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MEDIEVAL AND
EARLY MODERN LATIN

 

Developed and edited by Dr David Rundle (University of Kent), with contributions from 

Dr Andrew Dunning (Bodleian Library).

Latin remained the premier language of written -- and, often, spoken -- communication in western Europe through the Middle Ages and long into the early modern period. That simple fact, however, hides the diversity which characterised the language across more than a millennium. Medieval Latin was various across time and space, even though the fundamental vocabulary and grammar stem from ancient usage. So-called neo-Latin attempted in the early modern period to return the language to what was perceived as classical 'purity' but, in the process, it provided its own coinages, and it could not cleanse all uses of 'medievalisms'.

 
Latin Dictionaries​

Some of the standard dictionaries of classical Latin confine themselves to ancient usage (so Oxford Latin Dictionary excludes anything post-200AD) but others do cover late antique and ecclesiastical Latin. Of these, that known as Lewis and Short is both fundamental and easily accessed online, being available in several formats including on Logeion (the best free site for Latin -- and Greek -- bringing together several classical dictionaries, and run by the Perseus Project of the University of Chicago). For an overview of available hard-copy dictionaries, see the useful brief reference guide provided by Shami Ghosh of the University of Toronto. There are also some dictionaries freely available online:

 

The classic for medieval Latin is Charles du Cange's Glossarium mediæ et infimæ latinitatis. It is available in searchable format in its nineteenth-century edition as a stand-alone resource and also via Logeion. Reproductions of the pages of the original edition can be found on the Camena site (see below).

There is a project to replace du Cange, the Novum Glossarium Mediae Latinitatis, of which the fascicles covering L-Na are freely available online. Its chronological range, however, is confined to 800-1200AD. More complete is Niermeyer's Mediae Latinitatis Lexicon Minus and, while the searchable version sits behind a paywall, a digitisation of the printed text is available for all to see. Albert Blaise's Lexicon Latinitatis Medii Aevi (Turnhuot, 1975),which is primarily concerned with ecclesiastical Latin, is similarly available, though the digital images can be difficult to read.

In the mid-twentieth century, several countries established their own project to develop a dictionary of medieval Latin confined to material from a defined geographical area.

 

Of these, that covering Britain, the Dictionary of Medieval Latin from British Sources (Oxford, 1975-2013; abbreviated to DMLBS) is complete and can be searched by headword through Logeion (note that it lists verbs by the present active infinitive not the first principal part, as Lewis and Short does -- and if those terms confuse you, go to the first tip in Learning Medieval Latin below!).

The equivalent of DMLBS for the German-speaking lands, the Mittellateinische Wörterbuch (MLW) is still in production. Four volumes (covering A-H) have been published and made available online as pdfs (note that they take some time to download).

For Latin terms first coined in the early modern period, see Johannes Ramminger's Neulateinische Wortliste (in German).

A more basic dictionary is provided by Whitaker’s Words which has the advantage of allowing translations of words from English into Latin as well as the more usual vice versa. Lewis and Short can also be searched by English terms using the Numen Latin Lexicon.

A useful bibliography of Latin dictionaries and grammar books online, though it concentrates on those concerned with classical Latin, is on the Lexicity site.

 

Learning Medieval Latin

If you are starting to learn Latin in order to work with medieval sources, you most likely will want to have a textbook. Most introduce classical Latin, but one is available in print which is explicitly designed for work with later Latin: it is the one used by MEMS at Kent (though not without reservations) and is J. F. Collins, Primer of Ecclesiastical Latin (Washington DC, 1985 [reprinted 1988]). Whatever textbook you use, however, will not be sufficient on its own, and it is worth remembering these three tips:

  1. If you are learning a foreign language for the first time, you will, in effect, be learning two vocabularies: before you master the grammar of the language, you need to understand the language of grammar itself. For this, one of the leading scholars, A. G. Rigg, provided a guide which is available online.

  2. You will want to supplement any textbook with other resources, and this might include an online tutorial like that provided by The National Archives.

  3. If you know some classical Latin (or even if you do not), understanding the grammatical peculiarities of medieval Latin will help. While these are outlined in, for instance, Keith Sidwell's Reading Medieval Latin (Cambridge, 1995), there is also a helpful guide online provided by Andrew Hicks (Toronto).

You might also find helpful the advice and reviews of recent textbooks provided on the Learn Church Latin website.

Some older textbooks are now digitised and freely available, like H. P. V. Nunn, An introduction to ecclesiastical Latin (Cambridge, 1922) -- note that this is not intended for complete beginners (for whom the author recommended B. L. D'Ooge, Latin for Beginners (Boston, MA, 1909), a work focussed on classical Latin).

Texts

There is an ever-expanding range of medieval and early modern Latin texts available online and no attempt is made here to be comprehensive. Many of them are cited on the specialised resources pages elsewhere on this MEMSLib website. What follows is intended to be a short introductory guide.

The starting point for texts without commentary or editorial interventions is The Latin Library, with the sections entitled Christian (from Church Fathers to Thomas à Kempis), Medieval (from the Donation of Constantine to Henry VII of England)  and Neo-Latin (from fifteenth-century humanists to the twentieth century) all having useful materials.

A similar site, sub-divided into Roman, medieval and 'new' Latin is the relevant section of Intratext; this has the advantage of recording the number of instances of a word within a text.

For neo-Latin, The Philological Museum is indispensable: this is Dana Suttons' collection of high-quality scholarly editions and translations of Latin texts produced in the early modern period.

 

A different approach is provided by the CAMENA project, led by Prof. Dr. Wilhelm Kühlmann (Heidelberg) in conjunction with the University of Mannheim. This reproduces pages from the printed editions of neo-Latin works from the fifteenth to the eighteenth century.

A partial index to the resources listed above is available thanks to the Corpus scriptorum latinorum. This can be supplemented by Prof. Sutton's important bibliography of online neo-Latin texts.

Specialist Vocabularies

For Latin place names, the most comprehensive directory is Orbis Latinus. If you are interested specifically in places of printing there is the RMBS/BSC database, or you can search the CERL Thesaurus (confining the search to place).

The RMBS/BSC database also has a useful glossary of Latin terms (other than place names) found in imprints in early printed books.

 

If you are interested in the language of rhetoric, the Silva Rhetoricae site, developed by  Dr. Gideon Burton of Brigham Young University, gives dictionary of terms, which is necessarily dominated by Latin, all with English explanations. (Note that it states that it was being updated in 2016).

For musical terminology, see the Lexicon musicum Latinum medii aevi.

For the Latin names of animals with relevant short texts, see the Bestiaria Latina site.

Other Resources

The DMLBS site includes a helpful introduction to the status and history of British medieval Latin.

For an introductory bibliography to Medieval Latin (concentrating on German scholarship), visit the relevant pages of the University of Zurich's Ad Fontes project. These include a pdf of an article by the late Peter Stotz on Latin in the Middle Ages.

If you want to practise your Latin by reading modern-day articles, you could do worse than starting with Vicipaedia (and, note, these entries are often not simply translations from Wikipedia in another language).

It is highly likely that if you are working with medieval Latin texts, you will be working with manuscripts with the particular delights and difficulties they can present. For help with those, do visit the MEMSLib Manuscript Studies page.

 
 
 
 

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Resource page updated by David Rundle - last updated 06/01/21