1150-1499 in OED3

After some general remarks on the OED3 revision of the pre-1500 portion of OED (as of December 2018), this page discusses the number and distribution of new quotations (so far as can be ascertained), changes in the dating of sources, and changes in the citation of individual sources.

General remarks

Our EOED chart of quotations in OED1/2 over 1150-1499 makes it clear that this period of the language was inadequately treated in the original editing of the Dictionary, hence ripe for correction and large-scale revision in OED3. However, in re-writing entries illustrated with pre-1500 evidence, OED3 is not undertaking any new research itself, but instead drawing extensively on the new findings of all three of the dictionaries described on the previous page – MED, DOST, and – for words dating from Old English – DOE. (On the ‘inter-indebtedness’ of historical dictionaries, see Simpson et al. 2004a). 

As the deputy-editor of OED3, Edmund Weiner, explained in 2000, ‘no extensive reading programme [for the current revision of OED] has been undertaken for Middle English, though certain newly available texts are being read’, since ‘in this sphere the OED has to bow to the primacy of the MED, and, to a more limited extent, the DOST’, who have between them ‘already assembled the overwhelming majority of the available lexical evidence. The main effort of the OED project is concentrated on a painstaking comparison between the coverage of each word in these two dictionaries and the corresponding entries in the OED’ (Weiner 2000: 170).

Material from the MED is now being routinely incorporated in OED3, with on-the-page links to individual entries in MED where appropriate, while Old English entries are being aligned with those in DOE.  All these changes have important implications for the dating of quotations. 

The results so far, such as they can be gleaned from OED Online searched in December 2018, are represented below. 

Chart 5: Total quotations in OED1/2 & OED Online (Dec 2018) 1150-1499

What can we make of this evidence? Sadly it falls short of giving us any clear view of the changes that the OED3 revision is making to the historical record. This is because OED Online does not permit users to identify the revised entries of the OED and compare them systematically with their unrevised predecessors. Instead, this chart offers the next best available comparison, namely a comparison of the unrevised quotation totals per decade in OED1 (as recorded in OED2) with the current totals in OED Online – the latter representing an undifferentiable mixture of revised and unrevised entries as recorded on its website in December 2018. 

Any data is better than none, however, and we can make several observations. 

Number and distribution of quotations

OED3 has greatly increased the number of quotations for the period 1100-1499. OED1/2’s total was 234,638; OED Online’s total (as of December 2018) is 289,721. This means that OED3 has so far added 55,083 new quotations for this period to the Dictionary. But despite this input of new quotations deriving from post-1928 scholarship, there is remarkably little divergence from the original OED1 pattern of quotation representation – although the OED1 drop in evidence for the end of the fifteenth century has now been corrected. Some nevertheless interesting changes are noted in the paragraphs below.

Dating changes
Image from BL Cotton Nero MS A x (Pearl). Source: Wikimedia Commons

OED is now following the MED in assigning Middle English quotation sources two dates, not one: firstly, the date of the manuscript witness from which the quotation is taken, and secondly, the date of composition. Sometimes one or other of these dates is definitely ascertainable, but often one or both will be educated guesses, based on codicological, textual or other historical evidence.1

Electronic searches of OED Online rely on the (estimated) date of the manuscript, not of the (supposed) composition of the text itself. This means that there have been major changes in dating between OED1 and OED3 which have shifted the OED Online record away from that of OED1 in some respects, particularly over the 14th century. The 1300-1309 peak in the line for OED1, for example, has been replaced in OED Online by a peak at 1390-99. This will be in large part due to the re-dating of many of the Cursor Mundi quotations from 1300 or so to ‘a1400’ (i.e. the date of the earliest manuscripts). 

Another noteworthy change is that affecting the famous poems found in the British Library’s Cotton Nero MS A x. Three of these, PearlPatience, and Cleanness, were quoted from Richard Morris’s EETS edition of 1864 under the title Early English Alliterative Poems (abbreviated ‘E.E. Allit. P.’). They were dated ‘c1325’ in OED1. Now, in OED3 (i.e. over the entries in OED Online so far revised), each is identified by its respective individual title (PearlPatienceCleanness) and dated ‘c1400 (?c1380)’.

(Old English has similarly received a dating makeover, though this has had little effect on the data collected in our charts which begin at 1150).2

Changes in citation of individual sources

The most remarkable change here is the increase in citation from Chaucer. Chaucer was one of the most quoted sources in the first edition of OED, coming third (after Shakespeare and Walter Scott) with around 11,000 quotations in all (see Top sources). This has now risen to c13,800, accounting for a significant portion of the late 14th-century peak in the chart above. What are the lexical reasons for including so many more Chaucer quotations? Frustratingly, it is impossible to say without identifying the quotations concerned – and as EOED frequently laments, it is impossible to do this now that the OED Online website has ceased to distinguish between revised and unrevised entries in the results of electronic searches. 

