As reported by the indefatigable aldiboronti at (the latter now with a shiny new domain!), the complete Middle English Dictionary from the University of Michigan is now free online:

The print MED, completed in 2001, has been described as “the greatest achievement in medieval scholarship in America.” Its 15,000 pages offer a comprehensive analysis of lexicon and usage for the period 1100-1500, based on the analysis of a collection of over three million citation slips, the largest collection of this kind available. This electronic version of the MED preserves all the details of the print MED, but goes far beyond this, by converting its contents into an enormous database, searchable in ways impossible within any print dictionary.

The interface is, as aldi says, clunky, but really, who cares? What a treasure! The press release says:

The database includes information on the origins of technical writing, popular culture, notable literary works, medicine, law, science, ship-building, encyclopedias, translations of the Bible, maps, letters, wills, acts of State, recipes, philosophy, mathematics and numerous other subjects, providing a distant mirror of Medieval culture and society. In addition to the linked information, the dictionary also provides the full, searchable text of more than 100 important Medieval documents in their entirety.

“We’ve always wanted to see an interlinked web of dictionaries that together cover the very multilingual world of medieval Britain along with antecedent and successor languages,” said Paul Schaffner of U-M’s Digital Library Production Service. “The division between dictionaries has always been rather artificial in a multilingual society where words tend to slip back and forth between languages. There are many words, especially commercial and legal words that cannot be easily assigned to one language or another.”

The need for free access to this resource was made apparent by inquiries from around the world. Now the English teacher in Uganda can finish a translation of a Middle English mystery play for his students, the English gentleman attempting to determine the origin of his surname on behalf of a society of those with the same name will find an easier path to success and independent scholars and emeritus faculty will have full access for their research. Students at various colleges and universities who use the Middle English Dictionary for class assignments will be able to complete their assignments from home computers…


  1. thanks for the lead, great for my leaden writing.

  2. The interface is no longer clunky (I have updated the link to the new URL).

  3. The improved interface was just one aspect of the 2018 revision, the first since it was put online. They’ve also added more quotations and new entries:

    We have been attaching to the appropriate entries additional quotes and notes taken chiefly from two sources: (1) about 20,000 “supplement slips” set aside over decades by the MED editors in hope that an MED Supplement would some day be compiled. These have hitherto lain largely inaccessible in boxes in the University archives. And (2) a much smaller number of new virtual supplement slips drawn from editorial notes in recent editions of ME texts, notes of the sort that typically declare, “this word (or sense, or spelling) is omitted by the MED” — in effect crowd-sourcing correction of the MED.

    And they’ve corrected errors, expanded abbreviations (making it more searchable), cross-linked the MED and the online OED, and updated the bibliography with more information on variant texts and their locations. From editor Paul Schaffner’s remarks in Dictionary News:

    What the new MED loses:
    * Some of the more sophisticated but less used multi-field Boolean searches (at least for the time being).
    * Its frozen-in-time quality.
    * Its veneer of authority and comprehensiveness, since we are adding much semi-digested material without having the time to incorporate it fully; many ‘stub entries’ on the Wikipedia model, and many draft additions, all marked as such. Making the material available seemed important enough that it was worth exposing the fact (which was always true) that the MED, like almost any dictionary, is always a contingent set of surmises, always a semi-informed work in progress.

    Truth! Thank you, University of Michigan. They don’t have the budget to revise each entry as a whole (as the OED is doing), but what they’ve done is valuable.

  4. Wow, they’re really doing it right (and maybe some alum will give them a chunk of money to do it even better). Thanks for the update.

Speak Your Mind