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How medieval is your name, and why should computer science care?

Back in January, our editor in chief went to Luxembourg to speak in the Digital History and Hermeneutics colloquium series hosted by the Center for Contemporary and Digital History. A lovely write up of that presentation is now available on the C2DH blog:

How medieval is your name, and why should computer science care?

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On the Intersection of Onomastics and Philosophy in the Middle Ages (lecture)

Our editor in chief, Dr. Sara L. Uckelman, was recently invited to give an online talk in the Shire of Mynydd Gwyn branch of the Society for Creative Anachronism‘s “Tuesday Discourses” series.

The lecture was recorded and is available to watch on youtube (44 minutes):

Below is the script that Dr. Uckelman was speaking from; it’s not a complete transcript, but we provide it here for people who prefer reading to listening, and also for accessibility reasons (we haven’t been able to get the video captioned).

—–
Thanks to Nik for the invitation to chat about my two major interests in the Middle Ages: Onomastics (the study of names and naming practices, specifically those of people and places) and Philosophy (usually specifically logic; but while I’ll definitely talk about logicians here, I won’t say very much about logic).

My interest in names is a long-standing one, dating back to when I was 10 and discovered a list of the 100 most popular boy’s and girl’s names in the US in the front matter of my parents’ World Book Dictionary. After joining the SCA, my interest got channeled into historical onomastics – specifically pre-1600 Europe and cultures that had contacts with it, with an emphasis on personal names.

For those who are not so familiar with medieval naming practices, let me give you a very brief overview of some history and terminology:

Personal name elements can be classified into two types: given names (sometimes called “Christian names”, but this is problematic when you’re operating outside of Christian contexts!) and bynames. We’re all familiar with given names – we all have one – usually given to us by our parents but sometimes adopted later in life. (I like to joke that the reason why everyone is interested in names is because we all have one!) The process by which modern parents select given names for their children involves many diverse factors – honoring a relative, involving a fandom, incorporating a religious reference (e.g., a saint or Marian name), aesthetics, or picking a name because of its “meaning” (yes, the scare quotes are necessary, we’ll come back to this!).

Bynames, on the other hand, are the medieval pre-cursor to modern day inherited surnames. Our modern surnames such as “Smith”, “Johnson”, “Black”, “Thorpe”, etc., were all originally literal descriptives picking out a specific characteristic of a person and used to distinguish that person from another. (When you live in a village where 2 or 3 out of every 10 men is named “John”, you need to be able to distinguish whom you’re talking about!) These literal nicknames can be roughly divided into four categories or types:

  • Occupational bynames indicate what your occupation was (e.g., Smith, Webster, Baker)
  • Relational bynames indicate your relationship to someone (usually by naming you as your father’s child, e.g., Johnson)
  • Locative bynames indicate where you’re from (whether by city/town/region, or local topographical landmark, e.g., Thorpe).
  • Other descriptives – these include references to color, physical and mental habits, important personal events, etc. This is a “catchall” category, and includes things like “Black”, “Shakespeare”, and one of my favorite German bynames “Spring in die Rosen” – “Jump in the roses”.

(Note, I’m using English examples, but what I have to say holds for pretty much all medieval European cultures).

My onomastic research over the last 20 years has tended to focus on data collection: What names were used in which languages/cultures at which times? Depending on the source of the data, I’ll also often do some statistical/frequency analysis – which names were the most popular, and by how much? Unlike prosopographical research, in general I’m not interested in the people who bore the names, only in the names themselves. Around 5 years ago, this interest in collecting and analysing names culminated in the birth of the Dictionary of Medieval Names from European Sources, which attempts to answer the broad question “which names were used when and where?” The Dictionary is by no means complete; it currently has 2466 publicly available entries, and another 4990 which are still being researched! (And that latter number grows faster than the former number). But with almost 70,000 different citations of names in the publicly available entries, the Dictionary is the largest, most comprehensive cross-cultural study of medieval European given names out there.

