68.5cm

June 10, 2010

This week I have been to the Museum de Lakenhal in Leiden where there are many fine paintings, but I was mainly interested in the area where – in the seventeenth century – cloth was scrutinsed, regulated and judged by a panel who, like most other powerful panels through history, had portraits painted of themselves which are now hung about the walls. Perhaps most fascinating was the cutting table where fabric was meted out. It had measurements marked on it at 68.5cm, a measurement referred to as an El. Different places have different Els – measurement was nationally not standardised until the eighteenth century – and this measurement (or so the museum says) is supposed to represent the average human arm.

What I liked most was another information board in the museum which explained that when the Governors cleared up a dispute, they sometimes displayed the length of defrauded fabric in the hall as a moral lesson. So many half-arms, the length of lies, were a cautionary lesson to potential malefactors.

How does this relate to Airs, Waters, Places? It reminds us that then as now interior environments were furnished with lengths of fabric based on lengths of human body parts, which varied region to region.

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