British Library purchases the Catholicon Anglicum

The British Library has paid £92,500 in order to keep a 500-year old dictionary from leaving the United Kingdom. They announced earlier this week that they had completed the purchase of the Catholicon Anglicum, a 15th-century English-Latin dictionary.

The Catholicon Anglicum, a bilingual Middle English-Latin dictionary dating from 1483, represents a crucial milestone in the evolution of the English dictionary, and this is the only complete manuscript in existence. One of the earliest examples of an English dictionary, it is thought to have been written in the north of England, specifically Yorkshire, based on the dialect of the English words. Produced in a century which saw the foundation of many grammar schools, there is much to be learnt from further study of the manuscript in terms of its educational function. Its emphasis on the Latin equivalents made the Catholicon not simply a dictionary of English, but a tool to assist the growing number of school students with Latin composition.

The work was earlier sold at auction to oversees buyer, but the British government placed an export bar on the dictionary, in order to evaluate it and see if the medieval text could be kept in the United Kingdom.

The book itself is made up of 191 leaves and is in good condition. There is an inscription that it was owned by Thomas Flower in 1520, described as ‘Succentor’ (sub-chanter) of Lincoln Cathedral. He is probably the same Thomas Flower who was elected a Fellow of Lincoln College, Oxford, the previous year.’

The report by the British Arts Council on the Catholicon Anglicum explains:

The text, written in a single column, consists of about 8,000 Middle English words in alphabetical order written in red ink, followed by Latin (and occasionally Greek) equivalents in brown ink. Nouns are mostly preceded by either the definite or indefinite article; verbs are in the infinitive (preceded by ‘to’). These preceding particles are given in lower case, so that the capital letter is reserved for the headword itself.

The Catholicon includes a number of innovative features to assist the medieval student. It supplies as many Latin synonyms as possible for each English headword, but carefully distinguishes between shades of meaning amongst the Latin words. The discrimination of meaning is frequently given in the form of mnemonic verses, some of them designed to illustrate the syntactical use of the word concerned. Components of word formation are sometimes listed after the Latin equivalents. Morphological relations, including antonyms, are listed together (‘unClene’ after ‘Clene’). And a system of cross-references, signalled by the word ‘ubi’, is used to direct the reader to semantically related entries.

The British Library also announced they had paid £116,500 for a 16th century printed manuscript that documents an argument between two bishops over the right of priests to marry. Dr Scot McKendrick, Head of History and Classics at the British Library, commented, “I am extremely pleased that the British Library has secured for the nation these two invaluable and unique witnesses to our history. We are committed to making them widely accessible online and to researchers in our Manuscripts Reading Room, and we anticipate that study of these books will contribute enormously to our knowledge of their respective periods and subjects.”

The British Library plans to have the Catholicon Anglicum included on its Digitised Manuscripts website later this year. For more information on this work, please see The Catholicon Anglicum (1483): A Reconsideration by Gabriele Stein.


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