So much about names. Now I want to say something about my other long-standing medieval interest, namely, philosophy, and specifically questions of logic and philosophy of language. When people ask “What is logic?” I like to quote the definition given by Roger Bacon in his Art and Science of Logic, written around 1250 (conveniently, Roger Bacon is someone we will be coming back to):

logic, as a science, is the habit of distinguishing what is true from what is false by means of rules or maxims or dignities by which we can comprehend the truth of a locution through our own efforts or with the help of others. And logic is so-called from ‘logos‘, which means discourse, and ‘lexis‘, which means reason or understanding — as it were, the science either of reason joined to discourse or of discourse joined to reason.

Broadly, it is a (1) rule-governed, (2) joint venture, (3) involving discourse which is (4) aimed at distinguishing truth from falsehood. In the Middle Ages, the study of logic was very closely related to the study of semantics — how sentences get their meaning, and how this meaning is related to truth, and how this meaning changes in different grammatical (syntactical) contexts.

Now, generally my interest in logic, whether medieval or modern, focuses on disputational and argumentative contexts involving shifting commitments on behalf of the participants, changes in their knowledge, issues of necessity and possibility, issues related to do with time — things entirely unrelated to anything onomastic! But regularly throughout my parallel research careers, I’ve asked myself if there isn’t a way that I can combine my two interests. That is — is there anything in the intersection of onomastics and logic in the Middle Ages?

Given what I have said about the close connection between medieval logic and medieval semantics/theories of meaning, there does seem to be one obvious candidate for something falling in the intersection:
The Meaning of (Proper/Personal) Names
Names are linguistic objects, and so any theory of linguistic meaning should account for proper names. But the issue is not as straightforward as that. When we speak of the “meaning” of proper names, there are two distinct things we could be talking about. I’ll take each in turn.

(1) Proper names aren’t like other words, in that they don’t have the same sort of semantic content that other words have — there isn’t any universal form that ties together all people called “Sara” in the same way that there is one that ties together all animals called “dog” (side note: Well, only if you’re a realist — and the realist/nominalist debate on the meaning of nouns was an active one throughout the Middle Ages). Contemporary philosophers of language often say that proper names don’t have any semantic content, they only have “referential” content — they exist only to refer to things, without meaning anything (whereas common nouns like “dog” have semantic content — eliciting the meaning of the word — and, at least in some contexts, referential content — referring to actual dogs). This referential/semantic distinction isn’t one that was available in the Middle Ages, but it is true that much of medieval semantic theory discusses proper names according to what we can non-anachronistically call their referential properties, in the context of theories of supposition. Briefly speaking, and glossing over variants found in different authors, what a term can “supposit” for depends on its grammatical context, with one and the same word having different types of supposition in different contexts. As a brief example, the word ‘human’ has natural supposition when I say ‘human is a species’ — here, the word is taken for what it signifies, namely, a concept; it has material supposition when I say ‘human has two syllables’, because here I’m talking about the matter of the word; and it has personal supposition when I say ‘Some human is running’, because here I’m referring to an individual object that falls under the concept expressed by ‘human’. It also has personal supposition in the sentence ‘Socrates is a human’. Not only that, but ‘Socrates’ also has personal supposition in the sentence ‘Socrates is a human’ – in fact it has what is called discrete supposition, because it picks out one, distinct individual.

Now, I could spend an hour talking about different 13th-century accounts of supposition and where personal names fall into those accounts alone — but I’m not going to. This is because there is a deep sense in which this isn’t what we mean at all when we talk about the “meaning” of a name.

Ordinarily when someone talks about the meaning of a name, they’re talking about the sort of thing that you find in a baby name book – you know, that “Hildefrid” means “battle peace” or that “Electra” means “amber hair” (yes, these glosses both occur in modern baby name books I own), or that “Heather” means a grey-green bushy plant, or even that every “Thomas” is a twin! But as we noted at the beginning of this section, names don’t have semantic content in that sort of sense (it’s one reason why proper names are often entirely omitted from ordinary semantic dictionaries, even ones that are focused on historical languages — a significant lacuna that the DMNES was partly designed to help fill!). What people mean when they talk about the “meaning” of a name is not this sort of semantic meaning but rather…

