Tag Archives: Beatrice

Typical women’s names in early 14th C England

We’re currently working records from manorial court cases in England between 1250 and 1550 (namely, this source), and are now in the 1320s and 1330s.

One of the things that I love about court cases is how ordinary the names are; these are ordinary people, living ordinary lives. They are not royalty, they are not clerics, they are nothing that would mark their names out as unusual. So what were the typical women’s names in England at this time? Here are the ones we’ve come across so far (all in their Latin nominative forms; the actual vernacular form may have been quite different):

Margareta and Margeria, Johanna, Cecilia, Amicia, Alicia, Malota, Milisanta, Agnes, Juliana, Matilldis and Matilda, Dyonisia and Dionisia, Isabella, Emma, Athelina, Beatrice, and Katerina.

Aren’t they lovely?

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Masc/Fem names: When do they differ?

We mentioned in our previous post how Latin records are so nice for uniquely identifying the gender of the bearer of names — someone who is filius Edwini is the son of a man named Edwin, while if he were filius Edwine he’d be the some of a woman called Edwina.

But how often is this merely a requirement of Latin grammar, that every word have one of three grammatical genders, and how often is this reflective of the underlying vernacular practice? Naturally, this depends on what the vernaculars are, and those which descended from Latin (French, Spanish, Italian, Portuguese) are much more likely to keep an explicit grammatical distinction in the names. In Iberia, that shows up in the preponderance of women’s names ending in -a (though, of course, there are exceptions, such as Spanish and Catalan forms of Beatrice). In Italy, you see the same marking of feminine names, but often paired with a distinctive masculine ending in -o (as can be seen in the list of masculine/feminine pairs in 15th C Florence). In France, southern dialects tend towards Iberian practices, while in northern dialects, masculine names are generally unmarked, while feminine forms are derived by adding an -e (earlier) or doubling the final consonant and then adding an -e (later).

In England, however, the Latin forms often introduced distinctions not present in the vernacular. Withycombe, p. xxxv notes that:

Latin records of the 12th to 15th centuries show that the custom of giving masculine names to girls was also common in England; they appear in Latin with feminine endings, e.g., Philippa, Nicholaa, Alexandra, Jacoba, but it is clear that girls so named were in fact baptized and called Philip, Nicholas, Alexander, James, etc….Other names which were commonly used for girls were Gilbert, Aubrey, Reynold, Basil, Eustace, Giles, Edmund, Simon, Florence.

When the only references we have are in Latin, it is difficult to obtain evidence via which to test Withycombe’s assertion about the vernacular. However, once we start seeing records in Middle English and Early Modern English, then it is possible to see to what extent the feminine vernacular forms resemble the masculine.

The majority of our examples of Philipa in England are from the 16th C, and the majority of these are variants without the terminal (in fact, most of the examples with the -a are restricted to Devon, suggesting a regional early adoption of the Latin form as the vernacular.)

Feminine forms of Nicholas were never very common in England, and inspection of the entry for Nicole is only partly confirmatory of what Withycombe says. The vernacular forms have all lost the -a, but none of them have the -as. Instead, vernacular forms like Nichol and Nycoll look much more like the French feminine form of the name (and the spelling we took as the header name). This makes it more likely that girls named Nichol in the vernacular were named in accordance with the imported French form than simply given the masculine English form.

We don’t yet have any examples of Alexandra in England; Withycombe herself has only two early 13th C examples, adding that

Alexandra is found in England in 1205 and Alexandria in 1218, and these may have been named after a 4th-C martyr, though they are more likely to be mere latinizations of Alexander used as a girl’s name….Lyford 1655 gives Alexander as a f. name, and an early-14th-C English legendary gives Alisaundre as the name of the mother of St. Thomas of Canterbury

Further data will need to be collected to see more clearly how this feminine name appears in the vernacular.

Similarly, we have very few examples of Jacoba in English contexts, and curiously, all of them are diminutive forms: Jacobin, Jackett, and Jakett, all of which could equally easily be used by men.

Of the other names Withycombe mentions, only three of them do we have feminine examples from England. We have a handful of 12th-14th C examples of Basile in its Latin form Basilia, but our only vernacular example, in the 16th C, is not Basil but Basile, the usual French form. Eustacia in the vernacular is Eustice. The third name, Florence, is curious in that we have plenty of vernacular feminine examples of this spelling, — but no masculine ones! In fact, vernacular forms of the masculine version tend to end in -t, e.g., Florent.

