Gwendolyn, Rowena, Rhiannon, and Morgana: Medieval vs. ‘Medieval’ Names

Yesterday, DMNES editor-in-chief Dr. Sara L. Uckelman gave a talk at the Middle Ages in the Modern World conference in Lincoln on “Gwendolyn, Rowena, Rhiannon, & Morgana: Medieval vs. ‘Medieval’ Names”. This post is a summary of her talk; slides for it are available here.

The goal of the talk was to explore answers to three main questions:

  • What names do people think are medieval, but are in fact modern?
  • What names do people think are modern, but are in fact medieval?
  • Where does the mismatch come from?

Names like the ones found in the title of the talk, Gwendolyn, Rowena, Rhiannon, Morgana, were taken as proto-typical ‘medieval’ names: Names that the average non-medievalist (or maybe only dilettante medievalist) would probably classify as medieval but whose historical lineage is much more complicated.

The first clear historical use of the name Gwendolyn dates to the 19th century. However, many people think that it is much older due to the variant names which can be found medievally — not as the names of actual people, but as the names in literature. The feminine name Gwendoloena appears in Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Historia Regum Britanniae (c1135), but his source for this name appears to be a misreading of the Old Welsh masculine name Guendoleu as Guendolen (an easy mistake in many medieval scripts!).

Rhiannon likewise appears in medieval literature, uniquely as the name of a legendary/divine character in the Mabinogion. Though the name has become popular in and out of Wales in modern times, there is no evidence that it was used by real people during the Middle Ages.

Rowena is another literary name, best known because of the character in Sir Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe.

Morgana, of the four, is the exception. It, too, is a literary name, best known as the name of the Arthurian enchantress Morgan le Fay, whose name occurs in many forms (Morgen, Morgain, Morgaine, Morgana) in medieval accounts. Unlike the other names, it was used outside of literature: Morgana can be found in Rome in the early 16th C.

But it is not just that people assume many modern names are medieval which are in fact not, but also the reverse happens. We have discussed some of these here previously, in consideration of made-up names. What is interesting when surveying these examples is that many of the names which people in the English-speaking world incorrectly point to as modern coinages were not used in English historically, but rather in other languages (Amanda being an exception); thus, if we interpret these people as saying that use of these names in English is modern, then perhaps we have less to complain about their assertion. Secondly, some names that people incorrectly think are modern they think are because there is a clear post-medieval moment of creation that can be pointed to: e.g., Cedric in Ivanhoe, Wendy in Peter Pan. Here we must be careful to not say that Scott and Barrie did not coin the names, for the process by which a name is coined is not one that can only occur once. Scott and Barrie may have seen themselves as creating a new name for their characters, and if they did not have any knowledge of the previous uses of these names, then there is nothing to prevent us from saying that they did coin these names for their characters, it just happens that the names they coined had previously been coined. Thus, we must differentiate between the actual use of a name throughout history from our epistemic access to its use: One who does not know (and further, could not reasonably have been expected to know) of the previous existence of a particular name can plausibly lay claim to having (re-)coined it.

Having surveyed examples of names which fall on both sides of the line, the third question considered was “Where does the mismatch come from?” Why is it that non-specialists views of what counts as a “medieval name” or a “modern name” are so far off the actual mark? This is a complex issue with many possible contributing factors. Two important factors were singled out:

  • Literature
  • Shifting standards of cultural and personal identity

Literature: Many of the names cited above have close connections with literature. People read books which are apparently set in the Middle Ages, and assume that the names being used there are appropriate for the setting, because they are rarely told otherwise. The renewed interest in the Middle Ages of the Victorians brought with it new access to medieval literature and legend which provided fertile fodder for the desire of the Victorians to romanticise the Middle Ages. The roots of our modern historical and romantic views of the Middle Ages can both be located in these Victorian developments, and there often was no clear line drawn between the two, allowing literary names to pass easily from fiction into fact. Thus, the inheritance of the 20th and 21st C of the Victorian views of the Middle Ages brought with it a stock of names which naturally came to be viewed as “medieval” without distinguishing whether they came from medieval fact or medieval fiction.

