The unusual and obscure: the Latin lexicon of Anglo-Saxon England

  Picture by Canterbury Cathedral Archives.

In the tenth century, Latin authors in Britain had a habit of using particularly unusual and obscure vocabulary in their texts. Some of these words were derived from Greek, some were just a bit unusual, while others were seemingly entirely made-up. This phenomenon has long been recognised by scholars, yet to date the range of vocabulary used by these authors has not been subject to a comprehensive, systematic analysis. What new connections might this evidence reveal? And what does it tell us about the mentalities and social environments of people writing in Latin?

The Latin Lexicon of Anglo-Saxon England, 871–1016: Networks, Contexts and Uses is a project led by Dr Robert Gallagher, Lecturer in Medieval History, funded by a three-year Leverhulme Trust Early Career Fellowship. The project focuses primarily on those regions and communities that fell within the bounds of ‘England’, a political entity that was only beginning to emerge in the tenth century. This political development provides a vital context for understanding the Latin literature of the period.

Just as important is the contemporary, veritably seismic shift we see in attitudes towards writing in the Anglo-Saxon vernacular, Old English, which in the tenth century acquired an authority as a language for writing that was almost unparalleled among the vernaculars of contemporary western Europe (a notable exception being Old Irish in Ireland). The Latin literature of this century represents the lesser celebrated, yet equally vibrant aspect of what amounted to a thoroughly bilingual English literary culture.

Latin vocabulary is a mirror to these political and cultural transformations, reflecting the contacts that drove the patronage and consumption of textual culture, while also revealing the perceptions that authors had of the world around them. The use of a single word could, for example, recall a memory, invoke a cultural association or define a political ideal.

This project aims to demonstrate the fundamental value of such evidence. In doing so, it sets a wide variety of literature side-by-side, including hagiographies, liturgical texts and charters, many of which are rarely considered together. This holistic approach makes the methodology of this project highly unusual and it will, it is hoped, open up new avenues of enquiry for the field of medieval studies.

As part of this project, a conference on the reception and uses of the Greek language in early medieval western Europe was held at the University of Oxford in 2019. The aim of this event was to encourage conceptualisation of Greek in the early medieval west in interdisciplinary and multilingual ways – not least, to understand why Latin authors in tenth-century Britain incorporated so much Greek vocabulary into their writing.

To this end, the conference brought together a host of scholars from across Europe and North America representing a diversity of specialisms, including History, Philology, Linguistics and Literary Studies, and including case studies from many different localities, including Ireland, Rome, Brittany, Essen, Winchester, Wales, Italy, Francia and Canterbury. This event was great fun and extremely fruitful; for a minute-by-minute account of the discussions, search #GreekEMW on Twitter to read the live tweets.

The research towards this project has yielded significant results already. For example, the previously overlooked biblical connotations of an officer’s title used at the court of King Æthelstan (r. 924–939) have been identified. Perhaps most significantly, evidence has also been uncovered to suggest that Asser, one of the most famous Latin authors from early medieval Britain, composed not one (as is commonly believed) but two surviving texts.

Image: A tenth-century document from Canterbury Cathedral Archives (CCA-DCc/ChAnt/R/14). Reproduced courtesy of the Chapter of Canterbury.