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Professor edits new Oxford Dictionary

July 07, 2010

Charm: from the Latin word “carmen,” meaning hymn or secular song, used in medieval times to relieve fevers and prevent toothaches.

This is just one of more than 5,000 entries found in the Oxford Dictionary of the Middle Ages, a new reference work edited by Robert E. Bjork, Foundation Professor of English and director of the Arizona Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies at ASU. The four-volume encyclopedia was created by a team of 26 editors, 800 contributing writers and a five-member advisory board over the course of more than a decade.

In addition to being the biggest project for Oxford University Press in the past 10 years, the dictionary was selected to be published in partnership with the Folio Society of London, which Bjork describes as “a very fancy book-of-the-month club.” As a result, each volume received high-quality textured binding and a unique and artful cover.

Oxford University Press began its worldwide search for an editor of the dictionary back in 1998 and chose Bjork based on his extensive knowledge of the Middle Ages. Bjork says he became interested in the subject back in graduate school at UCLA, where he planned to write his dissertation on William Faulkner. But when he took some classes in Old English, he recalls, “The Middle Ages opened up in all their splendor.” He went on to change fields and focus his dissertation on a new subject, and his passion for the Middle Ages never left.

The dictionary was a tremendous undertaking. Research assistants spent two years compiling a list of headwords from five existing encyclopedias and entering them into one huge database. By 2000, Bjork and his colleagues were ready to find contributing writers, who hail from all over the world, each with his or her own interests and expertise.

The Oxford Dictionary of the Middle Ages covers all key concepts of European history, culture and religion from c 500 to c 1500, as well as information about neighboring regions that influenced European society such as Asia and Northern Africa. In order to ensure balanced coverage of all aspects of the Middle Ages, the dictionary required two editorial boards – one focusing on geographic area and one focusing on specific themes. The two groups of editors worked together throughout the project and, as a result, Bjork says readers will find coverage of both major topics and subjects that have rarely been written about in the past.

Entries range in size from 60 to 10,000 words and include individual people, towns and terms, like “Charlemagne,” as well as large concepts, such as ”History of France.” In addition to thousands of thematic and geographic entries, the dictionary includes 50 line maps and 500 illustrations.

Oxford University Press has offices in every major city throughout the world and a worldwide distribution range, which makes the dictionary’s impact on the study of the Middle Ages significant and far-reaching. The reference work is meant to be a comprehensive guide to the Middle Ages, but will also open up areas that have not been studied extensively before, such as music, medicine and archeology. Bjork himself wrote about 25 entries on subjects in which he has particular expertise – for example, he composed the entry for “Alcuin,” an influential religious and intellectual scholar who lived during the 700s.

Bjork says the dictionary is an important tool not only for the study of the Middle Ages. On a larger scale, it helps us understand other cultures, which is key to resolving conflict.

“The more we understand about the past, the safer we are in the present, and the more we understand about ourselves,” Bjork says. “It’s a platitude, but it’s true.”

by Allie Nicodemo, Office of Knowledge Enterprise Development