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Dictionary of Medical Vocabulary in English, 1375–1550

Juhani Norri

The Dictionary of Medical Vocabulary in English, 1375–1550, is a contribution to the study of Late Middle English and Early Modern English medical writings, an area that is attracting increasing attention among scholars. Great progress has been made in cataloguing the surviving medical manuscripts and early printed books, several important medical works from this period have been published as modern editions, and an electronic corpus containing some half a million words of Late Middle English medical text came out in 2005. We do not, however, yet have any comprehensive study, let alone dictionary, of English medical vocabulary in the late medieval period.

The Dictionary of Medical Vocabulary in English, 1375–1550 is based on a detailed analysis of 11,397 pages from medical manuscripts and early printed books. It includes information on the spelling variants, origins, and meanings of the terms. A wealth of quotations from the texts analysed are provided. Towards the end of each entry, there are references to corresponding entries, if any, in standard historical dictionaries of English (Dictionary of Old English, Middle English Dictionary, The Oxford English Dictionary). If the origin or meaning of the term has been discussed in academic books or articles, references to the latter are also provided.

The information for the dictionary has been stored in a computerized database. New information can be easily added to the database and existing information modified, if necessary. This enables keeping the book up to date after publication. In the future, it would also be possible to produce an electronic version of the dictionary, enabling users to carry out searches useful for different kinds of lexical studies. The structure of the current dictionary database (running under PostgreSQL DBMS) is customized for this particular application, but it is possible to export the dictionary data in machine-readable formats if so desired. At the present stage of the project, the items of information in the database are being converted into a text file which is already fairly close to the final dictionary. Although a good deal of editing remains to be done, my purpose is to complete the manuscript in the course of the year 2010.

Origins and Contents of the Dictionary

Medical texts written in English during the Late Middle Ages have in recent years attracted increasing attention among scholars. From approximately 1375 onwards, the use of English began to gain a firmer foothold in medical manuscripts, which in previous centuries had been written mainly in Latin or French. Information on all the surviving medical works written in English before c. 1500 was made accessible for the first time by the database catalogue of Old and Middle English scientific and medical writings compiled by Linda Voigts and Patricia Kurtz, Scientific and Medical Writings in Old and Middle English: An Electronic Reference (2000). The entries in the catalogue show how English was used as a language of medicine until about the Norman Conquest, but was then almost completely overshadowed by Latin and French for some three centuries. It was not until the last quarter of the fourteenth century that English started to be used once again as a language of even highly technical medical treatises (e.g. theo retical medical compendia, surgical manuals, works on uroscopy). In addition to the Voigts/Kurtz catalogue, scholars interested in Late Middle English medical works now have another important research tool available to them, namely the electronic corpus compiled by Irma Taavitsainen, Päivi Pahta, and Martti Mäkinen, Middle English Medical Texts (2005). The text samples in the corpus have been taken from 79 different codices/manuscripts and contain altogether 495,322 words. There has also been a great deal of editorial activity in the field during the last fifteen years or so. Editions of important Middle English medical texts include Faye Getz’s 1991 edition of an English translation of a medical compendium by Gilbertus Anglicus, Larry Eldredge’s 1996 edition of an English translation of Benvenutus Grassus’ ocular treatise De Probatissima Arte Oculorum, Päivi Pahta’s 1998 edition of an English translation of De Spermate, a pseudo-Galenic treatise on embryology, and the editions by various scholars of over a dozen texts from Trinity College Cambridge manuscript R.14.52 in Sex, Aging, & Death in a Medieval Medical Compendium: Trinity College Cambridge MS R.14.52, Its Texts, Language, and Scribe (ed. Teresa Tavormina, 2006). Other Middle English medical treatises are in the process of being edited, one of the most important being Linda Voigts’s edition of a Middle English version of Bernard of Gordon’s De Prognosticiis.

