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.
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.