Press release

Lost for words: rare UK dictionary at risk of export

Culture Minister temporarily blocks rare export

This was published under the 2010 to 2015 Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition government


Culture Minister Ed Vaizey has placed an export bar on The Catholicon Anglicum, a bilingual Middle English-Latin dictionary dating from 1483, in an attempt to prevent its removal from the UK. Following its sale to an overseas buyer, the manuscript will leave the country unless a matching offer of £92,500 is made within the next few months.

The Catholicon Anglicum represents a crucial milestone in the evolution of the English dictionary, and this is the only complete manuscript witness in existence. (The only other known copy is held at the British Library, but has lost leaves in several places.) One of the earliest examples of an English dictionary, It is thought to have been written in the north of England, specifically Yorkshire, based on the dialect of the English words present.

Produced in a century which saw the foundation of many grammar schools, there is much to be learnt from further study of the manuscript in terms of its educational function. Its emphasis on the Latin equivalents made the Catholicon not simply a dictionary of English, but a tool to assist the growing number of school students with Latin composition.

Culture Minister Ed Vaizey took the decision to defer granting an export licence for the manuscript following a recommendation by the Reviewing Committee on the Export of Works of Art and Objects of Cultural Interest (RCEWA), administered by Arts Council England. The RCEWA made their recommendation on the grounds it was so closely connected with our history and national life that its departure would be a misfortune, and it was of outstanding significance for study of the development of English lexicography and of education more generally.

Culture Minister Ed Vaizey said:

” The manuscript is of outstanding significance for the history of the English language, which is fundamental to the identity and life of our nation. The Catholicon would make a tremendous addition to any one of our great libraries and I hope it remains here in the UK permanently.”

Christopher Wright from the RCEWA commented:

” This rare survival of a fifteenth century English-Latin word list is one of the vital first steps on the road to the English Dictionary as we know it today. Its anonymous author, possibly a Yorkshireman on the basis of some dialect words included, provides an invaluable witness to the English language as it existed in the second half of the fifteenth century, and can claim an honourable place in the roll of famous lexicographers that stretches through Johnson and Murray into our own age.”

The decision on the export licence application for the manuscript will be deferred for a period ending on 16 March 2014 inclusive. This period may be extended until 16 June 2014 inclusive if a serious intention to raise funds to purchase the manuscript is made at the recommended price of £92,500.

For media information contact:

Tamara Salhab

Press Office, Arts Council England Tel: 020 7973 5189 or 07872 416679


Notes to Editors

  • Organisations or individuals interested in purchasing the manuscript should contact RCEWA on 0845 300 6200. Details of the manuscript:

Catholicon Anglicum (scribe unknown)

191 leaves

223mm x 153mm

  • The Reviewing Committee on the Export of Works of Art and Objects of Cultural Interest is an independent body, serviced by Arts Council England, which advises the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport on whether a cultural object, intended for export, is of national importance under specified criteria.

  • Arts Council England champions, develops and invests in artistic and cultural experiences that enrich people’s lives. Between 2010 and 2015, it will invest £1.9 billion of public money from government and an estimated £1.1 billion from the National Lottery to help create these experiences for as many people as possible across the country.

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Published 17 December 2013