Tag Archives: Ambrose

Arthurian names: Ambrose/Emrys

By Anonymous, C15th - Original MS held by Lambeth Palace Library, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=9510186

By Anonymous, C15th – Original MS held by Lambeth Palace Library, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=9510186

Our most recent post in our monthly topic focused on the character Merlin, and in particular the form of his name given to him by Geoffrey of Monmouth: Merlinus Ambrosius. Having concentrated on the Merlin/Myrddin forms in that post, in this one we now take up the issue of Ambrosius, and its connections to the Welsh name Emrys.

Monmouth is the first to give Merlin the epithet Ambrosius, and this element is distinctly non-Celtic: It is a Roman nomen ultimately deriving from Greek ἀμβρόσιος ‘immortal, divine’. The most famous historical Ambrose is the 4th C church doctor Aurelius Ambrosius, better known modernly as St. Ambrose of Milan. While Ambrose was never a popular name, it was used throughout Europe. The use of the name almost certainly is due to the fame of the saint, and not due to the Arthurian connections via Monmouth.

Merlin is not the only Ambrosius to appear in connection with the Arthurian myths, nor is St. Ambrose the only historical Ambrosius who has a second name associated with the word aurelius. In the 6th C De Excidio et Conquestu Britanniae, the historian Gildas mentions a 5th C Romano-British war leader Ambrosius Aurelianus; in Welsh histories, he is known as Embreis Guletic (Guletic being a form of gweldig ‘lord’). A 9th C Historia Brittonum, often attributed to Nennius, confuses this person with the boy who became Merlinus, resulting in Monmouth’s conflation of the names into Merlinus Ambrosius [1].

So what about this Welsh form of the name, Emreys or Embreis in Old Welsh and Emrys in modern Welsh [2,3]? We have no non-literary examples of the name used by people in the Middle Ages. It does show up in a place-name associated with the Arthurian character: Dinas Emrys, a post-Roman hillfort where, according to the Historia Brittonum, a young Merlin prophesied to Vortigern that the white dragon of the Saxons, would be conquered by the red dragon of the Welsh [*].

References & Acknowledgements

[1] Hutson, Arthur E., British Personal Names in the Historia Regum Britanniae (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1940), pp. 58, 119.

[2] Bartrum, Peter C. Welsh Classical Dictionary (Aberystwyth: National Library of Wales, 1993).

[3] Bromwich, Rachel. Trioedd Ynys Prydein. (Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 1978).

[*] Many thanks to Dr. Heather Rose Jones for sharing her research on the medieval usage of Emrys.

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Arthurian Names: Merlin/Myrddin

We couldn’t cover names from Arthuriana without covering the name of arguably the most important character, bar Arthur himself: Merlin. This character owes his existence to Geoffrey of Monmouth, who named him Merlinus Ambrosius (Welsh: Myrddin Emrys). We’ll devote two posts to his name, considering both the Latin and Welsh forms of the first name in this post and then Latin and Welsh forms of the second name in the next post.

The root of Merlin’s given name lies in the city of Carmarthen, which was originally a 2nd C Roman fort named Maridunum or Moridunum ‘fort by the sea’. Later forms of the name were influenced by Old Welsh *Morddin, which developed into merddin and myrddin, and then Welsh caer ‘fort, fortified settlement’ was added. In the 12th C (Geoffrey was writing around 1136), the city’s name was recorded variously as Caermerthin, Cairmerdin, and Kaermerdyn. Geoffrey took these names, and interpreted the second element as a personal name, Merdin or Myrddin. [1] On this point, Hutson delightfully comments:

The fact that Geoffrey connects Merlin with Caermarthen is evidence that Geoffrey is probably eponymizing again [2].

He goes on to explain that

The shift from Merdinus to Merlinus has been explained by Lot as an attempt to avoid an unpleasant association with the French merde, and this seems a good reason [2].

There is little to no evidence that Myrddin was ever used as a personal name as a result of Arthurian influence, before modern times. Merlin, on the other hand, was sporadically used in England in the 13th and 14th C, with examples such as Ralph filius Merlin 1202, Jon Merlini c1210, Henry Merling 1327, and John Merlyn 1347 [3]. By the 14th C, the name had also made it to the Netherlands, in the spelling Merliin [4]. The name can also be found in Germany, but there it is not entirely clear that the Arthurian character is the root. When used by women, Merlin can be a diminutive of Margaret (see this post for a discussion of the suffix.), and it can also be a derivative of Middle High German merle ‘thrush’.

Next post, we’ll pick up Ambrosius/Emrys.


[1] Hywel Wyn Owen & Richard Morgan, Dictionary of the Place-Names of Wales, (Gomer, 2007): s.n. Carmarthen.

[2] Hutson, Arthur E., British Personal Names in the Historia Regum Britanniae (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1940), p. 59.

[3] Reaney & Wilson s.n. Merlin.

[4] De rekeningen van de grafelijkheid van Holland uit de Beierse periode, Serie I: De rekeningen van de tresorier en de dijkgraaf van de Grote Waard, Deel: 1393-1396. (Den Haag: Instituut voor Nederlandse Geschiedenis, 1997).

[5] Bahlow, Hans, Dictionary of German Names, tr. Edda Gentry (German-American Cultural Society, 1994 ISBN: 0924119357), s.n. Merl(e).


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Arthurian names: Arthur

By Unknown - International Studio Volume 76, via http:/www.bestoflegends.org/kingarthur/, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=4366920

By Unknown – International Studio Volume 76, via http:/www.bestoflegends.org/kingarthur/, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=4366920

We kick off this month’s topical discussion with a consideration of the name of the person without whom we wouldn’t have this topic: Arthur himself. Without Arthur, no Arthurian literature, no Arthurian names, no interesting patterns of adoptions of these names.

