03.07.18, Niermeyer, and Van de Kieft, eds., Burgers, rev., Mediae Latinitatis Lexicon Minus

Main Article Content

Dr. Greti Dinkova-Bruun

The Medieval Review baj9928.0307.018


Niermeyer, J.F., and C. Van de Kieft, eds., Burgers, J.W.J., rev.. Mediae Latinitatis Lexicon Minus, 2 vols.. Leiden: Brill, 2002. Pp. xxiii, 1480, xx, 83. ISBN: 90-04-11279-0.

Reviewed by:
Dr. Greti Dinkova-Bruun
University of Toronto

After the Glossarium mediae et infimae Latinitatis by Charles du Cange (1610-1688), the Mediae Latinitatis lexicon minus by the Dutch medievalist Jan Frederick Niermeyer (1907-1965) is possibly the most impressive Medieval Latin dictionary created by a single scholar. All the other modern dictionaries, both national and international,[[1]] have been and are still being written by scholarly collegia under the aegis of the international Comité du Dictionnaire du latin médiéval, a dictionary that is often referred to as the Nouveau du Cange. In order to appreciate the magnitude of Niermeyer's achievement, we only need to recall that the two major international glossaries, the Paris-based Novum Glossarium mediae Latinitatis and the Mittellateinisches Woerterbuch from Munich, both of which have been decades in the making, are far from being completed. The Novum Glossarium contains to date eighteen fascicles, from L to pezzola whereas the Mittellateinisches Woerterbuch ranges over A to densesco across three substantial volumes. Among the national dictionaries only two have been completed: the Glossarium Latinitatis Medii Aevi Finlandicae and the Lexicon Latinitatis Medii Aevi Yougoslaviae.[[2]]

So, how can Niermeyer's achievement be explained? Niermeyer started writing his dictionary in 1954. In ten years he produced eleven fascicles, from AB to vaccaricius, and only his premature death prevented him from finishing the work.[[3]] In the introduction to the first fascicle the author outlines his aims of providing the community of medieval scholars with, in his own words a compendious lexicon for rapid information. This readiness to forego comprehensiveness is the first reason for the extraordinary progress made on the glossary. Second, even though the dictionary does not specifically indicate any formal geographical restrictions to its scope, the choice of sources clearly shows that Holland, Germany and Northern France are the regions best represented, even though England is not completely absent. Third, the majority of the quotations in the lexicon come from the centuries between AD 550 and AD 1150, with special emphasis on earlier examples. This rationale was justified by Niermeyer's personal interest in ascertaining when a certain word was adopted into the Latin language and how its meaning changed in the new context. Lastly and even more importantly, the vocabulary included in the lexicon comes predominantly from charters, canon law texts, chronicles, and a number of hagiographical writings. The language of literary invention, the imagery of poetry, the concepts of theology, the notions of art, not to mention the technical terms of medicine, science, and technology, are almost completely absent. As a result, the dictionary is more useful to historians than it is to literary scholars, philologists, and medievalists in other disciplines. Like other enterprises limited to the wide-ranging but ultimately specialized knowledge of its author, the treatment of the material remains uneven. Some entries are rich in examples and diversity of meaning (lex, libellarius, nobilis, persona, precarius, etc.), whereas some others (humilitas, levita, maledictio, etc.) are consigned to the cursory review that is the mark of the word-list. To be fair, Niermeyer is completely aware of all these limiting factors to his work. Indeed, they all seem to be his deliberate choices. Nevertheless, in providing both French and English translations of the Latin lemmata the lexicon reached a relatively large readership, and has thus succeeded in setting itself apart from all the existing dictionaries of Medieval Latin.

The second edition of Niermeyer's monumental work, revised by J. W. J. Burgers and published by Brill in 2002, strives to improve on the limitations of the first edition. The first major difference between the two editions is that, in addition to French and English, all Latin entries in the second edition are also translated into German. Thus, the targeted readership of the dictionary is significantly increased. Furthermore, the second edition enlarges slightly the geographical area as well as the time span of lexicon. More examples from English sources are added to the existing continental ones, and texts from as late as the first half of the thirteenth century are now taken into consideration. It would have been useful if the new sources were somehow marked in the Index fontium. In his rather cursory introduction Burgers indicates that the revisers have made an exhaustive study of, among others, the chronicles of Richard of Devizes and Jocelin of Brakelond, who are both relatively well-known English chroniclers from the end of the twelfth/beginning of the thirteenth century.[[4]] On the other hand, it is quite impossible to establish who the other examined authors are without a laborious comparison of all the titles in the two indices. The same is also true for the expanded list of secondary literature.

