Category Archives: Uncategorized

Throwback Thursday: Estonian nicknames

Back in December 2015 our editor-in-chief, Sara L. Uckelman, asked why was it in the Estonian name data, that “the nickname forms were more common than full forms”? For Throwback Thursday today, we’re revisiting this topic with some research that partially addresses the question:

The short answer is that it is an artefact a lot of our name data coming from sources that focus on Wackenbücher. These are socage registers that not only record the obligations of peasants to their manors, but also details such as the names of the heads of the peasant households. So a lot of the examples of names of Estonians in the Dictionary belonged to the indigenous peasants, as well as wealthier Europeans who had settled in the territory.

In Anti Selart (2016:182)’s article on the adoption of Christian given names in the Baltics, he argues that the form that a name took in medieval Estonia indicated social status:

For instance, when a merchant became a member of the City Council, Hans became her Johann (“Master Johann”). In the sixteenth century Estonia (no earlier records are available), a social gradation of certain peasant name forms is visible. For example, Hans has a higher status than Hannos, Jaagup is finer than Jaak and Peeter is better than Peep.

And the names we have listed in the DMNES seems to reflect reflect this hierarchy. The urban members of the Tallinn Table Guild (Tafelgilde), part of the Great Guild established by the German merchants of the city (Mänd 2017), are called names like Peter, Jakop, Johan or Hans, while those associated with rural manors on the island of Hiiumaa recorded with names like Peep, or Jake.

While the Dictionary aims to record given names used in Europe between 500 and 1600, it does not include biographical information about individuals like a prosopographical database. But once you start trying to answer the question of “why” diminutives and hypocoristics were so popular in medieval Estonia, the answers you find are fascinating.

(Many thanks to Rebecca Le Get, whose many year’s study in Baltic names resulted in this info.)

References and Further Reading:

Mänd, A. 2017. “Table Guilds and Urban Space: Charitable, Devotional, and Ritual Practices in Late Medieval Tallinn” In: Space, place, and motion. Locating confraternities in the late medieval and early modern city: 21-46.

Palli, H. 1961. “Eesti isikunimede kasutamisest meie rahva vanema ajaloo (XII–XVI saj.) uurimisel.” Eesti NSV Teaduste Akadeemia Toimetised. Ühiskonnateaduste. 10: 132–142.

Selart, A. 2016. “A new faith and a new name? Crusades, conversion, and baptismal names in medieval Baltics”, Journal of Baltic Studies 47(2): 179-196.


Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Inside DMNES from the Perspective of an Intern

I can’t believe I’m at the end of my six-month internship with DMNES! On one hand, it feels like the time has flown by in an instant, but on the other hand, it seems like I’ve learned more than could possibly fit within half a year. 

I wanted to take this time to write one last blog post and share the most interesting behind-the-scenes details I’ll be taking away from my internship.

Coming into this opportunity, I knew absolutely nothing about onomastics. I had to google what the word meant before I applied to the internship. When I found out it was the study of names, I was very intrigued, but it still made the most sense for me to begin my internship in a familiar field: research. 

One research tool we use at DMNES that I had never used before is Google Trends. Trends goes back through paper records digitized by Google, allowing you to track trends from long before the internet was invented. I learned to use Trends to analyze the occurrence of various names in the parish registers available to Google’s algorithms. I knew Trends could analyze web trends, but I had no idea you could use them to analyze naming trends in the 1500s!

Google Trends analyzing the occurrences of the same name spelled different ways in the 1500-1700s

Having dipped my toes in the onomastic name pool, I was eager to learn more. My next project involved finding the etymologies of names. At DMNES, every instance of a name is recorded with a VNF file in GitHub. That means, there could be tons of different VNF files, all for the same name, if we have records of it from a lot of different sources in different places and times. (You would not believe how many VNFs we have for “John.”)

Then, each VNF is linked to a CNF, which is the most basic version of the name. Each CNF contains the etymology. My job was to look up the etymologies for CNFs that didn’t have any. For some, this was easy. I would be able to find the exact name in a dictionary with the themes spelled out.

Other times, though, I wouldn’t be able to find the exact name I was looking for, or the etymology would be in a different format than we use here at DMNES. Then, I would have to figure out the etymology based on what I know about similar names. 

For example, one name I needed to find the etymology for was “Almodi.”

