Renaissance Dictionary Technologies

After a hiatus filled with reading and research, today I’m publishing an account of the early modern lexicographer John Minsheu and the extraordinary services he rendered to language-learners in print. The value of his work was intricately related to his collaboration with his printers, his knowledge of typography and the London book trade, and his sheer persistence in the face of financial adversity. In short, much of his success was contingent upon his manipulation of the communication technologies at his disposal – the technology of the Renaissance dictionary. (I’ll actually have more to say about this in July at the 2013 SHARP convention in Philadelphia, but for now, let’s take a look in the archive.


Here, you get an idea of the typographical intricacies of Minsheu’s Spanish-English bilingual dictionary and grammar. Bracket-pieces and a variety of typefaces assist readers through the “lesson.”  The use of black-letter type was diminishing at this time in English print, but Minsheu and others in the language-learning book business found a purpose for it. Charles Deering McCormick Library of Special Collections L 463 P428, Northwestern University.

I became acquainted with Minsheu accidentally through my research on printed dictionaries and grammars for early modern English students of foreign languages (both Italian and Spanish, and soon French). In 1599, he was responsible for A Dictionarie in Spanish and English, pictured above, which can often be found in the archive bound and cataloged with A Spanish Grammar (I list them separately because they have distinct title pages). However, Minsheu’s most monumental effort was without question his 1617 eleven-language polyglot dictionary, Ductor in Linguas, which also goes by its English title Guide into tongues. It is a truly massive – and impressive – book. If you search Minsheu’s records in the ESTC, they seem fairly messy, with a number of imprint variants and a strange “Catalogue.”

It’s important for me to say that Minsheu’s “scholarly credibility” has faced some serious criticism. In 1973, Jurgen Schäfer published an article that admits Minsheu’s contribution to language learning as a compiler, but casts him otherwise as a “scholarly poseur.” Originality is the key issue in this debate. True enough, a vast number of entries in Minsheu’s Spanish dictionary were “lifted” from Richard Percivale’s quarto dictionary Biblioteca Hispanica (1591). And interestingly, modern library catalogs often still list Minsheu’s Dictionarie under Percivale’s name (this is the case at Northwestern and the Newberry, and it bothers me). Schäfer doesn’t go as far as the playwright Ben Jonson, who declared Minsheu a “rogue,” but he ends up showing how the lexicographer’s academic rigor was at best questionable.

Jonathan Warren has studied Minsheu’s work more recently. As he investigated Minsheu’s dictionaries for the Early Modern Dictionary Project at the University of Toronto (now the exceedingly useful Lexicons of Early Modern English, or LEME), Warren uncovered some of the strange methods that this compiler used to capture and document languages in print. Some of these methods are rather unusual from a twenty-first century perspective:

Indeed, many of these entries were in Percivale’s original. What Minsheu adds is all manner of variation to these entries: big goat, little goat, place of big goats, place  of little goats, a he goat, a she goat,  a place of he goats, a place of she goats, and so on. The practice  is the same for plant names and all other words.

It seems fairly clear just how committed Minsheu was in approaching the task of collecting a language in all its forms, locking it down in print, and setting it forth on the market. These compilation methods were certainly not “original” in the Romantic or modern sense of the word, but we can be sure that intellectual property functioned differently in 1599 or 1617 than it does today. Instead, if we focus on Minsheu’s work as a compiler with great interest and faith in the potential of print, we see an individual committed to providing an useful (if absurdly complete) tool to language students with the most intricate and thorough printed apparatuses imaginable.


Minsheu’s polyglot dictionary (regular-size iPod for size contrast). Charles Deering McCormick Library of Special Collections, L 423 M666, Northwestern University.

A massive folio volume, the Ductor in Linguas was no small project for Minsheu or his printers. It consists of nearly four hundred leaves (close to two hundred sheets) printed in the normal roman, italic, and black-letter faces but also including Greek, Anglo-Saxon and Hebrew type. A two-column dictionary features the eleven-language apparatus, and the final hundred or so leaves are Minsheu’s concurrent project, Vocabvlarivm Hispanico Latinum et Anglicum copiossissimum (Most copious Spanish, Latin, and English dictionary). The copy of this volume at Northwestern measures about 24 by 38 cm, so you have an idea of how massive this book is. The printers involved on the job included Melchisidec Bradwood at the Eliot’s Court Press, who had assisted the earlier and famous lexicographical efforts of John Florio. (Bradwood’s ECP colleague Edmund Bollifant had handled the 1599 printing of Minsheu’s Spanish dictionary.) For both the Ductor in Linguas and the second edition of Florio’s Italian-English dictionary, Bradwood shared printing labor with William Stansby, who undertook the important task of printing of Jonson’s Workes in 1616.


Minsheu’s “catalogue.” Charles Deering McCormick Library of Special Collections, L 423 M666, Northwestern University.

Such bulk came at a considerable cost, and scholars have indicated the unusual publication of this polyglot dictionary as an early instance of something like modern subscription. Although the Stationers’ Company refrained from supporting Minsheu in any way, individual booksellers and benefactors provided some support. In the archives, one can find a several issues of a “catalogue” that lists Minsheu’s financial backers (431 in total throughout all variant issues) as he sought to “sell” the dictionary in advance. The catalogue could be inserted into a volume, or it could hang somewhere to advertise the dictionary. This did not totally lighten the load for the compiler, however, who entered heavy debt to afford the services of his printers, even after petitioning Inns, societies, and wealthy individuals for gifts and loans. Despite the financial chaos of the dictionary that “hath cost me the hazard of my life,” in Minsheu’s words, the Ductor in Linguas eventually saw print after a period of two years. It was a labor of love. Because Minsheu mentions no price exactly, Franklin B. Williams believes that he simply asked the greatest sum he could in any given case; surviving copies appear with the prices of 30s. and 22s., which is rather high for the time but appropriate for such a massive and remarkable effort of lexicography and a noteworthy moment in early modern printing history.


For further reading on Minsheu’s work:

Schäfer, Jurgen. “John Minsheu: Scholar or Charlatan?” Renaissance Quarterly 26.1 (1973): 23-35.

Warren, Jonathan. “Reflections of an Electronic Scribe.” Early Modern Literary Studies [Special Issue] 1 (1997).

Williams, Franklin B. “Scholarly Publication in Shakespeare’s Day: A Leading Case.” Joseph Quincy Adams Memorial Studies, ed. J. G. MacManaway et. al. Washington D.C.: Folger Shakespeare Library, 1948. 755-73.


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