An Oxford Historian
Resources for Early Medieval Language Learning
Updated: May 28, 2021
A brief look into learning, understanding and translating four major early medieval languages - Latin, Old English, Old Norse, and Old French. Here you'll find a list of beginners books and free online resources, including dictionaries. #ComissionsEarned (This post includes Amazon Affiliate links) - As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.
A historian of the early medieval period needs to wear many hats, and an understanding of contemporary languages is crucial. Many primary sources haven't been translated to modern English and, where they have, questions of variable translation underly questions of interpretation. However, getting started in these language can be a tough task.
I'm not a linguist by any means, but I'm hoping that will help learners even more - the texts and website I've chosen are deliberately accessible (while still being academic).
Broadly, the resources here are divided in two. Provisions for learning the language in its entirety are provided first - this is obviously the ideal outcome, and a great way to spend your time. If, however, you don't have time to learn a whole new language (and who does these days), then easy access dictionaries allow you to look up and translate smaller texts you need. I have deliberately aimed for online resources for this section - while others certainly exist, online dictionary resources are by far the easiest (and cheapest) for beginner learners.
This isn't an exhaustive list of languages by any means, and only includes the four major languages that my own research covers. If you know of any other good resources for other languages, let me know - drop a comment down below.
Despite its classical origin, Latin continued to be used within the early medieval context across Europe, especially in an ecclesiastical context.
As a practical language-learning guide, I would recommend Latin: An Intensive Course by Moreland and Fleischer, available on Amazon here. This is very much a reference work, and is perhaps a bit sudden in its introduction of new grammatical concepts - don't expect to read it cover to cover in one sitting. The Cambridge Latin Course is still an amazing resource (including free online resources), and has been continually updated over time, especially with new archaeological evidence. Anyone looking for an entry-level Latin teaching book for children should definitely invest in it - it is available on Amazon here.
For reference dictionaries, the Collatinus web app (https://outils.biblissima.fr/en/collatinus-web/) is of great use, particularly given its ability to analyse the grammar of the passages, allowing for a better understanding of the text. For the British Medieval context specifically, the Dictionary of Medieval Latin from British Sources (http://www.dmlbs.ox.ac.uk/web/online.html) is exceptional, allowing you to find the context in which vocabulary has been used within specific manuscripts.
Learning Old English
Old English is the language spoken by the 'Anglo-Saxons' within England, Germanic in origin, and one of the contributing forces behind modern English.
A Guide to Old English by Mitchell and Robinson is a perfect all-in-one reference book for the language, available on Amazon here. However, this is not itself a walk-through teaching guide in the traditional sense - there is no hand-holding here. Slightly more accessible is Beginning Old English by Hough and Corbett, available here. This would be my personal recommendation for anyone beginning learning the language from scratch, especially if they are teaching themselves. For a slightly more light-hearted approach, or an ideal book for younger learners interested in taking up Old English, I'd heartily recommend Learn Old English with Leofwin, available on Amazon here.
For reference, the digital version of the Dictionary of Old English (https://www.doe.utoronto.ca/pages/index.html) comes out of the University of Toronto. As of yet, the online dictionary only includes the letters A to I, with intention to expand in the future. For a broader study, the colossal Bosworth-Toller dictionary (https://bosworthtoller.com/) remains dominant, and is especially useful for its free access.
Learning Old Norse
The 'Vikings' of early medieval Scandinavia spoke Old Norse, a language very similar to modern Icelandic.
For learning the language, I'd recommend Viking Language by Jesse Byock, available on Amazon here. Well contextualised in history and contemporary literary sources, this is a great overall resource. A second volume, including a broader set of translation exercises drawn from saga evidence, is available on Amazon here.
The Dictionary of Old Norse Prose (https://onp.ku.dk/onp/onp.php) is probable the best online resource for vocabulary research although, of course, its focus solely on prose must be acknowledged.
Learning Old French
Introduced into England by the Norman Conquest, I must admit to knowing far less about Old French. A good starting point is the Anglo-Norman Dictionary (https://anglo-norman.net/).
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