The first thing I had to do was find the most basic form of the name, which turned out to be “Alimold.” Next, I needed to find the basic themes that make up the name, which turned out to be ADAL- and MUOT-. “Adalmuot” sounds nothing like “Almodi,” but it turns out that’s what “Almodi” means! All I had to do was insert the meanings for those two themes (“noble” and “courage”) into the etymology spot for “Alimold.” Since “Almodi” is linked to “Alimold,” now we know the etymology for “Almodi.” 

Coming into this, I didn’t know what “onomastics” meant, but suddenly, I was piecing together the etymologies of names I had never even heard before! At the beginning, I would have to look up and triple check every name, but by the end, I could often predict what themes would comprise a name before I even checked our sources. 

Still, I have to say that the most educational part of my internship would have to be this, right here: blogging and social media. I had never used WordPress or Twitter for academic purposes before this internship, and it was so interesting to see how you can use these tools to share research and connect with likeminded academics from around the world! 

I also learned a lot about research and writing by doing this. When I found a relevant article in college, I just analyzed it in an academic paper. When I found a relevant article in this internship, I would write up a summary for this blog that makes the academic article into something you could read on your phone during a bus ride! 

Thinking about the same information in different ways really helped me engage with the onomastics. You can’t blog about something unless you really understand it. There’s no hiding behind fancy words or long quotes. You have to know what you’re talking about.

And, I can’t believe it, but I really feel like I do! I feel confident enough to use platforms I’d never used before to share information I never knew before that I found through sources I’d never heard of before. I learned so much over the course of this internship and had an amazing time doing it. I’ll never look at names the same way again.

~Adelia (a one-theme named from theme ADAL-, meaning noble), signing off.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Skaldic Poetry and The Skaldic Project

Although my internship is over, I couldn’t resist sharing this new site I found with the rest of you. While looking for Arthurian manuscripts, I stumbled across a website called The Skaldic Project. On their homepage, they describe themselves as “an international project to edit the corpus of medieval Norse-Icelandic skaldic poetry.” They are also the writers of the series Skaldic Poetry of the Scandinavian Middle Ages, a nine-volume compilation of Skaldic poetry. Five of those nine volumes have been published, and three are available on their website.

Now some of you are presumably thinking, “But wait. What is skaldic poetry?” I’m glad you asked! This is actually the topic of one of the pages on the website, linked here if you want to read more. In general, early Scandinavian poetry can be split into eddic and skaldic poetry. However, both these are modern terms.

There are several different ways to find what you’re looking for on the website. First, there’s an index of first lines.

The first lines are categorized by the first letter of the first line. The letters are on the left, and the number of first lines are on the right. If you click on a letter, it then brings you to a page where you can see all the first lines under each letter. An important note is that most letters with accent marks such as “a” and “á” are considered separate letters and lead to separate pages.

Once you go to each page, it brings you to a handy listing of all first lines starting with that letter. And if you accidentally clicked on the wrong letter, no worries! Simply click on the words next to the arrow up top that read “first lines,” and you’ll go back to the list of first letters.

Say you’re looking for all the poetry by a specific skald. There’s another directory listing all skalds alphabetically. Like the previous directory, you have to be careful about any accents on the name.

Also like the previous directory, you can see that the righthand column lists how many poems in the corpus are attributed to each skald.

If you click on the name of a skald, it redirects you to a page with additional information on the skald and poetry. If the skald’s poems are included in multiple different texts, these are all listed as collapsible headers. As always, on the righthand side there is a number of how many poems are included in each. At the bottom is any other relevant information about the skald.

There are additional directories for Manuscripts, Poems (including only named poems), Prose Works, and Runic Poetry. The first three are lists, just like the lists of First lines and Skalds. The latter, however, is split into several different sections.

If you are looking for any runic poetry, you can search based on period, region, siglum, or place.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Hello, I’m Zeal-of-the-land Busy: Satire and Puritan Names

Earlier this summer, I did a lot of research with Dr. Uckelman about Protestant names and Puritan names. Much of the evidence supported Dr. Uckelman’s theory that Puritan names were less common than many believe, and definitely less common than the more general Protestant names that appeared across many countries. It seems England simply didn’t transform its naming pattern much more than any other Reformed country.

But why then, did these “Puritan” names leave such a distinctive mark on onomastic impressions? Certainly, they are distinctive enough to stand out in a person’s memory, but every culture has some proportion of distinctive names. Not every culture warrants books discussing the strangeness of their names, as in C. W. Bardsley’s The Curiosities of Puritan Nomenclature. 

