Protestant names: Virtue names

The final place where the influence of distinctly Protestant naming practices can be seen are in virtue names. Virtue names were rare before the 16th C, but from about 1550 on, a wide variety of virtue names, some still in use today, spring up. They were most common in English, but a handful can be found in other languages, as well. Withycombe points to the popularity of virtue names in England as a specifically Puritan — rather than more broadly Protestant — practice: Since the Protestants had co-opted a number of the obscure Biblical names (as we’ve seen in previous posts), those religious zealots who wanted to truly distinguish their child by their names opted for a wholly new category.

First, we have the three cardinal virtues: “feith, hope, and charite” (as the Wycliffite Bible of 1395 gives them; though the 1525 Tyndale New Testament has the more usual “fayth hope and love”). Faith is perhaps a quintessentially English name: It is extremely unlikely to be found elsewhere given that its root is Anglo-Norman feid, feit, fait (about which you can read more in the Anglo-Norman Dictionary‘s entry: fei). Hope too is uniquely English, as the modern word derives from Old English hopa (from Proto-Germanic *hupōną, the root of German hoffen (v.) and Dutch hopen (v.)) in contrast with the usual forms on the continent deriving from Latin spes. We do not yet have any examples of the name, but it’s only a matter of time before we do; Bardsley notes a child baptised Hope in 1598 in Cambridge (p. 140). The Old English word for ‘love’, lufu, was a common Anglo-Saxon name, but mostly fell out of use with the Conquest. Instead, it was Charity, deriving from Latin caritas ‘love’, that was used. This name can be found in England as early as 1540, and we have not yet found any examples outside of England.

Virtue names can be one of two types: They can either name the virtue itself (as in the three above), or they can ascribe the virtue to the child adjectivally. In general, the nominative forms were more common in England, and when virtue names were used outside of England, adjectival forms tended to be more common. One virtue name that we found outside of clearly Protestant contexts derives from Latin sperantia ‘hopeful’. It was used both by men (Esperance) and by women (Esperanza) in Italy and Spain.

While Grace, like other virtue names, wasn’t used much in England before the 16th C, unlike the others it was used earlier on the continent, showing up in France, Italy, and Portugal as early as the 13th C, and in Spanish not much later.

Memorantia, identical to the Latin word for ‘remembering’, is a beautiful and unusual virtue name found in Dutch Protestant contexts. It’s one of the few non-English Protestant virtue names.

Mercy: This virtue name came into use in England in the late 16th C (not the 17th C, as Withycombe suggests).

Patience: Another virtue name in use in England at the very end of the 16th C, which Withycombe places in the 17th C.

Pleasant: A rare virtue name in 16th C England, this name can occasionally be found much earlier in France. Along with this we might also count as a virtue name the name Savory, from Anglo-Norman sauverré, savure, savré ‘sweet, pleasant, fragrant’.

Prudence, from Latin prudentia ‘prudence; discretion; good sense’, is found in both England and in Italy.

Sapience is another rare and unusual virtue name; we have found one instance of it in England at the end of the 16th C.

Temperance, another name found only in England so far, was somewhat more common than some of the other virtues.

What is curious is that the virtue names are almost exclusively feminine. We suspect this is an accident of data, for certainly there are virtue names that were used by men, but we simply have not yet come across any. We may have to revisit this post in the future after we have!

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3 Comments

Filed under dictionary entries, monthly topic

3 responses to “Protestant names: Virtue names

  1. Manuel Leal

    Concerning the last paragraph: the names of abstract qualities in Latin, and in the Romance languages of today, are mostly feminine in gender. Being feminine, they could not be used as names for men, only for women, I guess. So I suppose this is no accident of data, but a grammatical accident (which may not be so obvious for speakers of a “genderless” language like English?).

  2. Pingback: Monthly topic: Why did medieval people chose the names they did? | Dictionary of Medieval Names from European Sources

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