Home               Bio                   CV                   Bibliographies             Postdoc guide                  Links


A brief reference guide to Medieval Latin


Shami Ghosh, June 2010


This page is intended to provide a very brief overview of (printed) resources, especially dictionaries, intended for those who wish (or are forced) to read Medieval Latin. As a trained philologist-turned-historian who works with ten or more languages, I have a strong belief that a concern for words and meanings is an essential quality for any serious scholar whose primary sources are texts; this translates, in my case, into a (sometimes obsessive) search for the right dictionary. I must stress that each dictionary has its own strengths and weaknesses; it is imperative to be aware of them in order to get the most out of the dictionaries. Do not rely on just one; and do not let impatience get the better of you! This last remark is, in a sense, the key to any work with a language such as Latin: if you are patient and search (and think) long enough, you’ll figure it out – but give yourself the time, and make the effort to locate and use the right resources.


In order to make this page more user-friendly, I have not provided a list as such, but rather a small bibliographic essay, so that readers will have some idea of what the works I mention provide. All titles are in bold type so that those interested solely in bibliographic references may find them more easily. This guide is based partly on my own experience, and also relies very heavily on Mantello and Rigg’s introduction to Medieval Latin (see below); all those willing to pick up a fat book would be well advised to consult (and if in the Medieval Latin business for the long run, acquire) that tome immediately. I have confined myself largely to works published in English, but anyone wishing to engage seriously with the study of Medieval Latin will find that a knowledge of French and German is absolutely necessary.


You will also find a list of resources (including some not mentioned below), as well as links to some very useful pdf files offering a range of aids for grammar and vocabulary on Andrew Hicks’s website; he also provides, for those of you who find grammatical and linguistic terms intimidating, the guide prepared for CMS students by A. G. Rigg, and, elsewhere on his pages, tutorials and exercises that will be useful for brushing up your Medieval Latin skills. Further pedagogical aids can be found here.


Although Medieval Latin was in many ways different from Classical Latin, it remained, always, based on the latter, and reference tools for Medieval Latin normally cover only the divergences from classical usage; you will therefore also need a good reference grammar for Classical Latin. There are many of these; I have used Anne Mahoney (ed.), Allen and Greenough's New Latin Grammar (Newburyport, MA: Focus, 2001), generally referred to as Allen and Greenough; and Benjamin Hall Kennedy, The Revised Latin Primer, revised by James Mountford (London: Longman, 1962); both are comprehensive and will serve you well beyond the beginner stage. By no means should you restrict yourself to textbooks such as Wheelock; these rarely (if ever) provide a proper reference grammar, which is what you will need. Allen and Greenough is also available online at Perseus.


For an excellent overview of the peculiarities (and I use this word in all its connotations) of Medieval Latin, see F. A. C. Mantello and A. G. Rigg (eds), Medieval Latin. An Introduction and Bibliographical Guide (Washington, D.C.: Catholic University of America Press, 1996). This has chapters on a very wide range of varieties of Medieval Latin, from the language of canon law, through beast epic and fable to medicine and astrology (including a number of less predictable topics such as mills, animal husbandry and mining). The chapters are written by experts in the respective fields, and provide overviews of the idiosyncrasies of the language in each area of use, as well as a bibliographical guide. Section B (pp. 21-67) provides a bibliographical introduction to the myriad reference tools, including dictionaries and indices; section C provides an excellent and indispensable introduction to Medieval Latin philology, with subsections on orthography and pronunciation (CB); morphology and syntax (CC); vocabulary, word formation and lexicography (CD); metrics (CE); prose styles and cursus (CF); Latin and the vernaculars (CG); and humanistic Latin (CH). For those just beginning to read Medieval Latin, CA-CC are, I believe, essential: medieval writers and their scribes often had very strange orthography, and the rules of syntax (and grammar altogether) could be applied in rather different ways from what you might be used to from reading Cicero and Caesar. It’s especially important to read, re-read, and if possible memorise the most common orthographic variants introduced in the middle ages: a common problem for beginners is that words they need to look up are not in any dictionaries, but if you know the common substitutions that take place, you’ll be able to find most things. Be warned that you may find one author using one word in different spellings in the same work, even in the same sentence. Be warned also that authors and scribes were often not consistent even in their divergences from the classical norm; do not get lulled into a false sense of security, believing that you have figured out the pattern of how your text uses medievalisms, because it will shock you by being ‘correct’ when you least expect it. Also be warned that medieval scribes and authors were not always ignorant of what mistakes they and their peers commonly made, and often ‘corrected’ mistakes where there were none to correct. Thus the common substitution of classical ae by e is matched by the (also common) substitution of a correct e by a ‘corrected’ ae!


