It’s very easy for people with a dabbling interest in modern baby names to look at recent trends in Anglo-American naming practices (e.g., in the last century or so), compare them with what they know of modern-but-not-so-recent trends (e.g., in the 19th C or so), often taken from their own genealogical history, and then make sweeping pronouncements about “how people chose names for their children” or “what names people could name their children” before modern times. Sometimes these claims are influenced by data going even further back; everyone who knows a bit about names knows about Puritanisms like “Fly-Fornication” and “Bestiality” (oops, wait, that one’s a Pratchettism, not a Puritanism).
But it’s a mistake to think that because things changed between the 19th and the later 20th C, that everything before the 19th C was the same. Or even that because things changed in the 16th C, everything from the 16th to the 19th C was the same, and that everything before the 16th C was the same.
Today I came across someone claiming that in historical England, the only options were to name kids after kings, queens, and Bible figures. While it’s certainly true that some popular names were also the names of kings and queens (but there, the other of influence probably goes the other way: Kings and queens were given the names they were because they were common/popular, not that those names became common/popular because they were born by a king or queen) and that some popular names were also the names of important Biblical figures, this claim is problematic in a number of ways.
The first is that it overlooks a substantially-sized group of names that were quite common throughout English history: Names of non-Biblical saints, like Agnes, Margaret, Ursula, Katherine, and Cecilia, which were a particularly generative source of names for women. But even if we include that under “Bible names” (interpreting that to broadly cover “religious” names in general, rather than strictly to narrowly cover only names found in the bible), there are still numerous names — some enormously popular — that do not fit any of these categories.
Some years ago, now, we did two posts on the “most popular” women’s names and men’s names; now, these posts covered not only England, but all the names found on these lists were quite common in England. Let’s take a look at them.
Amongst the feminine names, Alice is a standout counterexample. While there were a few minor continental saints with this name, as well as an empress and a queen consort of Cyprus, these saints were not venerated in England and there’s no reason to think that the two royal women would have had any influence on the popularity of the name outside of their own lands. Yet, Alice was, and continues to be, enormously popular in England, with examples from as early as the second half of the 12th century. Another name on the list, Ellen, shows a similar trajectory: A handful of minor saints with local influence, none of whom were English, and one minor queen consort of a country other than England. And yet, we see this name in England from the early 12th C as well, it’s popularity influenced by the appearance of the name in medieval Arthurian romances (yes, medieval people named their children after literary characters, just as modern people do!).
Turning to the masculine names, Charles was never as popular in England as it was on the continent prior to the post-medieval English kings named Charles, but the name was used, despite there being no biblical, royal, or saintly connection. Another name that cannot be called biblical, royal, or saintly in England is Robert, a name whose popularity in England was driven by the Norman conquest. Sometimes, people just adopted names because they were a part of the changing cultures/fashions/fads of the times. Now, there was a minor (non-Biblical) 13th C English saint named Roger, and that might have contributed to an increase in the popularity of that name, at least in the region where the saint lived. But the name was already in use a century earlier, so the saint cannot have been the driving force (and, again, it’s more likely that a saint has a name because it was popular, rather than that the name was popular because it was given to a saint). A curious name is Walter: It is perhaps the most popular name in medieval Europe (not just medieval England) which was never the name of a saint or a ruler. This didn’t prevent it from often being in the top 5 most popular men’s names in 16th C English parish registers.
Now, these are just some of the most popular names, across all of Europe and a thousand-year-plus timespam. If we look more specifically just at England, and to some of the “not amazingly popular, but not totally unique” names, what we find there is that the number of non-religious, non-royal names proliferates. Such names include:
If we moved on to names that are found rarely, we’d have an even larger swathe of names to pick from.
So, yes, certainly names of kings and queens and saints (saints more so than Bible figures more generally) were popular names in England; but they were by no means the only choice of names available to medieval English people.