Dating Middle English evidence in the OED

Dating Middle English evidence in the OED

Examples of dating styles found for Middle English evidence in OED3

The following examples give a quick summary of the different dating styles found for Middle English evidence in OED3, for ready reference. For more detailed explanation of the background, see below.


c1400 (▶?c1380) Pearl

  • a quotation from a manuscript of around (= circa) 1400 preserving a text probably composed around 1380. (The symbol ▶ preceding a date indicates that this is a date of composition, not a manuscript date.)

c1230 (▶?a1200) Ancrene Riwle (Corpus Cambr.) (1962)

  • a quotation from a manuscript of around 1230 preserving a text probably composed before (= ante) 1200

?c1225 (▶?a1200) Ancrene Riwle (Cleo. (1972)

  • a quotation from a different manuscript, in this case dated ?c1225, preserving the same text composed ?a1200

c1325 in G. L. Brook Harley Lyrics (1968)

  • a quotation from a manuscript dated c1325

a1393 Gower Confessio Amantis (Fairf.)

  • a quotation from a text composed a1393. (The symbol ▶ preceding the main date indicates that this is a date of composition, not a manuscript date.)

Where a further bracketed date appears at the end of the citation, this is the date of the scholarly edition from which the OED quotation is taken. Thus, to return to the Ancrene Riwle examples given above, the following citation style is for quotations taken from the 1962 Early English Text Society edition by J. R. R. Tolkien and N. R. Ker of the copy of the text found in MS Corpus Christi College Cambridge 402:

c1230 (▶?a1200) Ancrene Riwle (Corpus Cambr.) (1962)

while the following is for quotations taken from the 1972 Early English Text Society edition by E. J. Dobson of the copy of the text found in London, British Library MS Cotton Cleopatra

?c1225 (▶?a1200) Ancrene Riwle (Cleo. (1972)


Middle English lexicographical evidence is particularly difficult to date. It mostly survives in hand-written manuscripts. Very few literary texts survive in manuscripts written by the author: most survive in one or more manuscripts written in other hands, usually copied rather later than the date of composition of the text, sometimes very much later. It is often likely that one or more stages of copying have intervened between the original author and a particular surviving manuscript. Normally it is extremely difficult to be certain that a word appearing in a particular manuscript was definitely used (or conversely, was definitely not used) by the original author. It is normally even more difficult to ascertain whether the spelling form in a particular manuscript reflects what the original author may have used; it may differ in relatively trivial ways, or it may differ in ways which reflect a quite different pronunciation of the underlying word. See further “Middle English – an overview: Our surviving documents” for a discussion of some of the issues involved.

In the new edition of OED, the dating of Middle English sources mostly follows that adopted in the Middle English Dictionary. The following notes explain some of the principles and procedures involved, and give some hints on how to interpret the dating information given for sources cited in the dictionary.

Manuscript dates and composition dates

Two different kinds of dates are used for Middle English sources, manuscript (or document) dates, and composition dates. A manuscript (or document) date is the date when the manuscript or document from which the dictionary quotation comes is thought to have been produced. A composition date is the date when a particular text is thought to have been (originally) written.

The certainty of both types of dates can vary considerably. For example, in the case of manuscript dates, sometimes an inscription or a date or reference in the text makes it very clear that a manuscript (or part of a manuscript) was written on or very near to a particular date, or before a certain date, or after a certain date, while in other cases we are reliant on the careful comparison by palaeographers with the hands of other, datable, manuscripts in order to arrive at a probable date. Similarly, it is sometimes possible to date the composition of a text fairly precisely, from internal evidence in the text or from references to it elsewhere, while in many other cases only a very imprecise estimate is the best that can reasonably be established. And, of course, there is sometimes disagreement about both kinds of dates.

As far as dictionary data is concerned, the crucial thing to bear in mind is that the two kinds of dates reflect two different things: the date of a particular witness, and the date of composition of the text it contains. Typically, we cannot be absolutely certain when a particular word (still less a particular spelling) entered the textual tradition reflected by a particular manuscript: that is why very many sources in OED3 are given two dates, with both the manuscript date and the composition date being specified.

