Travels in France,


sketch of Arthur Young

Arthur Young (1741 – 1820), was the best known agricultural scientist of his day, correlating factors like soil, climate and agricultural practices with yield. His own farms having failed because he spent his time in experiments, he traveled through England, Ireland and Scotland to examine others' practices. His books were extremely popular, promoting and exemplifying the English agricultural reforms of the 18th century.

In 1787 Young went to France to survey its agriculture. A measurement like “bushels per acre” is obviously essential to such work, but Young found that what was relatively easy in Britain was fiendishly difficult in France. Today his book is read primarily by historians for its eyewitness account of the Revolution, but it also contains a wealth of metrological information compiled by a knowledgeable and scrupulous observer.

“Denominations” refers to the names of units; “contents” to their magnitude; and, American readers, “corn” means grain, primarily wheat and rye, and not necessarily maize. In the original, the selection is a single paragraph; for convenience of reference it has been reparagraphed, even though the breaks are not always happy ones. Otherwise the spelling and punctuation are those of the original.

The metrological themes touched upon in this selection are:

Arthur Young.
Travels during the Years 1787, 1788. & 1789: undertaken more particularly with a view of ascertaining the cultivation, wealth, resources, and national prosperity of the kingdom of France. 2nd edition.
London: Printed for W. Richardson, 1794.
Pages 315-317.

The work is available on microfilm as Goldsmiths'-Kress no. 15937, and from at least one online database. We thank the Department of Special Collections, Young Research Library, UCLA, for access to their copy.

Chapter IV
On the Produce of Corn, the Rent, and the Price of Land in France

In England, we have not the advantage of one uniform measure of land; there are three or four different acres in common use; but the general statute measure of the realm has gained ground rapidly of late years, so that the greater part of the counties have rid themselves of the pest of customary measure; and where this beneficial effect has not taken place, yet almost every man one can converse with, knows the proportion their own measure bears to the statute, which greatly facilitates all agricultural inquiries in the kingdom. In Ireland, the uniformity is still greater; for they have only the Irish and the Conyingham measure, except in a very few districts that have adopted the English statute acre. In the measure of corn also, we have only the variations of the bushel to guard against; for the measure is every where a bushel, and the difference of the contents, not much through the greater part of the kingdom; add to this, that the name and the contents of the statute capacity of eight gallons is every where understood; and that the gallon itself is of the same contents. In Ireland, the statute barrel of four bushels takes place universally; but in France, the infinite complexity of the measures exceeds all comprehension. They differ not only in every province, but in every district, and almost in every town; and these tormenting variations are found equally in the denominations and contents of the measures of land and corn. 

To these sources of confusion, is added the general ignorance of the peasantry, who know nothing of the Paris arpent, or the Paris septier, the most commonly received measure of the kingdom. For the knowledge of a French farmer is limited absolutely to his farm and his market; he never looks into a newspaper or magazine, where the difference of the measures of the kingdom would probably strike his attention, many times in his life. And if he were rather better instructed, yet, as there are two national measures of land, they would occasion a confusion of which we can form no judgment: the arpent of Paris, and the arpent de France, are both legal and common measures; not withstanding which, they are of very different contents; and, what is strange to say, are sometimes confounded by French writers on agriculture, as I shall shew in more instances than one—even by societies in their public memoirs.1 The denominations of French measures, as the reader will see, are almost infinite,2 and without any common standard to which they can be referred: the number of square feet in the contents is the only rule to adhere to: yet the foot itself varies, and contains, in some provinces, as Lorraine, but ten inches and a fraction. Even the valuation of money itself there failed me; the measure of corn and land peculiar, and the livre and sol no longer of the same value as in the rest of France. The denominations of bushel and acre pervade all of England; and the mere denomination leads every where towards proportioning the contents to the common standards; but in France they have no common denomination: if you travel seventy miles from Paris, in some directions, you hear no more of the septier, or the arpent: you find the mine of land, even within thirty miles of the capital,—and a little farther, you will be bewildered with franchars of corn, and mancos of land. 