Another good (though less comprehensive) introduction to Medieval Latin orthography and grammar is provided by Alison Goddard Elliott, ‘A Brief Introduction to Medieval Latin Grammar’, in Medieval Latin, ed. by K. P. Harrington, 2nd edition revised by Joseph Pucci (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1997), pp. 1-51. If you read French, there is a recent and quite comprehensive guide: Pascale Bourgain, with Marie-Clotilde Hubert, Le Latin Médiéval, L'Atelier du Médiéviste, 10 (Turnhout: Brepols, 2005). Apart from a detailed historical introduction to the language, this book provides plenty of material on differing types of Latin in the middle ages, and an extensive, heavily annotated anthology of a very diverse body of texts. The notes and introductions to sections of the anthology are very useful even for purely linguistic purposes, and provide aids on how to interpret various aspects of style (verse and prose, and not solely literary); Bourgain, unlike Harrington, also covers documentary materials and their peculiarities.


Both the section on Latin philology in Mantello and Rigg, and Elliott, are excellent places to start as you begin to read Medieval Latin; in my view you really ought to consult at least one of them to give you some idea of what to expect, and aid you in figuring out what to look up in dictionaries and grammars. The following works provide more detailed linguistic guides to Medieval Latin: Albert Blaise, A Handbook of Christian Latin: Style, Morphology, and Syntax, trans. by G. C. Roti (Turnhout: Brepols, 1992) [originally Manuel du latin chrétien (1955)]; and Karl Strecker, Introduction to Medieval Latin, trans. by R. B. Palmer (Berlin: Weidmann, 1957) [originally Einführung in das Mittellatein (3rd edn 1939)]. These are probably not the best places to start for beginners, but will be useful as you delve deeper into the language. The caveat is that Medieval Latin is far more diverse in its usages than Classical Latin, and no single book can possibly cover anything more than a fraction of the intricacies of the language: you are best advised to consult works focussing on your chronological and/or geographical area of interest. You should also be aware of various specialised works on many fields of Latin, ample references to which are provided in Mantello and Rigg, and of studies on the particular author(s) or text(s) you are working on. There are quite a few linguistic studies (albeit not as many as one would wish) of many of the major medieval authors, and when in doubt about the interpretation of any text for which such a work exists, consult it (even if it’s a hundred years old – whatever their faults, the scholars of that generation tend to know their Latin), rather than relying solely on standard dictionaries and grammars. If no such study exists, read the introduction to your edition. This is something we all know we probably ought to do, but most often don’t. Introductions are not always useful, but good editions of texts in which the language is unusual or excessively difficult generally do contain at least a brief outline of the salient linguistic features of the text; and if the edition is good, the editor probably knows the language of the text better than anyone else.


The standard one-volume dictionary for Classical Latin is the OLD = P. W. G. Glare (ed.), Oxford Latin Dictionary (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1982). However, it is a strictly classical dictionary, not going beyond the 2nd century, and thus excluding most of the corpus of patristic Latin from its definitions. Medieval Latin was profoundly influenced by the Vulgate and by the Church fathers, so while the OLD is, of course, very useful, for medievalists, Lewis and Short is probably better: Charlton T. Lewis and Charles Short (eds), A New Latin Dictionary founded on the Translation of Freund's Latin-German Lexicon (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1879). This was originally a Latin-German dictionary, translated into English by Andrews, and revised by Lewis and Short; it’s been reprinted many times, and is still in print (later imprints omit the ‘new’ from the title, leaving simply ‘A Latin Dictionary’). Perhaps worse organised than the OLD, it is nevertheless useful for the medievalist because it includes in its compass Late Latin, thus incorporating many definitions based on patristic texts and the Vulgate. A new copy is very expensive, but I got mine second-hand for $70 (Canadian), including shipping, so keep an eye open on abebooks: this is an invaluable investment. If you’re not so lucky, get hold of Charlton T. Lewis (ed.), An Elementary Latin Dictionary (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1891). This is essentially an abridgement of Lewis and Short, and also still in print; it’s affordable and portable, and in my view it’s infinitely better than other portable dictionaries such as Collins or Cassell’s, even if Lewis’s definitions are less accessible for the modern reader. Be warned that the first definition is not by any means necessary or likely to be the most common one! Lewis and Short lists the etymological definition first, and thus the first definition is frequently the least common usage. But if you are patient and have reasonably good eyesight, you should find what you are looking for. Lewis and Short can be consulted online at Perseus.


