The Theory and
Practice of Lexicons of Early Modern English
University of Toronto
Ian Lancashire. "The Theory and Practice of Lexicons of Early Modern English." Early Modern Literary Studies 14.2/Special Issue 17 (September, 2008) 5.1-25 <URL: http://purl.oclc.org/emls/14-2/Lanctheo.html>.
- The University of Toronto Press and the University of Toronto Library jointly launched my Lexicons of Early Modern English (LEME)
on April 12, 2006. LEME offers both free, public access to and a
licensed scholarly site for half a million word-entries in more than 155
lexical works, print and manuscript, written by English speakers from about
1480 to 1702. Growing year by year, it documents, analytically, what those
alive in this long period thought that words meant. Because we can only
understand a language partially and locally—its words tend to be the product of
a place, a date, a social community, and even a person—LEME builds on
whatever surviving documents that describe words. LEME does not make its
own definitions. In deciding word-meaning, contemporary authors have an
authority above those of us who live centuries later. People do not have to be
great writers or lexicographers to share this authority. It is just enough that
they spoke the language and made observations about the English words they
- There are three ways to find
words in LEME: typing in a query string; and browsing either a
comprehensive alphabetical word-list, or a table of editorially normalized
headwords from LEME word-entries. LEME word-or-string searches
retrieve individual word-entries, sometimes with a link to the EEBO image
(which usefully grounds LEME transcriptions in facsimiles of its single
documents). LEME can also restrict queries by language, date, title,
author, genre, and subject. Each set of results graphs the distribution of the
word over two centuries. Or the researcher can approach the collected
word-horde through the full LEME alphabetical word-list: it enables a
researcher to browse every word-form in the transcribed lexical works and call
up each word-entry in which the queried word-form is found. This word-list
parallels the Early English Books Online/Text Creation Partnership (EEBO/TCP)
master word-list. A third option, intended for researchers who want
old-spelling occurrences of words collected under one modern-spelling headword,
is to use the modernized, editorially-lemmatized headwords list. A lemma—on
which the name LEME quibbles—is an inflectionally-related group of
words. For example, the lemma for old spellings like "gives",
"giues", and "giueth", and inflectional variants like
"giue", "giuing", "gaue", "giues", and
"given", is the general infinitive form, "give." Normally, LEME
lemmas are editorially standardized on Oxford English Dictionary headwords.
the Early Modern English Lexicon
- LEME indexes bibliographically some 1,200
lexical works from about 1480 to 1702. My major sources for printed texts are
Robin Alston's in-progress bibliography, EEBO, and pioneering scholarship by
Gabriele Stein and others. The comprehensiveness of LEME's index of
lexicons distinguishes it from its sources: it lists all kinds of lexical
works, whether bilingual or monolingual, by author, date, title, subject, and
genre. It includes manuscript lexical works as well as small glossaries within
treatises. The large secondary bibliography that annotates this index—again, a
resource not available elsewhere—adds other overlooked primary works to this
bibliography. For example, last fall, with the help of a British Library
reference librarian I found—and notified EEBO, which now includes it—what seems
to be the first Renaissance English bilingual glossary to be printed, the
anonymous Floures of Ouid in 1513. This gives balanced English-Latin and
Latin-English glossaries for grammar-school students and serves their study of
sentences from Ovid's Art of Love. For example, last fall, with the help
of a British Library reference librarian I found—and notified EEBO, which now
includes it—what seems to be the first Renaissance English bilingual glossary
to be printed, the anonymous Floures of Ouid in 1513. This gives
balanced English-Latin and Latin-English glossaries for grammar-school students
and serves their study of sentences from Ovid's Art of Love.
- University of Toronto membership in EEBO/TCP helped me to locate texts that explain Early Modern English
terminology. Frederick Furnivall founded the Early English Text Society (EETS)
to assist Oxford English Dictionary lexicographers to find words and citations
for them in hitherto unedited texts. EEBO/TCP is both the new OED's and LEME's
digital EETS. The EEBO/TCP master word-list, when searched for terms like
"glossary," "vocabulary," "definition,"
"dictionary," and "lexicon," identifies otherwise elusive
lexical commentaries, tables, and pockets of word-explanations that translators
and treatise-writers bundled with their works. EEBO/TCP also gives LEME valuable
digital transcriptions for several lexicons, especially Thomas Wilson's Christian
Dictionary (1612), Edward Phillip's World of Words (1658), William
Lloyd's dictionary of the semantic analyses of words in Bishop Wilkin's Essay
(1668), and Elisha Coles' English Dictionary (1676). These added
significantly to the total word-entries in LEME. Perhaps there are more
helpful projects in research infrastructure for the Early Modern English period
than EEBO/TCP, but I do not know what they are.
