Tuesday, March 3, 2015


R. K. Ashdowne, Dictionary of Medieval Latin from British Sources. Fascicule XVII, Syr-Z. Oxford; New York: Published for the British Academy by Oxford University Press, 2013. Pp. xvi, 398. ISBN 9780197265611. $55.00 (pb).

Reviewed by Scott G. Bruce, University of Colorado at Boulder (bruces@colorado.edu)

Version at BMCR home site

The publication of the seventeenth and final fascicule of the Dictionary of Medieval Latin from British Sources (DMLBS) marks the end of an extraordinary publishing enterprise that began almost a century ago. The successful publication of the massive New English Dictionary (1st edition, 1884-1928), now known as the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), inspired the idea for the creation of a new dictionary of medieval Latin to replace Du Cange's seventeenth-century Glossarium mediae et infimae latinitatis. Using the same methodology as the compilers of the OED, the DMLBS began with slow and systematic collection of reference slips for individual words drawn from the works of medieval British authors from Gildas (sixth century) to Camden (1600). The first fruits of the project appeared in 1934 with the publication of the Medieval Latin Word-List from British and Irish Sources, which was reprinted five times over the next thirty years and issued in a revised format in 1965. The usefulness and popularity of the Medieval Latin Word-List won over the British Academy, which agreed to provide the initial funding for a fully realized DMLBS. R. E. Latham became editor of the project in 1967 and oversaw the publication of the earliest DMLBS fascicles, beginning with Fascicle 1: A-B in 1975. Over the past forty years, Latham and his successors, David Howlett and Richard Ashdowne, have published a steady stream of fascicles, culminating with the volume under review.

The organization and formatting of Fascicle 17 mirrors the earlier volumes, allowing them to be bound together seamlessly to form larger instruments of reference. The sample of words represented in this book (Syr-Z) draws mainly from classical Latin (CL), though one can find some clever neologisms, especially in legal vocabulary. For example, the word valvifragus, "that breaks down doors," is constructed from CL "valva" and "frangere," but has no classical antecedent. Clusters of specialized words speak to the cultural preoccupations of medieval English authors, like the four words for "bear-keeper" (ursaceus, ursarius, ursiator, ursifer) and the two words for "female tavern-keeper" or "tapstress" (tabernaria, which also meant "prostitute," and tabernatrix). The development of Latin as spoken language is on display in words like vehitio, "(act of) carrying, transporting," a fifteenth-century descendant of the Late Latin (LL) vehatio, which derives from the CL word vectio. This fascicle is particularly rich in loan-words and evocative of the fluid and vibrant linguistic culture of later medieval England. The Old English legal term utlagian ("to declare an outlaw") became the late medieval Latin utlagare; the thirteenth-century verrina ("pane of glass") comes from the Anglo-Norman verine, which ironically derives from CL vitrum; zubro is from the Old Russian zubr' referring to aurochs or European bison; and the final substantive entry in the DMLBS is zythum, a Greek loan-word meaning a "sort of drink made from fermented malt, (Egyptian) beer."

For all of its many virtues, the DMLBS remains a twentieth-century print publication. The next major hurdle for its editors is the digitization of the entire dictionary with a user-friendly interface at an affordable price for research institutions. With over 65,000 entries, this is no small task. Moreover, the competition is already fierce as many of the older Latin dictionaries are already accessible on-line for free, including Du Cange's Glossarium (ducange.enc.sorbonne.fr) and Lewis and Short's A Latin Dictionary (perseus.tufts.edu). For the DMLBS to remain relevant for the next generation of medieval scholars, who are more likely to turn to outdated resources on-line than to cutting-edge reference works in print, a digital platform is the next logical step.

One can only hope that the patrons of the print DMLBS see the wisdom of underwriting a new, digital DMLBS so that this invaluable instrument of reference can be made available to the widest possible audience of medieval scholars in the twenty-first century.1


1.   For the progress on this front, see the DMLBS website.

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