Dictionary of Medieval Latin from British Sources

By Dr Richard Ashdowne


The idea of compiling a new dictionary of medieval Latin was first proposed to the Academy in 1913 to provide a replacement for the dictionary prepared by the French antiquarian Charles du Fresne, Sieur du Cange, in the seventeenth century that was still being used by scholars in the twentieth century. Now, just over a hundred years later, it has been my responsibility and privilege as editor to bring this project to its successful conclusion.

When I tell people that I have been working a project of this kind and of such endurance, the two questions about the Dictionary I am most often asked are quite understandably ‘Why has it taken so long?’ and ‘What is the point of doing it?’ In fact these turn out to be closely connected questions, because the answers to both lie in the range of sources on which the Dictionary is based.

To appreciate this we need to understand the medieval linguistic background. The linguistic situation in Europe and especially in Britain during the middle ages was complex. Even after the end of the Roman empire Latin continued to be used as an everyday language across large parts of Europe, and that everyday language gradually changed and diversified regionally, turning ultimately into the modern Romance languages (Spanish, Portuguese, Italian, French, Romanian, etc.). However, in these areas and elsewhere in the territory formerly under Roman control, together with other areas around the edge of that Roman world where it was later adopted, Latin also survived in a more or less unchanged form as a non-native second language alongside the everyday native languages.

Though no longer a native language for its users, this Latin was nevertheless one of the most important languages of the middle ages across almost the whole of Europe, coexisting with the local everyday native vernacular languages. Its importance derives from the great geographical and chronological extent of its use and especially from the range of functions for which it was employed. This was particularly the case in the British Isles, where it coexisted with languages that included English, Welsh, and (after the Norman Conquest) French among others from the end of the Roman empire down to the end of the Tudor period and beyond. It was used in Britain, as it was elsewhere, for a wide range of functions, varying over time, with surviving texts from that entire period in fields as diverse as accountancy and zoology, astronomy and liturgy, literature and law.

The linguistic effect of this diversity was felt especially (though not only) in the vocabulary of medieval Latin. The position of medieval Latin as a non-native language and its resulting ‘contact’ with the other languages of its users, together with the diverse and changing world of culture, trade, and knowledge during the long period of its use across Europe, led its users to expand the available vocabulary in various ways so that they could express the meanings they wanted when the existing Latin vocabulary was (or seemed) insufficient. Thus, new meanings were developed for inherited words, sometimes in replacement for the earlier meaning(s), more often as additional possibilities (such as the specific ecclesiastical sense ‘tonsure’ for tonsura ‘haircut’). New words were coined using the usual processes of derivation in the language (e.g. the creation of new verbs from nouns by the addition of conjugation endings to the nouns’ stems, such as ventosare ‘treat by cupping’ from late Latin ventosa ‘cupping-glass’). Finally, the language users’ vernacular languages might supply vocabulary that was simply ‘borrowed’ (i.e. taken over, with any necessary addition of inflectional endings) – e.g. huswiva corresponding to English husewif (‘housewife’). For these reasons, while the few (mainly minor) differences in grammar between the classical language and its medieval successor may cause some puzzlement to anyone who comes to a medieval text having learned the language of the Roman era, it is usually in the area of vocabulary that the greatest difference exists, and so that is what the modern reader needs the most assistance with.

Accordingly the point of the Dictionary of Medieval Latin from British Sources is to document the vocabulary of the Latin language in Britain during the middle ages and so assist anyone reading texts in Latin from the period, particularly texts from Britain. The quantity of this material is immense. The Dictionary itself is based on a careful selective survey of thousands of British sources from the sixth to the sixteenth centuries, including the works of famous authors such as Bede and Anselm and documents of national significance such as Domesday and Magna carta. However, this survey is only a small, albeit representative, part of the total that survives, including works of literature, science, philosophy, etc. written by thousands of authors whose names we know and the tens of thousands of documents in archives across Britain. While some of the better-known of these sources, originally written in manuscript, have been edited and published in Latin and some have been translated into English, the vast majority of this material is still available only in its original Latin and often only in its original manuscripts. Anyone engaged in advanced study of any aspect of the medieval world is thus likely sooner rather than later to come across medieval Latin material, and that material is very likely not to have been translated or perhaps even published. Based on this original research comes also the opening up of the medieval world to a broader audience in museums, sites, books, and on radio and television.

