100 years on, final part of Latin Dictionary is finished

9 Dec 2013

On 11 December 2013 the British Academy publishes the final part of its monumental Dictionary of Medieval Latin from British Sources. The Dictionary, with more than 58,000 entries in nearly 4000 pages, is the most comprehensive study ever produced of the vocabulary of Latin in the medieval period in Britain.

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.

The Dictionary of Medieval Latin from British Sourcesis based entirely on rigorous original research which has systematically surveyed the massive array of British Latin material that survives from the medieval period, including poetry, sermons, chronicles, scientific texts, legal documents, state records, accounts and letters. Researchers have scoured British medieval Latin texts written between the years AD 540 and 1600 by thousands of authors who were born or worked in Britain, including such well-known examples as the Domesday Book, Magna Carta and Bayeux tapestry.




Across Europe, Latin was the written language of choice for clergy, scientists, philosophers, administrators, courts, diplomats and many others for more than a millennium after the end of the Roman empire. A significant proportion of the vocabulary of the Latin of medieval Britain is distinctive because it was affected by the diverse range of everyday native languages spoken by its users in this period: these languages included not only English but also French, Welsh, Irish, Norse, among others. Because of this the availability of a full modern scholarly dictionary is vital for anyone using original sources to research the medieval world.

A number of similar projects are on-going around Europe as part of an international scheme established in the 1920s of which the British Academy's dictionary forms its contribution. The British dictionary is the most substantial of these many projects to have been completed. 

Dr Richard Ashdowne, the current Editor of theDictionary of Medieval Latin from British Sources, said: "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 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 crowd-sourcing 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."

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 Englishhousewife, found as early as 12th century Latin texts.

Speaking of the non-literary source material, Dr David Howlett, Editor of the dictionary from 1979 to 2011, said: "The Brits never threw anything away. The British Library is huge, and the National Archive is 10 times the size of the British Library. During this project we were sometimes the first people to have read these documents for centuries."

Lord Stern, President of the British Academy, said: "This isthe 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 the Dictionary 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."

The project has been overseen by the British Academy since 1913, and is now jointly funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council, the Packard Humanities Institute, and the John Fell OUP Research Fund.

The completion of the Dictionary of Medieval Latin from British Sources will be marked by a conference in December, which will be attended by editors from the international dictionaries of Medieval Latin. The project's history is also narrated in a display in the Bodleian Library, Oxford from 6 December 2013 to 6 January 2014.

Key statistics about the Dictionary of Medieval Latin from British Sources include:

  • 58,000 word entries containing over 90,000 senses and just over 436,000 quotations

  • Quotations are drawn from more than 1,400 works by over 500 authors whose names are known, together with thousands of documents written by authors whose names are not recorded

  • more than 30,000 cross-references

  • 3830 pages across 17 parts

  • 3 Editors have led the project over 46 years of drafting (1967–2013)

For further information about the project, please visit the project website.

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For further information contact the Press Office on [email protected]  / 07500 010 432.

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