tennis balls were used.  Various coins were a reference too, which is how you have the silver-dollar pancakes in America.

Nutmeg.

Yelena Molokhovets (b.1831) was a Russian cook.  She wrote the famous A Gift to Young Housewives, which had over 20 editions and sold over 295,000 copies.  She cut ginger the size of a thimble, and dough the size of a wild apple. Butter was, again, walnut-sized.

The modern kitchen term “dice” come from when cooks like Robert May (1558-c.1664) cut beef marrow into “great dice” and “small dice”.


The clock began to be used in the kitchen by the 1700’s.  But before that, recipes usually gave cooking times in prayers.

For example, a medieval French recipe for preserved walnuts says to boil them for the time it takes to say a Miserere (which is about 2min).  The shortest measurement of time was the Ave Maria (about 20sec).  Everyone knew how long these prayers took, because they chanted them together in church, at the same speed.


The usual way to test the heat of an oven was by simply sticking your hand in it.  You’d tell from the level of pain how hot it was, and if the oven was ready for baking loaves, which needed the fiercest heat.

The paper test was used often by confectioners in the 1800’s.  The purpose of this test was to follow the decreasing levels of heat as the oven cooled down.  Cakes and pastries, because of their high butter & sugar content, could catch fire if they were put in at a too-high temperature.

A piece of white kitchen paper was put on the oven floor, and the door was shut.  If it caught fire, it was too hot.  10min later, another piece of paper was put in, and if it charred, it was still too hot. 10min more, and if the paper turned dark brown (without catching fire), then it was “dark brown paper heat”, suitable for glazing small pastries, which needed a high heat.

Then there was “light brown paper heat”, a few degrees lower, for vol-au-vents, hot pie crusts, timbales, etc.  “Dark yellow heat” was a moderate temperature, for larger pastries.  And finally there was “light yellow paper heat”, a gentle temperature, for meringues, manqués and génoises.

The flour test was similar.  A handful of flour was thrown onto the oven floor, and you waited for 40sec.  If the flour slowly browned, then it was the right temperature for bread.

The earliest thermometers were invented in the 1500’s, mostly for measuring air temperature.  The Fahrenheit scale was invented in 1724, and the Celsius scale in 1742.  But even in the late 1800’s, measuring heat in the kitchen was done with the old methods.

Thermometers (mid-1600′s) that go up to 50°.  Black dots mark each degree, and white dots mark each 10°.

Around the turn of the century, cooks began realizing the usefulness of thermometers.  A new American oven called the “new White House” had an oven thermometer included, “in order to keep…strictly up to the minute.”

In 1915, the first gas oven with a fully-integrated thermometer appeared on the market.  By the 1920’s, electric stoves with electromechanical thermostats were being produced.  However, it was easier to just buy a separate thermometer and get it fitted to the oven, if you didn’t want to go out and buy a new one.

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The worst global terrorism campaign under way right now is Obama’s global assassination campaign. The drone campaign. Notice that there’s a debate in the United States when he decides to murder Americans like al-Awlaki; is that legitimate or not?

What about the other people? The people that are being murdered are suspects.

Go back 800 years again to Magna Carta. We’re going to commemorate its 800th anniversary next year, probably morn its disappearance. The core concept developed in Magna Carta was what we call presumption of innocence. And what it stated is that a free man cannot be subjected to state punishment without due process, without trial by a jury of peers. Now, free man was a very limited concept in the 13th century. Of course it excluded women, it excluded people who weren’t free, and so on. It gradually expanded over the centuries. So it’s embedded in the constitution, also with limits, the 14th Amendment, other limits. But now it’s being contracted. The drone campaign eliminates presumption of innocence.

The way it works is, Obama and his advisers get together Tuesday morning and decide who they are going to kill that day. The concept ‘guilty’ means Obama decided to murder you. That’s a regression that goes back 800 years. That’s pretty serious.

And what’s more serious is it’s not discussed. The only thing that’s discussed is the killing of Americans. Are Americans a difference species? Who says you can kill other suspects? There is some talk about collateral damage; what about the people who are just standing around and get killed Well yeah, that’s bad, but what about the people you’re aiming at? They are suspects.

You haven’t shown proof of anything about them. Just somebody the government wants to kill.

—  Noam Chomsky | Talks at Google