(2) the etymological origins of the name. Take Hildefrid: Its roots are Germanic words for “battle” and “peace”. The combination together does not mean “battle peace” — that’s nonsense. The combination itself has no meaning, because it is a name, not a word. But that doesn’t mean that we can’t look to the etymological roots of a name to find out interesting things (or that modern parents don’t, rightly or wrongly, often take these roots into account when naming their children!), which is why the Dictionary‘s entries include this etymological origin (and why there are almost 5000 unfinished entries, because there are a lot of names out there whose etymological origins are wholly obscure). The important take-home message here is that we provide this etymological information because it provides insight into language development, particularly into the development of vernacular languages where data may often be obscured by the widespread use of Latin for written documents, and because it helps us to make connections between examples of the same name in different languages, which may have drastically different spellings/forms. But — with rare exceptions — medieval parents did not chose names for their children on the basis of their “meaning” in the same way that modern parents often do. (These exceptions include the class of augurative names found in Italian, where a child was given as its name some particular fortune or desired future, or some description of the circumstances of its birth, e.g., a child born after the death of a previous child. The rise of virtue names amongst 16th C Protestants might also be taken as another exception.)

What this means is that if we want to search for the “meaning” of personal names in the intersection of medieval philosophy and onomastics, we might find ourselves looking for something that doesn’t exist. That being said, I now want to turn to two examples where the “meaning” of personal names was discussed — one medieval example and one which isn’t medieval but ancient, but which I’m going to accept anyway because Aristotle was widely read by medieval philosophers and so they would have been familiar with this example. To take the latter first:

(1) Aristotle actually discusses precisely what we pointed out above, that given names which are compounds of words that individually have meaning do not themselves inherit those meanings, either as isolated parts or in combination. In On Interpretation, Aristotle considers the case of the proper name Κάλλιππος, a compound of Ancient Greek καλός ‘beautiful, fair’ and ἵππος ‘horse’. He points out that:

In fact, in ‘Κάλλιππος’, ‘ἵππος’ indicates nothing by itself, as it does in the phrase ‘καλός ἵππος’.

Thus, “evidently what is indicated by ‘ἵππος’ does not contribute directly to the signification of the word ‘Κάλλιππος’; for, when someone does makes an assertion about ‘Κάλλιππος’, she only has a man — Κάλλιππος — in mind and nothing related to horses or fairness”.

(2) The second example is due to Roger Bacon — I said we’d mention him again! — who has a couple of very interesting asides on some individual proper names in his treatise On Signs (a general treatise on how words, whether mental, spoken, or written, get their ability to function as signs, to signify things apart from themselves, with a lot of discussion about how equivocation arises), written some time before 1267. In the section on “words signifying equivocally as nouns and adjectives”, Bacon points out that there is an equivocation that arises when “the name of something universal is transferred to a person”, which can happen because the same word can have multiple types of supposition (remember we talked about this earlier!). He gives three examples of universal things being transferred to persons: (1) single words, (2) compounds of two words, and (3) entire phrases. For the first, he says:

For the name of something universal is transferred to a person, and this can readily happen because names are at our pleasure (ad placitum). And because of the likeness and agreement of a particular with a universal we can easily transfer the name of a universal to a particular, because all who transfer do so in accord with some sort of likeness, and we see that some name is common and it is transferred to a particular of another species. For example, ‘rose’ is the name of a flower and it is the name of a woman, and the basis for the transference is the beauty of both, in which they agree.

The second and third examples are the names Bonaventure and Bonhomo and the phrase-names ‘Deus te levet’ (God lift you up) and ‘Bene veniatis’ (welcome), which, as he says, “are in use among the Italians”.

There are two interesting things to note about these examples: The compound examples because they are Italian, and hence fall under the exception that I noted above, namely, augurative names; and what he has to say about the origin of the name “Rose”. Because despite what many people think, the etymological origin of the name “Rose” is not the flower. The root of the name is the Old English word hros, ‘horse’! It was only later that the word was conflated with Latin rosa ‘rose’. What is interesting about Bacon’s use of this example here is that it shows that this conflation had already occurred by the 13th century.

Bacon has quite a lot of other interesting things to say in De Signis (especially on the topic of constructed languages, and the origin of Anglo-Saxon!) but we shall have to leave those aside perhaps for another time.

So there it is: What I have found that falls in the intersection of onomastics and logic/philosophy in the Middle Ages, in my 20+ years of searching.

