Schoolmaster, and Chaplain
Within the history of English dictionary-making John Palsgrave is the first lexicographer whose name is known. Dictionary-making involving English began with bilingual word lists. By the early fifteenth century these lists had assumed the scale and nature of dictionaries, and some have been preserved. The oldest are the Medulla grammatice and the Hortus vocabulorum. Of these two Latin-English dictionaries it is only the Hortus vocabulorum that was ever printed (between 1500 and 1532). The earliest English-Latin dictionaries are the Promptorium parvulorum and the Catholicon Anglicum, and again, only one of them was printed: the Promptorium parvulorum (between 1499 and 1528). For none of these four early lexicographical works has the compiler been identified.
The year 1530 marks the date of publication of Lesclarcissement de la langue francoyse. The third book in this monumental work contains an English-French dictionary, which Palsgrave himself calls the 'frenche vocabuler' or the 'frenche vocabulyst' (the OED has no earlier use of either word). At that time, as we might have gathered from the fanciful titles of the first bilingual English dictionaries, the generic term 'dictionary' was not yet common in English. The first compiler of an English work who actually called his book a dictionary was Sir Thomas Elyot ( 1538). For Palsgrave's work, we may usefully adopt Palsgrave's term, vocabulist.
What do we know about the author of Lesclarcissement de la langue francoyse? The sources of information that we have are his works, records of some personal letters, references to him in the correspondence of his famous contemporaries Thomas More and Erasmus, and various official documents specifying the professional functions he held. They allow us glimpses of a life that in most of its phases still remains unknown to us. We shall pick up the few clues that we have to outline the main stages of his life and activities.
We do not know when Palsgrave was born. But we do know that he was born in London for he describes himself on the title-page of Lesclarcissement de la langue francoyse as 'maistre Jehan Palsgraue