But this summary shouldn’t be taken as saying “Oh, the Victorians couldn’t tell the difference between fact and fiction”; and this is because there are reasons why one might not feel the need to distinguish names from historical sources from literary ones, and that is because medievally one fertile source for names was in fact literature. We are familiar with the use of Arthur, Lancelot, Gawain, and Guinevere outside of literature in the Middle Ages; the popularity of these names is directly attributable to the popularity of the various songs, stories, and legends that circulated throughout Europe. But Arthurian cycles were not the only source of literary names in the Middle Ages. Other sources include the related tales of Tristan and Isolde, stories of Greek heroes and other legendary characters such as Hector, Alexander, Lavinia, and Hercules, Germanic romances such as the tales of Roland, and lays and troubador songs which are less well-known to modern audiences but which gave us the characters of Digory, Crescentia, and Griselda. And let us not forget the non-human characters, such as crafty Reynard the Fox, whose name became so closely associated with foxes that the term renard came to simply mean ‘fox’ in medieval French. Given that so many medieval names were in fact drawn from myth, literature, and legend, it is excusable for the non-specialist to assume that other important medieval literary names were also used by real people in the Middle Ages.

All of this so far has been directed at the level of individual given names, but misperceptions about medieval naming patterns also exist. These — most often in the form of insistence on a precise spelling of a name or on the belief that multiple languages can, and were, combined in the same name — have their origins in other factors. Specifically, we argue that the standards of personal and cultural identity that people have today are closely tied up with their names in a way that simply wasn’t the case medievally. In most western countries, people have a canonical form of their name which is instituted upon them soon after birth and which requires legal action in order to change. The centrality and importance of the name which is instituted upon them along with the difficulty involved in changing it means that this originally instituted name, in precisely the form in which it was instituted, has primary significance. Sara is not the same name as Sarah, and one who refers to the former by the latter will be reprimanded. This emphasis on the originally instituted name in exactly the way it was instituted as the legal marker of personhood of a person is simply not the way names were viewed medievally. Because orthography was not, for the most part, standardized (though this does not mean — as some people take it — that you can spell any name any way you wish!), Willyam was the same person as Wylliam who was the same person as Guilliam: It was the name, rather than the spelling, that was emphasized.

Identity: The second contributing factor is the close relationship between cultural and personal identity that many people have today. When you are introduced to someone, quite often one of the first questions you are asked is “Where are you from?” And if the answer you give conflicts with other evidence present in the conversation – for example, someone with an overt American answer giving her origin as the north of England, or someone with an obviously Polish surname giving his origin as southern France – then this usually immediately triggers further questions to explain the apparent clash between name, location, and origin. On a view of personhood and identity where where you are from and where your ancestors were from play an important role, then you expect that at least some of this information is indicated by a person’s name. And it is true that you see this sort of information encoded in (some) medieval names, specifically bynames which are locative in origin or which are ethnic descriptives such as ‘English’, ‘German’, ‘French’; these are quite common medievally and show that, similarly to us, medieval people were cognizant of cultural background and origin and deemed it important enough to codify in people’s names. But whereas modern people of mixed cultural backgrounds often have names which display multiple aspects of this mixed cultural (think for example of two people whose surnames are clearly tied to a specific language or culture who give their child the hyphenated form of their names), the combination of multiple languages into a single name is not something that was done, medievally. Though this cultural background is important and relevant, it was not inflexibly encoded into the name. Instead – and this ties back to the idea that variation in spelling does not necessarily indicate variation in name – the form of the name would depend on the linguistic context in which it was being used. A magnate from the Low Countries writing letters in the 14th C will say “Ego Lodevicus”, “Wij Lodewijk”, or “Nous Loys” depending on whether he is writing in Latin, Middle Dutch, or Middle French. John Hawkwood, notorious English mercenary, was known as Giovanni Acuto amongst his Italian friends. Other examples are easily found.

Having discussed the mismatch and some of its causes, it’s worth concluding by briefly considering the question “What can we do about it?” The most straightforward way to minimize the mismatch between what we think happened in the Middle Ages and what actually happen is through the dissemination of information, which goal was one of the original motivations for creating the Dictionary.

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5 responses to “Gwendolyn, Rowena, Rhiannon, and Morgana: Medieval vs. ‘Medieval’ Names

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