Latin in Medieval Britain: Part II

Part II of Latin in Medieval Britain examines aspects of the use of Latin in Britain in different contexts and genres. Here are the abstracts of the four chapters in this part.

6. The Latin of the Early English Common Law

Paul Brand

A distinctive feature of the English royal courts created in the last quarter of the twelfth century was that they kept a full record of their business in Latin and the clerks who did this developed a distinctive vocabulary to translate the Anglo-Norman French they heard in court. This paper looks at some of that lexical store: the development of specific terms for litigants and their representatives and justices; for the writs for initiating litigation and to secure the appearance of opponents; for the plaintiff’s claim or complaint and the defendant’s defence; for the modes of proof and judgment. The paper concludes with a more detailed examination of the specific terminology of a single action (of replevin) which allowed someone whose property had been taken in distraint to challenge the justice of that distraint.

keywords: early English Common Law, medieval Latin lexicography, judges, legal profession, litigation, unjust distraint

7. English Music Theory in Medieval Latin

Leofranc Holford-Strevens

Medieval English music theory, almost always expressed in Latin, though not isolated from Continental—in particular French—developments, has a strong tendency to resist them and go its own way in both language and content; moreover, despite the early establishment of the name proprius cantus (‘properchant’) for the natural hexachord, it is more characteristically marked by divergence from one writer to another, so that even when doctrines are compatible the same thing may be called by different names and the same name may be applied to different things. This chapter studies the variations in conception, notation, and terminology exhibited in the works of numerous English authors from the 13th to the 16th centuries, noting differences from the far more standardised French Ars nova associated with the names of Philippe de Vitry and Jean des Murs.

key words: Ars nova, Jean des Murs, music theory, notation, Philippe de Vitry, proprius cantus

8. Latin in Ecclesiastical Contexts

Carolinne White

The murder of Thomas Becket in 1170 and its aftermath provide the starting point for a brief survey of various genres of Latin writing associated with the church and its administration in Britain over subsequent centuries. These genres include letters, biographical works, chronicles, miracle accounts, sermons, verse, charters, wills, accounts, registers, customaries and liturgy. These serve to demonstrate many varieties of style and developments in vocabulary and syntax, including examples where Latin was affected by contact with the vernaculars. They not only provide insights into life on different social levels, both within and outside the church, but also provide evidence that church Latin was able to adapt to new developments while working within a rich tradition.

keywords: Thomas Becket, church, letters, chronicles, biography, miracles, wills, charters, accounts, customaries, spoken Latin

9. The Introduction of Arabic Words in Medieval British Latin Scientific Writings

Charles Burnett

Latin was the key language for scientific discourse in writing in medieval Britain. It frequently had need of new terminology to capture new developments within the various fields. Arabic sources were important in the period for both ideas and terminology. This article discusses the stages by which Arabic words were assimilated into Latin, from being strange foreign words to becoming familiar Latin terms, and addresses the question of at what stage they should be included in a Latin dictionary.

keywords: Arabic, Latin, British Latin, transliteration, calque, lexicography

Read about the chapters in Part I here and the chapters in Part III here.


Latin in Medieval Britain: Part I

Part I of Latin in Medieval Britain examines aspects of the changing status and use of Latin in Britain from the sixth to the sixteenth centuries. Here are the abstracts of the four chapters in this part.

2. The Start of the Anglo-Latin Tradition
David Howlett
The chapter surveys the beginning of Insular Latinity, the Anglo-Latin tradition in the context of earlier Cambro- and Hiberno-Latin traditions, the distinctive approach to Latin among Insular peoples who spoke non-Romance vernacular languages, drastic changes with the arrival of Francophones at the Norman Conquest, and the relations between these Latin traditions and the emergence of the earliest and richest vernacular literatures, in Welsh, Irish, English, Norse, and French.
keywords: Anglo-Latin, Gildas, glossaries, Cambro-Latin, Hiberno-Latin

3. The Twelfth-Century Renaissance in Anglo-Norman England: William of Malmesbury and Joseph of Exeter
Neil Wright
How did the ‘Twelfth-Century Renaissance’ impact on Anglo-Norman authors? This chapter explores the responses of two highly accomplished writers, William of Malmesbury and Joseph of Exeter, to the literary tradition in which they worked: by alluding to and skilfully modifying Classical (particularly post-Augustan) and late-Antique models, they masterfully played on their readers’ recognition and expectations of familiar conventions of historiography, hagiography, and poetics so as to innovate and entertain, and in this way created something distinctive and fresh for their contemporary audience.
key words: epic, hagiography, historiography, intertextuality, satire

4. From Chronicles to Customs Accounts: the Uses of Latin in the Long Fourteenth Century
Wendy R. Childs
The fourteenth century continued to see a predominantly trilingual society in England, with a number of vernaculars used alongside English, French and Latin. Latin was the most widely written language and its use in the church, scholarship and administration provides an immense range of Latin sources for the medievalist, from the highly literary to the practical. This chapter focuses on chronicles and customs accounts. The chroniclers consciously used classical styles, vocabulary and quotations, while nonetheless incorporating the changes inevitably occurring in a living language. The customs collectors used plain, often formulaic Latin and introduced vernaculars, but always within an accurate Latin matrix. Together they illustrate the range of content, style, and vocabulary found in fourteenth-century Latin sources.
keywords: chronicles, customs accounts, Latin, shipping, vernaculars