- How, then, does LEME differ
from a collection like EEBO/TCP? LEME has proofread texts and emended
erroneous readings. Its database implementation allows for selective retrieval
of words by language, position (headword, explanation), and lemma, gives a
detailed profile of the vocabulary of the period, decade by decade, offers
ready access to all period lexical works at once, and represents a start on the
yet unrealized period dictionary of Early Modern English (Bailey 1985), the
successor to the Middle English Dictionary. A comparison of the original image
of Sir Thomas Elyot's Bibliotheca Eliotae (1542), an EEBO/TCP
transcription of part of its text, and the LEME parallel transcription
will show some of these differences.
<p><em>Auersus.</em> straunge, vnacquaynted: sometyme backeward,
or on the backe halfe. also angry <em>Aduersus, &
auersus,</em> forwarde and backewarde.</p>
<p><em>Auersa pars,</em> the backesyde of a thynge.</p>
<p><em>Auersa pecunia publica,</em> the co~mon treasure to a
<p><em>Auersis post crura planus,</em> the feete tourned
- EEBO/TCP distinguishes Latin headwords from
English translations or equivalents by the use of emphasis tags, but it also removes
the distinction between a main word-entry such as "Auersus" and its sub-entries
(e.g., "auersa pars"). Lost is the indenting by which Elyot
subordinates sub-entries under main entries. LEME adds the encoding of these
semantic hierarchies (in which sub-entries fall under main entries) manually.
<wordentry><form>Auersus.</form> <xpln lexeme="strange(a)"
lexeme="back half, on the(adv)" lexeme="angry(a)"
lexeme="forward and backward(adv)" lexeme="backside(n)"
lexeme="treasure, common(n)" lexeme="feet, turned
backward(a)">straunge, vnacquaynted : sometyme backeward, or on
the backe halfe. also angry
lang="la">Aduersus, & auersus,</term> forwarde and backe­
<subform>Auersa pars,</subform> <subxpln>the backesyde of
<subform>Auersa pecunia publica,</subform> <subxpln>the c<expan
to a particuler
<subform>Auersis post crura planus,</subform> <subxpln>the
- LEME also
adds lemmatized word-forms for all English equivalents within "lexeme"
attributes in the so-called <xpln> (explanation) tag. At present our
semi-automatic lemmatization software functions reasonably well for between 84%
and 98% of English terms, depending on the lexicon. The remainder of
lemmatizations have to be done manually.
- This extra encoding is
labour-intensive but, in the long run, valuable. Manual grouping of sub-entries
under main entries offers a wider context for understanding why, for instance,
a Latin phrase for a form of torture (turning the feet around backwards)
belongs under "Auersus": one of the translations of the headword is
"angry." Lemmatization has other advantages. It enables users to
retrieve all forms of the same word, whether different spellings (like
"backeward" and "backewarde") or different inflections of
verbs (like "tourned" and, say, "tourne"), at the same
time. As important, once all orthographic forms of a word can be associated
with its OED headword, LEME can measure, over this period, when words
first were recognized as English. In this way we can determine the rate at the
national lexicon expanded.
Supplementing the Oxford English
- The OED takes 25,324 quotations from the works of Shakespeare, whose
authoritative concordance has just over 29,000 headwords (which include plenty
of duplicate entries, because alternate spellings, inflectional variants, and
emended word-forms are given separate headwords). It would probably be fair to
say that OED quotes almost every word-type that Shakespeare used. Jürgen
Schäfer (1980) shows how this over-represents Shakespeare's lexical
inventiveness. Compare the above numbers with the OED coverage of Renaissance
lexicons that serve English. The OED takes 17,624 quotations from fifty-two
sizable British dictionaries found in LEME, most of them printed, from
1499 to 1623 (see Table 1), but these lexical works have a total of 412,847
word-entries, the majority of which illustrate more than one English word. The
OED draws citations from only 4.3 percent of word-entries in these lexical works.
