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Law and Early Modern English Lexicons
Ian Lancashire
8-23 (complete paper or proceedings contents)


The London humanist, dramatist, lawyer, and printer John Rastell (1475-1536) wrote and published the first monolingual lexicon of English about 1523-24, an 88-page quarto that expounded the meaning of legal terms. By translating the French and Latin legal terminology that the common law had used for centuries, Rastell was part of an early Tudor effort, particularly by Henry VIII, to make the English language competitive with other European languages. Rastell's innovative lexicon shares the purpose of other translations: William Tyndale's New Testament, the Englishing of the statutes of the realm, and the great English-French and Latin-English dictionaries by John Palsgrave (1530) and Sir Thomas Elyot (1538). Rastell believed that words denoted things that embodied and expressed the laws of God and the king. This politicized theory of lexical signification pervaded legal thinking about language throughout the sixteenth century and occurs in such works as John Manwood's treatise on forests and chases (1592). William Camden's Britannia (1586) and the rise of antiquarianism, however, undermined this theory. A manuscript treatise on forests by antiquarian William Fleetwood, recorder of London and a senior judge under Elizabeth I, testifies to a perception that error, obscurity, and change problematized legal language. Inkhorn terms and spelling variation did not exhaust the lexical controversies of this period.

Published in

Selected Proceedings of the 2005 Symposium on New Approaches in English Historical Lexis (HEL-LEX)
edited by R. W. McConchie, Olga Timofeeva, Heli Tissari, and Tanja Säily
Table of contents
Printed edition: $210.00