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Thursday, 31 January 2013
Home arrow Role of quotations arrow Period coverage arrow Medieval
Not surprisingly, given the resources available, this period was least well treated by the OED1 lexicographers: see our graphs in Initial results of quotation numbers 1150-1899 and 1150-1499. The first edition of Murray's Appeal (1879) reported that 'in the Early English period up to the invention of Printing so much has been done and is being done that little outside help is needed. But few of the earliest printed books - those of Caxton and his successors - have yet been read...'

Relatively few pre-1500 works were specified in the various extant lists of books and works to be read issued by the lexicographers (now preserved in the OED archives; see example in our Historical documents section), but many of them yielded a significantly high number of quotations: the comparative scarcity of works to quote from led to individual sources being disproportionately intensively mined. The most notable example is Cursor Mundi, a long (30,000-line) composition in verse expatiating on the history of the world, based on scriptural and other sources. Assigned a range of different dates, this work provides over 11,000 quotations for the published dictionary, and is the second most heavily quoted work after the Bible; its contents were assiduously copied to quotations slips by Professor H. R. Helwich of Vienna (see Top sources and The Periodical, February 1928, p. 7).

Other named authors and works in the printed and handwritten lists were also highly productive of quotations: Lydgate (nearly 5,000 quotations), Gower (nearly 4,000), Trevisa (over 6,000, of which nearly 3,000 are his translations of Higden), Mandeville and Ayenbite of Inwyt (nearly 2,500 each), Malory (over 1,500), and Wycliffe (over 10,000 - the figure is so large because it includes quotations from the Wycliffite Bible, which the use of Cruden's concordance had ensured was heavily quoted).

After Furnivall had set up the Early English Text Society in 1864 (see Brewer 1996: chapter 5), the lexicographers had increasing access to medieval works formerly available only in manuscript. Among the important editions produced under the aegis of this society were Cursor Mundi, as above, edited by Richard Morris (7 vols, 1874-93), and also Piers Plowman, edited by W. W. Skeat (5 vols, 1867-85). A distinguished and productive medievalist and philologist, Skeat was a long-term friend of Murray and involved with the Dictionary from its inception (Brewer 1996; K. M. E. Murray 1977). Piers Plowman alone yielded around 6,000 quotations. Both Skeat and Furnivall published landmark editions of Chaucer, one of the Dictionary's favourite sources (11,026 quotations); Chaucer's works do not appear in the Appeal lists, however, presumably because the editors were well supplied with quotations from their own editions and studies of this writer.

From early on, it was clear that OED1 could not do justice to either Old or Middle English. In 1919, W. A. Craigie, who had joined the Dictionary staff in 1897 and become third editor (with Murray and Bradley) in 1901, thought that
a complete dictionary of Middle English would be a work of marvellous richness and interest, not merely in respect of the language, but for the light it would throw upon the manners and customs of the time. Such a work can never be undertaken on practical grounds... (Craigie 1919: 7-8)
Craigie was an industrious and unusually productive lexicographer with a sure sense of what would and would not work in dictionary-making, but here he made a misjudgement.[1] The Middle English Dictionary project got underway in Michigan in the 1930s, and the lexicographers began their work with the aid of slips passed on to them by OED after Craigie and Onions's Supplement had been completed in 1933. The MED itself, after some ups and downs, was triumphantly completed in 2001 under the editorship of Robert Lewis.[2]

One of the extensive changes to OED now being undertaken by the current OED3 revisers is the incorporation of relevant material and findings from both the Toronto Old English Dictionary project and the Michigan Middle English Dictionary [both accessed 16 March 2006]. For the results between March 2000 and December 2005, go to Initial results: OED3 1150-1499.

[1] For more on Craigie, see Bailey 1985: 171-2 and the article on him in Oxford DNB written by A. J. Aitken (Aitken completed another of the dictionaries Craigie had identified the need for in 1919, the Dictionary of the Older Scottish Tongue, which Craigie himself worked on till he was 87).
[2] For a swift overview of the significance of the completion of the MED, see http://www.neh.gov/news/humanities/2001-11/laboroflove.html [accessed 16 April 2006]; for more detailed accounts see Adams 2002.
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