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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.

References

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

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Ireland vs. England: Are Protestant Names Different Than Puritan Names?

In the process of finding literature for Dr. Uckelman’s project on Protestant and Puritan names, I came across a very interesting paper about naming customs in medieval Ireland and how they compare to medieval England: 

Tait, Clodagh. “Namesakes and Nicknames: Naming Practices in Early Modern Ireland, 1540-1700.” CONTINUITY AND CHANGE, vol. 21, pp. 313–340. https://search.proquest.com/openview/00ff26214014a0f70a55c2e539f048ce/1?pq-origsite=gscholar&cbl=37442

It goes into some interesting ideas about individuality and naming, but what really drew my attention was its analysis of the impact of Protestant naming trends after the Reformation in Ireland, a country that “retained a majority Catholic population” (Tait 320). 

She starts with a surprising fact: in the 1540s, some Protestants cared less that their child was baptized by a Protestant than that their child was baptized with a Protestant appropriate name. This goes to show how important people considered names in terms of their religious identity. Tait remarks that in addition to connecting people to members of their own religion, names could also distinguish people from those of other religions, highlighting religious differences. In short, names can bring people together… and tear them apart.

Tait’s paper draws from baptism records from the Church of Ireland and the Catholic Church to analyze the distribution of names across different Christian ideologies. She remarks that many of her findings about Catholic names draw only from one register, so they could be attributed to one overzealous priest, but she did find some supporting evidence from other sources. 

Tait found that in an Irish Protestant population, half the children baptized received one of the top 5 names— “John/Jonathan, James, Jane/Janet, Mary and Elizabeth” (315). Similarly, in England at the same time, half the children baptized received one of the top 6 names— “William, John, Thomas, Elizabeth, Anne and Mary” (315). Although Puritan naming is often considered unique, Protestant naming trends in Ireland seemed to progress similarly in terms of most popular names. 

Still, the two countries were not wholly alike. Tait lays out three types of naming traditions observed in pre-1500s Ireland: the Gaelic names already popular in Ireland, saints names commonly used by Catholics, and names brought by settlers, including English names. 

Gaelic: Tait says one might expect the saint names, pushed by the Catholic church during the Reformation, and English names, handed down to descendants of settlers, to overtake and eradicate the use of Gaelic names as it did in England (315). She found this was not the case. Irish natives and settlers each retained their own naming systems, preserving them both. In the 1660s, she finds the top 6 names used by native Irish families remained largely Gaelic– Patrick, Bryan, Hugh, Owen, Thorlogh, and Shane, while the top names used by the descendants of settlers remained largely English– John, Thomas, William, Robert, James, and Richard (316). This supports her idea of names serving to bond communities while revealing their differences from other communities. 

Settler: It makes sense that English settlers would continue to use English names, but Tait observes that their naming practice evolved differently than it did among people who stayed in England. In Ireland, many English settlers used English names that were no longer popular in England, such as “David, Gerald, and Maurice” (315). This demonstrates how the names create connection between the settlers and England, while also revealing differences between them. 

Saint names: Tait observes that “16th and 17th century Catholics, especially those with Old English backgrounds, [kept using] the medieval idea of personal ‘name’ saints, a practice that was further encouraged by the Counter Reformation clergy” (317). These names were often chosen by proximity of the Saint’s feast to the child’s birthdate. People devoted to these name saints and associated honoring them with honoring themselves. This commitment to date association affected even the otherwise most popular names, creating a noticeable difference between Ireland and England, as well as between Protestants and Catholics. Anne and John, very popular names among Protestants and in England, only see usage around their Saints Days for Irish Catholics, according to the Wexford register. 

Despite this, older Protestant traditions still cropped up amongst Catholics. Tait remarks that some children were baptized into both churches either because of mixed marriages, to avoid fines from the Protestant clergy, or as a relic of past beliefs (318). This reflects the way some names were used by both populations, such as Anne and John. This implies that Protestants, despite being outnumbered, still had significant sway over naming practices in Ireland, so one might expect to see Protestant naming trends become more mainstream. 

