One of the highlights of the onomastic year is when various governments publish name popularity data for babies born in the previous year (such as the US Social Security data and the registries for England and Wales). There is something about finding out which name occupies the no. 1 spot, and obtaining another data point in a trend. Is the name becoming more popular? Is it becoming less? Can we predict what the next top-10 names will be? Which names are destined for obscurity? What makes a name like Gary seem dated?
With few exceptions , it is sort of popularity/trend data is difficult to come by for medieval names. In any given collection of documents, it can be impossible, sometimes, to tell when the same person is being mentioned more than once, thus making individual occurrences of a name a poor guide to the name’s popularity. (It is for this reason that we include usage info in our entries; otherwise, one might think that, e.g., Innocent was a far more popular name than it actually was.) On the other hand, even factoring in the same person being referred to on multiple occasions, or the skewing introduced by kings, saints, and popes bearing a particular name, it is still possible to get a sense of which names, overall, are more popular than others (John, we’re looking at you), and which names were rare (one single 9th C example of Ermengaude: Not a popular name).
Because new citations are entered into the database on an ongoing basis, the process of reviewing them and marking them for inclusion in an upcoming edition is also ongoing. To facilitate this, we have a script which looks at all of the entries marked as “live”, and then returns a list of those which have unreviewed citations in them. On a daily basis we run the script and review (a portion of) the entries it returns, usually between 150 and 250. We programmed this script so that when we have a new citation of a relatively rare name, we are alerted to this without having to find it by hand. On the other hand, there are certain names which one hardly needs this script to find, for they are the ones that, on the whole, are likely to have new citations every time we sit down to review for inclusion. This names, by some qualitative rather than quantitative measure, are the “most popular” ones — the ones which have the broadest spread over language, geography, and time, which come in many spelling variants or with many diminutive forms. Most of them are ones you’d expect; a few of them are perhaps unexpected — at least, they probably don’t spring to mind if you asked yourself “What are the top 10-20 medieval given names?”
So, what are these popular names? We’ll discuss the women’s names in this post, and men’s names in an upcoming post. For women, there are seven names that I check on a daily basis, regardless of whether I am working in that part of the alphabet that day or not. They are:
If I wanted to round this list out to a nice ten, I’d add Agnes, Cecilia, and Mary, though on the whole these names are not as popular as the others.
 English parish registers from the 16th C are one. Because of the detailed birth/christening info they provide over a multi-decade span, it is possible to do trend analyses of name popularity. Scott Smith-Bannister, Names and Naming Patterns in England 1538-1700 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1997) is an excellent example of this, for those who are interested.