In passing I would add that at present interest in the medieval world is as great as ever while good knowledge of Latin as one of the languages that are needed to investigate that world is less widespread. While there certainly was a great need in 1913 for a new Dictionary, the need now being fulfilled is so much greater in this respect, as more scholars with less Latin need so much more help to be able to read their primary source material.

The other question, about the time the project has taken, is inevitably also bound up with this huge quantity of material to be assessed. While the Dictionary is based on a survey, it has nevertheless been conducted in a rigorous and thorough fashion. Roughly the first fifty years of the project were occupied by dozens of volunteers, mainly in the UK but with a significant number elsewhere in the world (especially the USA), reading hundreds of texts and excerpting examples of the use of different words, writing them out on slips of paper, usually by hand. There was at the time no other way to compile a suitable database, on hundreds of thousands of slips, that would enable the process of compiling the Dictionary to take place, and, as I described above, many of the texts to be read were available only as manuscripts held in archives and libraries. Without these volunteers and their invaluable and excellent work, the project would simply not have been possible.

In the mid 1960s the process of preparing the text of the Dictionary itself began. A small team was assembled to begin that work, with R. E. Latham, the Dictionary’s first editor, in charge. Working alphabetically the assembled evidence for each word was assessed and checked, further examples were sought as necessary, definitions were prepared, and the draft Dictionary text written out by hand ready for typing, checking, typesetting, proofreading and publication. Even typesetting in this period was a laborious business, with each letter put in place by hand by the compositors. It is little wonder, then, that the first part of the Dictionary to be published, 232 pages covering A and B, took the better part of 10 years to reach publication.

Since that time preparation and publication of text has gone on continuously, finishing only in December 2013, by which time we able to publish around 600 pages in the final year alone. The increase in speed reflects two major changes from Latham’s early days. First there was the arrival during the final decade of the project of a significant increase in staff to work alongside the then editor, David Howlett, taking the team to five full-time assistant editors (as compared with the two assistants Latham had had): these additional appointments were the result of successful applications for funding and thus the support of the AHRC and the Packard Humanities Institute. Second, there has also been the adoption of 21st-century technology, which has had a powerfully transformative effect: no longer is material researched, prepared and edited on paper but in electronic form, providing a significant increase in speed. Even these changes, though, have been tempered quite understandably by the amount of material to be dealt with. By the end of the project we had around three quarters of a million slips in our paper database and had access to vast electronic resources too: all of this takes times to interpret, evaluate, and present to the dictionary user in the most helpful manner.

It’s instructive to note that this dictionary is based on British sources because the original proposal in 1913 eventually led to an international plan for a set of medieval Latin dictionaries. In the early 1920s the Union Académique Internationale, the international organisation of national academies of the arts and humanities, of which the British Academy is the British member, adopted the proposal and established a plan for dictionaries of medieval Latin from its member academies across Europe based on the sources from their respective territories, as well as a pan-European dictionary covering the core medieval period (roughly 800 to 1200). Our dictionary is the British contribution to this overall scheme, and our sister projects can be found all over Europe. Some, like ours, have been finished (including The Netherlands and Sweden), while many are still in progress (such as Poland and the Czech Republic). Ours, however, is the most substantial of these works to be completed, covering the longest period and greatest array of sources.

Article by Richard Ashdowne in British Academy Review (Summer 2014).

More about the British Academy’s Dictionary of Medieval Latin from British Sources.

Richard Ashdowne is Editor, Dictionary of Medieval Latin from British Sources, and Senior Research Fellow & College Lecturer in Linguistics, Somerville College.

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