Tag Archives: Arthurian names

Arthurian names: Guinevere

By Henry Justice Ford (1860-1941) - The Leicester Galleries loans to The Speed Art Museum, Луисвилл, Кентукки, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=12685934

By Henry Justice Ford (1860-1941) – The Leicester Galleries loans to The Speed Art Museum, Луисвилл, Кентукки, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=12685934

We’ve discussed Arthur and we’ve discussed Lancelot: There was really little option for which name to consider next, it had to be Guinevere, the name of arguably the most important woman in Arthurian literature. The story of her betrayal of Arthur with Lancelot first occurs in Chrestien de Troyes, but her character appears in Welsh mythological cycles earlier; Geoffrey of Monmouth calls her Guanhumara; Caradoc’s Vita Gildae calls her Guennuuar; and Geraldus Cambrensis names her Wenneuereia. The initial element derives from Proto-Celtic *windo ‘white’, giving rise to modern Welsh Gwen and Gwyn, and the second element from Proto-Celtic *sēbro ‘demon, spectre’. The name is a cognate with Irish Fionnabhair (spelled Findabair earlier) and Cornish Jennifer.

The name was rare outside of literary contexts, even in Wales, until the popularization of the Arthurian stories. By the 16th C, in Wales, a wide variety of spellings can be found, such as Guinevere, Guinivere, Gwenhever, Gwenheyvar, Gwenhoivar, Gwenhover, Gwenhwyvar, Gwenover, Gwenwever, Gwynwever, and even the more unusual Gaynor (all in unprocessed data). In England, an early example of the name occurs in the matronymic byname (i.e., a descriptive byname identifying the bearer’s mother’s name), Jeneuer, which is dated to 1296 in Reaney & Wilson, s.n. Jennifer. The same source gives Gwenhevare 1431 and Jenefer 1554.

The name took on an unusual form when it moved to Italy and Iberia: In Rome it is spelled Ginevra; in Naples Genefra; in Perugia Genevria and Ginevria; in Florence Ginevera and Ginevra. In in-process data from 16th C Lisbon, we have Genebra, Jenebra, and Jenevra.


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Arthurian names: Lancelot

 Lancelot fighting the lions near the well. Illumination from the 3rd volume of Lancelot Romance, as preserved in the Russian National Library.

Lancelot fighting the lions near the well. Illumination from the 3rd volume of Lancelot Romance, as preserved in the Russian National Library.

The character Lancelot first shows up in Chrestien de Troyes’ Le Chevalier de la Charette, written in the 12th C; he may be identifiable with any of various characters in the Welsh mythological cycles, but there is no clear argument in favor of any of them. In some manuscripts of Le Chevalier, the character is referred to as L’Ancelot ‘the servant’, but given that in an earlier work by Chrestien, Erec et Enide, there is a minor knight named Lancelot, it is worth considering alternative origins, especially as a plausible one presents itself. The most straightforward interpretation of the name is as a double diminutive of the Germanic element Lanzo, a hypocoristic of any of various names beginning with Old High German lant or Old Saxon land ‘land’. The root name Lance can be found in Italy and Germany in the 12th C, and somewhat later in the Czech Republic, and other diminutive forms, such as Lancelin, can be found as early as the 11th C. Lancelot itself became quite popular in England and France, with other examples showing up in Italy, Scotland, the Netherlands (consider these fantastic 14th C Dutch forms: Lantsloet, Lanceloit, Lansloet, Lantsloit, Lantsloot!), and even further afield.


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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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Color names: Silver/White/Grey

This post wraps up our series on color names for October’s monthly topic, and looks at names deriving from words for white/fair, silver, grey, and the like.

Because whiteness was strongly associated in many cultures with purity and innocence, it’s no surprise that these words gave rise to names, particularly in cultures (like Italian) that liked to give augurative names — names that express a desire for the child or child’s future.

Looking at names with elements meaning ‘white’, starting at the beginning of the alphabet, we have a masc./fem. pair Albo and Alba. These names have two possible origins: Either Old High German alb ‘elf’ or Latin albus (m.) or alba (f.) ‘white’. The masculine name Albin can either be a derivative of albus or a nickname for Albert. Looking at Latin roots, we also have a single example of Argenta, derived from an identical Latin word meaning ‘silver’.

Next is another masc./fem. pair, Blanch and Blanche. These could also be said to be of Latin origin, but Latin blancus (m.) or blanca (f.) is ultimately a borrowing of Old High Grman blanc(h) ‘white, pale’. This word also occurs in compound names, such as the amazingly beautiful Blanchefleur ‘white flower’.

The next set of names are Celtic in origin, deriving from Old Welsh gwyn (m.) or gwen (f.) ‘white, fair, blessed’. The Welsh roots of the name Gavin are disputed, but the second element may be gwyn. The feminine form gwen is quite common in Welsh names, both as a standalone name and as a part of compounds such as Gwenllian, Madwen, and Winifred. And the origins of the Arthurian heroine name Guinevere go all the way back to the Proto-Celtic root *windo. The same Proto-Celtic root gave rise to a Germanic tribal name, for the Wends. Tribal names are an interesting subset of elements that show up in dithematic Germanic names, and while words for the Wends were not as common as those for the Goths, they still show their traces in the names Wintbert and Wintbald.

Finally, we have the Old English word for ‘white’, hwīt, which was used in compounds such as Whitehelm as well as a standalone name or as a nickname of any of the compounds using hwīt.

The ‘grey’ names are of interest for two reasons; first, because we covered some of them already in the post on Color Names: Brown, as the root of the element brun has aspects of both brown and grey in its meaning; second, because looking beyond those we have only uncertain hypotheses. Despite its familiarity, the origins of the name Caesar are not entirely known. One folk etymology offered in the late Antique Historia Augusta is that it derives from Latin oculis caesiis ‘grey eyes’. And the origin of the fem. name Griselda is often connected with Proto-Germanic *grēwaz ‘grey’, but there is no clear evidence that this name was used in Germanic contexts, or for any other name which uses *grēwaz as a prototheme or deuterotheme.

We hope you enjoyed our first monthly theme! Next month, in conjunction with National Novel Writing Month we will look at ways in which you can improve your character naming practices when writing historical fiction.

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