In the 17th century, Tait observes Protestants began using more Old Testament and virtue names, but she highlights that they did not begin to use the “Puritan-meaningful names like ‘Fear-God’ and ‘Lord-is-near’ that were briefly popular in later-sixteenth century England” (319). Is this because Ireland’s predominantly Catholic population discouraged such naming practices? Or did the Irish Protestant population, otherwise able to exercise markedly Protestant naming customs, simply not gravitate to this style of naming? Does this mean that Puritan naming customs were prevalent in England, but failed to translate to Ireland the way other naming trends did? Or was their prevalence exaggerated even in England?

Although Tait noticed a distinct style of naming amongst Catholics, with their preference for saint names, she did not notice the old-fashioned sounding Puritan names commonly believed to be popular among Protestants after the Reformation in England. This suggests that Puritan names were either exactly as limited to Puritans as many scholars believe, or that they were never as prevalent as previously thought. If the “distinctly Puritan” names were common albeit limited to England, though, what explains the use of other English and Protestant names in Ireland while these Puritan names were ignored?

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What makes the Apocrypha apocryphal?

As I continue doing data-collection and reading for the paper on Protestant vs. Puritan names I’m working on, I’ve run up against an interesting issue about the categorisation of Biblical names, especially those of Hebrew origin.

You might think that every Biblical name could be neatly categorised into “Old Testament” or “New Testament” (or maybe “both” if it turns up in both), but it turns out, this classification will only get you so far, because some of the traditional “Biblical” names are not actually found in the Bible! Or rather, not found in the canonical Bible…Three classic examples are Judith, Anna/Anne, and Susan. The Judith and Susanna whose popularity translated into use of their names are not mentioned in the canonical Old Testament; nor is Mary’s mother’s name given in the canonical New Testament. Nevertheless Judith, Susan(na) and Anne are generally counted as “Biblical” names, because of their occurrence in books that used to be considered canonical but no longer are (the Apocrypha).

As we try to provide an analysis of the distinctly Protestant Biblical names used in the 16th C, we are thus faced with the question of “what counts as Biblical?” That is, what apocryphal and deuterocanonical books would the Protestants have accepted as canonical? This question led us to the article we’re discussing in today’s post:

Floyd C. Medford, “The Apocrypha in the Sixteenth Century: A Summary and Survey”, Historical Magazine of the Protestant Episcopal Church 52, no. 4 (December, 1983): 343-354.

(Isn’t it great when you’ve got a concrete question and someone has a targeted article that is basically designed to answer your question?)

How — and why — then did this shifting understanding of the Apocrypha come about, and how — and why — did it affect the changing namepools? Medford starts out by laying the scene that motivates his investigation:

the sixteenth century witnessed the first serious reconsideration the problem of the Biblical canon in over a thousand years (p. 343).

This reconsider was triggered, Medford argues, by a long-running discrepancy between what the learned fathers of the Church maintained as canonical (that is, the canon of Jerome) and what was incorporated into actual ecclesiastical practice, a broader collection (p. 343). Many medieval Bibles incorporated the Apocrypha without distinction from the canonical books (p. 345), and as a result only scholars could have distinguished the canonical from the apocryphal.

The books labelled as apocryphal in the King James translation of the Bible (and hence typical of the Protestant apocrypha) are:

  • I Esdras
  • II Esdras
  • Tobit
  • Judith
  • “the rest of Esther”
  • Wisdom
  • Ecclesiasticus (also known as the Wisdom of Sirach, or Sirach)
  • Baruch, with the epistle of Jeremiah
  • the Song of the Three Children
  • the Story of Susannah
  • The Idol Bel, and the Dragon
  • The Prayer of Manasses
  • I Maccabees
  • II Maccabees

In this list, all except I and II Esdras and the prayer of Manasses are books that were considered canonical by the Catholic church.

Medford surveys how over the course of the 16th C the apocryphal books were successively separated out from the canonical books in various Protestant vernacular translations. Luther’s 1534 translation included the books, but provided explanatory prefaces on a number of them decrying them; concluding that “while they are not placed on the same footing as the Holy Scripture, [they] are yet profitable and good for reading” (p. 347). The first edition of the Bible to separate out the apocryphal books from the rest, putting them into their own section, was the Van Liesvelt translation into Dutch (p. 347). Other editions separated them out even further, by moving them after the New Testament in order.