Percy Scholes provides his interpretation of this phenomenon in his book, The Puritans and Music in England and New England.  

“I should suppose that the whole of this legend about Puritan names comes from the public’s acquaintance with that popular figure Praise-God Barebone plus dim recollections of Mr. Zeal-of-the-Land Busy in Ben Jonson’s Bartholomew Fair and perhaps one or two other characters of pre-and-post-Commonwealth plays” (115). 

“Praise-God Barebone,” one of the few real occurrences we can evidence of a Puritan name, is distinctive, but fairly tame in comparison to the over-the-top names people seem to associate with Puritans. This suggests to me that Scholes is more on the money with the influence of satire. He minimizes his interpretation of its influence, pointing to “dim recollections” of two or three plays, but we have evidence that Puritan names were mocked in satire much more frequently than this. 

Stephen Wilson also discusses satire against Puritans in The Means of Naming, and quotes Bardsley’s own discussion of plays by “Ben Jonson, Cowley, and Beaumont” (Wilson 195),  but Bardsley positions these satires as an effect of the Puritan naming trend, rather than a cause of its perceived prevalence. 

Bardsley suggests hypothetical names that probably inspired the satirists, such as “Search the Scriptures Robinson” (185), but provides no evidence that such names actually existed. Was Bardsley misled by the very satire he sought to study?

Let’s take a look at the plays Bardsley mentions. He interprets them as evidence for actual Puritan naming trends, but satire intentionally distorts and exaggerates the features of its targets. I think we should consider these plays as a possible explanation for why Bardsley and others could mistakenly see Puritan naming trends as more prevalent than they really were. 

Ben Jonson’s The Alchemist— “Tribulation Wholesome, our very zealous pastor” (Wilson 195)

Here, the inclusion of the epithet “our very zealous pastor” clarifies Jonson’s strong satiric intent. Pairing the name with an obviously satiric and exaggerated epithet– (I doubt any Puritans literally referred to their pastors this way)– indicates that the name is likely also exaggerated for satire.

Additionally, “Tribulation” is overtly negative, a common trait of Puritan names as defined by Bardsley; however, many recorded Puritan names were fairly positive, including “Believe, Increase, [and] Remember” (Wilson 194). These positive Puritan names rarely come up in discussions of Puritan strangeness, and tellingly, they rarely come up in satire either. 

Ben Jonson’s Bartholomew Fair— “Zeal-of-the-land Busy” and child “Win-the-Fight” (Wilson 195)

These names sound like real Puritan names with their dashes and prescriptive sentiments, but they connote more power and initiative than many actual Puritan names do. They encourage their bearers to fight and work hard, whereas most recorded Puritan names focused on obedience to God. The closest real name I could find was “Fight-the-good-fight-of-faith” (Wilson 194), which emphasizes the religious nature of the fight with two words, “good” and “faith,” notably missing from the satiric version.

Jonson uses names that sound to the ear like Puritan names but lack the spiritually meaningful content. This allows him to show the ridiculousness of the Puritan’s seemingly grand and prescriptive names once religion is removed from the equation. But if the author intends to portray the names as ridiculous, we should hesitate to consider them indicative of real Puritan names. 

Abraham Cowley’s The Cutter of Coleman Street— “Fear-the-Lord Barebottle” based on the real “Praise-God Barebone” (Bardsley 190)

Cowley provides perhaps the most obvious evidence that satire greatly exaggerated Puritan naming customs by including a name based on a specific real one with comical exaggeration. “Praise-God Barebone” becomes “Fear-the-Lord Barebottle,” a name that more aptly demonstrates supposed Puritan naming customs than the real inspiration. The name is longer, now with the word “the,” better fulfilling the wordy nature often attributed to Puritan names. The sentiment also turns from positive and reverential to prescriptive and intimidating, indicating the harsh and severe nature people often assume in Puritan names. 

Here, a satiric, fictional version of a Puritan name better matches the Puritan name stereotype than the real Puritan name does. To me, that suggests that the cultural conception of Puritan names stemmed from the satire written about them rather than the other way around. Perhaps we would not consider Puritan names so onomastically significant and distinct from other Protestant names if not for the likes of Jonson and Cowley. 

Bonus question

John Fletcher’s Women Pleased— “Hope-on-High Bomby” (Bardsley 189)

Bardsley considers this play very strong evidence of Puritan naming trends.