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Two case studies in massive cross-cultural onomastic corpora (1)

Yesterday we went down to Sheffield for the very interesting In the Name of History conference organised by James Chetwood. One of the themes of the day was what type of information historians can get from names that they can’t (easily/necessarily) get from other types of sources.

Medieval personal names encode unique data about cultural context that is often available in no other source. This information could function at the individual scale, such as when a tax role from Paris has a l’Anglais and a l’Escot, or a census from Rome has a fiorentina and a todescha. In a documentary context where the only information we are given is a name and either a taxation amount or a number of people in a household, quite often names encode information that would be in no other way accessible.

Names can also provide evidence of local phenomenon at a micro scale, at the level of cities or parishes, where the influence of local saint or dignitaries can sometimes be seen.

Finally, names can also provide cross-cultural information at a macro scale, such as how languages change and develop, how linguistic fads move, how (and when and where) names and naming pattern propagate. This macro scale can only be studied through massive cross-cultural onomastic corpora.

In our talk, we sketched two case studies of the type of things that can be seen from such a cross-cultural corpus, drawn from the data we’ve collected for the Dictionary (both published and unpublished citations): (1) Protestant naming practices in the late 16th C, and (2) the eclipse of Germanic names over the course of the 12th C.

We’ve discussed Protestant names before on the blog, but our point today was to use this data to argue against a conclusion which may seem appropriate when considering the English data alone, but which, in the presence of relevant contemporary French and Dutch data, is no longer warranted.

C. W. Bardsley in his Curiosities of Puritan Nomenclature draws a distinction between Puritan names/naming practices and the effect of the Reformation more generally. He says:

We must at once draw a line between the Reformation and Puritanism. Previous to the Reformation, so far as the Church was concerned, there had been to a certain extent a system of nomenclature. The Reformation abrogated that system, but did not intentionally adopt a new one. Puritanism deliberately supplied a well-weighed and revised scheme (pp. 42-43).

If you look at English data — particularly after 1600 — it is certainly true that the Puritans adopted some distinctive names and naming types (“Praisegod”, “Fly-Fornication”, etc.) However, as our previous blog posts have shown, there is a distinctively Protestant trend in given names that can be identified if the French, Dutch, and English data is all analysed together. This cross-cultural analysis is required: Some of the trends that are visible across all three contexts would be merely a handful of isolated incidents if only one cultural context were considered. For example, if we consider New Testament masculine names exclude the names of the apostles, each of the three cultures have only a handful of examples. But when we compare the name lists from each, we see that there is a significant amount of overlap — while no name occurs in all three contexts, almost half occur in two, and not always the same two.
New Testament masculine names
From this, it is clear that these individual examples are all a part of a wider trend.

The case is similar when we look to virtue names. Virtue names are in many respects a quintessentially English phenomenon — almost all of the examples of virtue names used before 1600 occur in English contexts and also occur ONLY in English contexts. However, not all of them do, and there are some names which are best classified as virtue names which occur outside of England. Again, on their own, these handful of names would not be enough to provide any evidence for a wider pattern or trend. However, when we view all of the virtue names together, they do:
Virtue names
Memorantia and Opportune are both found in Protestant contexts, and are extremely atypical names for the wider Dutch and French naming pools in the 16th C (or earlier). They are best understood as being examples of a Protestant-wide trend towards virtue names, forcing us to look beyond the narrow scope of Puritanism.

This is but one case-study of the sorts of trends that you can only witness if you look at a broad set of data. We’ll cover another case-study in a future post!

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The DMNES at ICOS 2017

We’ve been having a wonderful week here in Debrecen so far for the International Congress on Onomastic Sciences. On Monday editorial assistant Dr. Mariann Slíz presented on the translation of personal names in Latin, German, and Czech charters in medieval Hungary, and on Tuesday our editor, Dr. Sara L. Uckelman, presented the Dictionary in a special symposium on International Onomastic Cooperations and Projects, coming away with many expressions of interest and offers of collaboration. (We may have found a way to fill that Lithuania-sized gap in our coverage…)

We’ve been actively tweeting the sessions and plenary talks we’ve been at (with 5-8 parallel sessions it’s been great to follow the tweeters in talks we can’t be at!), and you can catch up on all the fun at #ICOS2017. We have compiled a bit of a report for the presentations by our staff members. Start here for a summary of Dr. Slíz’s talk:

And for the DMNES presentation by Dr. Uckelman (which, naturally, I couldn’t tweet), we’ve Storified all the relevant tweet discussion and photos: The DMNES at ICOS 2017 [no longer accessible, 03 Aug 20].