This suspicion (or perhaps “concern with” is better) of the apocryphal books was not specific to the Protestant denominations, with similar sentiments being expressed by Catholic scholars in the early part of the century (p. 348). But the fact that the Protestants abrogated these books was — by the middle of the century — sufficient to reinforce their canonicity in the Catholic tradition, as witnessed by the Council of Trent (p. 348) which affirmed od as the author of all the books of the Old and New Testament as well as the Apocryphal books noted above.

Medford concludes his discussion with a survey of English translations, discussing how and where the apocryphal books were put, and whether they were introduced with a preface (and if so, whether it is the preface of Coverdale or Calvin). From this survey, he concludes:

Thus the sixteenth century English translations generally retain the Apocrypha for church use, while carefully demarking their secondary status by title, preface, position, and/or other means (p. 353).

This holds true for the Protestant tradition; but he goes on to say that the Puritans separated themselves out from the general Protestant tradition “with a complete rejection of the Apocrypha, resulting in the exclusion of those books from many editions of the King James Version since the middle of the seventeenth century” (p. 353). Here then we have the basis for a conjecture: If there is a distinctive Protestant vs. Puritan name-pool, we would expect to see apocryphal names in the former but not in the latter — no more Judiths or Susans or even possibly Annes…

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What makes a name a Puritan name?

One of the projects we hope to resurrect this summer with the help of our research interns is a paper on Protestant vs. Puritan names. One of our interns, Adelia, is currently collecting relevant literature, and I’m making an effort to prioritise reading through the fascinating looking articles she’s finding. What better way to do that than to write up commentaries on them as I do so?

Today’s article is

Daniel Kilham Dodge, “Puritan Names”, New England Quarterly 1, no. 4 (1928): 467-475, http://www.jstor.org/stable/359527.

Dodge kicks things off by summarising popular suppositions about Puritan names:

  • They are “now regarded as old-fashioned” (p. 467).
  • “Most of them come from the Old Testament, especially from the minor prophets” (p. 467).
  • “The New Testament is almost as carefully avoided as mine pie at Christmas” (p. 467).

But his purpose in this article is to question this popular opinion:

But what if our modern historians and writers of fiction were wrong in their assumption that, in the naming of their children, the Puritans were a people by themselves and that they were as old-fashioned in their names as in their dress? (p. 467).

Dodge adopts two principles for collecting evidence to demonstrate that this assumption is wrong: that the data be both representative and sufficiently large. A list of a hundred names is not large enough to draw any conclusions from, while a much larger list of names of clergy men will not be representative. With these principles in mind, Dodge draws his data from “copies of official records extending from the earliest entries of the Massachusetts Bay Company in 1628 throughout the seventeenth century and including various church and town lists and the graduates of Harvard College from 1641 to 1700” (p. 468). With this, Dodge places himself in the century after the terminus of our interest; given the significant cultural differences in England (and English colonies) between the 16th and 17th century, we must be chary of taking for the 16th century any of his conclusions concerning the 17th century.

The data that Dodge collected he divides into four categories (p. 469):

  1. Old Testament names
  2. New Testament names
  3. Non-descriptive profane names
  4. Descriptive names (including such names as Deliverance, Hopestill, Satisfaction, and Tremble)

When he considers names in his data that occur 10 or more times, there is a slight preference for Old Testament names (18 vs. 11 or 12, depending on where Joseph is categorised); the numbers shift somewhat when the individual occurrences, as opposed to the distinct names, are counted: 2062 occurrences of New Testament names vs. 1193 occurrences of Old Testament names (p. 469).

The cause of this strange reversal, is, however, not unexpected: It is due to the popularity of the given name John (around 20% of all instances), which was not unique to the Puritans and whose historic popularity even shifting priorities and practices could not shift it from the Puritan naming pool. As Dodge puts it:

the given name John, most popular of names among the Puritans, was not a Puritan name at all (p. 471).

