Latin in Medieval Britain

by Richard K. Ashdowne (University of Oxford; Honorary Membership Secretary, PhilSoc)

Of the many languages in use in Britain in the middle ages, Latin is arguably the best attested and yet most overlooked. Not the native language of any of its users and employed especially—though certainly not exclusively—in written functions, Latin has tended to be the elephant in the room despite its indisputable importance for its users and their societies.

After the departure of the Roman legions from Britain, Latin’s continued use was by no means assured, but there is a continuous train of use down to the time of the Tudors and beyond. Over more than a thousand years British medieval Latin was employed for all manner of functions from accountancy to zoology.

In this new collection of papers, arising from the conference held to celebrate the completion in print of the Dictionary of Medieval Latin from British Sources, the place of Latin in medieval Britain is examined from a variety of historical, cultural and linguistic perspectives and in relation to some of its many different contexts.

In the first part, David Howlett, Neil Wright, Wendy Childs and Robert Swanson look successively at the start of the Anglo-Latin tradition, the twelfth-century renaissance, the use of Latin in historiography and record-keeping in the fourteenth century, and the continued use of Latin in the medieval tradition into the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. The vitality of the language over the ages and its users’ constant reinvention of its role emerge as central themes.

In the second part, attention is directed to particular fields, namely law (Paul Brand), musical theory (Leofranc Holford-Strevens), the church (Carolinne White) and science (Charles Burnett), as examples of how the Latin language was used and adapted to its roles. That it was being employed in historical, social, cultural and linguistic settings quite different from its ancient ancestor had important consequences. It meant that, for instance, Latin was frequently in need of new terminology for the contemporary world, especially in some of these more technical areas. Borrowing, calquing and native word-formation processes were all ways of meeting this need, reflecting the inherent contact between Latin and its users’ native vernacular languages.

In the third and final part, these linguistic contacts become the central focus in chapters examining the relationship between Welsh and Latin (Paul Russell), the relationship between Latin and English (Richard Sharpe), the development of a mixed-language code (Laura Wright), the relationship of Germanic, Anglo-Norman French and Latin (David Trotter), and the relationship between English and Latin (Philip Durkin and Samantha Schad). The final chapter, by David Howlett, ties in with some of the lexicographical questions raised by Sharpe, Trotter, and Durkin and Schad, and looks back at the process of preparing the Dictionary of Medieval Latin from British Sources.

Latin in Medieval Britain is edited by Richard Ashdowne and Carolinne White and  published by the British Academy in association with OUP. Many of the contributors are members of the Society and current or former members of Council.


Further information, including abstracts of all the chapters, can be found on the DMLBS blog and the book can be obtained directly from OUP and all good booksellers.

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