“[There] is no exaggeration of name, for we have Help-on-High Foxe to face Hope-on-High Bomby. The Rector of Lydney would be about twenty-five when this play was written, and may have suggested himself the sobriquet. The names are all but identical” (189). 

I would disagree with this last point, as “Bomby” has arguably more comedic value than “Foxe,” but otherwise this is indeed an example of satire including a realistic Puritan name. Unfortunately, I am having trouble finding evidence of a real  “Help-on-High.” Has anyone found record of a person with such a name? If so, I would love to hear about it in the comments!


  • Bardsley, Charles Wareing Endell. Curiosities of Puritan Nomenclature. London, Chatto and Windus, 1888. Accessed via Internet Archive.
  • Scholes, Percy Alfred. The Puritans And Music In England And New England: a Contribution to the Cultural History of Two Nations. London, Oxford University Press, H. Milford, 1934. Accessed via HathiTrust.
  • Wilson, Stephen. “First Names 1500– 1900: I.” The Means of Naming. UCL Place, 1998, pp. 185-214. Accessed via ProQuest Ebook Central.


Filed under Uncategorized

Searching for Arthurian Manuscripts: German Edition

One of the projects my fellow interns and I have been working on is making a list of names in Arthurian literature and finding relevant manuscripts. A couple weeks ago, my fellow intern Adelia made a post about the website This website has been invaluable when we’re looking for manuscripts. However, the information isn’t always the most up-to-date. However, when it comes to German manuscripts, I found the website Unfortunately, the website is entirely in German.

Now, if you’re like me and don’t speak a lick of German, that might be discouraging. But not to worry! I’m going to go through how I’ve been using it to find manuscripts. A huge perk of learning how to use this site is that you don’t have to look through a bunch of German-language websites to find the manuscript you want. If you can find the manuscript on the Handschriftencensus website (literally “manuscript census”), it often includes a link to any digitization.

On the front page of the website, you will see the following header:

hc 1

You’ll see that I’ve highlighted the section titled “Verzeichnisse” (“Directories”). If you hover over this, you’ll see the following options:

hc 2

Here you want to click on the option “Autoren/Werke” (“Authors/Works”). This will bring you to a long page that has all works in alphabetical order. The title of each is often in the format Author’s name: Name of work. Next to each title is a number in parentheses followed by the word “Eintrag” or “Einträge” (“Entry”/”Entries”). This tells you how many manuscripts the Handschriftencensus has on record for each work. As an example, we’re going to look at Gottfried von Straßburg’s Tristan.

hc 3

Since I knew the title of the work that I was looking for, I used Ctrl+F to search for the word “tristan.” If you are using a Mac, this might be Command+F instead. In parentheses next to the title, it says “30 Einträge,” which lets us know that there are 30 entries on the site. When we click on the name of the work, it brings us to a page with all the manuscripts listed.

hc 4

The entries are color-coded depending on if they are a more complete manuscript or a fragment of one. From here, I’m clicking on the entry “Berlin, Staatsbibl., mgf 640” to go to the information page. The information page appears as follows:

hc 5

As you can see, I have certain words highlighted. The first of these, Aufbewahrungsort, tells us where the manuscript is located and under what shelf mark.

The next, Inhalt, tells us what the manuscript contains. In the case of this manuscript, there are several different works within it. When there are multiple works, the Handschriftencensus lists in which part of the manuscript each work can be found. I’ve underlined in red the relevant portion of this manuscript.

The third, Entstehungszeit, tells us when the manuscript was written. This manuscript has a specific year, 1461, but often the year is an approximation. You might see something like “2. Hälfte 14. Jh.,” “2. Drittel 13. Jh.,” or “um 1300.” If the entry says “um 1300,” this means it was written around the year 1300. If it says “13. Jh.,” this means it was written in the 13th century. “Hälfte,” “Drittel,” and “Viertel” mean “half,” “third,” and “quarter,” respectively. Put this together and you get that “2. Hälfte 14. Jh.” means the second half of the 14th century, or 1350-1400.

The final one, Abbildung, is where any relevant links are put. For this manuscript there is a hyperlink on the word “Codex,” which will bring us to a digitization of the manuscript.

All screenshots and highlights are my own.