Editors of Middle English medical texts, as well as other scholars interested in these works, often find the special vocabulary used by the medieval writer (or translator) problematic to interpret. The manuscripts contain a multitude of terms which are not listed in any of the standard historical dictionaries. When a term is given, there is often a need for greater accuracy in the definition. Furthermore, historical dictionaries like the Middle English Dictionary and The Oxford English Dictionary for practical reasons concentrate on those Middle English texts that have been published so far and manuscripts hardly figure in their corpora. The hundreds of Middle English medical manuscripts housed in various libraries around the world thus form a largely untapped material for lexicography.

The material that I have analysed for the Dictionary of Medical Vocabulary in English, 1375–1550 includes both edited texts and manuscripts, the total number of edited/unedited manuscript pages being 8,533 (edited: 2,593, unedited: 5,940). Besides the editions and manuscripts, altogether 2,864 pages from early printed books are included in the corpus. The number of manuscript and book pages analysed for the dictionary is thus 11,397. The material comprises 18 different editions, 38 manuscripts, and 16 printed books.

Three main types of medieval medical writing are represented in the corpus. The single largest group consists of surgical manuals and tracts on specific aspects of surgery such as blood-letting (5,111 manuscript/book pages). Academic treatises written by university-trained physicians or derived from their works comprise 3,856 pages. In this category, there are both general compendia on medicine and treatises on specific medical subjects (e.g. uroscopy, gynecology, obstetrics, distillation of medicinal “waters”). Remedybooks, which consist of medicinal recipes with occasional supplementary material (e.g. dietary instructions, charms, descriptions of the magical properties of plants and objects), make up the smallest section of the corpus, totalling 2,430 pages. In remedybooks, the medical vocabulary is on the whole somewhat rudimentary, and, unlike the academic and surgical writings, they contain few explicit comments on the meaning of terms. The number of the different surgical works in the corpus is 24, the corresponding figures for academic treatises and remedybooks being respectively 28 and 20.

The dictionary corpus includes texts from the first half of the sixteenth century, which goes beyond the traditional end-point of the Middle English period, c. 1500. The advent of printing in England in 1476 had no immediate effect upon the contents of medical works. English medical books, until about the middle of the sixteenth century, mostly reproduce or translate material that was already available in manuscript during the preceding centuries. As far as we know, Andrew Boorde’s Breuiary of Helthe, first published in 1547, is the first medical book by a medical man to be originally written and printed in English. In the latter half of the century a different picture emerges, with the publication of a multitude of translations of works written by contemporary continental physicians and surgeons. At the same time, their English colleagues started to publish increasingly in the vernacular. It was the close affinity between the earlier sixteenth-century material and fifteenth-century manuscripts, as well a s the upsurge of original material from approximately 1550 onwards, that led to the choice of 1550 as the terminal date for texts to be included in the corpus.

The dictionary covers four lexical fields: names of sicknesses, body parts, instruments, and medicinal preparations. As the first stage of the dictionary work, the 72 texts were systematically read through and their vocabularies analysed. All instances of words and phrases belonging to the four lexical fields were noted, and a citation database containing 23,546 citations was created. Each citation illustrates the meaning(s) and use(s) of one or more medical terms. As the second main stage in the process of compiling the dictionary, information on the dictionary headwords was stored in the database, including their lexical field(s), word-formational category (e.g. simplex terms vs. derivatives and compounds), meaning(s), etymology, occurrence in historical dictionaries of English (Dictionary of Old English, Middle English Dictionary, The Oxford English Dictionary), dating in historical dictionaries of English, and treatment in academic books and articles. The third and final stage of the dictionary work, now in progress,involves converting the central items of information in the database into a text file and editing that file for publication.

The structure of the dictionary entries will be as follows: (1) headword, (2) scribal variants occurring in the texts, (3) etymology, (4) definition(s), each definition followed by relevant quotations, (5) references to corresponding entries in the Dictionary of Old English, Middle English Dictionary, and The Oxford English Dictionary, and (6) references to academic books and articles containing information on the history and/or meaning of the term.