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Call for Paper Proposals: Names as Memorials (Leeds IMC 2018)

Call for Paper Proposals for a session at the 25th International Medieval Congress on Names as Memorials, July 2-5, 2018, Leeds, England

This year the International Medieval Congress celebrates its 25th anniversary with the special thematic strand “Memory”. The Dictionary of Medieval Names from European Sources intends to organize a session (or more than one if we receive sufficient interest!) at the IMC on the subject of “Names as Memorials”.

Names, both personal names and place names, provide a unique way for people, both individuals and people groups, to encode both memories and memorials. These can be memories of individual people, memories of ancient languages, and memorials of saints, miracles, or important events. The special session(s) on “Names as Memorials” seeks paper proposals that reflect this special role that names play. Possible topics include (but are not restricted to):

  • Given names used for specifically memorial purposes.
  • The practice of naming children after dead or living relatives.
  • Memorialising saints in personal names.
  • How place names encode the “memory” of dead peoples and languages.
  • Vernacular personal and place names in early Latin documents as a means of reconstructing our memory of early vernacular languages.
  • Etymology, especially folk etymology, as a way of preserving and constructing memory.

The deadline for paper proposals is September 15, 2017. To propose a paper, send the following information to Dr. Sara L. Uckelman (Durham University) at s.l.uckelman@durham.ac.uk:

  • Paper title
  • Brief abstract (100-200 words)
  • Language of delivery
  • Speaker’s full name and time
  • Speaker’s affiliation, including mailing address, email, and telephone

Speakers will be notified of whether their papers will be included in the DMNES’s session proposal(s) to the IMC by September 25, 2017.

Any question should be directed to Dr. Uckelman.

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The DMNES at Leeds IMC 2016

We’re very pleased to announce that the DMNES will be back again at next year’s International Medieval Congress at Leeds! We have two very interesting sessions lined up on Names and Multiculuralism — one on place names, and one on personal names. Here are the provisional details:

Session 1237: Wed. 06 July – 14.15-15.45

A Feast of Names, I: Place Names and Multiculturalism

Abstract: Many onomastic studies focus on a single time and place, providing a detailed linguistic and social analysis of the names from a narrow data set. While there is no doubt these studies provide valuable information, in this session we seek to move from the meagre diet afforded by a narrow, monocultural approach to the full feast offered when multicultural aspects of names are considered. This session looks at the influence of multiple cultures on the evolution of given names on and off the continent.
Sponsor: Dictionary of Medieval Names from European Sources
Organiser: Sara L. Uckelman, Institute of Medieval & Early Modern Studies, Durham University
Moderator/Chair: James Chetwood, Department of History, University of Sheffield

Paper -a: “Medieval Place Names of Ecclesiastical Reference: A Cross-Cultural Approach”, Andrea Bölcskei, Institute of Hungarian Linguistic, Literary & Cultural Studies, Károli Gáspár Református Egyetem, Budapest
Paper -b: “A Frisian Place Name on the Southwestern Norwegian Coast and Its Relationship to Old Norse bákn and Old Frisian bāken“, Andrea Maini, Department of Nordic & Media Studies, Universitetet i Agder
Paper -c: “Siculo-Arabic Toponyms in the Book of Roger”, Katherine Jacka, School of Humanities, University of New South Wales
Paper -d: “About the Different Hydronymic Layers of the Multilingual Hungary in the Middle Ages”, Erzsébet Győrffy, Department of Hungarian Linguistics, Debreceni Egyetem

