amber

In England, before 7th – 14th centuries, the amber was a unit of capacity originally used by the Saxons. Its original magnitude is very uncertain. In 694, Ine, the king of the West Saxons, included “12 ambers of Welsh ale, 30 of clear ale” in a list of foodstuffs to be collected as rent for 10 hides of land. Some have tried to guess the amber's value by guessing what would constitute a reasonable rent; conjectures range from approximately 1.7 imperial gallons (approximately 7.7 liters) to as much as 6 gallons. The present writer is inclined to speculate that the amber of liquid capacity was much larger, about 30 gallons, because

The early references, though few, are all to a unit of liquid capacity. But King Alfred’s 9th-century translation of Paulus Orosius speaks of “ten ambers of feathers”, clearly dry capacity. In a 14th century record in Latin (which may be significant) the amber is a unit of dry capacity used to measure salt, equal to 4 bushels.

Some have suggested the word came from the Roman amphora. It may be related to the German Ahm and Eimer.

Sources

1

Æt tyn hidum to fostre tyn fata hunies, ðreo hund hláfa, twelf ambra Wylisces ealoð, ðrittig hlutres, twa ealda ryðeru oððe tyn weðres, [& tyn gees & twenti henna & tyn cysas,] amber fulne buteran, fif leaxas, twentig pundwega fodres & hundteontig æla.

[As a food-rent] for ten hides: 10 vats of honey, 300 loaves, 12 ambers of Welsh ale, 30 of clear ale, two full-grown cows or 10 wethers, 10 geese, 20 hens, 10 cheeses, an amber-full of butter, 5 salmon, 20 pound-weights of provisions and 100 eels.

The Laws of Ine, 70.1
in
F. Liebermann
Die Gesetze der Angelsachsen.
Halle a S.: M. Niemeyer, 1898-1912.
Volume 1, pages 119-121.

Copies of at least a portion of Ine's laws survived because King Alfred added them as a sort of appendix to his own laws, by way of justification.

2

...xxx ómbra gódes UUelesces aloþ, ðæt limpnað to xv mittum...

...30 ambers of good Welsh ale, that is equivalent to 15 mitta...

a Kentish will of the ninth century,
in 
Benjamin Thorpe.
Diplomatarium anglicum aevi saxonici.
London: Macmillan, 1865.
 #460

the amounts to be given to the monks of Canterbury on the annual anniversary of the deceased's death. So according to this source an amber was half a mitta.  The mitta is said to have been in the range of 60 to 80 gallons, making the amber 30 to 40. If we take a bushel as 8 gallons, a 4-bushel amber would be 32 gallons, which fits well. 

Note that, as in the earlier source, the unit is associated with Welsh ale, and also that the writer of the will feels a need to define it in terms of another unit, which may indicate that at this date the amber was already obsolescent.

3

...Tyn ambra feðra...

...10 ambers of feathers...

King Alfred, translator. circa 893
Orosius
in
H. Sweet, editor.
King Alfred's Orosius.
London: Published for the Early English Text Society, 1883.
I i 15.

4

The Measures of Salt noticed in the Survey, are Ambræ, Bulliones, Mensuræ, Mittæ, Sextaria, and Summæ.

An Ambra was four bushels.² At Wassingeton, in Sussex, we have “v. salinæ de cx. ambris salis.”3

2. See the Registr. Honoris de Richm.[*]] App. p. 44. where in an Extent of the Manors of Crowhurst and Fylesham, in Sussex, 8 Edw. I. we read “xxiiii. Ambræ salis, quæ faciunt xii. quarteria secundum mensuram Londoniæ.” [24 ambers of salt, which makes 12 quarters, following London measure--ed.] Ibid. p. 258. it is added “Quarterium Londinense octo Modios sive Bussellos continet, AMBRA igitur quatuor modios.” [The London quarter contains 8 modios or bushels, the amber, therefore, 4 modios--ed.] It is singular that Cowel, and Kelham in his Domesd. Book Illustr. p. 154. should represent the Ambra as a Measure the quantity of which is not now known. Wilkins, LL. Anglo-Sax. Glossar. p. 389. considered the modern Firkin as coming nearest to it.

3. Domesd. tom. i. fol. 28.

Henry Ellis.
A General Introduction to Domesday Book. vol 1.
London: 1833.
Page 133.

* The work referred to is

Roger Gale.
Registrum Honoris de Richmond : exhibens terrarum & villarum quae quondam fuerunt Edwini comitis infra Richmundshire descriptionem : ex Libro Domesday in thesauria domini regis : necnon varias extentas, feoda comitis, feoda militum, relevia, fines & wardas, inquisitiones, compotos, clamea, chartasque ad Richmondiae comitatum spectantes : omnia juxta exemplar antiquum in Bibliotheca Cottoniana asservatum exarata.
Londini: Impensis R. Gosling, 1722.

5

AMBER - AMBRA - a measure of four bushels. See the Registri Honoris de Richm. App. p. 44., where, in an extent of the manors of Crowhurst and Fylesham, in Sussex, 8 Edw. I., we read, “XXIIII. ambræ salis, quæ faciunt XII. quarteria, secundum mensuram Londoniæ.”  Ibid. p. 258. it is added : “Quarterium Londinense octo modios sive bussellos continet, AMBRA igitur quatuor modios.”  See Introduction to Domesday, vol i. p.133. [which is quoted above--ed.]

Great Britain.
[Thorpe]
Ancient Laws and Institutes of England… Vol. 2
[London : G. Eyre and A. Spottiswoode, printers to the Queen's Most Excellent Majesty], 1840.
Unpaged Glossary.

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