“Medieval Multiculturalism: The Evidence From Names”

The editorial staff of the DMNES are pleased to announce that their proposal for a thematic section of the journal Onoma has been accepted. The theme of Onoma 50 will be “Medieval Multiculturalism: The Evidence From Names”:

Many people view the populations of the Middle Ages as relatively static, with most people never going more than a handful of miles from where they were born, and only those of high status and standing traveling any great distance. One consequence of such a view is the perception of medieval cultures as mono-cultural and consisting of relatively homogeneous peoples.

Records of personal names provide a large body of evidence for a more complex cultural situation, contrary to the simplified view outlined above. The study of names can provide surprising insights into the multiculturalism and motility of medieval peoples, especially as this evidence is often overlooked by historians.

Topics of interest include (but are not limited to):

  • The names of foreigners recorded in vernacular languages not their own.
  • The evidence of locative bynames for travel and migration.
  • Mixed-language names.
  • Persons with multiple locative bynames.
  • The eclipse of “native” names by “Christian” names during the 11th-12th C.
  • The evidence from placenames.

Further information about how, what, and when to submit papers for this thematic session will be posted when available.

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Devon: You sure are weird

I love 16th C English parish registers: You can find so many unusual things in them! (“Dennis the Irishemans bastard” still remains one of my favorite). The last couple of days I’ve been working through some from Devon. Devon is in a relatively unique situation in England, nameswise, with its proximity to Cornwall which managed to retain some distinctive names even to the end of the 16th C, despite the English influence. Quite often you can find an unusual name in either county which Withycombe will note as being of Cornish origin, or more common in Devon and Cornwall than in any other place. It’s where I’ve found pre-1600 examples of Melanie (in the form Mellany); forms of the Cornish saint’s name Meliora; Ruby (thus contradicting Withycombe’s claim that this is a modern invention); Rabige (haven’t a clue on this one!); the unusual Dewnes or Dunes which I might have thought was an error for Dennis were it not for the multiple instances in different parishes; and now, to cap it off: a very clearly female Paskow, which name I had previously thought was exclusively masculine. But it’s hard to go against hard evidence in the form of “Peter Hubert and Paskow his wife”. I’ve found feminine forms of Pask and Pascal in French, Spanish, and Italian before, but never in England!

I’ve only just touched upon the parish registers from Devon, so I’m sure I’ll find lots more in the future. Look for all these names, and more, in the Dictionary in September!

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List of Entries

Because I am a compulsive list-maker, particularly when it comes to names (why else do you think I ended up an onomast?), I have created a new page which contains a list of the head names of entries which will be appearing in the first edition of the Dictionary, with an estimated publication date of September 2014.

It might look painfully short now, but we expect the list to grow substantially over the next three months.

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A Milestone

As of a little while ago, we have passed the 2,000 mark for number of distinct citations that have been entered into the Dictionary. This is but a small droplet in the pool of medieval onomastics, but it’s still an impressive herald of what we should be able to accomplish before releasing the first edition at the end of September, now just over three months away.

These 2,000 citations represent just over 600 distinct names — though it would be a mistake to think that this means there are roughly 4 citations for each individual name! Instead, many of the names are represented by a single citation, while other names, such as John, Henry, Robert, Richard, and William are already proving that they are going to be documented in minute detail, with, ultimately, multiple citations not only per decade but likely per year.

Not all of these 2,000 citations will make it into the first edition, since some of them require further research into the etymology and origins of the names they represent, but a good percentage of them will be and, we are sure, many more are yet to be added.

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99 Carolingian Charters

It sounds like the start of a bad drinking song: “99 Carolingian charters to transcribe, 99 charters to ‘scribe, write names down, share them around, 98 Carolingian charters to ‘scribe!”

But what it really is is what I completed today. In the midst of taking down enough citations for Karolus, Ott(h)o, Lotharius, and Fridericus that even I began to find them boring, there were also more fun aspects — the random and unexpected feminine name (one in a matronymic byname!); a pair of testators Gerardus albus and Gerardus niger; a man called Dodo (where’s the byname avis to go with it?); a fascinating example of a tri-thematic Germanic name (Gerbtratwine); and the question of what fonts will we be able to use on the Dictionary website in order to properly display the Gothic alphabet. In the course of working through the etymologies of the names in these charters, I’ve learned just how much I have to learn about the difference between Old High German and Old Saxon, and I’ve marveled and, really, just how few themes you need to have to create a complex and elaborate system of dithematic names. 20+ years doing onomastics, and there’s still so much to learn.