Medieval Latin expands greatly, perhaps especially after about 600, and there is no single dictionary that can work for all of it. Lewis and Short, while useful for Late Latin, is not good enough even for that, and when dealing with later texts, especially with technical material (including theology, jurisprudence, charters, wills, etc.), you will need to work with what might come to be a bewildering variety of dictionaries. As you work your way into your subject, you’ll figure out what’s best for you; I provide, below, some useful places to start. A word of caution: all dictionaries for Medieval Latin that I know provide, primarily, the medieval meanings of the words they define. These meanings rarely, if ever, supersede completely the classical meanings. Moreover, many dictionaries of Medieval Latin do not even list words that are glossed adequately (for the purposes of medievalists) in the standard classical dictionaries (though which one is the standard varies depending on the language of the lexicographer of the dictionary you use!). Thus a similar situation obtains as with grammars: you will always need to use a classical dictionary in conjunction with one based on medieval texts. In addition to the dictionaries listed below, many repositories of sources (such as the MGH series of diplomata; the MGH volumes may be viewed and searched online at www.dmgh.de) contain glosses for their texts; these might not always be entirely accurate or up-to-date, but in many cases they have the merit of being written by real experts whose knowledge of the texts and command of Latin was often quite exceptional, and should always be consulted: do not scorn older scholarship when working with languages! A further caveat: be very attentive to the context (period, place, and use) of the text you are reading, and the context of the definition in the dictionary you use. This is, of course, not always possible with all dictionaries; but words change or take on new meanings, sometimes drastically different from what you will find in the first dictionary you consult, or under the first definition of the word. A definition valid for Late Latin, based on a text from Egypt, might not be equally valid for the Carolingian kingdom east of the Rhine; similarly, a word used in a treatise on secular law might not mean the same thing in a strictly theological tract. This is a real pain, I know, but sensitivity to this issue can save you from major howlers (the fact that established and well-reputed scholars are not immune to such howlers should not encourage you to be lazy).


The standard dictionary of Medieval Latin (insofar as there can be a standard) is J. F. Niermeyer and C. van de Kieft (eds), Mediae Latinatis lexicon minus, revised edition by J. W. J Burgers, 2 vols (Leiden: Brill, 2002); this should generally be your first port of call for anything not satisfactorily explained in Lewis and Short (and Niermeyer sometimes provides better definitions, for medievalists, even of words apparently satisfactorily explained in Lewis and Short). This is based on Niermeyer’s reading of a wide variety of texts related to legal and economic history, and is thus an excellent dictionary for an historian; it has been expanded in the revised edition by the inclusion of a larger range of literary, theological and philosophical texts. The definitions are in French, English, and German. Its chronological range is roughly from 500 to 1200. Niermeyer is very useful especially because it provides examples, and some times a large number of them, in almost every definition; the editors also take pains to try and list the first attested use of a word in any particular sense (though this should be used only as a rough guide for dates of particular usages, not as absolute fact). Though it costs approximately $500 (Canadian), second-hand and remaindered copies can sometimes be found for half that price or less, and this is definitely a worthwhile investment for a dedicated medievalist. Another useful dictionary covering the period between around 600 and around 1500 is Albert Blaise, Lexicon Latinatis medii aevi praesertim ad res ecclesiasticas pertinens (Turnhout: Brepols, 1975). Unlike Niermeyer, this is, as the title indicates, less relevant if you’re working on economic or social history, but is useful for literary works, theology and philosophy. Blaise’s definitions are in French; he also provides far less extensive citations than Niermeyer, but his dictionary is considerably cheaper (though still expensive). The most comprehensive dictionary for Medieval and Humanist Latin is Charles du Fresne, sieur du Cange, Glossarium mediæ et infimæ Latinatis (known to friends and enemies alike as Du Cange), originally published in the seventeenth century and not seriously updated since. The definitions are in Latin; it is in ten volumes and unwieldy. But when you are working on obscure topics, dealing with wills and charters that list household articles or agricultural tools, you will often find Du Cange is very helpful. It’s also useful because it lists a lot of vocabulary that is in the grey area between vernacular Romance and Latin. Du Cange is available online (in scanned image files) here and here, and as a fully searchable tool (with a French interface) here.


