December 10, 2013

Medieval dictionary completed after 100 years


The Dictionary of Medieval Latin, a century in the making, is finally complete.

The Dictionary of Medieval Latin, a century in the making, is finally complete.

After a century of work, the Dictionary of Medieval Latin from British Sources has finally been completed this week, with the publication of the 17th volume in the dictionary. The British Academy  started the research project in 1913, and it’s taken three different editors—and what the Guardian’s Liz Bury describes as “a small army of contributors”—to complete the dictionary. 

As Bury explains, the seventeen-volume work draws on sources ranging from the sixth through the sixteenth century, including famous works such as the Domesday Book and the Bayeux Tapestry. The current editor, Richard Ashdowne, says of the dictionary:

This is the first ever comprehensive description of the vocabulary of the Latin language used in Britain and by Britons between AD 540 to 1600… For the last 100 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 crowd-sourcing.

The Latin spoken and written by medieval Brits (mainly clergy, scientists, philosophers, and lawyers, who kept the language alive after the fall of the Roman Empire) was unusual for its variations, which were influenced by English, Welsh, Irish, French, and Norse. In many cases, in fact, Old or Middle English words turn up in Latin texts, when the people writing them didn’t know a particular word in Latin. For example, the word “huswiva,” roughly meaning housewife, appears in a twelfth-century Latin document, 100 years before it can be found in English writing.

Now that the DMLBS is complete, Ashdowne hopes to make it available in an open-access digital edition sometime next year, pending getting the funding for that.


Nick Davies was a publicist at Melville House.