In addition to these global changes, the second edition also introduces a number of smaller improvements into the lemmata. Many entries are enriched with new examples (carnifex, implementum, rotatio, etc.) or provided with additional meanings (carragium, cella, husbandus, levata, potestas, rotulus, etc.), whereas a few others are completely rewritten (cardinalis). Numerous new words are incorporated (castellulum, cathecium, festinare, housbota, levatarius, peyssonarius, posterna, practica, etc.) and obvious mistakes are corrected throughout.

Nevertheless, shortcomings of the old edition have remained unchanged. First, the treatment of the words continues to be uneven, and many entries that should have been expanded are left untouched (conjungere, divinus, natura, potentia). Second, a number of entries (caro, catecumenus, catholicus, consequenter,dictio) appear in both editions without any supporting examples. This anomaly should have been corrected. The original alphabetical arrangement of the lemmata has also remained unchanged. Readers should be aware that the diphthongs ae and oe are treated as a simple e and that ph is treated as f, th as t, and y as i. This practice clearly saves a lot of space, which otherwise would otherwise have had to be used for cross- referencing, but at the same time it is responsible for the existence of the following, sometimes confusing, order of entries: penardus - poenare - pendens - paene - penes; filacium - phylacterium - filare - philargyria; or theca - techna - tectura - taedere. The lack of cross-referencing is even more inconvenient when a certain word is attested in various forms. In such cases, one form is chosen as a main lemma, whereas the other variants simply follow after it, often without cross-referencing. See for example,posterula, pust-, -erla, -ella, postera, postrina. The forms pusterula and pusterla are found later on, referring back to posterula, but the forms postera and postrina are nowhere to be seen. So, if the reader is searching for the word postrina, he will not be able to find it, unless he knows to look for it under posterula. Such examples could be multiplied.

Despite all the changes and improvements, the dictionary remains basically the same both in spirit and appearance. It is still a glossary compiled predominantly from historical sources and one that could be placed between two lexicographical traditions, i.e. the global and the supplementary dictionary. The global dictionaries, such as the Novum Glossarium mediae Latinitatis, the Mittellateinisches Woerterbuch, and theDictionary of Medieval Latin from British sources include the entire medieval vocabulary, both inherited from Late Antiquity and newly developed, whereas the supplementary dictionaries concentrate mainly on the medieval language. Such supplementary dictionaries are, among others, the Lexicon Latinitatis Nederlandicae Medii Aevi, the Lexicon Mediae Latinitatis Danicae, and the Glossarium Mediae Latinitatis Sueciae.[[5]] Niermeyer's dictionary stands between these two traditions, because, even though the lexicon exhibits its author's interest mainly in the medieval vocabulary, words with meanings that were attested also in the Late Antiquity are marked with an asterisk. See, for example, the word constrictio, whose first meaning (harshness, severity) is marked with an asterisk, whereas its second and third meanings (coercion and judicial power) are not.


[[1]] The terms national and international refer here to the type of sources used in the creation of the dictionary. For example, the Novum Glossarium mediae Latinitatis and the Mittellateinisches Woerterbuch are considered to be international glossaries, because they cover the medieval sources from more than one country.

[[2]] The obvious disadvantage of the national dictionaries is the fact that they translate the Latin into the local language, which is often more difficult to understand than the Latin. For a clear and concise presentation of all modern Medieval Latin dictionaries see P. Stotz, Handbuch zur lateinischen Sprache des Mittelalters, Bd. 1: Einleitung, lexicologische Praxis, Woerter und Sachen, Lehnwortgut (Munich 2002), 193-242.

[[3]] The glossary was completed in 1976 by C. Van de Kieft, who needed ten more years to write the last fascicle (from vaccarius to the end) and to compile a list of the Abbreviationes et Index fontium.

[[4]] Richard writes on the reign of Richard I and Jocelin on the deeds of Samson, abbot of St. Edmund.

[[5]] See Stotz, Handbuch, Bd. 1, 253-56.

Article Details

Author Biography

Dr. Greti Dinkova-Bruun

University of Toronto