Busch, Nathanael, and Jürgen Wolf. Handschriftencensus, Philipps-Universität Marburg, 2017,

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

The Tiffany Problem

To set the scene: you’re reading a book that takes place in medieval times. It reads as well-researched, and though it might not be perfectly accurate, no detail in it so far has taken you out of the story. There hasn’t been any looking up from the pages to make skeptical eye contact with some imaginary camera, like a character in a tv show. So far, all is well, or at least, convincing.

As you’re reading, you come to, say, a banquet. There’s a famous lady in attendance, and you are going to meet her. She appears on the scene. And her name is . . .


Wait, what? No way there’s a Tiffany in this book! Not when there are other women running around with convincing names like Blanchefleur, Isolde, and Ermentrude. And not when we in our modern times have Tiffany & Co. Jewelry and the movie Breakfast at Tiffany’s and a friend named Tiffany!

You, dear reader, have stumbled into what fantasy author Jo Walton coined as the Tiffany Problem. Tiffany is actually a medieval name that goes back to the 12th century! We even have an entry for it in the Dictionary here! Tiffany comes from Theophania, which itself is another name for the Christian holiday Epiphany. It was common for people in England to name their daughters Tiffany, or some variation, if they were born or christened near the holiday. But in our modern perception of the medieval world, Tiffany just doesn’t fit.

In other words, the Tiffany Problem describes the tension between historical fact and the average, everyday person’s idea of history. So even though authors may research carefully and want to include historically accurate information in their book—like a medieval character named Tiffany—a popular audience likely won’t buy it. And it’s not just limited to names, or books!

Take, for example: medieval people and bathing—did they do it? Many people would say, no, they did not.

However, the average medieval person was pretty into bathing! People who lived during the middle ages often had their own wooden baths, and if they didn’t, they would bathe in a nearby water source. They even used soap and would sometimes scent their bathwater with herbs! Medieval people also washed their hands before and after meals because they knew eating dirt and grime was bad. Not to mention what a big deal bathhouses were across Europe! Bathing was a leisure activity, a communal one, and usually a daily one. So yes, medieval people bathed [1]!

Another example: If a book or TV show or movie takes place in old-timey Europe, all the characters would be white, right?

Wrong! There were people of color in Europe! Just because we tend to perceive the European past as white, doesn’t mean it actually was, à la Tiffany Problem. If you take a good look at the art produced throughout pre and early modern Europe, and if you dig deeper to find the unseen or hidden art that actually depicts black and POC individuals, you’ll find a significantly more diverse representation of life in Europe during these times. For a more in-depth look at people of color in European art, check out this blog!

And if you want more than just art to illustrate (get it?) this point, let’s skip to a little later in the timeline and talk about what the docks of 19th century England looked like. English sailors making the voyage to India had to go around the Cape of Good Hope—an extremely dangerous journey, during which many sailors died.

Undermanned, the surviving sailors needed to refill their crew for the return voyage, and who did they use to do it? Locals from the docks in South Asia. But it was a one-way trip for these green seafarers.

Once back in England, the European mariners would leave their inexperienced South Asian crewmembers on the docks to fend for themselves and hire experienced sailors for the next voyage (and repeat). So, there were lots of non-white people left on the docks who took up whatever work they could with their experience [2].

To conclude, here’s one last example! To set the scene (again), you’re reading a book set in Victorian England—a scandalous one. You come to a chapter that describes someone looking saucy and doing something a bit risqué. Are you picturing it?

Next question: are nipple piercings part of your picture? Probably not! But nipple piercings were having a moment in 1800s England (and France, too)! Women and men got themselves the piercings to be both trendy and titillating (pun intended). But you couldn’t really put that in a book that’s trying to be and be seen as historically accurate. . . could you [3]?

The next time you encounter TV, movies, or books set in pre-20th century Europe that has people of color present (or cleanliness standards), maybe think about the Tiffany Problem before brushing it off as inaccurate. Maybe it’s time we start to change our perceptions, and open up to accurate, if sometimes zany, historical facts and occurrences!






Filed under Uncategorized

The Battle for Claude

The year was 1546. A man named Chappuis wanted to name his son “Claude” after one of his relatives. Unfortunately for Chappuis, he lived in Calvin’s Geneva, where “Claude” happened to be the name of a local saint highly honored by Catholics. 

This probably wasn’t a coincidence when Chappuis’s relative was named “Claude,” as the Catholic practice of naming children after local saints was very common in the area, but Chappuis didn’t seem to care much about the name’s saintly connection. He was more interested in honoring his family heritage.

