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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2 Comments

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2 responses to “The Wacky World of Middle English Names

  1. Don Campbell

    Considering how often I see people wearing “belts low on their hips” I think arsegirdles have been an important fashion accessories for a while. :)

  2. Sadly, a bit of digging around has shown that Anne Beauchamp’s tomb no longer survives. I do hope she got her request, though.

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