What’s really in a name? Onomancy in the Middle Ages (Part 2)

Editor’s Introduction: The DMNES staff are super delighted to host a two-part guest blog by Dr. Joanne Edge. Dr. Edge’s PhD research focused on “onomancy”, a type of medieval magic based in a person’s name, a topic we thought would be of interest to readers of the blog!

Part 2 is below; you can read Part 1 here.

What’s really in a name? Onomancy in the Middle Ages (Part 2)

Dr. Joanne Edge, Latin Manuscripts Cataloguer at the John Rylands Library, University of Manchester

On first impressions, onomancy might seem pretty ridiculous. How can the numbers that correlate to the letters of someone’s name tell you anything about them? To answer this, we need to consider various modes of medieval European thought. The first issue to note is that, since the late Roman Empire, divination had been condemned alongside magic as illicit, and, from at least the time of Augustine of Hippo (354-430 CE) was against orthodox Christianity for three reasons. Firstly, divination went against the idea of man’s Free Will; secondly, it was counter to the notion of Divine Providence (that only God can know the future); and finally, it worked via the agency of demons – whether the operator knew it or not. So, divination was decidedly illicit in a Christian context; though whether those doing it knew that is another matter.

BL MS Royal 6 E.VI

A magician practices geomancy while demons watch. London, BL MS Royal 6 E VI, f. 535v.
Photo © The British Library

Setting aside these theological objections, what gave this method of divination its agency? Let’s first take names. The debate over whether names were signifiers or whether they contained some essence of the bearer had been lively since at least ancient Greece, with a discussion of the meaning of names in Plato’s Cratylus (written c.360 BCE). Written as a dialogue between Cratylus and Hermogenes, here is what it says about names:

Cratylus, whom you see here, Socrates, says that everything has a right name of its own, which comes by nature, and that a name is not whatever people call a thing by agreement, just a piece of their own voice applied to the thing, but that there is a kind of inherent correctness in names, which is the same for all men, both Greeks and barbarians.1

Later Neoplatonic philosophers of the third to the sixth centuries CE held that an individual’s name contained an essence of the bearer. So, in the Neoplatonic tradition, names were much more than signifiers: someone’s name said something about them.

Numbers, too, held great significance in mainstream scholastic thought. Ancient number-theory was transmitted to the Middle Ages largely via Plato’s Timaeus which conceived of numbers as the building-blocks of nature. Here he describes the creation of the world:

So god placed water and air between fire and earth, and made them so far as possible proportional to one another, so that air is to water as water is to earth; and in this way he bound the world into a visible and tangible whole. So by these means and from these four constituents the body of the universe was created to be at unity owing to proportion; in consequence it acquired concord, so that having once come together in unity with itself it is indissoluble by any but its compounder.2

Following the Neoplatonists, fifth-century thinkers such as Augustine and Macrobius emphasised the importance of numbers in creation, and from the late eleventh to the early thirteenth centuries, there was a revival of Augustinian study, which placed number theory at its centre.3

So, far from an illogical method of working out the future, onomancy’s agency was grounded in the authority of Plato, Augustine and high medieval scholasticism. Anxieties about the future – and especially around death and dying – meant that medieval manuscripts contained a variety of predictive methods, and onomancy – in the form of the Sphere – seems to have been the most popular. There are several possible reasons for this: it was relatively short, and therefore a handy space-filler; and its diagram made it look authoritative. But perhaps the most convincing explanation is that provided by Jean-Patrice Boudet, that the Sphere‘s corruption in translation, as copyists and translators tried to find the ‘correct’ version, meant that multiple examples carried on being copied together in a bid to discover the original.4


[1] Plato, Cratylus, in Plato in Twelve Volumes vol. XII, trans. Harold N. Fowler (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press; London, William Heinemann Ltd., 1921), p 383.

[2] Plato, Timaeus V:32, in Plato, Timaeus and Critias trans. H. D. P. Lee (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1971), p. 44.

[3] Russell A. Peck, “Number as a Cosmic Language”, in Essays in the Numerical Criticism of Medieval Literature, ed. Caroline D. Eckhardt (Cranbury, NJ: Associated University Presses, Inc., 1980), p. 16.

[4] Jean-Patrice Boudet, Entre science et nigromance: astrologie, divination et magie dans l’occident médiéval (XIIe-XVe siècle) (Paris: Publications de la Sorbonne, 2006), p. 43.


Filed under guest post

2 responses to “What’s really in a name? Onomancy in the Middle Ages (Part 2)

  1. Pingback: What’s really in a name? Onomancy in the Middle Ages (Part 1) | Dictionary of Medieval Names from European Sources

  2. Reblogged this on Dr. Jo Edge and commented:
    Part 2 of the blog I wrote for DMNES. Enjoy!

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