For the much smaller chronological scope of Late Latin, the standard works are Albert Blaise (ed.), Dictionnaire latin-français des auteurs chrétiens, revu specialement pour le vocabulaire theéologique par Henri Chirat (Strasbourg, 1954; current imprint: Turnhout: Brepols, 1967); and Alexander Souter (ed.), A Glossary of Later Latin to 600. A.D. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1949); the latter provides brief definitions only, no examples. Another dictionary, handy because of its portability, is E. Habel and F. Gröbel, Mittellateinisches Glossar, 2nd edn (Paderborn: F. Schöningh, 1989). Also useful for Ecclesiastical Latin is Albert Sleumer and Josef Schmidt, Kirchenlateinisches Wörterbuch, 2nd edn (Limburg a. d. Lahn: Steffen, 1926; current imprint: Hildesheim: G. Olms, 1996).


In addition to these, there are various national dictionaries of Medieval Latin, few of which are complete (and some of which will probably, alas, never be completed); these cover European regions that are defined according to the medieval vernaculars. A list is provided in Mantello and Rigg, pp. 104-5. A ‘very selective’ but nevertheless fairly large list of specialised lexica is provided in Mantello and Rigg, pp. 34-6; this includes such fascinating titles as ‘The Latin Vocabulary of Illicit Sex’; Die lateinischen Schimpfwörter; Juristenlatein; Parish Register Latin; Index de la pharmacopée latine; and the Glossarium eroticum linguae latinae. Apart from the Journal of Medieval Latin and the Mittellateinisches Jahrbuch, both of which do publish articles relevant to Medieval Latin lexicography (although they tend to concentrate on other issues), the Archivum Latinatis Medii Aevi (also known as Bulletin Du Cange) publishes quite a number of contributions to the subject. For my own field of German social history, Eduard Brinckmeier, Glossarium diplomaticum (Aalen: Scientia, 1967 [originally Gotha, 1856-63]) is a useful reference tool for charters, inscriptions, account books, etc; although it is based on sources from the central and later middle ages and therefore focuses on the vernacular, many Latin terms are also given, and examples from the primary sources are provided. Most visitors to this website will probably be working on medieval England or Britain, for which there is R. E. Latham, Revised Medieval Latin Word-List from British and Irish Sources (London: British Academy, 1965). This functions well as a supplement to Lewis and Short for the British Isles, and provides dates and very brief definitions. A glossary (into German) of early medieval legal Latin is available here.

Brepols maintains a Database of Latin Dictionaries that includes Lewis and Short, Du Cange, and a number of others; if your institution subscribes, you should be able to access this on campus or by using your password for online resources—ask a librarian if you’re not sure.


You will most probably (and quite understandably) not want to immerse yourself too deeply in the messy and squiggly world of palaeography and diplomatics, but it’s quite likely that you’ll need to know something about these subjects at some point in time during your career; and while a knowledge of the auxiliary disciplines of medieval studies does not necessarily aid you in understanding Medieval Latin (although it may do so as well), it does often help you figure out why Medieval Latin is the way it is. The chapters on ‘Ecclesiastical and University Administration’ (DC; pp. 183-94); ‘Secular Administration’ (DD; pp. 195-229); and ‘Charters, Deeds, and Diplomatics’ (DE; pp. 230-40) in Mantello and Rigg provide introductory orientations to the idiosyncrasies of the language of medieval officialdom. Leonard E. Boyle, ‘Diplomatics, in Medieval Studies. An Introduction, 2nd edn, ed. by James M. Powell (Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 1992), pp. 82-113, provides a very useful introduction to the subject, though less focussed on its linguistic aspects. The authoritative handbook is Harry Bresslau, Handbuch der Urkundenlehre für Deutschland und Italien, 2 vols (Leipzig: Veit, 1912; and Berlin: de Gruyter, 1931); a good, more recent (if less comprehensive) work is Olivier Guyotjeannin, Jacques Pycke and Benoît-Michel Tock, Diplomatique médiévale, 3rd edn, L'Atelier du Médiéviste, 2 (Turnhout: Brepols, 2006). There is nothing comparable in English.


James J. John, ‘Latin Palaeography’, in Medieval Studies. An Introduction, 2nd edn, ed. by James M. Powell (Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 1992), pp. 3-81, provides a brisk and very accessible introduction to the subject. The standard handbook for Latin palaeography is Bernhard Bischoff, Latin Palaeography: Antiquity and the Middle Ages, trans. by Dáibhí ó Cróinin and David Ganz (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989) [originally Paläographie des römischen Altertums und des abendländischen Mittelalters, 1986], an invaluable reference tool for anything related to manuscripts and scripts. Although it is extremely dense, and Bischoff appears to have expected his reader to have the same sort of access to microfilms, facsimiles, and manuscripts as he himself did, it’s definitely worth consulting; and you will almost certainly need to know something about the topics it covers at some point. An excellent reference work for palaeography (and to some extent diplomatics and codicology) is Leonard E. Boyle, Medieval Latin Palaeography. A Bibliographical Introduction, Toronto Medieval Bibliographies, 8 (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1984); a not very heavily annotated bibliography, it lists scholarship as well as standard reference works such as the various catalogues of medieval and modern libraries.


