Tag Archives: Arthur

An onomastic calendar: August

  • August 1: Justinian I became sole ruler of the Byzantine Empire in 527.
  • August 2: Pope Severinus died in 640.
  • August 3: Saint’s day of Olaf II of Norway.
  • August 4: Berengar II of Italy died in 699.
  • August 5: Alexander I Jagiellon was born in 1461.
  • August 6: Saint Dominic, founder of the Dominican Order, died in 1221.
  • August 7: Otto I of Germany was crowned in 936.
  • August 8: Conrad Lycosthenes, humanist and ecyclopedist, was born in 1518.
  • August 9: Arnold Fitz Thedmar, London chronicler, was born in 1201.
  • August 10: Eleanor, the maid of Brittany, died in 1241.
  • August 11: Mary of York was born in 1467.
  • August 12: Christian III of Denmark was born in 1503.
  • August 13: Alfonso XI of Castille was born in 1311.
  • August 14: Duncan I of Scotland was murdered in 1040.
  • August 15: Carolingian military leader Roland died in 778.
  • August 16: Philippa of Clarence, Countess of Ulster, was born in 1355.
  • August 17: Cesare Borgia became the first person to resign a cardinalcy in 1498.
  • August 18: Saint Clare of Montefalco died in 1308.
  • August 19: Catherine of Bohemia was born in 1342.
  • August 20: Stephen I of Hungary was canonized in 1083.
  • August 21: Philip II of France was born in 1165.
  • August 22: Saint Columba sees the Loch Ness monster in 565.
  • August 23: William Wallace was executed for treason in 1305.
  • August 24: Italian painter Lavinia Fontana was born in 1552.
  • August 25: Anna of Saxony married William of Orange in 1561.
  • August 26: Thomas Bradwardine, logician, mathematician, and archbishop died in 1349.
  • August 27: Arthur II, Duke of Brittany, died in 1321.
  • August 28: Saint Augustine of Hippo died in 430.
  • August 29: Hungarian poet Janus Pannonius was born in 1434.
  • August 30: Amalasuntha became queen regent of the Ostrogoths in 524.

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An onomastic calendar: March

  • March 1: Louis the Pious was restored as Holy Roman Emperor in 834.
  • March 2: Dirk VI becomes count of Holland in 1121.
  • March 3: Dutch theologian Gijsbert Voet was born in 1589.
  • March 4: Saint Adrian of Nicomedia was martyred in 306.
  • March 5: David II of Scotland was born in 1324.
  • March 6: Ferdinand Magellan arrives in Guam in 1521.
  • March 7: Emperor Constantine declares Sunday a day of rest i n321.
  • March 8: Urraca of León and Castile died in 1126.
  • March 9: Saint Frances of Rome died in 1440.
  • March 10: Agnes Blannbekin, Austrian mystic, died in 1315.
  • March 11: Marie de France, Countess of Champagne, died in 1198.
  • March 12: Cesare Borgia died in 1507.
  • March 13: The bones of St Nicephorus were interred in Constantinople in 874.
  • March 14: Catherine Cornaro, queen of Cyprus, sold Cyrpus to Venice in 1489.
  • March 15: On this day in 44BC, Julius Caesar was assassinated on the Ides of March.
  • March 16: On this day in 1485, Anne Neville, queen consort of England, died.
  • March 17: The feast of Saint Patrick.
  • March 18: Edward the Martyr, king of the English, died in 978.
  • March 19: Alexander III of Scotland died in 1286.
  • March 20: Cecily of York, daughter of Edward IV, was born in 1469.
  • March 21: St. Angela Merici was born in 1474.
  • March 22: Ferdinand II commissioned Amerigo Vespucci in 1508.
  • March 23: Margaret d’Anjou was born in 1430.
  • March 24: Harun al-Rashid died in 809.
  • March 25: Blanche of Lancaster was born in 1345.
  • March 26: Conrad II was crowned Holy Roman Emperor in 1027.
  • March 27: Rachel Akerman, Austrian poet, was born in 1522.
  • March 28: Saint Theresa of Ávila was born in 1515.
  • March 29: Arthur I of Brittany was born in 1187.
  • March 30: Saint Quirinus of Neuss died in 116.
  • March 31: Francis I of France died in 1547.

