A quick Google search reveals that the word ‘mediaeval’ can be found over six million times on the Internet. This sounds impressive until you look up the word ‘medieval’ and find more than one hundred million references. Why do we have these two spellings, and why has medieval become more popular?
Until the nineteenth-century this word did not even exist. The term ‘Middle Ages’ had emerged to describe the period between the end of the Roman Empire and what was considered the more modern times of the sixteenth or seventeenth century.
Some historians and writers would make use of the Latin translation of Middle Ages – medium ævum – and it is quite likely that during the early 1800s this phrase evolved into mediæval. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the first recorded use of the term mediæval takes place in 1817. Thomas Dudley Fosbroke, an English vicar and historian, had produced a book entitled British Monachism, or, Manners and Customs of the Monks and Nuns of England, in 1802. Fifteen years later he produced a second edition to that work, and in his preface notes “he professes to illustrate mediæval customs on mediæval principles”.
Over the next few decades the word mediæval found itself being used more and more. The nineteenth-century saw a renewed interest in the history of the Middle Ages, which led to more books and articles with the term. George Gordon, in his classic 1925 article ‘Medium Aevum and the Middle Age’ explains this growth:
There were two good reasons for preferring mediaeval. It avoided completely the homonymous trouble of ‘middle age’, and what is always important, and what was particularly important then, it was a great deal better fitted to be a parent. The Middle Ages were a fashion in the mid-nineteenth century, and fashions demand names. Which was is to be? Middleagism? Mediaevalism? There could hardly be any doubt. This was the first of mediaeval’s children, and the rest of the family, mediaevalize (1854), mediaevals (1856), mediaevalist (1855,1874), followed naturally and with ease. By the early eighties it was possible to feel ‘mediaevally inclined’, and more so one day than another.
The term would also find itself adopted by other languages such as Italian – medievale – and French – médiéval – being first noted in 1868 and 1876 respectively.
How does the term mediæval change to medieval? The Oxford English Dictionary records the first use of the latter term in 1876, by William Stubbs, one of the most well-known historians of the nineteenth-century. His book Early Plantagenets, twice uses ‘medieval’, but also uses the term ‘mediæval’ four times. Could it be that switch from æ to e was a mistake from the publisher?
Another important event also took place around this time which may have doomed the word mediæval. In 1874 the E. Remington and Sons Company began selling its typewriter. After a slow start, sales would eventually pick up and by the end of the nineteenth-century these machines were a staple in offices and companies. The QWERTY keyboard design, however, did not include any key for æ. It would seem that people had to make a choice – turn æ into ae or simplify it to e.
When it comes to choosing medieval or mediaeval, it has been commonly observed people in Great Britain were more willing to use the ae, while Americans preferred just using the e. Perhaps this is true, but it seems that even in England the term medieval would gradually become more popular.
By the middle of the twentieth-century it was clear that medieval would be the common spelling. This was not an inevitable outcome, for archaeology remains far more popular than archeology. However, it seems that the word mediaeval will not be making a comeback. Only a handful of books published in recent years use that term.
Still there are a few places where the word mediaeval endures. For example the University of Toronto has both a Centre of Medieval Studies and a Pontifical Institute of Mediaeval Studies, so perhaps the older form will live on.
See also: When were the Middle Ages?