Chappuis took the boy to a local pastor to be baptized. The pastor was Protestant, but as Chappuis had no explicit intention of actually honoring the local saint, he likely did not expect this to be an issue.

How wrong he was.

The pastor agreed to baptize the child, calmly began the ceremony, and pronounced over the boy, “I baptize you in the name of Abraham.” Horrified, Chappuis physically grabbed his son back from the pastor. His community joined him in anger, and a large group followed Chappuis out of the church.

Hypolite Rivet, a very powerful man in the community, took Chappuis’s side. He argued that the pastor had no right to name the child, as that decision was up to the parents and godparents.  Chappuis’s struggle also reached the heart of a woman named Nevet, who was the wife of one Claude Vouvrey. 

Before the Reformation, Nevet had been a midwife, so she may have performed baptisms in the past. She accompanied the angry group to Chappuis’s home, where she reportedly baptized the child as Claude. Nevet later denied this before the consistory, which presented her only with remonstrances and an order to serve her own husband. 

Chappuis appeared before Calvin’s consistory later that month. He claimed that his son Claude had been cheated of a proper baptism, as the pastor had, for some indecipherable reason, stopped speaking before finishing his sentence: “I baptize you in the name of Claude in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost.” 

The consistory was angered by Chappuis’s insistence on the name “Claude.” Chappuis argued that it was his right to name his own child. He said that if he were denied this right, he would refuse to give the child his proper baptism for another fifteen years. 

Calvin took the case before the Small Council at the end of the month. He argued so passionately about the importance of regulating names that some magistrates considered him overzealous. 

Still, the Council took his side. It sentenced Chappuis to a few days in prison, as well as remonstrances, a public confession, and fines– a punishment far exceeding Nevet’s. 

Furthermore, the Council officially decreed that though parents could choose their children’s names, they may only select names that come from the Bible. That November, the Council allowed Calvin to write a public list of prohibited names. The name “Claude” was officially banned. 

Before the Reformation, “Claude” was Geneva’s third most popular name among both boys and girls. After the Reformation, the name “Claude” was practically nonexistent. Before the Reformation, about 50% of children were given saints names, while the other half were given biblical names. After the Reformation, about 3% of children were given saints names, while 97%  were given biblical names. 

Parents chafed against this restriction, partially because they felt it infringed on their rights as parents, but also because it infringed on the honor of their heritage. The names they were prohibited from using were the names of their fathers, their godmothers, and even themselves. 

In fact, the officer of the consistory, the very man who likely brought Chappuis before the Council, leading to his imprisonment over the name he chose for his son… was none other than Nevet’s husband, Claude. 

Read more about this case and other fascinating stories about the conflict between Calvin’s consistory and parental wishes in this great article by Jeffrey Watt on JSTOR.

Watt, Jeffrey R. “Calvinism, Childhood, and Education: The Evidence from the Genevan Consistory. The Sixteenth Century Journal, vol. 33, pg. 439-456. 

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

In Search of Yfaine

As a research intern this summer with Dr. Uckelman this summer, I’m working on a couple projects! For the Mystery Names project, my fellow interns and I are going through the Mystery Monday blog post comments and DMNES Twitter replies to determine if the collective onomastic power of the internet has shed light on the names! For the Arthurian Names project, we’re cataloging names from medieval romances and the manuscripts they appear in.

Recently, I came across a name that combined both of these projects: Yfaine. I stumbled on this 13th century feminine name on a routine investigation into Mystery Monday comments. Sadly, there was only one response across the board—not enough to count the name as solved. But I wasn’t ready to give up on Yfaine just yet! It reminded me too much of the name Yvain, a masculine moniker recurring in Arthurian tales.

Reaching out to Dr. Uckelman, I wondered whether the two names could be connected. Yvain is a variation of the Welsh name Owain, which repeatedly appears in Arthurian literature. So, Yvain (and variants) would have been in use by the date we have for the source of the Mystery Name Yfaine.

Another part of my reasoning for the connection is that “f” and “v” sounds are both fricative, created using similar mouth positions, and there’s evidence of these letters being relatively interchangeable in Old French, the language of our source [1].

Also, according to Dr. Uckelman, Old French names were feminized by adding an “-e” to the end. Therefore, conventionally at least, Yvain becoming Yfaine is possible, through the assimilation of “v” to “f,” plus the feminizing “-e” at the end.