Dodge’s feminine data shows the trends he wants to highlight somewhat stronger than the masculine data, as “the proportion of Biblical names is larger and the Old Testament is more generously represented”, though the smaller numbers overall mean that of names occurring ten times or more, “five are from the Old Testament and four from the New Testament” (p. 472). The clearest demonstration of the trends, though, is the fact that the most popular “profane” (by which Dodge merely means “neither Biblical nor descriptive”) feminine name, Margaret, is only the 10th most popular feminine name (p. 472), compared to the most popular profane masculine name, William, which was the third most popular masculine name (p. 471). From this, Dodge concludes:

early New Englanders, and possibly other Englishmen as well, depended upon the Bible to a greater extent in naming their daughters than their sons (p. 472).

Of the descriptive names, Dodge argues that they were never common and that their status as the “supposedly typical Puritan names” (p. 473) is due to psychological rather than ontological reasons: It is a fact of human consciousness that we tend to fixate upon the unusual and atypical and give it more prominence than it necessarily desires. As he says, “we are all given to generalizing from insufficient data” (p. 473), and when we look at actual numbers and statistics, it is clear that “In the majority of cases Puritans, like Anglicans, chose names not as Puritans but as Englishmen” (p. 473). More controversially, he argues that

Faintnot and Hopefor, Faith and Prudence are quaint, but they are evidently not so typical Puritan names as John and William, Mary and Elizabeth (p. 474).

But while it may be true that these names were all more common amongst Puritans than the descriptive names or names of obscure Old Testament characters, one must be careful what question one is asking when considering the question of whether there is a uniquely or distinctively Puritan pool of names. For it could be either of the following:

  1. What is the probability that a person is a Puritan, given the name they bear?
  2. What is the probability that a person bears a Puritan name, given that they are Puritan?

It may be that the answer to the former question is “rather low” while the latter question might be “quite high” — there could be names which are distinctively Puritan not in the sense that many Puritans were named this name, but in the sense that no non-Puritans were. It is these latter class of names that are apt to give us a pool which is uniquely or characteristically Puritan.

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Some 9th C Dutch families

One of the neatest experiences, trawling through documents to collect names for the DMNES, is when you get family units, and you can see how the names of parents do or do not affect the names of the children. A few years ago, we were able to give some multi-generation family trees from records from early 9th C France. Recently we came across some similar records — showing the names of people indentured to particular lands — in a document from the east of the Netherlands written in 850. Here, we don’t have multiple generations but we do have a 11 sets of parents, each with a single child.

What’s fascinating is how none of the names of the children reflect the names of the parents — quite the opposite story from what we find in the French data! There is only one case where the child’s name shares any themes with either parents’. Let’s take a look! (Shared themes are in bold.)

Richelem

Father Mother Child
Gerwala Weleka Bernheri
Ludold Reghenlend Ritger
Wigrad Vulfbald
Helprad Ricgard Gerwi
Lantbrad Wana Engilrad
Alfri Werenburgh Letheri
Aclaco Odelard
Liefolt Alfrat Folcheri
Leifans Wenda Asvui
Richard Memsund Sigehard
Vilfranene Odwi Helithans

The other thing that is really cool about this data is that none of the names are Latinized. There is such a dearth of vernacular material from this period, this provides us with such a wealth. More than one of the names would — in isolation — be most likely identified as masculine rather than feminine (Alfrat, Odelard, Odwi), lacking the definitive grammatical gender that Latin imports. But here we see clearly that these are feminine names, identical in form to their masculine counterparts.

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How about some stats?

We love doing stats on the data in the DMNES (in fact, we’ve previously done another post with this same name, back in 2015, when we passed the “30,000 entries in the database” milestone.), and no better time to do it than when we’ve just published new edition!

Entries and citations

Finalized entries: 2458
Unfinalized entries: 4871
Total: 7329 (compared to 4118 in 2015!)

Finalized citations: 68788
Unfinalized citations: 10430
Total: 79218 (compared to 37411 in 2015!)

