In 1892 John Julian published the first edition of what rapidly became known as “Julian”, short for Julian’s Dictionary of Hymnology. A revised and expanded edition appeared in 1907. The publisher was unwilling to completely reset, so all the additional material had to be contained in Appendixes at the end of the volume.

Since then, with 1700+ pages of tiny print, Julian has been the indispensable work of reference for hymnologists worldwide. It was reissued in 1957 and 1985 in its 1907 edition, no one having had the courage to produce a revision (which had been talked about since the 1920s). Julian did not provide complete hymn texts; instead, articles about hymns, their provenance and their authors, together with contents lists for hymnals. The explosion of postwar hymnody rendered Julian increasingly dated, with much of the hymns covered having fallen out of use and (naturally) no subsequent hymnals included, though it remains today an important source for Latin hymnody.

Julian never aspired to catalogue every text, author and composer in all English-speaking hymnbooks. For that, another production would attempt to fill the gap and upstage Julian. This was HymnQuest, first published in book form in 1997 and as a CD-ROM every year from 2000 onwards. It was made possible by an endowment from the Fred Pratt Green Trust, a fund accruing the royalties from that eminent Methodist hymn textualist. Unfortunately it found a publisher in Stainer & Bell, whose director at the time, Bernard Braley, was principally interested in making money. He would charge impossibly exorbitant rates for reprinting texts by author/composers such as the late Sydney Carter, to the point where some respected hymnals which had previously carried these hymns were forced to reprint with blank pages in place of the original items. In a similar fashion, early editions of HymnQuest were vastly overpriced so that few except libraries could afford them. Braley is now deceased and Stainer & Bell have taken a different direction. The 2013 edition of HymnQuest retails for a more moderate £40 sterling (currently US $65), but is still not cheap.

However there is now a new kid on the block. Just launched this month, The Canterbury Dictionary of Hymnology, published by Canterbury Press (a.k.a. Hymns Ancient and Modern), attempts to become the latter-day Julian. By not publishing in print form but exclusively on the internet, it intends to keep itself continually up-to-date. The publication is available on a subscription basis. In the UK, individuals can pay £59 a year (US $95), or £19 a month (US $31) ― the latter seems rather steep. The publishers describe this as the introductory subscription, so it is possible that it may decrease subsequently.

The “book” contains two million words and more than 4,000 individual entries. More than 300 authors from over 300 countries have contributed. A number of benefactors have underwritten the editorial expenses which, considering that it has been ten years in the making, were considerable. The two editors are Dr J. R. Watson, a professor emeritus of English at the University of Durham, and Dr Emma Hornby, a senior lecturer in music at Bristol University.

The dictionary includes articles on individual hymns, authors, hymnals, organisations, themes, hymn tunes, and their composers. It covers hymn traditions from all the world’s continents, regions, and denominations, the publishers claim; and it is ecumenical and international in coverage.

It remains to be seen both how comprehensive and how accurate the Canterbury Dictionary will be. A glance at some of the brief sample extracts available to non-subscribers on the website (www.hymnology.co.uk) show considerable lacunae, but it is possible that the full product will be different. However I can say that, as someone who is included in the Dictionary, no one ever contacted me to ask for any information, whether about myself or about other people and things. I suspect that “putting the CDH right” will become a new hymnologists’ sport, rather like the way in which “putting Ian Fleming right” was the entertainment of choice for James Bond aficionados.