To investigate this possibility, we tried to find examples of the character Yvain’s name spelled as “Yfain” (still masculine, but demonstrating the “v” to “f” sound change), as well as “Yvaine” (a feminine version of Yvain), but had no luck. It seems that the name Owain, though it has many variations—including Yvain—does not have a variant with an “f.”

We didn’t give up hope, though! Dr. Uckelman was struck with the thought that the letters “-in-” in Yfaine could be a misreading of “-m-,” so the name is actually “Yfame,” a variation of “Euphemia,” for which we have an entry in the Dictionary here. We even have a source in Old French from 1296, lining up nicely with our Mystery Name!

We’re on the lookout for manuscripts that could confirm this line of thought! If anyone out there has any ideas, other examples, or finds such a manuscript, we would greatly appreciate you sending them our way!



Filed under Uncategorized

The Quest for Arthurian Manuscripts

One of the projects I’ve been working on this summer is creating a spreadsheet of Arthurian names and the manuscripts in which they’re used. Wikipedia was helpful in listing Arthurian character names and stories, but we found it a little harder to track down the manuscripts in which a given story might exist.

Enter Created for a project led by Bart Besamusca from 2004-2008 at Utrecht University, this website provides a searchable database of Arthurian manuscripts. Obviously, I couldn’t wait to check it out.

There are three different types of searches you can do in this database, and each provides many filters to sort your results. 

The first is the Manuscript search. Here, you can find a list of manuscripts and their locations. You can filter by physical qualities of the manuscript, such as presence of illustrations, leaf size or quantity, or, my personal favorite, narratives contained within. 

You can also search for Narratives, either by their length or origin, or even by the manuscript in which they appear. This will give you a list of the Arthurian stories that meet your criteria. 

Finally, you can search for Persons, which allows you to filter by creative type, gender, or manuscript to help you find real people who contributed to the Arthurian texts. 

Since my team already has a list of the stories we want to study for names, we mostly stick to the Manuscripts tab. This is an example search I made for the project last week.

The names Loholt, Dindrane, and Claudas are all mentioned in the story “Perlesvaus,” so I went to the Manuscripts tab, and scrolled down to the Narratives filter. When I typed in “perlesvaus,” it indicated I had found eight results. 

I clicked to see my results, and the database gave me this list of manuscripts that contain the story of Perlesvaus. 

I clicked on the first result, a manuscript from the library Bürgerbibliothek in Bern. It gave me the shelfmark and some information about its date of origin, as well as some info further down the page about the other contents of the manuscript and what bibliographies have cited it in the past. 

The database has a field for linking to a digital facsimile of the manuscript, but this one was blank. In my experience, though, you can’t give up hope of finding an online manuscript that quickly. Because this project is from 2008, it is not completely up to date. This may occasionally influence the actual manuscripts found, but the most frequent error I noticed was a lack of links to digital versions– many have been uploaded in the last ten years or so. 

But that’s all right, because the database gave me enough information to look for a digital version myself. I typed the library and shelf number into a basic Google search, and it took me right to the manuscript page on the Switzerland’s virtual library website. Not only did this page have some more detailed information missing from the Arthurian database’s entry, it had a link to an online text!

Links to digital facsimile and top of a page for of Composite Manuscript: Garin le Loherain, Perceval, Chroniques, Parthenopeus de Blois, Durmart le Gaulois etc., French

Not all of the manuscripts I google like this have digital versions, but it’s definitely worth a try– it worked out for this manuscript!

Overall, the Arthurian Database has been extremely helpful for us in tracking down manuscript options for specific narratives. It’s not completely up to date, so outside research is still necessary, but it provides a great starting point. Although it doesn’t contain every Arthurian text we are seeking, it contains a great deal. I have a much easier time finding manuscripts for the stories catalogued on this website than when I search for manuscripts on my own. 

Check out the Arthurian Database for yourself here. It’s a great website for research– or for fun!

Besamusca, Bart. “Arthurian Fiction in Medieval Europe: Narratives and Manuscripts.” Arthurian Fiction, 2008,

Bern, Burgerbibliothek, Cod. 113: Composite Manuscript: Garin le Loherain, Perceval, Chroniques, Parthenopeus de Blois, Durmart le Gaulois etc., French (

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Secret names: Cracking the medieval code (Part 1)

Editor’s Introduction: The DMNES staff are super delighted to host a three-part guest blog by Dr. Anna Dorofeeva. Dr. Dorofeeva is a historian specialising in Western Latin book history and culture, and her current work focuses on ciphers and cryptography in medieval manuscripts; you can follow her on Twitter at @LitteraCarolina. In this series of posts, she talks about how personal names were rendered in code form in the Middle Ages.