Session 1337: Wed. 06 July – 16.30-18.00

A Feast of Names, II: Contact of Cultures and the Evolution of Given Names

Abstract: Many onomastic studies focus on a single time and place, providing a detailed linguistic and social analysis of the names from a narrow data set. While there is no doubt that these studies provide valuable information, in this session we seek to move from the meagre diet afforded by a narrow, monocultural approach to the full feast offered when multicultural aspects of names are considered. This session looks at the influence of multiple cultures on the evolution of given names on and off the continent.
Sponsor: Dictionary of Medieval Names from European Sources
Organiser: Sara L. Uckelman, Institute of Medieval & Early Modern Studies, Durham University
Moderator/Chair Drew Shiel, Independent Scholar, Maynooth

Paper -a: “You Can Call Me Al-Cuin: A Re-Evaluation of Medieval English Personal Naming, 900-1100”, James Chetwood, Department of History, University of Sheffield
Paper -b: “A Typology of Contact Phenomena in Medieval Personal Names”, Mariann Slíz, Institute of Hungarian Linguistics & Finno-Ugric Studies, Eötvös Loránd University, Budapest
Paper -c: “Þá hálgan: An Etymological and Cross-Linguistic Analysis of Anthroponyms”, Serena Martinolich, Scuola di Lingua e Cultura Italiana, Università degli studi di Genova

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DMNES goes to Bolzano

Dr. Sara L. Uckelman, editor-in-chief, and Dr. Joel Uckelman, chief technical guru, will be giving talks on the Dictionary and Digital Humanities at the University of Bozen (Bolzano) next month, on Dec. 21, 2015. We’ll post more details on the Events page as they are available.

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Call for Paper Proposals: Leeds IMC 2016

The Dictionary of Medieval Names from European Sources is pleased to announce its intention to organize sessions on medieval cross-linguistic/cross-cultural onomastics at the Leeds International Medieval Congress 2016, July 4-7, 2016. Please distribute the following Call for Proposals to any of your colleagues that would be interested, and consider submitting a proposal of your own!

Call for Paper Proposals

Does your research involve names (of people, of places, of things)? Does this research have a cross-cultural or cross-linguistic element? Do you want to present at one of the largest, most exciting medievalist conferences in the world? The Dictionary of Medieval Names from European Sources, http://dmnes.org/, is organizing sessions for the 2016 Leeds International Medieval Congress (July 4-6, 2016, Leeds, England) with a focus on cross-linguistic onomastics. Many onomastic studies focus on a single time and place, providing a detailed linguistic and social analysis of the names from a narrow data set. While there is no doubt these studies provide valuable information, in our sessions we seek to go beyond a narrow, mono-cultural approach. We stress the importance of looking beyond a single social/cultural/linguistic context in conducting onomastic research and are looking for paper proposals on any aspect of onomastics — place-name studies, anthroponymy, names of organizations, buildings, ships, guilds, etc. — which includes an emphasis on the comparison of data across linguistic, social, geographical, and temporal boundaries.

Please submit proposals to eic@dmnes.org no later than September 10, 2015. Proposals should include the following information:

  • Title of presentation
  • Language of delivery (Deutsch, English, Español, Français, Italiano, or Latina)
  • Name and title of presenter
  • Affiliation
  • Full address
  • 100-200 word abstract

Authors will be notified whether their proposal will be included in the DMNES’s proposal to the IMC by September 20, 2015.

Any questions may also be directed to eic@dmnes.org.

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The Launch of the DMNES at IMC2015

Monday afternoon saw the official launch of the Dictionary of Medieval Names from European Sources to a packed audience at the International Medieval Congress 2015 in Leeds.

DMNES launch

Photo courtesy of Rob Briggs (@SurreyMedieval)

The editor-in-chief, Dr. Sara L. Uckelman, gave an introduction to the Dictionary, providing a brief overview of the who-what-when-where-why-how (see her slides here), and then editorial assistant Dr. Nina Shiel showed how data from the Dictionary can be used — even by non-medievalists — to answer questions such as “How medieval were the names in Sir Walter Scott’s novels?” These two talks were followed up by an extremely lively and productive half hour of discussion.

It was so exciting to present our project to such an interested and enthusiastic audience. We’d like to thank everyone for coming, and encourage everyone to share news of the Dictionary with all their friends, whether medievalists or not:

title bar

http://dmnes.org/

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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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