Even if not particularly interested in editing texts, it is actually useful to know something about the process by which the editions we read are produced. Richard J. Tarrant, ‘Classical Latin literature’, in Scholarly Editing: A Guide to Research, ed. by D. C. Greetham (New York: Modern Language Association of America, 1995), pp. 95-148, provides a good introduction to the subject, and with a few fairly obvious caveats, the theory is for the most part as valid (or invalid) for the bulk of the corpus of Medieval Latin texts as it is for Classical Latin. A good, clear handbook in English is Martin L. West, Textual Criticism and Editorial Technique Applicable to Greek and Latin Texts (Stuttgart: Teubner, 1973). Sometimes, awareness of how editions are produced and an eye on the apparatus can alert you to orthographic and other linguistic idiosyncrasies of your text(s) and/or manuscript(s); these can occasionally be very revealing.


By now, having learnt about the language, the scripts, and also the editorial process by which they reach you, you might want to know something about the history of Medieval Latin literature. For this vast subject, the best place to start is, once again, Mantello and Rigg; chapter GA provides an overview and introductory bibliography, and the following chapters provide introductions and bibliographical aids to the various genres (including what we might no longer consider ‘literary’ genres, such as historiography). There is no good, modern, and English introduction to the whole of Medieval Latin that I know of; but the bibliography at pp. 531-3 for chapter GA in Mantello and Rigg lists the standard histories for the specific regions, and some of the works for different genres. Strecker provides basic orientation in the form of a guide to texts, studies and editions; his references for the latter may be outdated by now, but many of the older studies, especially on some of the less-famous authors, remain standard (for example, Bonnet’s study of the language of Gregory of Tours). Harrington is a useful anthology of Medieval Latin texts at various levels of difficulty, with introductory essays that provide you with a fair amount of the literary-historical context and guides to further reading, and linguistic notes that are often good aids to understanding – but be warned that the explanations of linguistic peculiarities are not always the best. The texts in Harrington are not arranged with any sort of real coherence in mind, but are good representative samples of the different periods and milieus of Medieval Latin, and his introductory notes provide competent if brief overviews of the periods and authors. Bourgain provides a more comprehensive history than does Harrington, and with a broader range of texts as illustrations; hers is a rare anthology that includes plenty of documentary material. Her texts are also chosen to illustrate not just different periods, but also markedly different styles of writing, and her anthology is a better place to start for a history of Latin style in the middle ages than is Harrington (of course, you would need to be comfortable reading French). She also provides far more of a linguistic history than do other anthologies, without neglecting literary history. Keith C. Sidwell, Reading Medieval Latin (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995), is another good (albeit expensive) anthology going up to the early thirteenth century, with useful linguistic and historical notes, and extensive vocabulary and grammar aids for each of the texts. Unlike Harrington, Sidwell provides texts with thematic coherence in mind; thus in each section arranged according to period, texts are arranged according to particular topics (e.g. the Norman conquest; scholastic philosophy; courtly literature). His introductory notes are good, and provide not just an introduction to the period, but to the individual topics he’s selected; and his texts are chosen to provide a coherent representative introduction to the primary sources for each topic. Thus, for example, those wishing to deal with the eleventh and twelfth century will find a selection from the most important texts on the crusades, the investiture conflict, the Norman conquest, and new developments in theology and philosophy (among other topics), along with concise but useful overviews of the issues involved; in each case, the texts and excerpts are put together to make some sort of sense in terms of content and relation to the larger issues, not just as examples of Latin. Sidwell also provides a brief glossary of specifically medieval vocabulary at the end of the book. Bourgain, Harrington and Sidwell not only provide brief histories of the literature (interpreted broadly, including philosophy and historiography, and in the case of Bourgain, administrative and legal texts); they are also good places to go to read Latin on your own, but with some guidance, while getting a flavour of the many shades and varieties of Medieval Latin. All have some bibliographic aids to get you further; Bourgain is most comprehensive in this regard, followed by Harrington, who takes care to cite any specifically linguistic studies of his authors that exist.