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A Progress Update

Thanks to many hours of volunteer work by our chief technical person, Dr. Joel Uckelman, the Dictionary is one step closer to having a working public website and now has a working private website where the editors can log in to enter new citations and new header names. The webform allows us to not have to worry about editing XML by hand (which is where far and away the most errors creep in). It validates the files against a custom-made schema (also created by Joel), ensures that the header forms being entered actually exist, and cross-checks the bibliographic keys against the bibliographic database. The forms will allow us to proceed with the entering of data at a much faster rate than previously, meaning that our goal of having an initial version of the Dictionary with basic searches available by the end of September is still a reasonable one!

One of the hardest things about getting a project like this up and running is manpower and funding. Many people who may be interested in contributing can only do so if their time is being recompensed; and yet, funding agencies are often loath to provide funding for “unproven” projects. We are extremely grateful to Joel for taking time out of his own projects to build this infrastructure for us, and getting us out of this Catch-22!

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The Wacky World of Middle English Names

Brits have long been fascinated with the origins of their names; the antiquarian and heraldic officer William Camden in his Remains Concerning Britain includes both “names” and “surnames” in his list of contents, providing the 17th-century equivalent of today’s baby-name book in terms of breadth and historical accuracy (actually, this slanders Camden somewhat: He shows a broad knowledge of etymology and variation of forms across different languages than many writers of modern baby-name books!). As a result, if one wants to do research into the origin of names used in Great Britain (which covers many of the names also used in the USA), then there is no derth of reliable sources, most particularly Withycombe’s Oxford Dictionary of English Christian Names; for given names; Reaney & Wilson’s Dictionary of English Surnames and Bardsley’s Dictonary of English and Welsh Surnames for surnames; and the English Place-Name Society’s collected volumes for place names. It is concerning names from outside of the British Isles that the English-speaking onomast or historian may have the least access to reliable sources, and thus one might think that that is where initial research for the Dictionary would focus.

While that is certainly one of the guiding motiviations (I, personally, regularly lament that there is no good equivalent of Withycombe for French names; while Dauzat’s Dictionnaire des Noms et Prénoms de France and Morlet’s Dictionnaire Étymologique des Noms de Famille are quite broad, they both contain very few dated medieval citations, and concentrate on modern usage, turning to history only for etymology), there is another motiviation that goes in to the choice of the order to deal with the huge — and ever growing — pile of resources to work through, and that is personal preference. When I was able to put my hands on a copy of Furnivall’s The Fifty English Wills in the Court of Probate, London, I knew I wouldn’t be able to resist it. Despite Withycombe’s central importance to the study of personal names in England, her coverage of the 15th century is rather sparse. This is no surprise, as it was over the course of this century that we see the transition from Latin or Anglo-Norman being the primary language of record in England to Middle (and then Early Modern) English. But it means that vernacular citations of given names are moderately rare in the early part of the 15th century. Working through the names in the wills in Furnivall gave me not only a look at the sometimes unique approach to spelling that Middle English has (Bartrice for Beatrice, anyone?) but also the fun of the personal glimpses into people’s lives that wills give you. In 1434, Roger Elmesley bequeathed to Robert Sharp, his godchild, “a rake of yren forto rost on his eyren”. Because everyone needs an iron-rack on which to fry their eggs! Lady Alice West of Hampshire was more cerebral in her bequests; in 1395 she left to her daughter Iohane “alle the bokes I haue of latyn, englisch, and frensch” (but not spelling, as a friend of mine commented). In a 1438 will, I learned a new word, when Richard Dixton left to Edmond of Cornewayle “an ersgerdyll of siluer”. Arsegirdles: The new fashion accessory of 2014? But most amusing of all was a request of the Countess of Warwick in 1439, who left money for “my image to be made all naked, andno thyng on my hede but myn here cast bakwardys”. She was to be buried in Tewkesbury Abbey, but alas, a (very quick) bit of poking around on the internet did not reveal to me whether or not the effigy can be found in the Abbey today.

This afternoon, with mixed sadness and anticipation, I reached the final will in the book. Sadness, because there will be no more fun gossipy wills to read. Anticipation, because now it’s time to pick the next source to begin working through, all towards the day when we are able to publish the first edition online. Now that’s worth giving up gossip for.


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