Medieval Latin

A hundred-year project –  The Dictionary of Medieval Latin from British Sources – nears its end and is celebrated

Latin was always a learned language in Britain and monolingual and bilingual word-lists were very necessary. A number of these survive, ranging from the eighth-century Latin/Old English glossary in MS Cambridge Corpus Christi College 144, carefully arranged alphabetically by the first two letters, to a number of fifteenth-century Latin/English glosses.

December 2013 sees the fulfillment of the modern equivalent of these word-lists when the final part of the epic Dictionary of Medieval Latin is published. The final fascicule brings a project to close, which was initiated 100 years ago.

The Dictionary of Medieval Latin from British Sources has more than 58,000 entries and currently spans 15 volumes, the first of which came out in 1975.

The dictionary details the Latin language used in Britain between 540 AD and the year 1600: it draws its contents not only from wordlists but also so diverse publications as the Domesday Book, the Magna Carta and thousands of other documents. The last full entry of the dictionary, which the Academy has overseen since 1913, is for ‘zythum’, a form of beer or malt-liquor common among the Egyptians, which Plinius wrote about.

Academy president Lord Stern has called it “the most comprehensive study ” of Medieval Latin vocabulary ever undertaken. In his opinion it has “enabled us to discover more about the English language and shown us that Britain was already at the heart of humanities and social science from the 6th Century and onwards.”

“During this project we were sometimes the first people to have read these documents for centuries,” said Dr David Howlett, editor of the dictionary from 1979 to 2011. Dr Howlett has previously compared the task to “eating a bowl of concrete”, telling The Oxford Times: “The task was huge, and has got bigger as we have gone along.”

The work’s completion is being marked by a conference and a display at the Bodleian Library in Oxford. The display will feature materials relating to the compilation of the Dictionary, including original quotation slips and textual sources. Connected to the display is a virtual exhibition, celebrating the completion of the Dictionary and telling the story behind the sources and the language. At the British Academy in London dictionary materials, manuscripts and books are displayed from the 6th of December.

The Dictionary has been published by the Oxford University Press for the British Academy. Digitization of the text began in 2009, with a view to the preparation of an online edition, freely available to all, due in 2014.


Dictionary of Medieval Latin from British Sources

Press Release

Virtual Exhibition


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