Whitwell's petition to the British Academy, 1913

The DMLBS project is a long-term research project with a considerable history of its own. Established properly in the 1920s, the project is the modern successor to a long lexicographical heritage.


Even in the Middle Ages there was already a clear need for reference works to assist with Latin vocabulary, and many of these word-lists, glossaries and other collections of linguistic information such as etymologies and synonyms are among the evidence now drawn on in the DMLBS.

In the seventeenth century, the French aristocrat and scholar, Charles Du Fresne (1610–88), usually known by his title Sieur Du Cange, prepared a general collection of medieval Latin vocabulary, the most extensive to be compiled up to that point. This work, the Glossarium ad scriptores mediae et infimae latinitatis, first published in Paris in three volumes in 1678, remained the standard reference work (known simply as 'Du Cange') for the Latin of medieval Europe well into the twentieth century. Du Cange's Glossarium was extended and supplemented several times, first by him and over the following two centuries by others.

The need for a new lexicon of medieval Latin

The nineteenth century saw major developments in the study of the history of languages and of their relationships to each other. Many of the discoveries made in the period came from examining the history of individual words to look for shared or common patterns within and across languages, and so with these advances came a particular interest in the scientific compilation of dictionaries. In 1857 the Philological Society called for a new dictionary of English to be prepared based on historical principles, and this led ultimately to the production of the New English Dictionary (1st ed., 1884–1928, known since 1933 as the Oxford English Dictionary) which set a new benchmark for lexicography. Improved dictionaries of classical Greek and Latin were also being worked on. Although Du Cange had already for some time seemed old-fashioned as a lexicon, it now looked increasingly severely outdated when seen alongside the fruits of the new more rigorous lexicography.

In the same period there also arose an important practical need for a replacement for Du Cange, emerging out of a growing interest in medieval Latin material. In Britain, numerous societies were being set up dedicated to local history or to the history of particular fields of human activity (such as liturgy, the law, etc.), and many of these took to publishing series of editions of original materials related to their interests, including substantial amounts of medieval material, much of it in Latin. Several series of formal state publications were also begun, including those by Records Commission and the Rolls Series ('The Chronicles and Memorials of Great Britain and Ireland during the Middle Ages', published from 1857 under the oversight of the Master of the Rolls, eventually over 250 printed volumes containing almost 100 sets of materials, mainly in Latin, considered fundamental for the study of the history of Britain).

Proposals for a new dictionary of medieval Latin

The pressing need for a new medieval Latin dictionary had prompted the publisher John Murray in the late nineteenth century to initiate the preparation of an abridgement of Du Cange, to be edited by E. A. Dayman assisted by J. H. Hessels. This plan was abandoned in 1882. Hessels took up the challenge for a second time in 1897, but again the project was abandoned in the face of the scale of the task.

In April 1913 at the International Congress of Historical Studies, taking place that year in London, R. J. Whitwell (himself a great contributor to the collection of slips on which the New English Dictionary was being based) brought forward for discussion a proposal for the preparation of a new rigorous dictionary of medieval Latin along the lines of the New English Dictionary. Whitwell had been encouraged to raise the matter by the Council of the British Academy, to whom he had first made the proposal in the February of that same year with the backing of an array of notable scholars. The Congress commended the project to the British Academy.

Around the same time discussions were also taking place among members of of the Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge (SPCK) with a view to the possibility of the Society producing a medieval Latin lexicon of some kind.

The International Union of Academies and the Novum glossarium

The intervention of the First World War prevented any significant progress by the committee set up by the Academy to consider how to proceed with Whitwell's proposal, and so it was in 1920 that the enterprise was proposed by the British Academy to the International Union of Academies (Union Académique Internationale). The IUA took up the proposal as one of its first major projects, and agreement was reached for the preparation of a series of medieval Latin dictionaries: the national academies would each produce a dictionary based on the medieval Latin from their national sources, and each would also contribute material for the production of a pan-European dictionary for the core medieval period of 800–1200, the Novum glossarium mediae Latinitatis.

The DMLBS is the result of the British Academy's participation in this plan, and it sits alongside the other dictionaries and projects that form part of the same ongoing scheme, including the Novum glossarium.