The only clue tolerably general, that can be in the least relied upon, is drawn from the quantity of seed sown: the measure of wheat or rye, and of land also, hath often in France the same denomination, as septier, septeree; quartier, quarteree; manco of both corn and of land; boiseau, boiselee, &c.—These generally imply, that the measure of corn is the quantity of seed sown on the same denomination of land. But I have found variations even in this; so that great caution is necessary before a traveller can note his information. 

When to this confusion of measures is added the almost universal ignorance of the people in the provinces, who often know nothing of their own measures, and give information totally erroneous, as I have found, from suspecting their authority, by its militating with the idea I formed from the eye, and from applying for certainty to land-surveyors (arpenteurs),3 the reader will be ready to credit me in assuring him, that the labour, perplexity, and vexation, which the present chapter has given me, both in travelling and in writing, has much exceeded any thing I could have conceived before I went abroad; and which no person can believe, to the extent of the truth, who has not been engaged under equal difficulties in similar pursuits. 

After all my labour, it would be a want of candour were I to offer the result thus given as correct. I am confident, that in several articles, and perhaps in more than I suspect, it is not so. I can only say, I think the material errors are not numerous; and that the reader will, in such a labyrinth of difficulties, look for the information that is practically to be given, than for that ideal accuracy which is impossible for any individual, much less for a foreigner to attain. The French writers, I have consulted, gave me little or no assistance, where I had so much reason to expect it. Mons. Paucton's tables of the measures of land and corn, which contain those of some of the provinces, would lead us astray as often as they would guide us. By going through the country, I have found, from five to ten different measures in a province, where he has noted only one—I suppose the legal one of the capital cities.

It is surprising to read French books of agriculture, descriptive of some provinces in France, yet without an explanation of the measures named repeatedly in those works. Such omissions are totally inexcuseable; for they render books useless, not to foreigners only, but to most of their own countrymen. But while accuracy is so difficult, not to say impossible, to be acquired under such circumstances, it is some satisfaction to consider, that the reader will here find the very interesting parts of the produce, rental, and price of land in that vast empire, ascertained upon a large basis of enquiry, than can be found in any book hitherto offered to the public; my library abounds more with French georgical4 authors, as well with those branches of political œconomy which tend to elucidate such questions, than any other I have had the opportunity to examine; yet these books contain little else beside conjectures, loose and general ideas, and calculations without data, particularly in giving the gross produce of the whole kingdom. In a multitude of guesses some must, in the nature of chances, approximate to the truth; but such have little more merit, and no more authority, than the wildest efforts of imagination; for enquiries of this kind are not to be made in the bureaus of great cities; books and papers will not afford the information; a man must travel through the country, or must always remain ignorant, though surrounded by ten thousand volumes. Neither is it travelling for other pursuits than will allow this knowledge to be gained; nor moving in public voitures, nor flying with rapidity from town to town; nor is it easy for one or two men, or even three to effect it; many should be employed for that purpose, and paid by the government; for assuredly the object is of great national importance, particularly in the imposing of taxes; a business in which all the legislators that have yet arisen have gone so blindly to work, that their efforts in every country, and in none more than France, cannot but excite a contempt of their ignorance and detestation of their injustice. To expect that men will be thus appointed and employed, and, above all, well chosen for the business, would be childish; governments are otherwise employed in every country. While, therefore, from the public nothing is to be expected, the private efforts of individuals are surely not devoid of merit; who, amidst great disadvantages, undertake a work of unquestionable utility.


1. “societies in their public memoirs,” that is, in publications like the Transactions or Proceedings of organizations similar to the English Royal Society.

2. The order of magnitude of the number of names (not magnitudes) of French weights and measures before the Revolution has been estimated at about 1000.

3. That is, I found the peasants' numbers were wrong, suspecting their information because it conflicted with what I could plainly see, and I asked surveyors for authoritative data. 

4. “georgical”, having to do with farming.

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