The Catholicon Anglicum, a Middle English-Latin dictionary dating from 1483

The Catholicon Anglicum, a Middle English-Latin dictionary dating from 1483

The British Library has paid more than £200,000 to keep two rare manuscripts in the United Kingdom.

An export bar was put in place to stop the sale of the Catholicon Anglicum, a Middle English-Latin dictionary dating from 1483, which was sold at auction in the summer to an overseas buyer. The bar required that a UK organisation make a matching offer for the manuscript to prevent it going abroad.

The manuscript, thought to have been written in Yorkshire dialect, is regarded as one of the earliest examples of an English dictionary and is thought to have been written in the north of England around 1483. The Catholicon Anglicum is said to represent a crucial milestone in the evolution of the English dictionary, and the manuscript is the only complete one in existence. The only other known copy is held at the British Library, but has lost leaves in several places. Its emphasis on the Latin equivalents made the Catholicon not simply a dictionary of English, but a tool to assist the growing number of school students with Latin composition.

Handwriting from the The Catholicon Anglicum

Handwriting from the The Catholicon Anglicum

Christopher Wright from the Reviewing Committee on the Export of Works of Art said: “This rare survival of a 15th Century English-Latin word list is one of the vital first steps on the road to the English dictionary as we know it today. Its anonymous author, possibly a Yorkshireman on the basis of some dialect words included, provides an invaluable witness to the English language as it existed in the second half of the 15th Century, and can claim an honourable place in the roll of famous lexicographers that stretches through Johnson and Murray into our own age.”

Ponet 2

The printed traictise owned and annotated by John Ponet

The British Library also paid £116,500 for a printed manuscript that documents an argument between two bishops over the right of priests to marry. The 16th Century traictise was published under the name of lawyer Thomas Martin although its authorship is usually attributed at least in part to Stephen Gardiner. Gardiner, the Bishop of Winchester and leading figure in King Henry VIII’s court, was held prisoner in the Tower of London during the reign of King Edward VI and then released by Mary I, who appointed him Lord Chancellor of England.

Stephen Gardiner

Stephen Gardiner

The traictise belonged to John Ponet, who had previously replaced Gardiner as Bishop of Winchester in 1551 but fled into exile following Queen Mary’s restoration of the doctrine and personnel of the Catholic church. It is unique in that it contains extensive annotations of the printed text and a book length manuscript that is part working notes and part draft text for Ponet’s own reply to Gardiner and Martin. The rare 16th century printed and manuscript volume documents the heated argument between the two Bishops over the right of priests to marry.

An export bar was also placed on this manuscript, which was purchased by the British Library with the help of an anonymous donor, on the grounds that it is of outstanding significance for the study the history of the English Reformation and the adversarial culture of publication in sixteenth-century Europe.

The Catholicon Anglicum and Ponet’s book will be made fully available on the Library’s Digitised Manuscripts website and displayed in The Sir John Ritblat Treasures Gallery later this year.

Dr Scot McKendrick, Head of History and Classics at the British Library, said: “I am extremely pleased that the British Library has secured for the nation these two invaluable and unique witnesses to our history. We are committed to making them widely accessible online and to researchers in our Manuscripts Reading Room, and we anticipate that study of these books will contribute enormously to our knowledge of their respective periods and subjects.”

Culture Minister Ed Vaizey said: “These manuscripts are of outstanding significance and will make a tremendous addition to the British Library – I’m delighted they have been able to acquire them and I look forward to seeing them on public display.”

Last year Mr. Vaizey placed an export bar on a ring that once belonged to Jane Austen. US singer Kelly Clarkson bought the ring at auction for £152,450 in 2012. But after Mr Vaizey imposed an export bar the Jane Austen’s House Museum in Hampshire raised the funds to keep the heirloom in the country.


Images © British Library

About The Author

Olga Hughes is currently pre-occupied with fairy tales, fantasy, misanthropy, medieval history and the long eighteenth century. She has a Bachelor of Fine Art from the Victorian College of the Arts and is currently majoring in Literature and History at Deakin. She has contributed to websites such as History behind Game of Thrones, The Anne Boleyn Files and The Tudor Society.

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