5. Elephans in camera: Latin and Latinity in 15th- and Early-16th-Century England
Robert Swanson
The fifteenth and sixteenth centuries are often depicted as the death throes of Latin in England, supplanted by ‘The Rise of English’. Arguing that more English did not necessarily mean less Latin, this chapter assesses the role of Latin in England from c.1400 to c.1540, and suggests that in terms of overall cultural history, use, and the accumulated inheritance from the past, this may have been when England was at its most latinate of all. Considering the use of Latin as a spectrum of skills – reading, writing, speaking, and listening – and across a range of abilities, it offers a positive appreciation of late medieval Latin as a vital force in a multilingual society.
keywords: archives, code-switching, education, humanists, indulgences, orality, print, reading, sermons, speaking, vernacular, writing

Read the abstracts for Part II here and the abstracts for Part III here.

Latin in Medieval Britain

9780197266083We are pleased to announce that Latin in Medieval Britain, edited by Richard Ashdowne and Carolinne White, will be published by the British Academy in April 2017. This volume follows from the conference under the same title held in 2013 to celebrate the completion of the Dictionary.

Latin continued to be used across Europe long after the end of the Roman Empire. This collection considers key issues arising from the use of Latin in Britain from the 6th to the 16th centuries. Latin in this period was not the native language of its users but was nevertheless used extensively for a wide variety of functions from religion, literature, and philosophy to record-keeping and correspondence. It existed alongside a number of everyday native spoken languages, including English, French, and Welsh. The chapters in this collection consider Latin with regard to the various contexts in which it was used, looking beyond narrow comparisons with its Roman ancestor to see what medieval users did with Latin and the changing effects this had on the language.

The fifteen chapters by expert contributors are divided into three parts. The chapters of the first part consider important examples of Latin usage in Britain during four successive periods, the pre-Conquest period, the 12th century, the long 14th century, and the 15th and 16th centuries. In the second part, different spheres of use are considered, including the law, the church, music, and science. In the final part the use of Latin is considered alongside the many spoken native languages of medieval Britain, looking at how the languages had different roles and how they influenced each other. In all the many contexts in which Latin was used, this use reveals continuity matched with adaptation to circumstance, not least in the development of new vocabulary for the language. Between these two poles, users of Latin steered a course that suited their own needs and those of their intended audience.

The contributors are:

Richard Ashdowne, Former Editor, Dictionary of Medieval Latin from British Sources
Paul Brand FBA, Emeritus, All Souls College, University of Oxford
Charles Burnett FBA, Warburg Institute, University of London
Wendy Childs, Emeritus, University of Leeds
Philip Durkin, Deputy Chief Editor, Oxford English Dictionary
Leofranc Holford-Strevens, former Consultant Scholar-Editor, Oxford University Press
David Howlett, Former Editor, Dictionary of Medieval Latin from British Sources
Paul Russell, University of Cambridge
Samantha Schad, Oxford English Dictionary
Richard Sharpe FBA, Wadham College, University of Oxford
Robert Swanson, University of Birmingham
David Trotter, Aberystwyth University
Carolinne White, former Assistant Editor, Dictionary of Medieval Latin from British Sources
Laura Wright, University of Cambridge
Neil Wright, Girton College, University of Cambridge

The book can be ordered directly from OUP or from all good booksellers. It will also be available on British Academy Scholarship Online later this year.

We will be publishing the abstracts of the chapters on this blog over the coming weeks (Part I, Part II, Part III).


We offer our warm congratulations to Dr Leofranc Holford-Strevens, long-time member of the DMLBS committee and reader of our draft dictionary material, on being awarded the President’s Medal of the British Academy for ‘his significant work copy-editing hundreds of publications across a broad range of languages and disciplines’. His contribution to the DMLBS project over many years has been immense, and we are delighted that his lifetime of service in humanities scholarship, of which his association with the DMLBS has been just a part, should be recognized in this prestigious award.

DMLBS online on Logeion

The project is delighted to announce that the text of the DMLBS has been made available under licence to the Logeion project hosted by the University of Chicago and is now accessible via the Logeion interface at

The Logeion interface, which does not require a subscription of any kind, allows searching of all its many dictionaries by headword. (More advanced forms of searching across the DMLBS text are available via the subscription-based platform.)

We very much hope that this new way of accessing the dictionary will be appreciated by medieval scholars across the world. We would, of course, encourage users nevertheless to buy a copy of the printed dictionary as well!

Like the online version of the DMLBS, the text has been provided to Logeion under licence from the British Academy and the DMLBS project is unable to offer technical or other assistance with these resources.

The DMLBS project would like to extend its thanks to Logeion and especially Helma Dik for making this interface to our dictionary available.