1150-1499 in OED1/OED2

This page discusses OED’s representation of the growth and use of vocabulary in English up to 1500. It looks firstly at OED1 (including its treatment of some individual texts and sources) and secondly at the three other major dictionaries which have subsequently treated this period. The changes now being made to OED1’s record by today’s OED3 revision can be seen on the next page, 1150-1499 in OED3.


In representing this period of the language, the OED1 lexicographers faced unavoidable limitations in collecting quotations and dating them accurately. In consequence, the chronological record of their results tells us more about the vagaries and limitations of the Dictionary’s sources – the edited texts available, and the concentration of works of literary interest in the 14th century – than anything objective about the growth and development of the vocabulary.

Chart 4: Total quotations in OED1/2 1150-1499

The chart above shows the number and assigned dates of the quotations (grouped by decade) printed in the first edition of the OED to illustrate the vocabulary of the medieval period of the language, i.e. from 1150-1499. The data comes from OED2, searched online before this resource was removed from the OED Online website in 2010. (See Which edition contains what for more on OED2 and Outline of the language for the reasons for using it as a window on OED1). The steep troughs and peaks in the chart do not, of course, point to real variations in usage and lexical productivity over this period. Instead they reflect the state of scholarly knowledge at the time and the features of the quotation sources to which the lexicographers and their readers had access. (EOED’s page on First quotations supplies further charts and discussion. In all cases, OED’s identification of first quotations correlates closely with their collection of quotations for any period overall).

The main initial obstacle was the small quantity of medieval literature that had been edited and was available in print at the time at which work on the new dictionary began in earnest (early 1860s). To begin to tackle this problem, the first editor, Herbert Coleridge, compiled a Glossarial Index to the Printed English Literature of the Thirteenth Century (1859), so that volunteer readers could work out which words had already been recorded (see further information at Initial practice).

A much more significant aid, however, turned out to be the creation of the Early English Text Society by Coleridge’s successor as editor of the Dictionary, F. J. Furnivall (Brewer 1996 chapter 5; Singleton 2005). The stream of works which appeared under the Society’s aegis from 1864 onwards provided invaluable lexical evidence in the form of annotated and glossed editions of previously unpublished (or hitherto inadequately edited) medieval texts. From these the first-edition lexicographers and their volunteer readers were able to amass many thousands of pre-1500 quotations for OED1.

Even so, works existing in manuscript copies written perhaps some years or decades after original composition could only be approximately dated. Historians and literary and linguistic scholars would often choose to date works at the beginning or end of a century, merely for convenience’s sake; hence the bunchings of quotations around 1200, 1300 and 1400 in the chart above. These bunchings are also due to extensive mining of a few specific sources (e.g. Cursor Mundi and Chaucer; see further below). As already mentioned, the consequence of these enforced limitations can be seen in the peaks and troughs in quotation numbers over time. It is clear that they have a distorting effect and invalidate any detailed conclusions to be drawn from OED1’s (and hence OED2’s) representation of the growth of the vocabulary over the medieval period in general.

Once James Murray became editor of the Dictionary in 1879 he published three successive editions of an Appeal for readers, accompanied by lists of books and works for which volunteer readers were invited to sign up. More of these were issued over subsequent years; they are now preserved in the OED archives.1

The first edition of the Appeal reported ‘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’ – a statement explained by the fact that a significant number of Dictionary volunteers from the early days onwards were also amateur or professional medievalists who edited Old and Middle English texts for EETS, including Furnivall himself and his successor as editor, James Murray, along with the notably prolific W. W. Skeat (see our Who’s Who section for more information on all three individuals).

Concentration on individual texts and sources

Although relatively few pre-1500 works were specified in the various extant lists of books and works to be read issued by the lexicographers, 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.

A page from the Cotton Vespasian MS of Cursor Mundi. Source: British Library

The most notable example is Cursor Mundi, a long (30,000-line) composition in verse on the history of the world, based on scriptural and other sources, which was edited for EETS by Richard Morris in seven volumes over 1879-93. Assigned a range of different dates (mostly 1300), this work provided over 11,000 quotations for the published Dictionary, making it the second most heavily quoted work in OED1/2 after the Bible and the fifth most quoted source altogether (see Top sources). As reported at the dictionary’s completion in 1928, the poem’s contents had been ‘with incredible assiduity copied out’ by Professor H. R. Helwich of Vienna, who subjected the 14th-century poem The Destruction of Troy to the same treatment (The Periodical, February 1928: 7).

