Reading medieval documents


Useful books and websites

I. Some useful books

  1. 1.Dictionaries

Any of the portable Classical Latin dictionaries (Chambers, Collins, Oxford etc) will cover the basics, and there is no particular reason for choosing one above another.

Of the big desk dictionaries, Lewis & Short, A Latin dictionary, is preferable to the Oxford Latin dictionary because it covers the early post-Classical vocabulary, which the Oxford excludes, stopping at 200 AD.

For medieval Latin, Revised Medieval Latin Word-List, ed. RE Latham, is usable and will more often than not provide a definition of a word that can’t be found in the Classical dictionaries. When Latham fails, try JF Niermeyer, Mediae Latinatis Lexicon Minus – definitions in English, French and German.

The British Academy Dictionary of medieval Latin from British sources will be a valuable resource when it’s finished – it is being published in fascicles, with the 13th instalment, reaching reg-, published in October 2010.

There is also du Cange, Glossarium mediae et infimae latinitatis. Begun in the 17th century, revised and reprinted in many volumes into the 19th. A last resort.

For the French used in medieval England, there is the Anglo-Norman Dictionary, ed. William Rothwell. Another big project published in instalments, the fascicles of the 2nd edition have reached E.

Also see, A. Tobler and E. Lommatzsch, Altfranzösiches Wörterbuch. Incredibly valuable, though current volumes only go as far as T. In German. For the Francophone among us, F. Godefroy, Dictionnaire de l’ancienne langue Française, 10 vols. (1880-1902).

  1. 2.Grammar and text-books

The standard Classical grammars are useful. Kennedy’s Revised Latin Primer is the standard work; dull, comprehensive, and authoritative for the Classical period. James Morwood, A Latin grammar (Oxford), is easier to use, but omits much of the more esoteric information found in Kennedy.

There are few text-books specifically about medieval Latin. The nearest thing I know to a beginner’s guide is Eileen A. Gooder, Latin for local history (2nd edition). It runs very rapidly from do, das, dat to the gerundive, with translation exercises from medieval documents, a short word-list and an introduction to palaeography.

A good overview of the main scripts and different writing techniques is M. Drogin, Medieval Calligraphy. Its History and Technique (Toronto, 1980). Drogin includes transcriptions of many plates, but does not expand any of the abbreviations (!) Good for practice.

Keith Sidwell, Reading medieval Latin, is less useful than it sounds. It is mainly a collection of annotated texts from the period 500-1200, with a short (12 pages) section on the differences between Classical and medieval grammar and orthography. Medieval Latin, ed KP Harrington, is another collection of sample texts.

FAC Mantello & AC Rigg, Medieval Latin: an introduction and bibliographical guide, has essays on philology and specialised areas of vocabulary, but is more concerned with literature than with historical sources.

For law French, there is J.H. Baker, Manual of Law French (2nd edition, 1990). Also, F.W. Maitland’s lengthy introduction to his edition of Year Books of Edward II, Vol. I, 1307-9 (Selden Society Vol. XVII, 1903) includes his lucid description of the problems of transcribing law French, and his conclusions about spelling, grammar and vocabulary.

  1. 3.Abbreviations

Charles Trice Martin, The record interpreter. Much reprinted 2nd edition of 1910 is invaluable. Several facsimile editions available, and crops up on eBay etc – contains a long list of Latin abbreviations and glossary of words found in medieval records which are not in Classical dictionaries.

A Cappelli, Lexicon abbreviaturarum, provides a greater selection of abbreviations, reproduced from manuscripts rather than typographically. Perhaps more difficult to use, and in Italian.

  1. II.Online

  2. 4.Texts

Some of the books above are available online:
Lewis & Short, Latin Dictionary
The Perseus word study tool looks up the inflected forms of Latin words found in Lewis and Short
The glossary from Martin’s Record Interpreter.
Cappelli’s abbreviations, scanned, with slow and awkward navigation in German.
The online version of the Anglo-Norman dictionary.

  1. 5.Courses

There are some relevant online courses:
Thélème. The École des chartes provides a lengthy bibliography and series of annotated documents as examples of how to read and edit charters etc. In French, obviously.
Medieval palaeography – a basic guide, and some examples, from Sussex charters, plus all sorts of additional information, on manorial surveys etc. Parts of the site seem a bit shaky. Originated at Leicester University, but looks as if it has been abandoned.
The National Archives offers several online tutorials, all accessed from this page. The courses in Latin and Latin palaeography are ingenious and naturally based on documents in the archives.