Playing linguistic detective: Where is Accon?

Yesterday one of our editors went on an interesting little sleuthing trip concerning the place name Accon. We tweeted it while it happened, but thought it would be fun to also write it up here!

Historical onomastic research is filled with little sleuthing problems. Mostly, they are “what are the etymological roots of this name?” or “are these two spellings variants of each other?”, but sometimes we also get to do a bit of placename sleuthing.

For each citation in the DMNES, we record the most detailed geographical information that we can concerning where the document in question is from. Usually this means recording city + country, although sometimes the best we can do is just country. Because country boundaries change over time, we use contemporary boundaries for our geographical assignations. (So a city that was once in, say, Savoy, but is now in modern-day France will be listed as “France”.)

For charters, the city of issue is generally given — in Latin. So the first sleuthing puzzle always is “what is the vernacular form of this place name?” A lot are quite transparent, e.g., Parisius for Paris. Some of them are easy if you know your history, e.g., Aquisgrana for Aachen, or your linguistics, e.g., Aurelianum for Orléans. Others you might have to look up, but are obvious when you do (as happened to our head editor the other day when she realized Confluentia = Coblenz). There are three very useful sites that we use when identifying Latin placenames with vernacular forms are:

Sometimes in addition to a Latin form in the text, the editor might have provided the “modern”-day vernacular in their editorial header for the charter. This is great! Except when “modern” isn’t modern. A lot of the chartularia we work from are from the 19th C, and especially in German, the modern forms of the place names are not the same as the 19th C ones. Again, some are easy to identify, especially with other indicators, such as Nymwegen = Nijmegen. Often an easy way to find the current modern vernacular form is to put the 19th C form into wikipedia (or even googlemaps!) and see what it spits out — though the results shouldn’t be trusted blindly — you’ve got to use the other contextual clues as well.

All of this leads up to our recent little sleuthing puzzle, namely, a document from Accon. If you plug “Accon” into wikipedia, you get suggested the French city Accons. This is definitely not the right Accon. This is because the charter has to do with the Teutonic Order, so German rather than French, and was written by one “frater Thomas de ordine Predicatorum dei gratia patriarcha Ierosolimitanus”, also noted by the editor as “bischof von Accon”.

So! Let’s look at lists of patriarchs of Jerusalem, and see if we can find a Thomas from 1277. Lo and behold, what does Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem give us but: “Thomas Agni of Cosenza (1271–1277)”. That’s our guy! And, when Jerusalem was lost in 1187, the seat of the patriarchy moved to Acre.

Ahah! Acre! What is Acre called in (modern) German? Akkon. Shift the consonant around a bit, and you get Accon.

So not only did we solve our little mystery, we also now have our first names from a document written in the Holy Land for the DMNES.

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