Category Archives: monthly topic

Mystery Monday: Uliana

Every Monday we will post an entry that hasn’t yet been published with a view towards harnessing the collective onomastic power of the internet. If you have any thoughts about the name’s origin, other variants it might be related to, other examples of its use, etc., please share them in the comments! If you wish to browse other Mystery Monday names, there is an index.

Today’s name is an especially interesting one because of the complicated context in which it is found. We have recently been working through a collection of notarial documents relating to enslaved pepole in Florence from the early 1360s on. The documents are fascinating for the wealth of data that they provide, not only on Florentine slave-owner names and the names of the people that they enslaved, but also the cultural and geographical origins of the enslaved people, their ages, and their physical characteristics. Reading through the records is sobering business: It is hard not to feel the weight of the unhappy story behind each entry. Most of the enslaved people are women; many of them are still children.

Most of the people were renamed after they were enslaved, with the documents often saying that someone was so named “in lingua latina”; a handful include the name the person was previously known by, “in lingua sua” or “in lingua tartare” (most frequently). Both data sets provide interesting material: On the side of the new names, certain classic Italian names are vastly over represented — probably 1/3 to 1/2 of the enslaved women were renamed some variant of Caterina or Margarita — both popular names in Italy in the 14th century, but not that popular. And on the side of the people’s original names, we get intriguing glimpses as to how names in Greek, Slavic, and Turkic languages were rendered into Latin. (For instance, the two Greek women who were named Cali or Chali in their original language may have in fact been named from καλή, the Greek word for ‘beautiful’).

What’s also interesting is that the pool of “Latin” names that were given to the enslaved people is not merely a subset of the names born by Florentines. Today’s mystery name is one that was the “new” name of two enslaved women (one of Tartar origin, the other not specified), and which we have not otherwise seen in Italy: Uliana.

Is it a form of Juliana/Iuliana? Is it a variant of Eliana (which itself may be a form of Juliana, or possibly a form of Ellen)? Is it distinct from either of these? We don’t know. We hope you might have some thoughts. Please share in the comments!

And if you are interested in knowing more about the enslaved people in 14th-century Florence, we are tweeting the names from the records on the anniversaries, at @FlorentineSlave.


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Mystery Monday: Quant

Every Monday we will post an entry that hasn’t yet been published with a view towards harnessing the collective onomastic power of the internet. If you have any thoughts about the name’s origin, other variants it might be related to, other examples of its use, etc., please share them in the comments! If you wish to browse other Mystery Monday names, there is an index.

Today’s name is a rather-modern sounding late 16th C Swedish name — or, at least, a name found in Sweden. Between 1591 and 1597, in a list of innkeepers from Stockholm, the same man shows up named Quant, Quante, and Qwant. While it’s reasonable to assume that most of Stockholm’s innkeepers were Swedish, there are other names in the list that show distinctly non-Swedish (generally more German) influences, so it’s entirely possible that Mr. Quant is not Swedish himself.


What this means is that we could be looking beyond Sweden for the origin of the name. There is an older Danish word qvant ‘young child’ mentioned in Wiktionary’s entry for the Westrobothnian word ‘gwadd’ (we’ll wait while you go and look up “Westrobothnian” — you wouldn’t be the only one to admi that they’d never heard of that language before this post!) — however, there’s no evidence to back up the existence of this word, so we’re quite reasonably leery of taking this as the root without further support.

Have you got any support to lend to us? Or other suggestions as to the origin of the name? Please share in the comments!


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Mystery Monday: Pregyon

Every Monday we will post an entry that hasn’t yet been published with a view towards harnessing the collective onomastic power of the internet. If you have any thoughts about the name’s origin, other variants it might be related to, other examples of its use, etc., please share them in the comments! If you wish to browse other Mystery Monday names, there is an index.

Sometimes it’s easy to get lulled into a false sense that in the 16th C, the naming pool across England was relatively uniform and predictable. After all, going through parish register after parish register filled with Johns, Williams, Thomases, Roberts, Margarets, Janes, Elizabeths, and Alices can (dare we say it!) get a bit tedious sometimes (no, no, we don’t really mean it. Names are NEVER tedious and boring).

Sometimes, though, you get a name that reminds you that there was regional variation, and this variation can be seen most clearly in the liminal places — in the counties bordering the Welsh marches, in the Scottish border lands, and, in the case of today’s Mystery Monday name, in the far reaches of Cornwall.

Today’s name is a masculine one that shows up in a Cornish parish in 1562, 1577, and 1593. (All marriage records, so it’s unlikely to be the same person, but the third could be the son of the first.)


We’ve not found any examples of the name outside of Cornwall, and it isn’t clear at all what the origin of the name is, other than that it’s at least plausible that it’s ultimately of Cornish origin. Do you have any suggestions? Seen the name, or something like it, elsewhere? Please share in the comments!


