A truly monumental task has finally been finished: the final part of an epic dictionary of medieval Latin is to be published this week, finally closing a project that started over 100 years ago.
The Dictionary of Medieval Latin from British Sources has more than 58,000 entries, and spans over 15 volumes. The 16th and final volume is published by the British Academy on 11 December – this is by far the biggest and most comprehensive study of medieval Latin academy.
Academy president Lord Stern praised this herculean achievement, saying that it “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“.
Latin wasn’t used only in the Roman empire – the language was used by scientists, diplomats, philosophers and lawyers for more than 1,000 years after the fall of the empire. It is still used today, in very limited contexts (all the scientific names of the species for example, and many other scientific terms are Latin-derived).
The dictionary details the Latin language used in Britain between 540 AD and the year 1600, drawing information from thousands of documents, including the Domesday book and the Magna Charta.
“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.
“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,” said current editor Dr Richard Ashdowne. “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.”
Interestingly enough, last full entry of the dictionary, which the Academy has overseen since 1913, is for ‘zythum’, a form of beer. The completion of the work will be marked by a conference, and the 16 books will be on display at the Bodleian Library in Oxford. There hasn’t been any information about whether or not this will be commercially available to the public.