101-year project comes to an end | University of Oxford
The word for 'muzzle' was found in a description of a muzzled polar bear fishing in the Thames
The word for 'muzzle' was found in a description of a muzzled polar bear fishing in the Thames
Flickr: ucumari / Valerie

101-year project comes to an end

The Dictionary of Medieval Latin from British Sources (DMLBS) will close in September, 101 years after a letter from Robert Whitwell was printed in The Times proposing the project and calling for volunteers to help.

At the end of 2013, the team entered the final word into the 58,000-word dictionary – ‘zythum’, which means ‘an Egyptian beer’. Now only two people remain in the office: the editor, Dr Richard Ashdowne of Oxford University’s Faculty of Classics, and 89-year-old volunteer Peter Glare. ‘This is the third major dictionary Peter has seen through to completion, having previously worked on the monumental Oxford Latin Dictionary and the revised supplement to Liddell/Scott/Jones’ Greek Lexicon,’ says Dr Ashdowne.

The DMLBS covers Latin words found in texts written by people who were born in or worked in Britain over more than a thousand years from the sixth to the sixteenth century. Many of these words and meanings are those of earlier classical Latin, but others were newly coined by the authors of the sources. The dictionary has improved scholars’ understanding of language, society and culture in Medieval Britain, when Latin was for a long time the chief language of the written record and used for everything from accounts to zoology.

The 58,000 entries in the dictionary contain more than 100,000 different senses of words and more than 400,000 quotations. It runs to nearly 4000 pages, published in 17 parts.

Putting the dictionary together over the last century has involved hundreds of people, many of them volunteers, spending thousands of hours of trawling through manuscripts and books to find examples of words and their usage. ‘Much of what we have looked at has been unsurprisingly mundane,’ admits Dr Ashdowne, ‘but now and again we would come across something out of the ordinary. One source for caminus (“chimney”) was the diary of William Merle, a clergyman who recorded the weather from 1337 to 1344 and noted that on 28 March 1343 an earthquake toppled stone chimneys in Lincolnshire. His weather diaries have since been studied by climate scientists.

‘A source for neglegentia (“negligence”) was found in a series of coroner’s reports from 1396 which tell of a woman who died after falling into a well as a result of “her own negligence and madness”. Another case in the same source involves a three-year-old child who drowned in a pan of milk.

‘Our sole quotation for sense 2 of musella (“muzzle, halter for the snout of an animal”) comes from accounts from 1252 detailing the purchase of a muzzle for the white (i.e. polar) bear recently sent to the king from Norway and kept in the Tower of London: it also required a long and strong rope to hold it while fishing in the Thames.’

Over time advances in technology have sped up the process of compiling and publishing the dictionary. In 1975 a researcher would typically have had to travel to an archive or library to verify a particular example of how a word was used. Now it is highly likely that it can be found in a digital archive in seconds. But this brings its own problems. ‘In the past, compilers might only have known of the ten examples of a word gathered by the volunteer readers.

‘They could consider all of them in preparing its entry, worrying only that perhaps there were usages of which they were unaware. Now we can often find many more examples of a word in digitized sources, sometimes many thousands, and we have had to develop new strategies for dealing with an “overload” of substantially similar examples in among which there may be lurking ones which stand out and need to be taken account of.’

Now that the printed dictionary is finished, Dr Ashdowne is organising the disposal of what he terms ‘the accumulated detritus of a hundred-year project that never threw anything out’. Up to 2,000 books used as sources will go to the Bodleian Library’s special collections when the Weston Library opens. ‘Some of the books are new donations to the Bodleian, but many of them are simply being returned after being “on loan” to the project, which was based in the Bodleian from the early 1980s until 2010,’ Dr Ashdowne said.

The 750,000 slips containing examples are being shipped to the ongoing French project compiling a dictionary that covers medieval Latin across the whole of Europe. The project’s archive of administrative documents is being sent to the British Academy, which has directed the project since its inception. This collection includes all the early correspondence concerning the establishment of the project from 1913, as well as other letters, minutes and accounts from the last hundred years.

Although the main goal of the project is now finished, Dr Ashdowne hopes that in the future a two-volume version of the book can be published and the entire dictionary can be made available online. He said: ‘Electronic publication is now uncertain after our plans involving the Bodleian Library sadly fell through, but it remains something we are committed to achieving and I am already exploring several other avenues.’