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Arthurian Names: Kay/Kai/Cai/Cei


Sir Kay is the son of Sir Hector, and the foster-brother of Arthur. He, along with Bedivere, is one of the earliest characters to appear associated with Arthur in the literary cycles, appearing in early Welsh poems such as the Welsh Triads and Culhwch ac Olwen. His name appears in a variety of forms in the various sources. In English he is Kay or Kai, in French romances the name is spelled Keu, and in Welsh, his name is Cei or Cai. These last forms, the earliest ones, give clue to the origin: Cai is a Welsh form of the Roman praenomen Gaius (see entry in next edition), also spelled Caius. The origin of this praenomen is uncertain, but it may be related to Latin gaudere ‘to rejoice’. So with this name we have seen names of Celtic origin (Arthur, Gawain, Guinevere), Germanic origin (), and Greek origin (Elaine, Hector), and now we’ve a name of Roman origin. (It won’t be the last!)

The name was never common, but it was used in England, particularly in areas with strong Welsh and Breton connections; Reaney & Wilson s.n. Kay mention one Britius filius Kay from 1199.

It is not clear to what extent the relationship between Kay/Cai/Keu etc. and Gaius/Caius was recognized medievally — i.e., the extent to which occurrences of Gaius can be taken as examples of the influence of Arthurian legends. In fact, the extent is probably very minimal, especially given other more likely routes to the name, such as the various minor New Testament characters, saints, or popes. In Italy — which is where our current single example comes from — the influence of Julius Caesar, Pliny the Elder, and Tacitus, all of whose praenomina were Gaius on the Renaissance likely contributed to the use of the name more than the Arthurian character.

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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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Monthly topic: Arthurian names

One of the highlights of the onomastic year — whether you’re a medievalist or not — is when the US Social Security’s baby name data for the previous year is published. A perusal of the lists is always good for an evening of laughs, but also as an insight into the contemporary psyche as evidence by what people name their children after. Perhaps one of the most indicative of patterns is the importation of names from popular culture — movies, TV shows, books, etc. What is particularly interesting is not the phenomenon itself, but just how old that phenomenon is: People have been naming their children after literary figures for millennia. We see this with the popularity in England of the Biblical names that show up in the mystery plays, we see it in the 16th C with the revival of names from classical mythology, and we see it especially with the perennial popularity of names from the Arthurian cycles.

And that is going to be our focus this month: We’ll take a tour through Arthuriana from the most well-known names to some of the least, looking at their origin and their patterns of usage. First up: Arthur himself.

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An onomastic calendar: December

  • December 1: Anna Komnene was born in 1083.
  • December 2: Gerard Mercator died in 1594.
  • December 3: Berengar I was crowned Holy Roman Emperor in 915.
  • December 4: Theobald II of Navarre died in 1270.
  • December 5: Pope Julius II was born in 1443.
  • December 6: Baldassare Castiglione was born in 1478.
  • December 7: Saint Columba was born in 521.
  • December 8: Mary Queen of Scots was born in 1542.
  • December 9: Malcolm IV of Scotland died in 1165.
  • December 10: Afonso de Albuquerque conquered Goa in 1510.
  • December 11: Llywellyn, last sovereign Prince of Wales, died in battle in 1282.
  • December 12: Stephen Báthory, king of Poland, died in 1586.
  • December 13: Pope Celestine V resigns the papacy in 1294.
  • December 14: James V of Scotland died in 1542.
  • December 15: Basil II, emperor of the Byzantine Empire, died in 1025.
  • December 16: Henry VI was crowned king of France in 1431.
  • December 17: William I Longsword was assassinated in 942.
  • December 18: Theodulf of Orleans died in 821.
  • December 19: Agnes, Duchess of Burgundy, died in 1327.
  • December 20: Margaret of Provence, queen of France, died in 1295.
  • December 21: Pope Honorius II was elected in 1124.
  • December 22: Stephen of Blois was crowned king of England in 1135.
  • December 23: Berengaria of Navarre, Queen of England, died in 1230.
  • December 24: Constance of Austria, queen of Poland, was born in 1588.
  • December 25: Merry Christmas!
  • December 26: Arthur III of Brittany died in 1458.
  • December 27: German mathematician Johannes Kepler was born in 1571.
  • December 28: Alaric II became king of the Visigoths in 484.
  • December 29: Thomas Beckett was murdered in 1170.
  • December 30: Vasily I of Moscow was born in 1371.
  • December 31: Eleonora Gonzaga was born in 1493.