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Monthly topic: Some more 9th C families

We’ve gotten a bit sidetracked from our original plan of looking at multi-generational data to see what sorts of clues we could obtain about how people chose names for children by doing cross-products of Germanic name elements instead; but over the weekend we picked up a new source roughly contemporary to the Irminon polyptyque which has similar sorts of data. This source is a listing of tenant farmers in lands held by the Abbey of St. Victor, in Marseille, compiled in 814, and contains not only the names of parents and children, but often, also (fascinatingly!) their ages!

We have only just started transcribing the data from this source (which is not nearly as extensive as the other one, sadly), and already the data we have transcribed shows some interesting differences from the Paris data. The most significant difference is the significantly higher percentage of names of Romance or Christian (i.e., names of saints) origin, compared to the predominantly Germanic-origin names found in the Irminon polytyqe.

One consequence of this is that the patterns we see in Paris, with the dithematic Germanic names of the parents being recombined in the names of the children, are much less in evidence in the Marseille data. In fact, 6 pages in (albeit this is not very much data yet!), we haven’t found any evidence of such a trend.

We have, however, found a number of listings of complete families whose names are so lovely and fascinating, we’re simply going to share them even if we don’t have any nice scholarly conclusions to draw!

The parents are listed first, and then their children with their ages. Some of the children are noted as “baccalarius” or “baccalaria”. This is the root of English “bachelor”, and to be honest, we’re not entirely sure what sort of status it signalled in the 9th C. Judging from the ages of children that are given explicitly, in comparison with the children who are noted as being “bachelors”, a baccalarius/baccalaria seems, in this context, to be an older son or daughter who is too old to count as a child but not yet living independently in their own homestead.

Stephanus + Dara, and their children:
Dominicus (bachelor)
Martina (bachelor)
Vera, 15
Ermesindis, 7
Aprilis, 4
Stephania, 4

Martinus + Dominica, and their children:
Bertemarus (bachelor)
Desideria (bachelor)
Savarildis (bachelor)
Olisirga, 10
Rica, 9

Valerianus + Desiderada, and their children:
Anastasia, 5
Stephanus, 4
Martinus, 3

Fulcomares + Vuteria, and their children:
Radebodus (bachelor)
Dominicus (bachelor)
Dominildis (bachelor)
Fulcorad, 7
Beto, 5
Ingomares, 3
Romildis, 2

Dominicus + Stephana, and their children:
Ulmisis (“ad scholia”)
Peregrinus, 10
Teoderada, 7
Dadilane, 5

Elpericus + (wife not mentioned), and his child:
Stabilia + (husband not named; he’s “extraneus”, i.e., a stranger), and her children:
Abulinus, 12
Sarifredus, 8,
unnamed infant, 6

Betolenus + Desideria, and their children:
Momola, 5
Magnildis, 4
Teobertus, 3

Pelagis + Rooberta, and their children:
Roolindis (bachelor)
Arnulfus (bachelor)
Dominicus, 7
Betolenus, 4
unnamed infant, 3

Dignoaldus + Pascasia, and their children:
Ailaldus (bachelor)
Excisefredus, 10
Exuperius (bachelor)
Giso (bachelor)
Gairefredus (bachelor)

Gairefredus + Vuoldefreda, and their children:
Adalbertus, 6
Gairberga, 5

Dominica, a widow, and her children:
Maria (bachelor)
Orsalla (bachelor)
Scildis (bachelor)
Stantildis (bachelor)

Bertefredus + Florentina, and their children:
Inga, 10
Emnildis, 5
Dominica, 3
Joanna, 3

Incaladius + Aridia, and their children:
Christiduna, 15
Dignoaldus, 8
Scæfredus, 5
Joanna, 4

Paulus + Castellana, and their children:
Dominicus, 10
Ragnulfus, 8
Prodagia, 5
Victor, 4
Teotildis, 3

Joannes + Marta, and their children:
Petrus, 8
Martina, 5
Dominica, 3

Dominicus + Licinia, and their children:
Fredemares (bachelor)
Juliana, 9
Martina, 7
Marcella, 3

Aridius + Paulesinda, and their children:
Joannes, 5
Stephania, 2

We could probably keep typing these up all night, but we’ll end here! Hope you enjoyed these.

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Monthly topic: Why did medieval people choose the names they did?

Things have been rather quiet over at DMNES central over the summer as our staff members have been busy going to conferences, enjoying their holidays, and working on research papers. Now the summer sun is gone and the fall days are coming, and we’re hoping to get more active here on the blog again.

There are many interesting aspects of historical naming practices that one can study, and one of the most difficult ones is the question of motivation — why did medieval parents (or parish priests in some cases!) choose the names they did for their children? Very rarely in the records that we have to hand are explicit reasons given; sometimes, strong implicit evidence can be deduced from context, such as a child baptized by the same name as an elder, already deceased, sibling. General trends can also be identified, such as rises and falls in the popularity of saint’s names (I have long since wondered if the reason why Thomas is the most popular male name in the 16th C parish registers of Ormskirk, Lancashire, while in every other contemporary data set, the most popular name is John, is because of some connection with Saint Thomas in the town; however, I’ve been unable to find any such connection), or the rise of virtue names, which we’ve discussed before.