The form chosen as the headword is the one closest to the corresponding present-day term, if there is one. This policy is based on ease of reference, as the intended users of the dictionary include linguists, historians of medicine, and in general anyone interested in the history of medicine or medical terms. In order to facilitate the locating of words and phrases, some adjustments of medieval spelling proved necessary. Care was, however, taken to avoid excessive modernizing of medieval forms. In the series of scribal variants, the forms are identical to the ones in the medical writings examined, with no modernizing or other modification. Plural forms are noted separately.

Etymologies are placed within square brackets. In tracing the origins of the words and phrases, the three main historical dictionaries of English (cf. above) were consulted. For terms adopted from foreign languages, the main sources of information were historical dictionaries for the particular languages, notably Latin, French, Dutch, German, and Scandinavian languages. Medical treatises known to have been translated from Latin, French, or Dutch were compared with an exemplar of the original work. Such comparisons yielded valuable further information on rare terms attested in only a small number of medical treatises, and they also helped to decipher many enigmatic or corrupt passages in the English versions. In the dictionary quotations, references to corresponding passages in the Latin, French, and Dutch originals are placed in square brackets.

The definitions given in the dictionary are based on actual descriptions in the texts examined. Supplementary information has been sought in other medieval medical w orks, in quotations given in historical dictionaries, and in books and articles on the history of medicine. The definitions are throughout anchored in late medieval notions about the structure of the human body, the sicknesses it was subject to, and the various methods used to restore the patient to health. As a general rule, where a headword is polysemous, the meaning given first is the one most common in contemporary medical writings. When a particular meaning can be regarded as primary in that it illuminates or underlies the other meanings, it may be placed first in spite of its lower frequency.

How best to deal with compounds and phrases has, generally speaking, been a major challenge to lexicographers, and the present work is no exception. The policy adopted is to list compounds and phrases under the main element, or head noun, of the combination if that element also exists as an independent word with a medical meaning. Thus, for example, falling gout ‘epilepsy’ is placed s.v. gout, tertian fever s.v. fever, and water of roses s.v. water, while angel bread ‘a purgative cake’, lickpot ‘index finger’, and eton in the belly ‘insatiable appetite’ are given as independent headwords. This arrangement is parallel to that adopted by standard medical dictionaries like Dorland’s Illustrated Medical Dictionary and Stedman’s Medical Dictionary. In the entries of the Dictionary of Medical Vocabulary in English, 1375–1550, the basic term and its meanings are given first, followed by the combinations, each with its own reference code (B1, B2, B3, and so on). The total number of basic terms included in the dic tionary is 4,484, the figure for combinations being 8,117.

That scholars are becoming increasingly aware of the importance of studying medical vocabulary of the earlier periods of English is shown, among other things, by R.W. McConchie’s book Lexicography and Physicke (1997). McConchie discusses the vocabularies of thirteen medical works published between 1547 and 1612, the author’s main concern being to determine to what extent the terms and their different meanings were recorded by sixteenth and seventeenth-century lexicographers and their successors, in particular the compilers of the first edition of The Oxford English Dictionary. The need for more research is evident from the 3,985 items of new data for OED that McConchie discovered, including 2,558 antedatings, 246 new senses, 1,089 unrecorded lexemes, and 92 postdatings. The main purpose of the Dictionary of Medical Vocabulary in English, 1375–1550 is to shed further light on medical terms used during a period that, in fact, laid the foundation for the development of an English medical vocabulary in the ce nturies to come.

Publications Relating to the Dictionary Project

Norri, Juhani. “Dictionary of Medical Vocabulary in English, 1375–1550”, forthcoming in the volume of articles based on the papers given at the the Fourth International Conference on Historical Lexicography and Lexicology, Edmonton 2008 (ed. by John Considine).

Norri, Juhani. "Entrances and Exits in English Medical Vocabulary, 1400–1550”, in Medical and Scientific Writing in Late Medieval English ed. by Irma Taavitsainen and Päivi Pahta (2004), Cambridge University Press (pp. 100–143).

 
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