During the 1500s and 1600s – before plastic and vacuum packs – materials were transported in tightly sealed wooden casks of various sizes. These cylindrical containers stored everything from gun powder to beer. Today we refer to all of these containers as barrels. But back then, each size had a different name.
The largest was a tun. A tun was a measure of liquid volume, not weight as we use the word ton today, though they correspond – sort of. The measures were not standardized until hundreds of years later. In England in 1507, one tun equaled somewhere between 200 and 250 gallons of liquid. Today the measure for a ton still varies by country. To help clarify our stories, we include this rough guideline:
- Half a tun was called a pipe or butt and commonly held wine.
- One third of a tun was a puncheon or tertian.
- One fourth of a tun, in other words half a butt, was called a hogshead and held roughly fifty-four gallons of liquid
- A tierce held wine and was one third of a pipe.
- A barrel was two-thirds the capacity of a hogshead and somewhat larger than today’s wine barrels. It held two kilderkins.
- Kilderkins (from the Dutch word for small cask) equaled half a barrel or two firkins.
- A firkin was the smallest of the casks. The measure of its capacity depended on the type of drink it held. Until the year 1688, one firkin held eight ale gallons but nine beer gallons. The word firkin came from the Dutch word for fourth since it held a fourth the capacity of an ale or beer barrel.
- Later came a smaller cask called a pin, which was half a firkin.
To make things more confusing, sometimes puncheons or tertians were referred to as firkins. The most common containers mentioned in our stories are hogsheads, barrels, and firkins. Firkins held such things as butter, salt, flour, liquids – particularly beer – and sometimes dried and salted fish and other meats.
Bouillon, Ingot, & Plate
Portuguese reals from the 1500s.(1)
After the Spanish and Portuguese conquistadors conquered the Incas, Aztecs, and other American Indians, they stole their gold and silver. Much of that came in the form of statues, jewelry, and other items. The Spanish melted the metal items down into large masses of pure gold or silver known as bouillon. Some bouillon was cast into bar shapes called ingots. And some of the silver and gold was molded into coins referred to as plate.
The Spanish put the natives to work in their own mines to dig for more gold and silver, which was also melted down into bouillon ingots or plate.
In upcoming stories you will hear about plate fleets. A plate fleet was a convoy of well-armed ships that carried the coins from one place to another. In most of our stories, especially between 1550 and 1630, English pirates sought out Spanish plate fleets transporting gold and silver coins from Central and South America to Spain.
Next article: The Hierarchy of Mariners on a Medieval Ship
- Image source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Portuguese_real#/ media/File:500_reais_ouro_D._Sebasti%C3%A3o.JPG