Urban Dictionary

While scholars are trained to look closely at medieval manuscripts for clues about their identity, sometimes the most revealing aspect of an old document is not what is there, but rather, what isn’t. Take a close look at the musical notations in this book. Notice something missing? There aren’t any stems! One of the things this tells us is that the music in this book was not meant to be sight read; whoever owned and used this book already knew all of the songs. In this way, the music notes function as a kind of annotated short hand or code. If this mode of communication seems strangely familiar, it should. We use abbreviations in our speech and writing all the time.

Urban dictionary1

Olin Library Special Collections, Rollins College


Books as Bling

Just as Facebook users have the potential to add a cover photo or life events to their timeline, medieval book owners had the choice to customize their books exactly as they wished. While some medieval patrons focused on the text, others treated books as material markers of wealth and social status. For these individuals, the words on the page were less important than the type and quality of the book’s style. In the absence of Gucci and Prada, what better way to show off one’s wealth than by commissioning a ridiculously beautiful book filled with ornate gold leaf lettering?

Gucci purseUrban dictionary2


 The Origin of Texting?

The rise of texting and Twitter means that we now communicate in acronyms and abbreviations more than ever before. What some old crusty English professors may see as the abuse of the written word is, in reality, a return to its earlier standardized form. In the medieval era, it was both laborious and expensive to produce manuscripts. To save time, money and space on the page, many scribes wrote in shorthand. Just as anyone today knows that LOL and TTYL mean ‘laugh out loud’ and ‘talk to you later’ respectively, medieval readers and writers all knew that ‘.n.’ stood for ‘enim’ and ‘h’ stands for ‘nihil.’

Urban dictionary3

Olin Library Special Collections, Rollins College


Olde Schole Rappers

The official language of the religious and secular elite in medieval Europe was Latin. The language spoken by the lower and middling classes—Middle English—had arguably the same negative reputation as hip hop did when it burst onto the music scene in the early 1980s. Just as early rappers like The Sugarhill Gang and Run-D.M.C. used rap as a vehicle to expose social ills and champion the repressed, medieval poets used its own form of street slang—Middle English—to talk about similarly uncouth topics such as poverty, drugs, crime and sex. The text to your right—a late Middle English copy of Ralph Higden’s Polychronicon—serves as a case in point. This history book is filled with juicy tabloidish stories that include or allude to foiled assassination plots, celebrity sex scandals and political abuses of power.

Urban dictionary4

Polychronicon, Olin Library Special Collections, Rollins College