A glossary is an alphabetical list of words and phrases often associated with a text. It defines terms which are unusual and/or very specialised – an essential tool for readers wishing to understand the subtle nuances of what is written on the page.

Glossaries are not a new invention. The pages shown below appear in the glossary published in a 1687 version of works by the medieval English poet, Geoffrey Chaucer. It was compiled by Thomas Speght (d. 1621), a schoolmaster, editor and lexicographer, who produced two editions of Chaucer in 1598 and 1602. Speght was the first editor of Chaucer to include a glossary – a reflection, perhaps, on how difficult it was for readers of Chaucer in the late 16th century to make sense of his writing.

Speght’s glossary is a rich source of information for modern readers too. We find words and phrases here which are unfamiliar to us today. But we also see these words and phrases through a 16th-century prism, as Speght understood them.

Entries in the glossary offer a glimpse into a past world shaped by Speght. “Meritot”, for example, is described as a “sport used by Children by swinging themselves in bell-ropes, or such like, till they be giddy”.

“Vigils”, meanwhile, was an occasion (as Speght describes it) for “Parishioners to meet in their Church-houses, or Church-yards, and there to have a drinking fit for the time. Here they used to end many quarrels between Neighbour and Neighbour. Hither came the Wives in comely manner, and they which were of the better sort had their Mantles carried with them, as well for sh[o]w, as to keep them from cold at the Table”.

The stories and allusions featured in Speght’s definitions are wide-ranging and of interest in their own right. Together, they form a tapestry of words and language.

On the other hand, there are occasions where the limits of space requires brevity. “Wades bote”, Speght explains, is a reference to “Wade and his Boat, called Guingelot; as also his strange Exploits in the same”. However, he continues, “because the matter is long and fabulous, I pass it over”.

This copy of Chaucer’s works is part of the Cathedral’s Morley Library collection. It belonged to a prebendary named Charles Layfield, who donated the book to the Cathedral in 1712.