The toise was one of the fundamental units of length in France, 12ᵗʰ century – 19ᵗʰ century. Guilhermoz and others have traced its origin to ancient ancestors (see, for example, the toise entry in the French Wikipedia) . We will only mention that its length and the uses to which it has been put indicate that it originated as a body measure belonging to the fathom family of units.
Beginning in the 17ᵗʰ century, the toise of Paris assumed a starring role in the major scientific investigations of the day. The meter was originally specified in terms of the toise.
In France, a unit of length.
Away from the capital, the toise had many, varying local values, some with distinct names such as the toise de Saint-Hubert, the toise de Saint-Lambert, toise delphinale, toise épiscopale, etc. For the size of these and others, please see the table of local values.
A publicly displayed iron standard of the toise at the foot of the staircase of the Grand Châtelet de Paris.
Legend has it that this standard was placed in the time of Charlemagne, which is highly unlikely. Settling of the pier damaged it.
La réformation du pied des Maçons fût faire en 1668, dans le même temps qu'on rétablit la Toise du Châtelet, telle qu'on la voit aüjourd'hui à l'entrée & sous le grand escalier; car l'ancienne Toise qu'on voit encore est appliquée en dehors dans la Cour contre un des Piliers du bâtiment; mais cette Toise est toute faussée par le haut, par le défaut du Pilier qùi a ployé en cet endroit. J'ai encore entre les mains un trés ancien instrument de Mathematique qui a voit été fait par l'un de nos plus habiles ouvriers avec un trés grand soin où le pied est marqué, & qui a servi à faire le rétablissement de la Toise du Châtelet, suivant ce que j'en ai appris de nos anciens Mathématiciens.
The reform of the pied des Maçons was carried out in 1668, at the same time as we restored the Toise du Châtelet, as we see it today at the entrance & under the big staircase; because the old Toise that we still see is applied outside in the Court against one of the Pillars of the building; but this Toise is all distorted from above, by the defect of the Pillar which bent in this place. I still have in my hands a very old instrument of Mathematics which has been made with great care by one of our most skillful workers, where the pied is marked, & which has served for the restoration of the Toise du Châtelet, according to what I learned from our former Mathematicians.
Philippe de La Hire.
Comparaison du pied antique romain à celui du Châtelet de Paris, avec quelques remarques sur d’autres mesures.
Histoire de l'Académie royale des sciences avec les mémoires de mathématique et de physique tirés des registres de cette Académie, 1714, Mémoires…, pages 394-400.
Paris: Imprimerie Royale, 1717.
Sometime in 1668 a new iron standard was fastened to the wall. The new version was 5 lignes (about 11.3 millimeters) shorter than the old. Accounts of the origin of the replacement standard differ. La Hire's is given above. At another meeting of the Academy, on 29 July 1758, La Condamine stated that the standard was based upon half the width of the inner gate of the Louvre, on the Rue Frontenac side. The standard itself was stolen in 1755, but its length remained the legal standard in France until 1766.
In 1668 these two distinguished scientists made a toise standard for their survey of the length of the meridian passing through Paris. Picard's was too short. Unfortunately, the standard subsequently disappeared.
The prototype was an iron bar made by La Condamine in 1735, used in the Academy's meridian-measuring expedition to Ecuador. At that time Ecuador was part of the Spanish Empire's presidency of Peru, and this toise is usually called the toise du Pèrou. La Condamine's standard has survived and is preserved at the Paris Observatory.
On 16 May 1766, this toise was made the legal standard for France by an order of Louis XV, replacing the toise du Grand Chatelet. It is about 1.949 meters (about 2.1315 yards). (Doursther gives a value of 1.949 0363 0982 46 meters.)
The surveys by Mechain and Delambre (1791 – 1798), which served to establish the length of the meter, were conducted with the toise du Pèrou.
In France, December 10, 1799 – January 1, 1840, the toise = 2 meters.
In masonry work, at least as early as the 12ᵗʰ century – 19ᵗʰ century, a measure of masonry work based upon the volume of stone or the outside area of a wall, but also upon trade customs. Compare the use of the perch for the same purpose. It occurs widely outside France, for example in the building of castles in Savoy in the 12ᵗʰ century. Doursther (page 527) notes that the toise of masonry in Hesse-Darmstadt is 15.625 cubic meters, and in Lausanne 27 cubic meters. Notice that both these values far exceed the cube of the toise. Commentators have had difficulty in describing this unit and in general, it is not as well-documented as the linear unit. But see Hamon, cited below.
The simplest is the cubic toise, 6 pied by 6 pied by 6 pied = 216 cubic pied. This unit was applied only to rock at the quarry, as a formless pile, and appears to be one of the least commonly-used meanings.
The toise as a measure of masonry in 19ᵗʰ-century Canada is well-described in the quotation below.
The estimates for all the buildings show that over 40,000 yards of rock were excavated; this would, after allowing for waste, be equal to 3,000 toise, and would construct 9,000 toise of masonry of 54 feet, which was the measure adopted, as the contract recognized 54 feet as the toise.¹ In Toronto a toise² of rubble masonry is 54 cubic feet; when this rule is adopted, the cubic contents of the wall in feet, including half openings, are measured and reduced to the toise. In Ottawa³ and Kingston⁴ the toise is 62 feet, but walls less than two feet thick, are measured as two feet, and openings under ten feet are not deducted.⁵ In Montreal the toise is 72 French feet, usually estimated at 86 English feet, being really 86 60/100(illegible?) feet, and one half of all openings over ten feet wide, are deducted. The quarry toise of stone there is 216 French feet, or 260 20/100(?illegible) English feet, cubic⁶; but in Upper Canada it is 216 English feet. The toise is a French measure for quarry stone. It is a rough pile measuring 6 feet long, 6 feet high, and 6 feet wide,— but the toise of masonry is 72 cubic feet, French. The fact of the difference between the French and English feet not being understood, or its being disregarded, accounts for the 72 English feet being the measure in Ottawa, and 86 English feet in Montreal. If the Toronto toise be used it should be so as there understood, but the rubble masonry for the progress estimates was measured by the toise of 54 feet, but walls less than two feet thick were measured as two feet.⁷
1. See Contract, Progress Estimates. 2. Grist. 3. Stewart, Fuller, Bowes. 4. Coverdale. 5. Tison. 6. Tison, Stewart, Coverdale. 7. Hutchinson, Bowes.
Report of the Commission Appointed to Inquire into Matters
Connected with the Public Buildings at Ottawa.
Quebec: Josiah Blackburn, 1863.
Page 30. All but one of the footnotes refer to individuals testifying before the Commission. The abbreviations in the original have been replaced with individual's names, following the Report's key.
èvaluer la peine des hommes. La mesure de l'architecture à Paris à la fin du Moyen âge (XVe - dèbut XVIe siècles).
Histoire et Mesure, volume 16, no. 3/4, placed online 7 December 2005.
Access at http://histoiremesure.revues.org/document135.html.
In Haiti, 20ᵗʰ century , a unit of capacity, 8 cubic meters.
United Nations, 1966.
In Switzerland, a unit of length, 1.8 meters (about 1.968 yards).
In Mauritius and the Seychelles, ? – present, two units:
1. United Nations, 1966.
2. From real estate advertisements: www.maurinet.com/pr-rvrem.html and www.spectra.mauritiuslinks.com/land.html. Retrieved 19 December 2006.
Évaluer la peine des hommmes. La mesure de l'architecture à Paris à la fin du Moyen Âge (xve - debut XVIe siecles).
Histoire et Mesure, vol xvi, no 3-4, pages 283-307. (2001)
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Last revised: 2 August 2004.