The British Academy's dictionary project

The Academy began its work in the IUA scheme in earnest in 1924 by appointing two committees, one to collect the British and Irish material for its contribution to the pan-European dictionary and a second to gather evidence for the dictionary of medieval Latin as used in the British Isles. These two committees eventually merged, but they were also supplemented by groups in Scotland, Ireland and the United States who assisted in finding contributors and gathering material.

Adopting the method used for the preparation of the New English Dictionary the project began to compile a collection of slips containing quotations excerpted from texts that were being read more or less systematically for the purpose of the dictionary by a small army of unpaid volunteer readers recruited by the committees. Accommodation for both the slips and the work on them was offered by the Public Record Office, then based in Chancery Lane in London.

The Medieval Latin Word-List

By 1932 the amount of material gathered seemed sufficient to enable publication of what amounted to an interim report on progress, the Medieval Latin Word-List from British and Irish Sources of 1934, prepared by J. H. Baxter and Charles Johnson with the assistance of Phyllis Abrahams. (Baxter had been involved previously in the apparently discontinued SPCK plan.) According to its Introduction (p. vii), by 1932 ‘the material ... had reached a stage when it seemed desirable to make it accessible to students. It was felt that, for a good proportion of the eventual contents of the Dictionary, enough was already in hand to render further excerption unnecessary and to show readers where gaps might usefully be filled.’ To this end, the Word-List marked with asterisks those items and meanings for which sufficient examples had already been collected. The list of authors and texts that had been read covered four pages.

This Word-List was highly significant for the overall project in fulfilling three important functions.

First and foremost it at last provided scholars with a new reference work for British medieval Latin. Though still incomplete in coverage and limited in its content (including only items new to Latin in the medieval period and offering only limited definitions and no quotations), it was of enormous value to British scholars in virtue of its British focus, its English definitions, and the fact it was based on a fresh reading of a wide range of texts as far as possible in the best up-to-date editions. It also had the advantage of being compact, appearing as a single easy-to-use volume (compared with the multi-volume Du Cange).

Second, its preparation clarified what further excerpting work could usefully be undertaken towards the eventual dictionary, and it made this explicit to prospective contributors. Its Preface (p. vi) concludes: ‘The Committee invite scholars to help them make this Word-List a step towards the fuller Dictionary which they are preparing, by contributing dated quotations from British and Irish writers illustrating Latin words not found in this List, or extending the limits of date given for individual words. Quotations which define or explain obscure terms are invaluable. Such notes should be sent to The Secretary, Medieval Latin Dictionary Committee, Public Record Office, Chancery Lane.’

Finally, it had a long-term value in preparing the way for the eventual DMLBS. The very process of preparing the Word-List began to order the collected material and arrange the editorial ground in such a way that greatly facilitated the eventual dictionary project: for instance, attention was directed to how the diverse spellings of any individual word could be handled, the slips being arranged to bring the diverse spellings together and to do so at a point in the alphabet based on a principled decision.

The importance of the Word-List can be seen strikingly in the fact that it was reissued five times up to 1962, and its influence can still be seen in the DMLBS.

The Revised Word-List and the start of the DMLBS

Despite the inevitable disruption of the Second World War, collecting and sorting of slips continued in the decades after the publication of the Word-List, especially concentrating on filling the more significant gaps in the coverage of the collection amassed so far, namely in technical writing.

By 1950 it was clear that there was sufficient collected material to justify a full revision of the Word-List, and this was undertaken by R. E. Latham. The resulting volume was published in 1965 as the Revised Medieval Latin Word-List from British and Irish Sources, and Latham was assisted in the process by Charles Johnson until Johnson's death in 1961.

The preparation of the Revised Word-List confirmed that the collection of material was at last suitable for the Academy to consider a proposal for work on preparing a full-scale dictionary. It gave its approval for this dictionary, the Dictionary of Medieval Latin from British Sources, to go ahead ‘as an official project’. A fresh Academy committee was established to oversee the work, and in 1967 Latham, who that year retired from the Public Record Office, was appointed as Editor.

The narrowing of the scope of the project at this point — to cover only British sources — reflected the plan of a newly reinvigorated Irish committee in 1968 to begin work on its own separate dictionary from Celtic (Irish) sources, in cooperation with the British enterprise. (The former Scottish committee had ceased to operate during the 1940s, as also had the United States committee.)