- LEME significantly supplements the OED,
documenting new words and senses, antedating first-usage information, and
delineating Latin, French, Italian, and Spanish words that were thought to
correspond to English words. The sheer scale of the data that a LEME
query retrieves shows minute changes in language usage over time. For example, LEME
can sometimes tell us when a word drops out of favour, and when a new loan-word
fails to establish itself. Although OED remains an unrivaled authority for
etymology, inflectional history, and language usage by non-lexicographer
authors—it truly describes "the meaning of everything"—in matters
Early Modern its selection of quotations is biased towards one playwright, and
against harder-to-locate works that express how the period documented its own
tongue. The OED also occasionally observes a theory of language that reflects
late Victorian and early twentieth-century thinking—for instance, that words
signify mental ideas—rather than Early Modern beliefs, which take nouns as
names for things.
- Fifteen years ago, when
developing the Early Modern English Dictionaries Database (EMEDD) that preceded
LEME, I used these lexical works to re-annotate passages from
Shakespeare in the hope of showing how revisionist the use of contemporary
lexical sources was in scholarly editing and close reading. My finding that
Shakespeare's first villain, Aron in Titus Andronicus, took his name
from a common English weed, priest's pintle, aron, wake robin, or ramp, rather
than from Moses' brother Aaron, was persuasive for some (1997). No matter the
Early Modern text, however, using LEME brings out surprising senses and
nuances (Lancashire 1993, 2003).
- Let me illustrate this again with
two words, "dodkin" and "personate", from a sentence chosen
entirely at random from the EEBO/TCP transcript of Thomas Nashe's Strange
Trust mee not
for a dodkin, if there bee not all the Doctourship
hee hath, yet will the insolent inke-horne worme
write himselfe Right worshipfull of the Lawes, and
personate this man and that man, calling him my
good friend Maister Doctour at euery word. (d4r)
- A LEME search for "dodkin"
delivers nineteen word-entries from 1570 to 1676 devised by ten glossographers
from Peter Levins (1570) to Elisha Coles (1676). They give somewhat different
information to what appears in the OED entry for "dodkin", which has
two senses, the small-value Dutch coin named a doit, and a bud or pistil. John
Cowell (1607), Thomas Blount (who copies him; 1656), and Edward Phillips (who
copies Blount; 1658) all support the OED reference to a coin, associating it
with the French shilling. In two earlier word-entries, however, John Baret
(1574) has a different gloss: first, "a Dandeprat: or dodkin" as "Hilum, li, n.ge.
Teruncius, tij m.g. A knaue scante worth a dandeprat. Trioboli, vel triobolaris
homo. Plaut"; and, secondly, "a Dodkin" as "of small value: a thing of naught. Hilum,
li, n.g. Cic. Teruntius, tij, m.g. Cic. Vng quadrin, vn liard. He has not sent
a Dodkin, or one farding. Ne teruntium quidem misit Eras." Randle Cotgrave
(1611) echoes Baret's gloss in illustrating the French word "Zest":
"Il ne vaut pas vn Zest. He is not worth a dodkin,
straw, rush, a pinnes head, the taking vp." Nashe thus uses the senses
that Baret and Cotgrave document rather than ones found in the OED.
- The LEME modern headwords
word-list gives the word "personate" in six lexicons, five hard-word
tables by Robert Cawdrey (1604), John Bullokar (1616), Henry Cockeram (1623),
Thomas Blount (1623), and Edward Phillips (1568), and a general dictionary of
the entire language by John Kersey (1702). Their dominant sense is "to
counterfeit, represent, resemble, or act" another person, but Blount and
Phillips add another meaning, "to sound out … or make a great noise."
Again, the OED and these lexicons have somewhat different senses. Both document
the main sense, "to represent," but LEME also has evidence for
a minor one, "sound out."