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Gwendolyn, Rowena, Rhiannon, and Morgana: Medieval vs. ‘Medieval’ Names

Yesterday, DMNES editor-in-chief Dr. Sara L. Uckelman gave a talk at the Middle Ages in the Modern World conference in Lincoln on “Gwendolyn, Rowena, Rhiannon, & Morgana: Medieval vs. ‘Medieval’ Names”. This post is a summary of her talk; slides for it are available here.

The goal of the talk was to explore answers to three main questions:

  • What names do people think are medieval, but are in fact modern?
  • What names do people think are modern, but are in fact medieval?
  • Where does the mismatch come from?

Names like the ones found in the title of the talk, Gwendolyn, Rowena, Rhiannon, Morgana, were taken as proto-typical ‘medieval’ names: Names that the average non-medievalist (or maybe only dilettante medievalist) would probably classify as medieval but whose historical lineage is much more complicated.

The first clear historical use of the name Gwendolyn dates to the 19th century. However, many people think that it is much older due to the variant names which can be found medievally — not as the names of actual people, but as the names in literature. The feminine name Gwendoloena appears in Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Historia Regum Britanniae (c1135), but his source for this name appears to be a misreading of the Old Welsh masculine name Guendoleu as Guendolen (an easy mistake in many medieval scripts!).

Rhiannon likewise appears in medieval literature, uniquely as the name of a legendary/divine character in the Mabinogion. Though the name has become popular in and out of Wales in modern times, there is no evidence that it was used by real people during the Middle Ages.

Rowena is another literary name, best known because of the character in Sir Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe.

Morgana, of the four, is the exception. It, too, is a literary name, best known as the name of the Arthurian enchantress Morgan le Fay, whose name occurs in many forms (Morgen, Morgain, Morgaine, Morgana) in medieval accounts. Unlike the other names, it was used outside of literature: Morgana can be found in Rome in the early 16th C.

But it is not just that people assume many modern names are medieval which are in fact not, but also the reverse happens. We have discussed some of these here previously, in consideration of made-up names. What is interesting when surveying these examples is that many of the names which people in the English-speaking world incorrectly point to as modern coinages were not used in English historically, but rather in other languages (Amanda being an exception); thus, if we interpret these people as saying that use of these names in English is modern, then perhaps we have less to complain about their assertion. Secondly, some names that people incorrectly think are modern they think are because there is a clear post-medieval moment of creation that can be pointed to: e.g., Cedric in Ivanhoe, Wendy in Peter Pan. Here we must be careful to not say that Scott and Barrie did not coin the names, for the process by which a name is coined is not one that can only occur once. Scott and Barrie may have seen themselves as creating a new name for their characters, and if they did not have any knowledge of the previous uses of these names, then there is nothing to prevent us from saying that they did coin these names for their characters, it just happens that the names they coined had previously been coined. Thus, we must differentiate between the actual use of a name throughout history from our epistemic access to its use: One who does not know (and further, could not reasonably have been expected to know) of the previous existence of a particular name can plausibly lay claim to having (re-)coined it.

Having surveyed examples of names which fall on both sides of the line, the third question considered was “Where does the mismatch come from?” Why is it that non-specialists views of what counts as a “medieval name” or a “modern name” are so far off the actual mark? This is a complex issue with many possible contributing factors. Two important factors were singled out:

  • Literature
  • Shifting standards of cultural and personal identity

Literature: Many of the names cited above have close connections with literature. People read books which are apparently set in the Middle Ages, and assume that the names being used there are appropriate for the setting, because they are rarely told otherwise. The renewed interest in the Middle Ages of the Victorians brought with it new access to medieval literature and legend which provided fertile fodder for the desire of the Victorians to romanticise the Middle Ages. The roots of our modern historical and romantic views of the Middle Ages can both be located in these Victorian developments, and there often was no clear line drawn between the two, allowing literary names to pass easily from fiction into fact. Thus, the inheritance of the 20th and 21st C of the Victorian views of the Middle Ages brought with it a stock of names which naturally came to be viewed as “medieval” without distinguishing whether they came from medieval fact or medieval fiction.