Origin: The origin of the name is uncertain, but it is perhaps derived to Old Breton arth, from Proto-Celtic *artos, in turn related to Greek ἄρκτος ‘bear’; certainly the name was later associated with this word retrospectively. An alternative origin which has been suggested is the Roman gens Ar(c)torius; if this is correct, Arthur would not be the only Roman name ‘naturalized’ into a Welsh or Celtic context. Other Arthurian names of ultimately Roman origin are the name of Arthur’s seneschal Kai or Cai (from Gaius, also spelled Caius) and Emrys (from Ambrosius).

Usage: Withycombe s.n. Arthur has a nice overview of the historical occurrences of the name, both in connection with the Britonic ruler and not:

The earliest recorded example of the name Arthur occurs (as Arturius) in Adamnan’s life of St. Columba, where it is the name of an Irish prince killed in 596; the earliest mention of King Arthur is in Nennius (fl. 796).

In England, the name shows up used by ordinary people in Domesday Book, and while “never very common, Arthur is most often found, in the Middle Ages, in counties bordering on Celtic districts, Cumberland, Yorkshire, Somerset, for example” (Withycombe). The Celtic connection shows up again in the use of the name across the channel in Brittany, where Arthur Duke of Brittany, the nephew of King John, had a Breton mother; and never forget that Henry VII’s elder son Arthur Tudor was a Welshman.

Our examples in England are primarily from the 16th C, with one lone 12th C Latinization. The name was Latinized both Art(h)urus and Art(h)us, with the latter spelling influencing the Italian form Artusio. We also have examples from France and Scotland, and, in unprocessed data, we have the unusual spelling Aearthur in Wales in 1204. The name spread beyond the core center of Britonic influence: In unprocessed data we also have one 16th C Portuguese example of Artur. Perhaps most interesting is the single example of Arthuze we have (also in unprocessed data), from France in 1549. This is a feminine name, derived from Arthus following standard French methods of feminization.


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Nicknames in medieval Estonia

In our previous post, we surveyed the percentage of diminutive and hypocoristic forms in the Dictionary’s dataset sorted according to modern countries, and one stand-out surprise was Estonia: Over 40% of our citations are nicknames of some form! Why is it that diminutives and hypocoristics were so popular in medieval Estonia?

Well, we aren’t exactly in a position to answer the why, but we can look at the what — what are the types of nickname patterns that we see, do they differ between men and women, can we say anything interesting about these patterns vs. those in nearby countries? That’s what we will explore in this post.

First, the feminine names: Only two of the nicknames belong to women, and both come from a Middle Low German contexts. The first is, in the vocabulary we introduced, a hypocoristic, formed by taking a name and truncating it to make a pet form. The example is Barbar, from Barbara. This same diminutive also shows up in Latvia, again in MLG contexts. The second is a diminutive, formed by adding the Low German diminutive suffix -ke, to the root name Anne, to result in the form Anneke. As with Barbar, Anneke also shows up in Latvia at roughly the same time.

This leaves over 600 diminutive forms left, of which nearly 10% — 53 — are Hans, a German hypocoristic of Johannes, one of the standard Latin forms of John, and if we add variants such as Hannes, Han, Hanß, etc., the number rises significantly. From about the middle of the 12th C on, John quickly became far and away the most popular man’s name throughout Europe. In German dialects, Hans, Hanns, Hannes, etc., were often as much more popular than Johannes or Johan than these names were than the next most popular.

So, one answer to the ‘why’ is: Because Low German was a standard documentary language in late medieval Estonia, and the most popular masculine name in late medieval Low German contexts was a diminutive, so that is why there are so many diminutives in medieval Estonia. (This, however, doesn’t address the other why question, which is why the nickname forms were more common than full forms!)

Hans makes up just under 10% of the masculine nicknames; a large percentage of the remainder are covered by just a handful of other names: Cord, Kord, Kort, a Low German hypocoristic of Conrad; Hintze, Hennyng, Hennynck, Heine, from Henry; Cleys, Clauwes, Claues, Claes, Cleys, Clawes, and numerous other hypocoristics of Nicholas; Ludike and Ludeke, from Louis; and Wynyke, a diminutive of any of various names beginning with wini ‘friend’. Other less common names also give rise to hypocoristics, such as Bastian, from Sebastian; Brosius, from Ambrose; and Aßmuß from Erasmus.

So much for the ordinary, every day nicknames, your Estonian Tom, Dick, and Harry, if you will. Let’s explore some of the unusual ones!

  • Nicknames of Constantine: Coest, Kosst.
  • Nicknames of Habakukk: Habbo, Köke, Kock.
  • Nickname of Hubert: Hoppe.
  • Nicknames of Jacob: Jaeck, Jack, Jacho, Kowpy, koup.
  • Nickname of Joachim: Jachi.
  • Nicknames of Joseph: Jessa, Seppo.

One thing of note is that many of these unusual hypocoristics derive from Biblical names.

We’ll close by looking at one name which, across Europe, is one of the most prolific spawner of nicknames: Theodoric. In Estonia alone, the name rivals John in popularity, and we have seventeen different nickname forms — most of which are diminutives of hypocoristics: Tideke, Tideken, Tideman, Tidike, Tijdeke, Tijdeman, Tijdike, Tile, Tous, Tydedeynk, Tydek, Tydeke, Tydeken, Tydeman, Tydike, Tydiken, Tyman.

This will not be the last time we see Theodoric when exploring this month’s topic!


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