What are the Essex Wills?
The work entitled The Essex Wills is an edition in twelve volumes by F. G. Emmison of approximately 13,000 wills from the various ecclesiastical jurisdictions of Essex dating from the reign of Elizabeth I (1558-1603). These wills are now located in the Essex Record Office in Chelmsford, Dr Emmison having himself been a very distinguished County Archivist of Essex (1938-1969). The volumes were published between 1982 and 2000. The last two appeared (thanks to the work of Mr Ken Neale and Mr Tony Burton) after Dr Emmison’s death in 1995, though the essential abstraction and basic editing up to the end of the series had already been carried out by Dr Emmison.
Abstracts of the wills of nearly all the Essex gentry and some yeomen and merchants, amounting to some 646 wills, had previously been published in Emmison’s work Elizabethan Life, Volumes IV (1978) and V (1980). An American researcher, John B. Threlfall of Madison, Wisconsin, then proposed to Dr Emmison that he should publish all the remaining wills of the middle and lower classes housed in the Essex Record Office (according to the original proposal, all those up to 1640). Publication of the first three volumes was undertaken by the National Genealogical Society of Washington D.C. with considerable financial support from Mr Threlfall (which continued for the remaining volumes). The remaining volumes were published by the Essex Record Office in collaboration with The Friends of Historic Essex.
The wills are organized into two groups. Those from the Archdeaconry courts, arranged chronologically, occupy the first seven volumes, each of which is divided into three sections for each archdeaconry. Those from the Commissary courts, also arranged chronologically, occupy the other five volumes.
Two major methodologies are followed. The wills are abstracted, not printed verbatim, so that predictable and repetitive formulae are skipped or abbreviated and repetitions removed. They are also modernized, so that the spelling is that of modern English. A number of words, however, are left in their original form and enclosed within quotation marks (of which more is said below).
Each volume has an introduction discussing the important historical, economic, and social features of the wills and indexes of persons, places, and subjects. Significantly from the linguistic point of view ‘words, rare, archaic, obsolete, local, or with different meaning from present use’ are also indexed in each volume, and Volumes 6 to 12 also have a glossary.
Reliability of the text for linguistic purposes
The fact that the texts are abstracted and the spelling modernized raises questions about their reliability and usefulness as a source of Elizabethan vocabulary and linguistic usage. We have, in fact, a number of pointers to the considerable reliability of the texts.
In the first place, the Editorial Method is set out in detail in each volume, making clear what omissions and changes have been made. Although these are extensive, for the most part they affect only predictable parts of each will; and most of the changes are straightforward omissions. New text does not seem to have been manufactured to summarize any passages.
Several volumes contain reproductions of individual wills which can be compared with their abstract in order to gain an impression of the kinds of abbreviation that has been carried out. In one volume a number of wills are duplicates of wills already published in a previous volume, and here again comparison yields a good idea of what sorts of change have been made.
Finally it is clear from examining the text itself that the language has not been interfered with, apart from the modernization of the spelling. Many words that are of interest have been left in a form which is clearly not the spelling they would have if they existed in modern English, which testifies to the conservatism of the abstractor.
There are very many words enclosed in quotation marks. Some of these are glossed or in other ways made the subject of comment, but many others have been left without remark. These quite evidently reproduce the original written form.
The importance of the Essex Wills to the lexical history of English
There are four main ways in which the Essex Wills are of importance for the lexical history of English. Specifically, but not exclusively, these contribute to the revision of the Oxford English Dictionary.
The Essex Wills contain a considerable body of words, compounds, and word meanings that are not recorded (except in a few scattered instances) in dictionaries, including the current OED, but are recognizable as genuine lexical items rather than potential errors (scribal or editorial). These show that there is still much to be discovered about the vocabulary of the past. They suggest that similar analysis might profitably be done on comparable records, published and unpublished, from other parts of the country.
The Essex Wills contain a number of word forms which do not appear to be readily analysable. They may be known words that have been miswritten or miscopied, or they may really be hitherto unknown words, to which, from the context, no meaning can at present be assigned. Evidently these are not readily usable in any systematic description, but if and when more materials are gathered, they may have a contribution to make.
The Essex Wills contain examples of words and meanings that are first recorded only later in the OED (antedatings), others whose coverage in the OED ends significantly earlier (postdatings), and a third group which fill a gap in the OED’s record (interdatings). Of these, the antedatings are of the greatest general interest, since they extend the history of many words further back in time and help to complete the historical picture of the English language. Needless to say these are being incorporated into the OED when the entries affected are revised.
The Essex Wills contain much material of a miscellaneous nature that contributes to the refinement of our knowledge of the English vocabulary, specifically as described in the OED. This includes modifications or extensions to particular definitions, the alteration of regional labelling (frequently from ‘Northern’ and/or ‘Scots’, which is unexpected), and new light on word origins (etymologies). The Essex Wills also contain a number of word forms, preserved by the editor as written in the manuscripts, and nearly all enclosed in quotation marks, which are unrecorded variant spellings of known words; some of these are relatively trivial variants and others shed new light on the regional pronunciation of the word.
Now read on...
This is an introduction. The plan is to post a series of studies on some of the aspects of the vocabulary of the Essex Wills outlined above. The first studies will deal with significant changes to the history of lexical items that are already recorded in dictionaries.