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What Is Gavelkind?

Few of us, not even lexicographers, recall William Somner (1606–1669), but he figures importantly in the history of English dictionaries and the history of English. He wrote the first dictionary of Old English, the Dictionarium Saxonico–Latino–Anglicum (1659). Somner studied Old English with his friend Meric Casaubon, son of the great philologist Isaac Casaubon (1559–1614) and Florence Estienne, daughter of the lexicographer and printer Henri Estienne. He achieved an “absolute faculty” with the language, and it drew him into another learned network, that of the English antiquaries of the time — Sir Robert Cotton, William Dugdale, Sir Simon D’Ewes, Richard Verstegan, and several others — who supported him and nurtured his dictionary, lending him manuscripts from their collections and sharing the glossaries they had compiled but not published.

Madeline Kripke’s incomplete draft catalogue of her collection doesn’t include the Dictionarium Saxonico–Latino–Anglicum, but that doesn’t mean we won’t find a copy as we unpack the boxes. What it does include, and what we found, is a copy of the curious work titled A Treatise of Gavelkind, both Name and Thing. Shewing the True Etymologie and Derivation of the One, the Nation, Antiquity, and Original of the Other. Completed in 1647, the book wasn’t published until 1660, and it raises the question, for modern readers, what kind of thing is a gavelkind? Actually, it raised that question for seventeenth-century readers, too, or Somner wouldn’t have written the book. Worth collecting for its own sake, given Madeline’s interests, it also represents, indirectly, the network underlying it, indeed, underlying all study of Old English and ancient English documents and other antiquities.

Two-page spread of frontispiece ornamental shield bearing text with  title page in red and black print.

I won’t spoil it for you — you may read A Treatise of Gavelkind at your leisure. But here are Somner’s foundational propositions:

1. The true etymologie and derivation of the name [gavelkind], including a plain confutation of that which is commonly received.

2. The nature of Gavelkynd-land in point of partition.

3. The antiquity of Gavelkynd custome, in point especially of partition, and why more general in Kent than elsewhere.

4. Whether Gavelkynd be properly a Tenure or a Custome; and if a Custome, whether inherent in the land or not.

5. Whether before the Statute of Wills (32 & 34 Hen. 8) Gavelkynd-land in Kent were deviseable or not.

This is a wonderful example of the intersections of etymology, usage, and law. The value of the argument we leave to the legal and language historians, but a book on the subject, for one like Madeline, was well worth collecting.

That’s because the book is an appealing type of lexicography, the sort of etymology that someone works out in detail only to have it reduced to an ineffective word or two in a modern dictionary entry. It’s an exercise in what my friend Anatoly Liberman (professor of Germanic philology at the University of Minnesota) calls “analytic etymology” and at which he’s expert: all of the evidence is accounted for, bad etymologies are mercilessly burned to cinders, and the best etymologies are not necessarily conclusive, as there may well be good linguistic and historical reasons to disagree about word origins. Madeline and Anatoly were at least acquaintances over decades, and she was well aware of Anatoly’s views on etymology, having heard them regularly at meetings of the Dictionary Society of North America. Her collection, as far as she had catalogued it, includes both his Analytic Dictionary of English Etymology: An Introduction (2008) and Bibliography of English Etymology (2010).

Perhaps Madeline collected the first edition of A Treatise of Gavelkind — that isn’t in the incomplete catalogue, either. The one I pulled from a box the other day is a copy of the second, posthumous edition, published in 1726. Madeline bought it from Tamerlane Books in Havertown, Pennsylvania, on October 20, 2007. A note in the top corner of the recto of the first leaf reads “2nd. ed. scarce/$475,” but the invoice records the purchase price as $37550 . Clearly, Madeline knew the value of the book, argued for a better price, and got it. It’s a beautiful copy: half-morocco binding of black leather, marbled boards, gilt decorations, and the title on the spine against a red label. Actually, the book at that price is a great deal, because the second edition was really two books in one.

The title page informs us that the second edition was “corrected […] to which is added the Life of the Author, Written, newly revis’d, and much enlarged by the present Lord Bishop of Peterborough.” The bishop in question was White Kennett (1660–1728), a somewhat flamboyant intellectual and political figure of the time, rarely a central character in historical narratives, but lurking in many a footnote. Kennett’s father, Basil, hailed from Kent and returned there as vicar of Postley and subsequently rector of Dymchurch. That is, he was Kentish, through and through. Kennett was born in Dover, so also was a child of Kent. Somner was born in Canterbury, also in Kent, and wrote a lot about the antiquities of his natal county. Kennett, similarly an antiquary, wrote a Treatise on the Roman Ports and Forts in Kent (1693), but he focused on other counties in his Parochial Antiquities (1695), the book in which he first published his life of Somner, revising and much enlarging it for the second edition of A Treatise of Gavelkind, which he corrected for republication more than half a century after it first appeared.

Kennett had also appended “A glossary to explain the original, the acceptation, and obsoleteness of words and phrases,” to the Parochial Antiquities, and that appendix was published on its own in 1816, which means that Kennett was not just a biographer of a lexicographer but a lexicographer himself. In fact, he accumulated evidence of English dialects and the etymologies of dialectal words in manuscripts only recently published as Etymological Collections of English Words and Provincial Expressions (2018), edited by Javier Ruano-García of the University of Salamanca, a book which, alas, Madeline did not have time to collect.

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