Before international standardization boards regulated everything from street signs to keyboards, individual cultures and cities had to regulate things themselves. For specific industries, the number of measurements proliferated, leaving the Enlightenment thinkers with the laborious task of setting up standardized systems of measurement. For those who didn’t have the luxury of standardized weights and measures, specifically those merchants, and specifically for the ones who lived in Medieval Flanders, you had to be familiar with the ell.
The ell, measured as the distance from the elbow to the tip of the hand, had been around for ages. The Ancient Egyptians regulated it on rods, called cubit rods, for imperial measurements. The ancient cubit is even mentioned in Genesis, where Noah’s ark is said to be 300 cubits long, 50 cubits wide, and 30 cubits high. After around a thousand years, after the formalities had changed, traders still used the ell, the original basis for the cubit, to conduct trade.
This was especially prominent in the trading powerhouse that was Medieval Flanders, which produced high-quality cloth for export during the Dark Ages. Without standardization, rolls of cloth were measured and sold by the ell. However, the rough nature of the estimates still begged for some sort of standardization. Eventually, a few would roll around, and even travel overseas to new European colonies, but for the twelfth-century merchants of Europe, an arm suited them fine.