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The Oxford Dictionary of the Middle Ages


The Oxford Dictionary of the Middle Ages (ODMA) is designed to be a resource of first resort for specialists and non-specialists alike for all key aspects of European history, society, religion, and culture, c.500 to c.1500. Since neighbouring areas of Asia and North Africa helped shape the civilization of the West, we have likewise included relevant aspects of the Byzantine empire, the Islamic dynasties, and Asiatic peoples such as the Avars and Mongols. The ODMA is also designed to give readers direct access to material they will have difficulty finding elsewhere. In particular, you will find in the ODMA extraordinary coverage of central and eastern Europe, archaeology, medicine, and music, as well as separate and substantial entries on women and children for all the geographical areas. Over 800 scholars explore these and all other topics through scores of entries ranging in size from 60 to 10,000 words and ranging in focus from such things as individual artifacts, people, and towns to general histories and large concepts, such as feudalism. All entries are supported by up-to-date bibliographies, and all are made extremely easy to use by the navigational tools developed for this reference work. Besides abundant cross-references within each entry to other entries and signpost entries showing readers where to find information on topics that do not have entries themselves (for example, calligraphySeewriting and writing materials), the ODMA begins and ends with two different kinds of index: a thematic index in which all entries are grouped by topic and a general index in which all subjects are listed alphabetically. Over 500 illustrations and 50 maps give the ODMA further substance and utility, enhancing, not merely complementing, the scholarly work resident in these pages. Despite its four volumes and close to 1,300,000 words, the ODMA cannot claim to be an exhaustive treatment of so sprawling a subject as the Middle Ages. Because of its history, however, and the nature of its construction, it can claim to be unusually balanced.

First, the Editorial Board consists of two groups of scholars, one responsible for nine geographical and the other for seventeen topical areas (see the list of Editors and Contributors, below). The interaction between these two groups ensures that major topics are not slighted or ignored. With his or her own special focus in mind, each editor scrutinized the headword list for the ODMA as the list developed and made certain that it gave adequate attention to his or her area of concern. Second, the list began with what amounts to a survey of the existing knowledge about and coverage of the field: the compilation of the list of headwords from several English dictionaries or encyclopedias of the Middle Ages.

During the summer of 1998, all the possible headwords were collated into a master list, which became the provisional headword list for ODMA. This list consisted of some 9,000 items. Each headword was assigned to one or more of eighteen geo-cultural and/or 23 thematic categories. Those categories now constitute the basis of the Thematic Listing of Entries of the ODMA. The entire list was then sorted by those categories to determine the percentage of the list devoted to each area.

Two points about the headword list thus produced are worth emphasizing here. The first is the unbalanced geographical coverage: France got 13.9% of the entries; Italy 13.5%; England 9.6%; Germany and Austria 7.9%; central and eastern Europe 5.9%; Spain and Portugal 5.4%; Scotland, Ireland, and Wales 2.6%; Scandinavia 2.4%; and the Low Countries 1.5%. The second is a curious under-representation of what should have been major topics. Ecclesiastical history comprised 22.9% of the list, but philosophy and theology only 3%, medieval Latin only 0.3%, and the Bible and exegesis only 0.2%. The various vernacular languages and literatures were similarly neglected (from 0.1% for Slavic to 1.5% for Romance) as was archaeology (0.1%) and art and architecture (4.1%).

From a purely statistical and superficial point of view, the ODMA has been able to rectify this situation easily by devoting a specific number of words to each geographical area and a balanced and reasonable percentage of total coverage to each topical category as well. But by so doing, it has also addressed some slightly more serious and hidden problems. One might assume, for example, that although the original list was imbalanced as a whole, it could have been balanced within individual areas. This was not necessarily true. Even the list for the Low Countries, to take the least represented geographical region, contained three problems that the ODMA would correct: it was weighted heavily toward religious figures, it omitted many important women (including religious mystics), and it reflected some knowledge about Flanders but little about Brabant, Holland, and the rest of the Low Countries. The early headword list for the Romance languages and literatures, on the other hand, was heavily Franco-centric and was also biased toward canonical writers. The ODMA, on the other hand, includes Occitan, Italian, and Spanish material as well as a large body of Iberian writing in non-Romance languages. While thus correcting the geographical and topical imbalances and misrepresentations of the early list, the ODMA also serves as a corrective to the marginalization of certain topical categories such as archaeology. By devoting an analytical overview of up to 10,000 words with ample cross-referencing and indexing to this and other major topics, the ODMA gives those neglected areas their due and thereby promotes a true inter-disciplinarity.

The complete, collated list of headwords together with a sub-list specific for each editorial area and culled from the master list was then sent to each member of the Editorial Board along with guidelines for developing the headword list for the ODMA. The members were advised that they should not feel constrained by the collated lists despite their relatively authoritative appearance. The lists were intended to serve as a beginning, a mere impetus for thought.

Finally, the nine geographical editors were advised to keep space limitations in mind as they developed their lists and were given the following estimate of how many words would be allotted to each area:

Geographical Allotments


130,000 words

central and eastern Europe:




Germany and Austria:


Italy and Sicily:


Low Countries:




Scotland, Ireland, Wales:


Spain and Portugal:




The seventeen topical editors were likewise asked to arrange for the writing of major and minor articles in their areas totaling about 12,000 words and to coordinate their efforts with those of the geographical editors.

Topical Allotments



Total ODMA word count


The various parameters of the project thus having been set, the final headword list for the ODMA—totaling over 5,000 entries—emerged at last, and invitations were issued worldwide to 840 scholars to write the required articles while the Editorial and Advisory Boards and I worked on other essential details of the project such as putting together lists of illustrations and maps to accompany the text. The result of this painstaking, meticulous, and laborious collaboration you now have in hand: a cornucopia of facts, new insights, figures, illustrations, maps, and thorough treatments of topics given short shrift elsewhere. The ODMA’s breadth is one of its most distinctive aspects, and we hope that it and many other compelling features will bring you back to this research tool time and time again.


December 2009