Sources cited with two dates: two examples

Very many texts are presented with two dates, for example:

c1400 (▶?c1380) Pearl

The first date here is the manuscript (or document) date, and the second date is the date of composition of the text. Thus the manuscript (London, British Library, MS Cotton Nero A.x) is dated to around 1400, and this part of its content, the poem Pearl, is thought to have been composed probably around 1380. This is the only surviving copy of this poem.

Many texts survive in more than one manuscript, which show variation between one another. Generally, these are also cited with two dates in OED3, with quotations from each manuscript being dated according to the date of that manuscript. Thus quotations from the Ancrene Riwle reflecting the copy of the text preserved in Cambridge, Corpus Christi College MS 402 are cited as follows:

c1230 (▶?a1200) Ancrene Riwle (Corpus Cambr.) (1962)

While quotations reflecting the copy of the text preserved in London, British Library, MS Cotton Cleopatra C.6, which some date very slightly earlier, are cited as follows:

?c1225 (▶?a1200) Ancrene Riwle (Cleo. C. 6) (1972)

The composition date is thus the same in both cases, but the manuscript date is different.

Sources dated only by manuscript date

Many sources are dated only by the date of the manuscript. In some instances this is because we know with some confidence that the writing of the text and of the manuscript were (roughly) contemporary. This is the case with most non-literary records, such as financial records, legal documents, wills, inventories, etc., e.g.:

1363 Statutes Ireland (1907–14)

1440  in J. T. Fowler Extracts Acct. Rolls Abbey of Durham (1899)

It is also the case with some literary texts, such as the Ayenbite of Inwyt by Dan Michel of the Northgate (which we know survives in a ‘holograph’ manuscript in the hand of the author, dated 1340):

1340 Ayenbite (1866)

In other instances, we must cite by manuscript date alone because there is no clear indication that the date of composition of the texts that it contains was any different, e.g.:

c1325 in G. L. Brook Harley Lyrics (1968)

Sources dated only by composition date

A few sources (although some of them frequently cited ones) are cited only by the date of composition. This generally follows the policy of the Middle English Dictionary, in which the composition date is often given as the only date when it is less than 25 years earlier than the date of the principal manuscript. In a number of cases, there is the additional complication that the manuscript tradition and the nature of the available scholarly editions mean that quoting from an edited text is the best available option for lexicographical purposes.

Thus Gower’s Confessio Amantis is cited by its composition date of a1393 in OED3, citations appearing in this style:

 ▶a1393 Gower Confessio Amantis (Fairf.)

One significant departure in OED3 from the practice of the Middle English Dictionary concerns Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. The Middle English Dictionary normally cites Canterbury Tales by composition date. However, because an edition of the important early Hengwrt manuscript has recently become available, OED3 now gives the manuscript date as the primary date for Canterbury Tales quotations, in line with practice for Chaucer’s other major works. For example:

c1405 (▶c1387–95) Chaucer Canterbury Tales Prol. (Hengwrt) (2003)

c1405 (▶c1385) Chaucer Knight’s Tale (Hengwrt) (2003)

c1405 (▶c1390) Chaucer Sir Thopas (Ellesmere) (1871)

c1415 (▶c1387–95) Chaucer Canterbury Tales Prol. (Corpus Oxf.) (1868)

Compare similarly:

a1413 (▶c1385) Chaucer Troilus & Criseyde (Pierpont Morgan) (1881)

c1430 (▶c1386) Chaucer Legend Good Women (Cambr. Gg.4.27) (1879)

Identifying material that draws on the Middle English Dictionary

As part of the editing of OED3, some new quotations have been added from the documentation in the Middle English Dictionary, and some existing quotations retained from the first and second editions of OED have been checked against the documentation in the Middle English Dictionary. In cases where OED3’s editors have based a quotation on the Middle English Dictionary’s evidence rather than having recourse directly to the editions of texts, this is flagged by “(MED)” following at the end of the citation, for example:

a1393 Gower Confessio Amantis (Fairf.) Prol. 92 (MED), So woll I now this werk embrace‥God grante I mot it wel achieve.

a1500 (▶?c1450) Merlin (1899) 609 (MED), Merlin‥wolde achieue that he hadde be-gonne.

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