Sunday 4 September 2011

Terribile dictu! (Who's afraid of using a dictionary?)

A few months ago, at a workshop on 14th-century philosophy, I asked the 17-strong audience whether they used the Dictionary of Medieval Latin from British Sources.  I wasn't expecting a rapturous response, as our coverage of scholastic terms has for various reasons tended to be patchy, but even so I was surprised when only two hands went up.  Now, thanks to one of my colleagues, I'm well placed to write a post with the rather surreal aim of encouraging people who read medieval Latin written by British authors to use the fruits of our labours.

Roger Bacon's mid-13th-century treatise Summulae dialectices – printed by Robert Steele in 1940 and re-edited in the 1980s by Alain de Libera, who had better qualifications and a second manuscript at his disposal – has now been translated by Thomas Maloney as The Art and Science of Logic (2009).  Anyone who has used this book will be grateful for the effort that Maloney has put into making the treatise intelligible.  On occasion, however, he admits defeat.  For instance:
“Under nonfusible body are subalternate species of this sort, namely, corpus terribile and corpus non terribile.  Under corpus terribile are species of this sort: salt, pepper, cumin, cinnamon, clove, and the like.” … I have not been able to find a translation for ‘corpus terribile’.
Maloney's decision to leave ‘corpus terribile’ untranslated may seem quite reasonable.  But this is one of the many places where Steele had given a different text, and here de Libera's change – a pseudo-classicization of ‘teribile’ – was for the worse.  If either de Libera or Maloney had looked in the Revised Medieval Latin Word-List from British and Irish Sources (1965), he would have found ‘teribilis’ defined as ‘friable’, that is, pulverizable.  And if for some reason he had still been unsure, a flick through any classical Latin dictionary would have revealed the relevant root: ‘terere’, grind, pulverize.

The moral of the story is that even intellectual historians would do well not to ignore our work.  The Dictionary will soon have been published as far as SALV–, and for the remainder of the alphabet the Word-List (for all its shortcomings) is evidently better than nothing.

Tuesday 23 August 2011

Towards a definitive history of the 2nd Barons' War

In 1266 the Isle of Ely was occupied by a band of disinherited rebel barons who proceeded to go on a looting spree in the surrounding area.  What happened to the local bishop, Hugh Balsham, who was supposed to be guarding the place?  Well, according to whoever succeeded John Taxter as the chronicler of Bury St Edmunds, he
casu accidente sic inde recessit et insulam suspendit.
Antonia Gransden (1964) translates this as ‘had by a coincidence gone away and abandoned it’.  Her choice of the past-past (‘had … gone’) instead of the past (‘went’) is unwarranted and misleading – there being no suggestion in the Latin that he had already upped sticks by the time the rebels arrived – and it is not obvious that ‘casu accidente sic’ means ‘by a coincidence’ rather than e.g. ‘misfortune happening thus’.  But it's the underlined part that I'm interested in.

In a footnote, she explains: ‘For the meaning of 'suspendit' see J. H. Baxter and C. Johnson, Medieval Latin Word-List (1934)’.  And indeed if we turn to this primitive work we find ‘suspendere’ defined as ‘to abandon, put aside’, with putative attestation dates of 1200 and c1300.  Hot on the heels of Gransden's book, however, came the Revised Medieval Latin Word-List (1965), which removed the first attestation date and added a note of caution: ‘(?) to leave c1300’.  Unsurprisingly, the remaining attestation turns out to be familiar:

Now, it is just conceivable that ‘suspendere’ might have been used to mean ‘abandon’ – think of leaving someone hanging, for instance – but this would be our only attestation for that sense.  Meanwhile, we have one other quotation (from an anxious letter written to Anselm in 1104) where the object of the verb is a geographical region:
si Angliam … suspendere vel excommunicare volueris …
The context makes it clear that to ‘suspend’ England would involve somehow withdrawing its religious privileges.  And if the exiled Archbishop of Canterbury was thought to have wanted to do this to England, couldn't the displaced Bishop Hugh have done it to Ely?  Pending further investigation, therefore, I have provisionally united these two quotations under the following sense: ‘to place (region) under temporary interdict’.  If that's right, then the story about him having simply abandoned the Isle of Ely needs to be rewritten.

I should stress (again) that the Word-List is not a dictionary whose definitions are the product of lexicography.  Anecdotal evidence suggests that this fact – and with it the difference between the Word-List and the Dictionary of Medieval Latin from British Sources – is underappreciated among those who might be expected to know better, so please forgive me if I continue to bang this drum.