Σηκωματα, mensa ponderaria, mesures à grains…

This piece was first posted on The History Girls blog in August 2018.

For today’s post, I thought I would again write about something different from my usual histories of the Meon Valley. We spend some time every year – and have done for the past thirty or so years – in south-east France, in the department of Drôme, which, if you don’t know it, runs from roughly south of Grenoble to roughly north of Avignon. The magnificent river Rhône flows the department’s entire length, with abundant vineyards in the valleys and on the hill sides, growing alongside cereals and fruit, olives and lavender, and the dramatic Vercors mountains to the east. It is a wonderful region, yet it is not well known and so is, for the most part, quite tourist-free.

To the west of the Rhône lies the department of Ardèche, another magnificent region with some wonderfully remote communities and many ancient villages. One such is Chalencon, a mediaeval stone village, perched on the Vernoux plateau, overlooking the valley of the Eyrieux.

Saint-Andre?-de-Chalencon_-_ Château_de_Chalencon_-3
Chalencon By JMO CC BY-SA 4.0, from Wikimedia Commons

Chalencon is a village of narrow and winding cobbled streets, old houses and shops, and towers. There are cars but it’s very possible to take a photo excluding much of modern life (but not downpipes, storm drains and electric light!), giving you a good sense of how it might have felt hundreds of years ago, though it was undoubtedly not quite so clean and picturesque back then!

The village apparently has Celtic origins, with the Celts building some sort of community on the promontory here sometime between the 9th and 4th centuries B.C. Later, the Romans built an oppidum (a fortified town) on this site. It became a barony in the 10th century AD, and its most famous baroness was Diane of Poitiers, the mistress of Henry II.

So why am I telling you about Chalencon? It is not just because it is ancient and beautiful, even though it is. It is because it has the most remarkable mesures à grains, public facilities for measuring grain, which played an important part in the development of trade and commerce by standardising the measuring of grain and deterring fraud. Chalencon’s mesures probably date from the 15th century, but are wonderfully well preserved.

In order to write this post, I thought I’d have a look online for other examples of such public measuring devices, expecting to find innumerable photos to share. But, in truth, I have not found very many. I daresay many physical examples can be found throughout France and elsewhere, but perhaps no-one has thought to photograph them, or to post their photos online!

However, I will share what I have learned…

In ancient Greece there existed measuring tables called σηκωματα or sekomata. I have found references to a few such sekomata, but one found on Naxos in the 19th century will serve as an example. The date of this table is not given in the literature I have read, but it is referred to as “Hellenistic”, putting it somewhere between 323 and 31BC.

The stone table has seven basins of different sizes, presumably conforming to some  standard capacities. The size of the small ones might suggest that they were mostly used to measure liquids rather than grain, but I don’t know if this was in fact the case.

Sekoma from Naxos, now in the National Archaeological Museum of Athens. Image from Documenting, measuring and integrating sekomata: An example from Naxos by Carla Cioffi, in Dialogues d’histoire ancienne, Année 2014, Suppl. 12 pp. 41-56.

Six of the basins have a hole in the bottom, which was presumably plugged when the commodity was being added and then opened to allow it, once measured, to flow out. The depression in the middle (between d and e) seems to have been some sort of overflow system, though I am not clear how it worked.

Naturally, this sekoma would have been mounted horizontally and raised high enough off the ground to enable the out flow and collection of the measured commodity.

In Latin, the same sort of public measuring table is a mensa ponderaria, a term apparently coined by Italian archaeologists in the 19th century. There is a very good example at Pompeii, located in the forum.

This is made of limestone and has five main basins, each with an outflow hole in the bottom, just like the sekoma in Naxos. The table was apparently modified in c20BC to add four new measuring holes at the corners, though, again, I am not at all clear how they worked. But this information does at least help us to date the table to somewhere in the 1st century BC or earlier.

Mensa ponderaria, with inscription on the front. Photo © Michael Binns. September 2016. Original mensa is in Naples Archaeological Museum.

The inscription across the front records the action of the local magistrates in charge of standardising the measures in Pompeii in accordance with those at Rome:

Aulus Clodius Flaccus, son of Aulus, and Numerius Arcaeus Arellianus Caledus, son of Numerius, duumvirs with judicial power, saw to the standardisation of the measures in accordance with a decree of the town councillors.”

Caylus mesure
Mesure à grains in Caylus, France

Moving into the Middle Ages, I have found an image of a mesure à grains in Caylus, southern France, which might date from the 14th-century, as the halle in which it is situated apparently dates from that time. I understand that there may have been more several grain measures in Caylus’s halle, of different sizes. This one is, sadly, in poor condition.

And so to the grain measures of Chalencon, which are in an exceptional state of preservation. There are three measuring basins of differing sizes carved from two blocks of granite. The sizes are (according to a delightfully illustrated sign):

  • Le sestier = about 83 litres
  • L’emine = about 41 litres
  • La quarte = about 20 litres

It seems that the Chalencon archaeologists are not certain of the measure’s date but believe it to be 15th century. 

Somewhat differently arranged from the earlier examples, the basins’ flow holes are located on the side of the vessel but the principle remains of closing them off when the basins were being filled, and somehow unplugged to let the grain escape.

The illustration shows how it was done:

© Medièval-Lyon / dessins: T. Guyon / Commune de Chalencon

The inscription in the illustration suggests (I think) that the basins were used to measure out both oats (avoine) and rye (seigle), both of which would be paid to the barony as rent (redevances = fees) for the land held from the baron by his tenants.

And now look at these wonderful basins:

Chalencon’s 15th century mesures à grains © Author

If anyone can shed more light on these fascinating public measuring amenities, I would love to hear it!

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