Part 1 is below; Part 2 is here; Part 3 is here.

Secret names: Cracking the medieval code (Part 1)

Dr. Anna Dorofeeva, ZKS Barker Junior Research Fellow, Durham University

Medieval people often needed to write names down. They were important for witnessing documents, recording real estate, noting who had borrowed which book or owned which slaves, and ensuring that communities of people were remembered. And sometimes, names were written down using ciphers.

This was especially common between the eighth and eleventh centuries, when much writing was done in monasteries by both clergy and lay people. In later centuries, such ciphers were dismissed as the result of bored monks playing around. But we’ve recently begun to uncover the importance of marginalia – codes, notes and signs – for understanding the social spaces of monasteries and their wider communities. In such marginalia, we can hear the echo of the words and names of people from the distant past.

So why did these people deliberately try to conceal their names in the early Middle Ages, and how did they do it?

Name that monk:

Ciphered names often appear in colophons: the notes sometimes left by scribes at the end of the manuscripts they copied. Colophons usually record why a manuscript was made, for whom or by whom, where and when, or simply express relief that the long, hard work of writing was finished at last.

The scribe of this manuscript, copied in the late tenth or early eleventh century in Luxeuil, France, left behind a colophon. It appears at first to be gibberish:

Hbfc Stfphbnxs scrkpskt p[er] prfcfptb brchkinb[er]tk mbgkctrk

But this is actually a sentence encoded using a simple substitution cipher, in which vowels are replaced with the consonant that immediately follows them: a with b, e with f and so on. The decrypted sentence reads:

Haec Stephanus scripsit per precepta Archimberti magistri.

This was written by Stephanus at the command of Master Archimbertus.

The main text above the colophon is the Life of St Deicolus (or Dicuil), containing a history of the Benedictine abbey Deicolus founded in Lure, France, until the year 990. It names other abbots of Lure, including Baltram and Werdolphus (Werdulf). Perhaps all these names were an inspiration for Stephanus to record his own, and that of his master?

A similar colophon, using the same code, appears in this early eleventh-century prayerbook. Deciphered, it reads:

Frater humillimus et monachus Aelsinus me scripsit, sit illi longa salus. Amen. Ælfwinus monachus aeque decanus me possidet.

The most humble brother and monk Aelsinus wrote me, may he have boundless health… Ælfwine, monk and also deacon, owns me.

We know that in 1031 or 1032, Ælfwine became abbot of the New Minster in Winchester, in which Aelsinus (the Latin form of the name Ælfsige) was also a monk. Aelsinus therefore wrote this manuscript before this date. Was his use of cipher for the names he mentioned in this colophon an expression of monastic humility?

Interestingly, during the twelfth century someone added feminine endings to many of the prayers, suggesting that the prayerbook came to be owned by a female community — perhaps Nunnaminster, a royal monastery founded by Queen Ealhswith, the wife of Alfred the Great.

Other ciphers were much less formal than these colophons. One example was left by a scribe called Ekkehart the Fourth (c. 980–1056), who lived in the monastery of St Gall in Switzerland (and was the fourth of a series of scribes called Ekkehart). At the back of the manuscript, on a page used for doodles and pen-trials, Ekkehart left a code he called ‘clophruna’, from the Old High German verb klopfon ‘to knock, to tap, to rap’, and the word for ‘rune’. But this ‘knock-rune’ code has nothing in common with runes: it is based on the Latin alphabet. Each letter is numbered according to its place in the alphabet, and these numbers are then indicated by dots: a = 1, b = 2 and so on. [1]

In the manuscript, the series of dots marked 5-10-10-5-8-1-17-19 can be decoded as E-K-K-E-H-A-R-T (taking into account that i and j weren’t distinguished in the medieval Latin alphabet). This code enabled monks to exchange messages when they were keeping their compulsory hours of silence alone in their individual cells — tapping the messages out on the walls, letter by letter.


[1] R. Derolez, Runica Manuscripta: The English Tradition (Bruges, 1954), pp. 134–35.


Filed under Uncategorized