But this summary shouldn’t be taken as saying “Oh, the Victorians couldn’t tell the difference between fact and fiction”; and this is because there are reasons why one might not feel the need to distinguish names from historical sources from literary ones, and that is because medievally one fertile source for names was in fact literature. We are familiar with the use of Arthur, Lancelot, Gawain, and Guinevere outside of literature in the Middle Ages; the popularity of these names is directly attributable to the popularity of the various songs, stories, and legends that circulated throughout Europe. But Arthurian cycles were not the only source of literary names in the Middle Ages. Other sources include the related tales of Tristan and Isolde, stories of Greek heroes and other legendary characters such as Hector, Alexander, Lavinia, and Hercules, Germanic romances such as the tales of Roland, and lays and troubador songs which are less well-known to modern audiences but which gave us the characters of Digory, Crescentia, and Griselda. And let us not forget the non-human characters, such as crafty Reynard the Fox, whose name became so closely associated with foxes that the term renard came to simply mean ‘fox’ in medieval French. Given that so many medieval names were in fact drawn from myth, literature, and legend, it is excusable for the non-specialist to assume that other important medieval literary names were also used by real people in the Middle Ages.

All of this so far has been directed at the level of individual given names, but misperceptions about medieval naming patterns also exist. These — most often in the form of insistence on a precise spelling of a name or on the belief that multiple languages can, and were, combined in the same name — have their origins in other factors. Specifically, we argue that the standards of personal and cultural identity that people have today are closely tied up with their names in a way that simply wasn’t the case medievally. In most western countries, people have a canonical form of their name which is instituted upon them soon after birth and which requires legal action in order to change. The centrality and importance of the name which is instituted upon them along with the difficulty involved in changing it means that this originally instituted name, in precisely the form in which it was instituted, has primary significance. Sara is not the same name as Sarah, and one who refers to the former by the latter will be reprimanded. This emphasis on the originally instituted name in exactly the way it was instituted as the legal marker of personhood of a person is simply not the way names were viewed medievally. Because orthography was not, for the most part, standardized (though this does not mean — as some people take it — that you can spell any name any way you wish!), Willyam was the same person as Wylliam who was the same person as Guilliam: It was the name, rather than the spelling, that was emphasized.

Identity: The second contributing factor is the close relationship between cultural and personal identity that many people have today. When you are introduced to someone, quite often one of the first questions you are asked is “Where are you from?” And if the answer you give conflicts with other evidence present in the conversation – for example, someone with an overt American answer giving her origin as the north of England, or someone with an obviously Polish surname giving his origin as southern France – then this usually immediately triggers further questions to explain the apparent clash between name, location, and origin. On a view of personhood and identity where where you are from and where your ancestors were from play an important role, then you expect that at least some of this information is indicated by a person’s name. And it is true that you see this sort of information encoded in (some) medieval names, specifically bynames which are locative in origin or which are ethnic descriptives such as ‘English’, ‘German’, ‘French’; these are quite common medievally and show that, similarly to us, medieval people were cognizant of cultural background and origin and deemed it important enough to codify in people’s names. But whereas modern people of mixed cultural backgrounds often have names which display multiple aspects of this mixed cultural (think for example of two people whose surnames are clearly tied to a specific language or culture who give their child the hyphenated form of their names), the combination of multiple languages into a single name is not something that was done, medievally. Though this cultural background is important and relevant, it was not inflexibly encoded into the name. Instead – and this ties back to the idea that variation in spelling does not necessarily indicate variation in name – the form of the name would depend on the linguistic context in which it was being used. A magnate from the Low Countries writing letters in the 14th C will say “Ego Lodevicus”, “Wij Lodewijk”, or “Nous Loys” depending on whether he is writing in Latin, Middle Dutch, or Middle French. John Hawkwood, notorious English mercenary, was known as Giovanni Acuto amongst his Italian friends. Other examples are easily found.

Having discussed the mismatch and some of its causes, it’s worth concluding by briefly considering the question “What can we do about it?” The most straightforward way to minimize the mismatch between what we think happened in the Middle Ages and what actually happen is through the dissemination of information, which goal was one of the original motivations for creating the Dictionary.

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