News | March 20, 2014

The British Library Saves Two Rare Manuscripts From Export


The British Library has acquired two rare manuscripts, preventing them from leaving the UK. The Catholicon Anglicum, a 15th-century English-Latin dictionary, and a printed traictise owned and annotated by John Ponet both became subject to a temporary export bar following a recommendation from the Reviewing Committee on the Export of Works of Art and Objects of Cultural Interest, which is administered by Arts Council England.

The Catholicon Anglicum, a bilingual Middle English-Latin dictionary dating from 1483, represents a crucial milestone in the evolution of the English dictionary, and this is the only complete manuscript in existence. One of the earliest examples of an English dictionary, it is thought to have been written in the north of England, specifically Yorkshire, based on the dialect of the English words. Produced in a century which saw the foundation of many grammar schools, there is much to be learnt from further study of the manuscript in terms of its educational function. 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.

An export bar was placed on the dictionary, which has now been bought by the British Library, on the grounds it was so closely connected with our history and national life that its departure would be a misfortune and it was of outstanding significance for study of the development of English lexicography and of education more generally.

The traictise was published under the name of lawyer Thomas Martin although its authorship is usually attributed at least in part to Stephen Gardiner (the Bishop of Winchester and Lord Chancellor of England). It 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 placed on the manuscript, which has now been bought by the British Library with the generous 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.

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.”

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.”

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.

Image: The Catholicon Anglicum, a 15th-century English-Latin dictionary. Courtesy of the British Library Board.