But information at the specific level is generally incredibly rare. This is what makes the Polyptyque d’Irminon such an amazing resource. The document was compiled around 823 by Irminon, abbot of Saint-Germain-des-Prés, and was a catalogue of the lands owned by the abbey between the rivers Seine and Eure. As part of the catalogue, the names of the tenants are recorded — and not only the tenants, but also the names of their wives, and their children. This makes the polyptyque a treasure trove of 9th C names which is almost unparalleled — among other things, it is one of our best witnesses for Frankish/Old French feminine names.

Entries are formulaic, and tend to repeat the same information. Here is a representative example:

Giroldus servus et uxor ejus colona, nomine Dominica, homines sancti Germani, habent secum infantes II, his nominibus, Gisloldus, Gerardus. Tenet mansum ingenuilem I, habentem de terra arabili bunuaria IIII, de vinea aripennum I, de prato dimidium aripennum. Cetera similiter.

Girold slave and his tenant wife, by name Dominica, people of Saint Germain, have by themselves two children, by name Gislold, Gerard. He holds 1 free farm having 4 bunuaria of arable land, 2 arpents of vineyards, and half an arpent of pasture land. The rest is similar.

(From this you can see that the source is an amazing trove of information about medieval farm culture, if that’s your thing.) This example was picked at random, but also for a purpose: Take a look at the men’s names, and you’ll see that the names of the sons both reflect the names of their father! Gislold shares the deuterotheme with Girold, while Gerard shares the prototheme — Gir is a common French variant while Ger is a more typically German form.

Examples of similar patterns — including women’s names, and combinations of both parents names, especially when the number of children grows — can be found on pretty much every page, and we’ll spend some time this month looking at some of the examples. They show a fascinating glimpse into the reasons and motivations behind the names!


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#Namehunt: Jolyon

We received a request on the blog for information on the name Jolyon. This is a curious name, because two of the main authorities on English onomastics, E.G. Withycombe and P.H. Reaney & R.M. Wilson disagree as its etymology!

Withycombe, s.n. Julian makes it a derivative of Julian, the name of 10 medieval saints and used in England from the 13th C on. (It was never as popular there as its feminine counterpart, Juliana.) Reaney & Wilson, on the other hand, identify it (s.n. Jolyon) as a byname, ‘jolly Jan’. They have examples of similar constructions s.n. Jollyboy, including Jolifion 1377 ‘jolly Ion (John)’ and Jolyrobin 1332 ‘jolly Robin’.

The answer is probably a compromise: Both origins are plausible, and the only way to tell for sure would be to find a record referring to the same person as both Julian and Jolyon. We haven’t found any yet, but if we do, we’ll update this post!

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#Namehunt: Marcelle

June is another ramp-up-towards-the-next-edition month, and we decided to make this month’s topic one that would encourage us to wrap up not only more entries, but more entries that we know people want to see. (So if you have any suggestions, leave a comment on this post and we’ll see what we can do!) We have a queue of names, and we’ll devote this month to targeted posts on as many of these names as we can.

The first is Marcelle. This is a French form of Marcella, a feminine form of Marcel. Marcellus was originally a cognomen of the Roman gens Claudius, and is etymological a diminutive of Marcus. The feminine form Marcella is the name of a 5th C Roman saint and a 14th C Greek saint. Despite its Roman roots and the early saint, the feminine name was never especially common. We have one 16th C example of Marcella in Italy, and have recently added another example from Italy, a 9th C citation of the diminutive form Marcellina. The name, perhaps surprisingly, also can be found in Scotland. In 1465, one Roderick Macliode married one Marcella Celestini de Insulis [1]; this Marcella may possibly have been a Gaelic speaker. In another Scottish record, this one from 1527, there is mention of “Katherine Fuktour and Marsle hyr dotthir” [2].

But what about Marcelle, the French spelling in question? It has proven remarkably difficult to find any evidence for this name actually being used by real people in the Middle Ages. We have found one Marie la Marcelle in 1340 [3], but this is an example of a relational byname (i.e., Marie’s husband — or possibly her father — was probably named Marcel), not a given name. The only clear instance of the name that we’ve found is the name of a character in Arnoul Gréban’s 15th C mystery play, Mystère de la Passion. Given the early saint and the use of the name in literature, it’s not impossible that we’ll one day find an example of a medieval French woman named Marcelle…but that day has not yet come.


[1] Munro, Jean, and R.W. Munro. Acts of the Lords of the Isles: 1336-1493, Scottish History Society, 4th Series, vol. 22. Edinburgh: Scottish History Society, 1986, B41.

[2] Black, George F., The Surnames of Scotland: Their Origin, Meaning and History, (New York: The New York Public Library, 1986), s.n. Fuktor.

[3] Viard, Jules, Documents parisiens du règne de Philippe VI de Valois (1328-1350): Extraits des registres de la chancellerie de France, Volume 2; Volumes 1339-1350 (H. Champion, 1900), p. 60.

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