Avg. no. of citations per entry (finalized): 28 (compared to 20.25 in 2015)
Avg. no. of citations per entry (total): 10.8 (compared to 9.08 in 2015)

Feminine names (finalized): 15304 (compared to 8101 in 2015)
Masculine names (finalized): 53469 (compared to 21901 in 2015)
Names of uncertain gender (finalized): 6 (compared to 5 in 2015)

Languages (finalized citations only)

Latin: 36362 (compare: 14028).
English: Old English: 7 (compare: 5); Middle English: 441 (compare: 419); Early Modern English: 15523 (compare: 10426).
French: Old French: 1605 (compare: 684); Middle French: 4194 (compare: 946); Occitan: 6 (compare: 0); Anglo-French: 79 (compare: 0).
German: Low German: 1800 (compare: 1552); High German: 1248 (compare: 477).
Swedish: 1627 (compare: 202).
Italian: 365 (compare: 0).
Spanish: 359 (compare: 159).
Catalan: 257 (compare: 217).
Scots: 170 (compare: 148).
Danish: 142 (compare: 0).
Welsh: 100 (compare: 0).
Polish: 60 (compare: 0).
Icelandic: 41 (compare: 0).
Norwegian: 12 (compare: 9).
Lithuanian: 6 (compare: 0).
Latvian: 2 (compare: 0).
Sicilian: 2 (compare: 0).

Our data has gotten too complicated to easily calculate how many citations we have per century, but this is something that — perhaps — our friends at ARC can help us with. In fact, we’re hoping to get some tools that will allow easier calculation of more complicated statistics in the future — watch this space!

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New publication announcement

One of our editorial assistants, Dr. Mariann Slíz, has released a new edition of her foundational work on personal names in Hungary in the middle of the 14th century, Anjou-kori személynévtár 1343–1359 (Budapest: Magyar Nyelvtudományi Társaság, 2017). Even better, you can now download the PDF for free here!

Even if you can’t read Hungarian, the book is still an incredibly useful source, with dated citations in each entry italicized and clearly dated, and if you’re familiar with the standard onomastic resources, you’ll recognise amany of the references to further literature (e.g., Bahlow) in the entries.

Congratulations to Dr. Slíz; and to all our readers about to get lost in Hungarian names — you’re welcome.

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A Confusion of Kates

Yesterday, a friend shared with one of our editors this awesome FB post:

We wondered what would happen if we tried to do a similar chart, but of all the medieval forms of Katherine that we’ve collected so far. Ours isn’t nearly as systematic, but it is much more varied (click on the image to see it in larger format):

Variants of Katherine

It also shows that there are a lot of gaps. Not every combination in the table is possible — one wouldn’t combine Italian Chata- with German/Slavic -russcha, for instance — but there are a number of gaps that we might eventually find/fill, such as Katheline, Cattelyne, Cataryn, Catlyn, Katharin! Who would’ve thought a single name could be so varied and so interesting? My favorites are the Quat- spellings. What are your favorites? Share with us in the comments!

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Kings, Queens, and Bible Figures…or Not

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:

Feminine

Masculine

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.

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Names of Twins: 16th C Warwickshire

One thing that’s really fun about baptismal registers is seeing the incidence of twins being baptised, and what their names are. (A friend once did a study of a number of Welsh registers, and found that male twins were disproportionately baptised Thomas, which is an interesting comment on the transparency of the meaning to ordinary people at that time.) Because readers of this blog are likely to also be iterested in what twinsets are being named, we thought we’d do a short post on the names of twins found in the Stratford-upon-Avon, Warwickshire, parish register.

Between 1558 and 1600, 26 pairs of twins were baptised: 7 were both girls, 7 were both boys, and 12 were mixed. The pairs were named:

Girl 1 Girl 2 Boy 1 Boy 2 Year
Ales John 1573
Alicia Margeria 1565
Anna Richardus 1561
Anna Thomas 1561
Anne Ales 1582/3
Anne ffrancis 1584/3
Christopher Thomas 1579
ffrancis Jone 1573
ffrancis John 1576
Elizabeth Margret 1578
Isabell Mary 1575/6
Jana ffranciscus 1563
Johannes Richardus 1594/5
Johannes Robertus 1561
Johannes Thomas 1564
Jone John 1589
Jone Mary 1584/5
Judith Hamnet 1584/5
Katerina Johannes 1566
Katherine William 1585
Katherine Anthony 1575
Margareta Maria 1568
Margret Thomas 1574
Maria Henricus 1591
Peter Thomas 1577
Richardus Thomas 1595

Those who know their literary history will spot a famous pair of twins in the list…

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