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Dictionary of Medieval Latin from British Sources completed after 100 years

After over 58,000 entries, 3830 pages and seventeen volumes, the Dictionary of Medieval Latin from British Sources is now finished. The final volume will be published tomorrow by the British Academy.

Dr Giuseppe Pezzini, Dr Carolinne White and Dr Richard Ashdowne with the finished Dictionary in Duke Humfrey's Library at the Bodleian
Dr Giuseppe Pezzini, Dr Carolinne White and Dr Richard Ashdowne with the finished Dictionary in Duke Humfrey’s Library at the Bodleian – Photo courtesy University of Oxford

Begun in 1913, the finished dictionary is the culmination of a century-long enterprise which has had over 200 researchers working on it over the decades. Based on the writings found in poetry, sermons, chronicles, scientific texts, legal documents, state records, accounts and letters that were created between the years 540 and 1600 by thousands of authors who were born or worked in Britain, the Dictionary includes material from well-known works such as the Domesday Book, Magna Carta and Bayeux tapestry.

Dr Richard Ashdowne, the current editor of the Dictionary and a member of Oxford University’s Faculty of Classics, said, “This is the first ever comprehensive description of the vocabulary of the Latin language used in Britain and by Britons between AD 540 and 1600. For the last hundred years, the project has been systematically scouring the surviving British medieval Latin texts to find evidence for every word and all its meanings and usage.

“Much of this fundamental work was done in the early years of the project by a small army of volunteers, including historians, clergymen, and even retired soldiers. They provided the project with illustrative example quotations copied out from the original texts onto paper slips – an early form of crowdsourcing that had previously been used in the preparation of the Oxford English Dictionary.

“During its existence the project has accumulated an estimated 750,000 such slips. Nowadays, in addition to this invaluable resource, which covers a vast quantity of material only available in the form of the original manuscripts, we also have access to large electronic databases enabling us to examine the works of authors such as the Venerable Bede more thoroughly than ever before.”

The project began on April 6, 1913, when a Mr Robert J Whitwell had a letter printed in The Times in which he called for volunteers to help compile a new dictionary of the Latin used in medieval times. The first volume, which contained the letters A and B was published in 1975. The last word of the last volume is zythum, which means ‘an Egyptian beer’.

Interestingly some of the words of Old and Middle English that were ‘borrowed’ in the Latin language were found in earlier Latin texts than the first appearance of these words in English. Many we still use today in a modern form, for example, the Medieval Latin huswiva corresponds to modern English housewife, found as early as 12th century Latin texts.

final entryNicholas Stern, President of the British Academy, commented, “This is the most comprehensive study ever produced of the vocabulary of Latin in the medieval period in Britain and is a great example of what can be achieved from a large-scale research projectMost importantly, it has enabled us to discover more about the English language and shown us that Britain has indeed been at the heart of humanities and social science since the 6th century.”

Originally based in the Public Record Office in its days in Chancery Lane, the project is now managed within the Classics Faculty of the University of Oxford and consists of the Editor together with five assistant editors, two consultant editors and a database developer.

Professor Tobias Reinhardt, Corpus Christi Professor of Latin in the University of Oxford and chairman of the British Academy’s Medieval Latin Dictionary Committee, said: “The completion of theDictionary of Medieval Latin from British Sources is a symbol of the resilience of the Humanities in Britain. The importance and usefulness of dictionaries are often forgotten by the public, in the same way as people forget the word-processing software they use day-to-day. Dictionaries enable us to track and understand the development of language and are useful not just today, but for future generations as well.”

A conference, ‘Latin in Medieval Britain: sources, language, and lexicography’, will be taking taking place later this week at the University of Oxford, to commemorate the project.

Click here to visit the Dictionary of Medieval Latin from British Sources (DMLBS) website

Sources: University of Oxford, British Academy

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