- This little exercise shows that Early
English vocabulary splits into two, mother-tongue words on the one hand, and
loan-words or terms of art, on the other hand. The word "dodkin"
appears in bilingual lexicons (Baret, Cotgrave) as an insult, a sign of belonging
to the mother tongue, as well as in hard-word tables (Blount, Phillips, and
Coles), a sign of its foreign extraction from Dutch. In contrast,
"personate" occurs uniformly in hard-word lexicons: it is a
neologism, a loan-word from Latin. LEME results also supplement the OED
with novel information about senses. Only Blount documents a sense,
"sound out" (for "personate"). Phillips plagiarized this
from him, and then the sense exited the language.
- A creature of postmodernism, LEME affects
our understanding of the history of the English language. Using it introduces
interpretive doubts by giving readers so much information that their assured
certainties about what even common words meant fall away. Yet it is also
faithful to its period, when language grew without controls, giving linguistic
opportunities to the adventurous, confusing readers and listeners who were
lobbied to learn languages like Latin, French, and Italian and who had few
resources to learn or maintain their own mother tongue, English. Until 1623, the
English language had no general dictionary of English hard words, and until
much later, with the work of John Kersey (1706), no comprehensive lexicon of
both hard words and the mother tongue. LEME supplies what would have
been useful in Shakespeare's London: a guide to how the mother tongue squared
itself against a polyglot insurgence from within.
- R. F. Jones believed that the late sixteenth century marked
"the triumph of English," but if there was any victory, it took place
much later. It is well known how uneven was the teaching of English in the
early Tudor period. People educated their male children to speak that great
Renaissance interlingua, Latin, in grammar schools like Magdalen College, Oxford, that refused students permission to use their mother tongue: Latin was the
rule for them at all times. One student says, in a late fifteenth-century
collection of passages for Latin translation: "Iff I hade not usede my
englysh tongue so greatly, the which the maistre hath rebukede me ofte tymes, I
shulde have ben fare more lighter (or, conyng) in grammer. wis men saye that nothyng
may be more profitable to them that lurns grammer than to speke latyn"
(Nelson 1956: 22). To foreigners like Erasmus, Tudor English sounded like dogs
barking, so many were its monosyllabic Saxon words (Giese 1937). If Erasmus did
not bother to learn English when he lived in the country for some years, what
could be expected of foreigners? John Florio's first dialogues for the teaching
of Italian, in 1578, confirmed that little had changed since Erasmus' time.
Visiting foreigners thought English "woorth nothing" beyond Dover:
is a language confused, bepeesed with many tongues: it taketh many words of the
latine, & mo from the French, & mo from the Italian,
& many mo from the Duitch, some also from the Greeke, &
from the Britaine, so that if euery language had his owne wordes
againe, there woulde but a fewe remaine for English men, and yet euery day they
To judge from the anonymous English-Latin Promptorium Parvulorum
(1499), John Palsgrave's English-French Lesclarcissement (1530; two large
bilingual works), and William Tyndale's popular translation of the New
Testament (1525), which he wrote with "a boye that dryueth the
plough" in mind, it had only about 20,000 words in circulation in the
reigns of the early Tudors.
- As John Florio notes, Early Modern English lexicons tell
us that native speakers in Renaissance England believed that their vocabulary
extended along a lexical spectrum from common, spoken words (the mother tongue)
to technical trade words (terms of art) and words borrowed from other languages
(so-called hard words). Over two hundred years, as new knowledge and
technologies introduced concepts for which no ready vernacular term existed,
English became engorged with new words (McConchie 1997; Nevalainen 1999;
McDermott 2002), especially from Latin and French, even as basic everyday
English, until the late sixteenth century, appears to have been untaught except
for its spelling. By about 1525, publishers had introduced the first
stand-alone encyclopedic lexicons to explain professional vocabularies (law and
herbs) and the first in-text hard-word glossaries (Hüllen 1999). These
explicated neologisms that were usually coined, on-the-spot, by translators who
either could not find native equivalents or wanted their writing to sound authoritative
and impressive. Jürgen Schäfer first showed (1989: I, 8) how, after
three-quarters of a century, the quantity of hard words introduced by
individual translators increased to the point that publishers could sell
stand-alone lexicons of hard words for all subjects.