Latham and the early fascicules of the DMLBS

Since Latham's appointment, drafting of the DMLBS has gone on continuously, with material published in a series of fascicules alphabetically beginning from the start of the alphabet. The first fascicule, A–B (some 232 pages), appeared in 1975.

In these early days the publication process was extremely labour-intensive. The quotations from the slips were checked, selected, supplemented and arranged by the editor, who then transcribed them by hand onto foolscap paper for preparation first as a typescript. This would then be marked up for composition in type. The material was initially typeset as galley proofs, i.e. a single continuous column that could more easily be checked and corrected. Once approved the column could be divided and reformed into the final three-column pages. Latham retired as Editor in 1979 with work on C (published 1981) and D well advanced.

The move to Oxford

On his retirement, Latham was succeeded by David Howlett, who had formerly worked on the OED at Oxford University Press. He oversaw the move in 1982 of the project from its long-time home at the Public Record Office in London, first in part and eventually completely, to Oxford, where it has been based ever since. For most of the years since 1982, the project occupied space within the Bodleian library, where the ease of access to the library's collections of manuscripts and editions massively assisted the process of working through and verifying the slips. In more recent years, access via university subscription to electronic resources has had a similarly enormous effect.

Progress over the years was also signficantly helped by the recruitment of increasing numbers of assistant editors, as funds allowed.

H. K. Thompson 1967–1981
A. H. Powell 1967–1986
R. Sharpe 1981–1990
P. Staniforth 1986–1989
S. J. O'Connor 1990–1995
J. Blundell 1990–1996
C. White 1992–1995, 2000–
T. Christchev 1997–2007
P. O. Piper 2004–2010
T. V. Evans 2004–2007
S. Sneddon 2007–14
K. Korn 2007–14
R. K. Ashdowne 2008–11
M. N. A. Thakkar 2010–14
G. Pezzini 2011–14

In fact over the years in Oxford, funding to sustain the project's work has been a near-constant concern, but the project has nonetheless been hugely successful in maintaining it at a level that has enabled progress through the alphabet not only to continue but to accelerate. The financial support of the British Academy at the outset was eventually replaced by major grants from the bodies that took over from it in this function, the Arts and Humanities Research Board and its successor, the Arts and Humanities Research Council. However, the project would not have made the progress it has without the exceptional generosity of support from the Packard Humanities Institute since 2003, which has enabled the project to employ more assistant editors and increase the rate of publication massively over the last decade with a view to the eventual online publication of the dictionary. In line with the general change in the administration of research funding, the project was adopted as an official research project of the Classics Faculty in Oxford in 1999.

Digitization and beyond

The early 1980s saw the first significant forays of lexicographers into a new digital world. The OED launched a ground-breaking initiative to capture its enormous printed work electronically and establish methods of digital working, leading to the publication of that dictionary on CD-ROM in the early 1990s and subsequently to its availability online. The DMLBS also began to take advantage of new research opportunities afforded by technological advances over the same period: for instance, the project had some of its key source texts captured electronically and concordances (complete alphabetic indexes of words in context) were produced from these. The advent of searchable databases of texts on CD-ROM and eventually on the internet similarly revolutionized the project's research methods. Over the same period, the project also took advantage of successive developments in typesetting technology to streamline the production process of the dictionary.

In 2009 the DMLBS project began the complex process of completely digitizing its editorial processes, with a view to the preparation of electronic XML data for the entire text and the planning of its delivery online.

David Howlett retired as Editor of the Dictionary in 2011 after more than thirty years' tireless service to the project. At his retirement less than 10% of the overall dictionary remained to be drafted. He was succeeded as Editor by Richard Ashdowne, formerly an assistant editor of the Dictionary, who saw the project through to completion. The final fascicule of the Dictionary, XVII (Syr to Z), was published in December 2013.

Further reading

Richard Ashdowne (2014) ‘Dictionary of Medieval Latin from British Sources’, British Academy Review 24, 46–53.

Richard Ashdowne (2014) ‘Ab to zythum: heroes of medieval Latin’, TLS 3 Jan, 12–13

Richard Ashdowne (2010) ‘“ut Latine minus vulgariter magis loquamur”: the making of the Dictionary of Medieval Latin from British Sources’, in C. Stray (ed.), Classical Dictionaries, past, present and future. Duckworth, 195–222.