One might guess however that many of Chaucer’s 3000-odd new quotations will have been taken over from the MED, which itself is known to have favoured Chaucer as a quotation source (see further Cannon 1998, Horobin 2009). But it is interesting that these new quotations have not materially shifted Chaucer’s record of new words. In OED2 – that is, in OED1, as mentioned above, some 2000 of Chaucer’s c.11,000 quotations were for newly recorded words. The total of first quotations in today’s OED Online remains roughly the same.3

OED Online also tells us that (as of December 2018) 5,425 of Chaucer’s total quotations are for new words or senses, a new measurement of lexical productivity introduced on the website in 2010 (OED2 had no such metric). In this respect Chaucer comes not third but second in the list of most quoted sources on OED Online today (again, after Shakespeare; Scott sinks to no. 21). 

These statistics considered together certainly support the long-standing scholarly view that Chaucer significantly influenced the development of English vocabulary. But it is impossible to be more specific without access to the new material now being added to the Dictionary – i.e. to the changes and additions to OED1 entries in general, and to their respective quotations, etymologies, definitions, and other features in particular. And of course, until OED3’s revision is completed, we cannot make any secure judgement of Chaucer’s record in relation to other writers and texts. (In this respect, one should note that it is most unhelpful for the OED Online website to state that one can now see whether ‘Shakespeare and Chaucer really invent[ed] as many words as they are given credit for?’, one of the ‘exciting discoveries’ enabled by the revision.4 This is simply untrue.) 

Opening page of the sole surviving manuscript of The Book of Margery Kempe, c1440. Source: British Library

Two sources one would expect to be quoted in the revised OED3 are the sole well known records of women writers/speakers of this period, Julian of Norwich and Margery Kempe (both of whose works survive only in manuscripts written by male scribes). Neither was cited in OED1. Julian now (September 2020) has a total of 33 quotations from the shorter version of her Revelations of Divine Love, composed in the late 14th century and cited from a manuscript dated c1450. Strikingly, nine of these 33 quotations are first quotations (four are first uses of a word and five for first uses of a sense).

OED3 contains a further 16 quotations from the longer version of the same text, but despite being composed perhaps 20 years after the shorter, this second version only survives in three much later manuscripts, all written around 1650. Hence it only appears in electronic searches for the later date.5 The rationale for the different dates is clear, but the result is disturbing in its displacement of Middle English lexical evidence – especially since one of the quotations dated 1650 is also for a first quotation (mid face), for which the next cited example is from 1873! A presumedly 14th-century lexical innovation is thus (mis-?)represented as occurring two centuries after it was probably first used.

The Book of Margery Kempe survives in a single manuscript (British Library Add MS 61823, c1450) only discovered in 1934. This late date made its inclusion in OED1 impossible, of course, though some extracts from her book had been published in 1521).6 Her work is of undoubted lexical as well as cultural significance, given that it is the first autobiography written in English and that so few records exist of women speakers and writers from the pre-Early Modern period.7

As of September 2020 Margery’s work has been quoted more generously in OED3 than Julian’s. It is cited 200 times in all, of which 29 quotations are for the first recorded use of a word and 33 for the first recorded sense of a word. It goes without saying that in both cases, particularly Julian’s, these figures from female-authored works are tiny in comparison with the documentation of other Middle English authors in the OED. By contrast, the Book of Margery Kempe is quoted 2,800 times in today’s MED, a source that as we have seen has been heavily drawn upon in other respects by the OED3 revisers to date. Julian’s Revelations are quoted in MED 329 times.

In conclusion, anyone looking at individual revised and unrevised entries side by side in OED can see that major changes and improvements have been introduced across the board in the record of medieval words and senses. Definitions, editorial notes and labels, etymologies, organization of entries, quotations and many other elements of the entries concerned have been updated, revised, added to, and in some cases entirely re-cast. Until OUP restores the search tools for searching OED3 separately from the hybrid version of the Dictionary currently on OED Online, however, it is impossible to identify these new entries and hence to describe and evaluate them in any systematic way.

For a brief earlier study of OED3’s revision of quotation evidence of this period, updated in June 2007, see pages from the original EOED website beginning at OED3 1150-1499 (Archived site).

Last updated on 7 September 2020


  1. For more information see the blog-post by Lloyd Marsden (2013), ‘Dating ME evidence in OED3’, on the OED Online website at https://public.oed.com/blog/dating-middle-english-evidence-in-the-oed/ [accessed 2 January 2019].
  2. See further the blog-post by Anthony Esposito (2012), ‘Old English in the OED’, on the OED Online website at https://public.oed.com/blog/old-english-in-the-oed/ [accessed 2 January 2019].
  3. The exact figures are, for OED2 (according to EOED searches), 11,026 total quotations for Chaucer of which 2,041 were first quotations; for OED Online as of December 2018, 13,801 total quotations of which 1,955 are first quotations.
  4. See https://public.oed.com/history/rewriting-the-oed/ [accessed 2 January 2019].
  5. As may be seen from searching OED Online and specifying the date 1650, two of OED3’s quotations from the longer version are from an edition of the Paris MS and the remainder from an edition of the British Library Sloane MS 2499.
  6. See the British Library’s website at https://www.bl.uk/collection-items/early-printed-extracts-of-margery-kempes-book[accessed 6 February 2019].
  7. An earlier version of this page wrongly stated that Margery’s work remained unquoted in OED3. It is identifiable only in online searches by title (‘Bk. Margery Kempe’), not by author.