- These hard-word lexicons grew in size from about 1,700
words in Edmund Coote's glossary (1596) to 28,000 words in
late-seventeenth-century "English" dictionaries by Thomas Blount,
Edward Phillips, and Elisha Coles. Robert Cawdrey, author of the first
stand-alone English hard-word lexicon, Table Alphabeticall (1604),
relied heavily on Thomas Thomas's Latin-English dictionary (1587) but only
glossed "Hard Vsual English Words", a limitation that excluded
objectionable inkhorn terms. Other larger hard-word dictionaries followed: John
Bullokar (1616), Henry Cockeram (1623), Thomas Blount (1656), Edward Phillips
(1658), and Elisha Coles (1676). By the 1640s, even a man as well-educated as
Sir Thomas Blount confessed himself "gravell'd" in his reading, that
is, stuck when he came upon a novel English word he did not know and could not
interpret. Anyone who has suffered from kidney stones will know how Blount
felt. The Renaissance transformed English gradually into a multilingual Babel,
the ancient language of monosyllabic and disyllabic words taught by mothers,
and a new hard-word, term-of-art, often polysyllabic vocabulary, sufficiently
omnipresent to remind one of a third linguistic invasion, not by Saxons after
the sixth century or by Normans after 1066 but by publishers and their hungry,
neologizing and translating authors. By the early eighteenth century, Nathan
Bailey gradually dominated the English dictionary market by collecting more
hard words than anyone else, up to 60,000. However, it was Samuel Johnson who
secured Jones' "triumph of English" when he met Robert Dodsley's
challenge to produce the first great dictionary of core English in mid-century
in 1755. His work offered a modest 40,000 word-entries.
- LEME shows how those living in the Renaissance
regarded English and its two tongues, basic and hard-word, as maturing,
intertwined quasi-polyglot languages. Lexicon entries for words such as
"dictionary" reveal how self-conscious were lexicographers in this.
William Mulcaster (1582) says that hard words earned their place in mother
English by being enfranchised, that is, given citizenship. He recognizes two word-streams,
one adopted by its native land, and the other countryless and unauthorized.
Randle Cotgrave in his French-English dictionary (1611) iterates this in
translating the French word "Espave" as "Maisterlesse; without
author, or owner; also, forreine, farre-borne; of vnknowne birth, or beginning.
Mots espaves. Strange, new-forged, vnaccustomed, words." John Florio
lacked even the concept of a "monolingual dictionary" in 1598,
titling his Italian-English lexicon a "world of words." John Kersey's
surprising word entry in 1702, "A Glossary, or dictionary, explaining divers
languages" (my italics; 1702), confirms Mulcaster and Cotgrave.
Renaissance dictionaries in England served two or more tongues.
- Paradoxically, LEME shows that Early Modern
English-first bilingual dictionaries, glossaries, and vulgaria are, outside
Bible translations (which offer only small glossaries, mostly of proper names),
the best guides to the mother tongue. Bilingual lexicons had to employ common
English words as equivalents if they were to make foreign terminology
understandable. Those with a native-to-foreign directionality, that is, those
with English headwords, and foreign-language equivalents in the post-lemmatic
position, served to translate their common words into other languages. When no
English term was available, the lexicographer would use a phrasal headword.
John Withals' popular English-Latin dictionary (1556) shows that English did
not yet possess the words "posthumous" and "abortion": he had
to use the roundabout sentences, "He that is borne after that his father
is deade" and "childe borne afore his time", to translate the
Latin equivalents. English-first bilingual lexicons by such as Withals slowed
the inroads made by loan-words, as did hard-word and terms-of-art
lexicographers. A mid-century spate of English-Latin dictionaries by Richard
Huloet (1552), Withals, Peter Levins (1570), John Baret (1574), and John Rider
(1589) put English first. They were followed, however, by huge bilingual
dictionaries with a foreign-to-English directionality, that is, those with
foreign-language headwords and English equivalents in the post-lemmatic
position, and they promoted neologizing. Great, often reprinted bilingual
lexicons—Sir Thomas Elyot (1538-48), Thomas Cooper (1565-84), and Thomas Thomas
(Latin, 1538-87), Richard Percival and John Minsheu (Spanish, 1591, 1599,
1617), John Florio (Italian, 1598, 1611), and Randle Cotgrave (French, 1611)—conferred
authority on the headword's foreign language, not on English, a directionality
that accelerated borrowing.
