Clause 35 of the Magna Carta defines some standard weights and measures to be used throughout the realm. The first part is straightforward: the standard weight/mass used for wine, ale and corn is the London quarter. But I don't understand the second half about the lengths to use for cloth.

Here are two English translations I've found:

Let there be one measure of wine throughout our whole realm; and one measure of ale; and one measure of corn, to wit, "the London quarter;" and one width of cloth (whether dyed, or russet, or "halberget"), to wit, two ells within the selvages; of weights also let it be as of measures.

There shall be standard measures of wine, ale, and corn (the London quarter), throughout the kingdom. There shall also be a standard width of dyed cloth, russett, and haberject, namely two ells within the selvedges. Weights are to be standardised similarly.

What does "two ells within the selvedges" mean? What's an ell? What's a selvedge?

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    – MCW
    Nov 26, 2019 at 18:18
  • An ell is half a fathom.
    – Spencer
    Nov 27, 2019 at 1:48

1 Answer 1



In England, the ell was usually 45 in (1.143 m), or a yard and a quarter. It was mainly used in the tailoring business but is now obsolete. Although the exact length was never defined in English law, standards were kept; the brass ell examined at the Exchequer by Graham in the 1740s had been in use "since the time of Queen Elizabeth".


A selvage (US English) or selvedge (British English) is a "self-finished" edge of fabric, keeping it from unraveling and fraying. . . Historically, the term selvage applied only to loom woven fabric, though now can be applied to flat-knitted fabric.

The selvedge is the edge of the woven fabric, and an ell is about 45 inches. So this passage is standardizing the width of woven fabrics in the kingdom to be about 90 inches.

  • "Ell" is the word from which we get our modern "Elbow"... the ell was a name for the forearm and the elbow is the place that it "bowed" (or bent). Ell is also cognate with the word "ulna" (an arm bone). etymonline.com/word/ell#etymonline_v_5744
    – AllInOne
    Nov 26, 2019 at 21:01
  • Worth noting that within the selvedges specifically means not including the edge, since it would have to be trimmed off for many purposes. Nov 27, 2019 at 0:57
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    @WillCrawford I would disagree with that. "Within" just means "between". In modern English you say "10 inches wide" not "10 inches between the edges" but the meaning is the same. If you weave cloth on a loom the selvedge edges do not have to be trimmed or folded into a hem and sewn up to stop them unraveling. The term is a corruption of "self-edge." In hand weaving the fabric is usually woven uniformly right up to the edge (though machine weaving may make a reinforced edge) The opposite edges, where you cut a length of cloth from a long roll, are the ones which have to be hemmed.
    – alephzero
    Nov 27, 2019 at 2:40
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    @alephzero the original wording is in Latin, and uses infra, meaning "beneath" or "less than". Ergo, I will beg to differ. Nov 27, 2019 at 16:00
  • Ells were different in different countries. See article here: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ell (I love standards. So many to choose from...) Dec 12, 2019 at 15:31

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