The most quoted individual pre-1500 writer (as opposed to work) in the first edition of OED was Chaucer. With just under 12,000 quotations, he was head and shoulders above his contemporaries and the third most quoted individual writer in the entire Dictionary – though not named in Murray’s Appeal lists, presumably because both Furnivall and Skeat produced landmark editions of this author and were able to supply numerous quotations from their own research (see e.g. Furnivall 1867 and Skeat 1894). Chaucer was followed by Langland (quoted around 6,000 times from Skeat’s EETS editions of Piers Plowman, 1867-85), Lydgate (various works and editions, c.5,000 quotations) and Gower (nearly 4,000 quotations from Confessio amantis, ed. R. Pauli in 1857). Other heavily quoted pre-1500 sources were the Wycliffite Bible (around 8,000 quotations, cited from Forshall and Madden 1850), the translations by Trevisa (over 6,000 quotations, many for his version of Higden’s Polychronicon), and the 15th-century English-Latin bilingual dictionary Promptorium parvulorum (something over 5,500 quotations, cited from the Camden Society edition of 1843–65).

Hoccleve’s portrait of Chaucer, c.1343-1400. Source: British Library

Of Chaucer’s 12,000-odd quotations in OED1 over 2,000 were first citations – leading to the easy inference that Chaucer had been responsible for introducing an enormous number of words into the language, something reinforced by his swiftly established posthumous reputation as father of English poetry. On the other hand, as Jürgen Schäfer first pointed out (and as EOED studies have consistently confirmed), the number of first quotations from an individual source in OED correlate consistently with the total number of quotations from that source altogether: the more quotations gathered from an individual source or for a particular period, the more likely the lexicographers were to find new words – i.e., previously unrecorded words – there (Schäfer 1980).

Additionally, availability in print correlated to a high extent with cultural value – that was why Chaucer’s works had been edited in a succession of editions from William Caxton onwards and were thus available for scrutiny by the lexicographers and their volunteer readers.

But was the corresponding prominence of Chaucer in the first edition of the OED a genuine reflection of his lexical contribution to the history and development of the language? Or was it an indication of lexicographical bias?  Despite the quantities of lexical work on Chaucer and Middle English vocabulary over the 20th century and beyond, as described below on this page, a satisfactory answer to this question has yet to be established.

The problem here is that to investigate this question we need access to a carefully assembled record of the entire chronological range of English vocabulary. The only such record that exists is the OED itself, the resource we are seeking to evaluate! See further Cannon 1998, Brewer 2013b.

Lexicographical work on pre-Early Modern English after completion of OED1

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, observed 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’. He continued, ‘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 was spectacularly wrong.2 The Middle English Dictionary (MED) 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 completed in 2001 under the editorship of Robert Lewis and further work is now underway.3

In the same address to the Philological Society in 1919, Craigie identified two other desirable dictionaries as yet uncompiled: one recording early Scottish vocabulary and one devoted to Old English. Craigie himself took on the Dictionary of the Older Scottish Tongue (DOST), subsequently completed by A. J. Aitken and others in 2002, while the OE project is still underway in Toronto (DOE [accessed 20 August 2019]).

Note on images

The image of BL Cotton MS Vespasian A III (dated 1390), folio 12v., is from an early part of the poem treating Old Testament events. As the BL website commentary describes, ‘Squeezed in between the two columns of writing and in the lower margin, a simple sketch shows Noah’s Ark, with its rudder and a cross atop its mast, signaling the Christian morals toward which the “Cursur o Werld” [the English translation of the title] is directed’. This image [accessed 21 December 2018], along with others on our website, is gratefully reproduced under the terms and conditions specified on the British Library website at https://www.bl.uk/.

Hoccleve’s famous portrait of Chaucer, who died in 1400, is from the autograph copy of Hoccleve’s poem The Regement of Princes, in BL MS Royal 17 D. VI, folio 93v, dated to the second quarter of the 15th century. The image is from the British Library website at https://www.bl.uk/people/geoffrey-chaucer [accessed 21 December 2018].

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  1. Murray 1879a. All three editions of the Appeal, including a specimen book list, are reproduced in the archives section of OED Online at https://public.oed.com/history/archives/ [accessed 21 December 2018]. For more on Murray’s appeals see Early progress and Brewer 2000.
  2. See Who’s who page on Craigie and Brewer 2007b.
  3. For current work on this dictionary see the MED Compendium ‘About’ pages at https://quod.lib.umich.edu/m/middle-english-dictionary/about [accessed 21 December 2018] and for accounts of its history and significance see the commemorative edition of the journal Dictionaries edited by Michael Adams (2002).