- These varied lexicons balanced
two needs, the expansion of English into a world language, and its standardization
as a native language. Lexicographical self-regulation simultaneously accelerated
and braked the growth of English. A LEME query can determine into which
language, the mother tongue or the new hard-word vocabulary, a term falls by
searching for it separately in multilingual texts first, and second in
monolingual English texts. If a term occurs most frequently in multilingual
lexicons, it very likely belongs to the mother tongue, no matter its etymology.
- LEME first came about because I realized
that the directionality of bilingual lexicons that placed their
all-but-inaccessible (to a facsimile reader) English equivalents in
post-lemmatic explanations could be reversed once these lexicons were digitized.
A lexicon alphabetized by Latin headwords could be read as if it was alphabetized
by English headwords. Once all lexicons of whatever directionality had been
digitized and conflated, it seemed to me, we would have a very large virtual
Early Modern English dictionary, one written entirely by lexicographers of the
period. This mega-lexicon would even look like a historical period
dictionary insofar as it consisted of quotations from works of the time. Because
only four percent of these citations are found in the OED, we stand to gain a new
understanding of much Early Modern English vocabulary if this mega-dictionary is
made accessible to everyone online. Gradually, in collecting lexicons for
data-entry, I saw that they suggested a stranger-than-expected contemporary
understanding of Early Modern English (cf. Anderson 1996). Early Modern English
lexicographers interpreted words as signs more for things (Lancashire 2003)
than for ideas, and the boundary between a lexicon and an encyclopedia broke
down. Second, the different distributions of vocabulary into bilingual and
monolingual hard-word lexicons suggested that English had divided into two
tongues. Third, the high demand for bilingual dictionaries, and the low demand
for English-only lexicons, hinted that English had become, in effect, polyglot.
- James Howell, in his Tetraglotton (1660),
asserted the emergence of English as a European tongue by producing a polyglot
lexicon of four languages, English, French, Italian, and Spanish. His
frontispiece engraving, "Associatio Linguarum" (prominently displayed
on the main LEME page), emblematizes the inextricability of English and
its sister languages. Three of the four mother tongues take the arm of English
in a picture that supports Howell's main contentions: that English is a major
European language and that it owes many of its words to these three sisters
and their mother, Latin. This frontispiece symbolizes the findings of LEME.
- How are we to disseminate this lexical information to
researchers whose use of dictionaries is so infrequent? Convenience is an
important factor: anyone, anywhere, whether or not they have licensed the full
version of LEME, should be able to cite and call up any of its word-entries.
For that reason, LEME gives every analyzed word-entry its own URL. An
online scholarly edition of an Early Modern English work can thus freely cite,
in its annotations, any analyzed LEME word-entry. And any reader can freely
call up and verify that entry. Early in the year before I first gave a paper on
the EMEDD—at the third joint conference
of the ACH and ALLC at Tempe, Arizona, in March 1991—Tim
Berners-Lee invented the Uniform Resource Locator. It was thus the most natural
thing in the online world, by 2006, to give each LEME word-entry its
 The online second edition of the OED was searched March 18-19,
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Year 1800. Bradford, Leeds, Ilkley, and Otley: Ernest Cummins, University
of Leeds, E. J. Arnold, Grove Press, and Smith Settle.
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English wordes, borrowed from the Hebrew, Greeke, Latine, or French, &c.
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Dictionarie: or, an interpreter of hard English words. London: Eliot's
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--. Bibliotheca Eliotae
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—. (1598.) A worlde of
wordes, or most copious, dictionarie in Italian and English. London: E. Blount.
—. (1611.) Queen Anna's New World of Words. London: Edward Blount and William Barret.
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Estimate of the Vernacular Languages." The Romanic Review 28 (Feb): 3-18.
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Table 1: LEME Word-entries and OED Citations
Book of Distillation
|de Vigo's Works of
in English and Welsh
|Turner's Names of
Rules of the Italian
of Schemes and Tropes
|Lanfranco of Milan his
Introduction of Grammar
|Baret's Alveary or
|del Corro's Spanish
History of the Wars
|Florio's World of
|Gabelhouer's Book of
|Livy's Roman History (Holland)
|Pliny's History of
the World (Holland)
|Plutarch's Morals (Holland)
|Bartas' Divine Weeks
of the French
Anna's New World of Words
|Dodderidge's Proper Names