It wasn’t until the end of the 16th C that you regularly start seeing Latinate forms, like Olivia, Isabella, Joanna, etc., instead of Olive, Isabel, Joan, etc., used in the vernacular. This is due in no small part to the influence of Shakespeare on English naming patterns at the turn of the 17th C, as he preferred Italian or Latinate forms of names in many cases. This penchant for the Latin -a ending can still be seen today, with the preponderance of feminine names given in English-speaking countries being ones ending with that letter or sound.

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Diminutive forms in 16th C England

A remark in this post on an onomastics blog that I follow, that

it seems like people in the past were a lot less nickname-happy than people today. I’d be shocked to hear of, say, a Renaissance Amelia who went by Amy, or a 19th century pioneer Joshua who went by Josh

got me thinking. The comment surprised me because in the data I’ve worked with over the last decade and a half has included quite a few marriage and baptismal records from late 16th C English parish registers, and I’ve come across quite a few diminutive forms. I decided to cull data from an albeit very small data set (the data which is currently in the Dictionary‘s database, which is a very small excerpt of the data I’ve collected over the years), and do a bit of analysis.

Diminutive forms of names can mostly be classified into two types: Those where the radiconym was also in use, and those where it wasn’t. In the later case, by the 16th C, it may not really make sense to speak of those names being diminutives, if there no longer is, and hasn’t been for a long time, a name that they are a diminutive of.

In this category, we can class such names as Ursula, Wilmot, and Thomasine and their (very numerous) variants. These names derive from Ursa, Willelma/Williama and Thomasse/Thomasa, respectively, but these forms have historically been vanishingly rare in English. (Thomasse appears in French, Guillerma and variants in Spanish, and Ursa in Italian.) A masculine witness to this is Lancelot, and its variants; these are etymologically diminutives of Lance, but the popularity of the Arthurian character meant that the double diminutive form was far more popular than the radiconym.

Of the names where the radiconym was still in common currency, we can further divide the examples into those where the diminutive form is roughly as common as its root, and those where the nickname is substantially less common. In the former category are names such as Alison, Marian, and Isabel. The latter category are the ones that I believe the poster quoted above would find most surprising:

  • Annie 1586, 1597 (from Anne)
  • Beaton 1581 (from Beatrice)
  • Davy 1599 (from David)
  • Emot, Emet 1418, Emote 1580 (from Emma)
  • Ebbot 1597, Ebbet 1597 (from Elizabeth, or possibly Isabel)
  • Eliza 1567, 1581, 1582, 1584, 1594, 1595 (from Elizabeth)
  • Elineta 1563 (from Ellen, or possibly Eleanor)
  • Kate 1596 (from Katherine)
  • Nancy 1583 (from Anne)
  • Sybbie 1573 (from Sybil)

And this is only looking at examples which have 16th C citations; I omitted a number of 15th C examples.

This is but a small data set, and thus no strong conclusions should be drawn from it. But I think it’s certainly clear that nicknames were used in the Renaissance, even in as official contexts as marriage and birth records.


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The Wacky World of Middle English Names

Brits have long been fascinated with the origins of their names; the antiquarian and heraldic officer William Camden in his Remains Concerning Britain includes both “names” and “surnames” in his list of contents, providing the 17th-century equivalent of today’s baby-name book in terms of breadth and historical accuracy (actually, this slanders Camden somewhat: He shows a broad knowledge of etymology and variation of forms across different languages than many writers of modern baby-name books!). As a result, if one wants to do research into the origin of names used in Great Britain (which covers many of the names also used in the USA), then there is no derth of reliable sources, most particularly Withycombe’s Oxford Dictionary of English Christian Names; for given names; Reaney & Wilson’s Dictionary of English Surnames and Bardsley’s Dictonary of English and Welsh Surnames for surnames; and the English Place-Name Society’s collected volumes for place names. It is concerning names from outside of the British Isles that the English-speaking onomast or historian may have the least access to reliable sources, and thus one might think that that is where initial research for the Dictionary would focus.

While that is certainly one of the guiding motiviations (I, personally, regularly lament that there is no good equivalent of Withycombe for French names; while Dauzat’s Dictionnaire des Noms et Prénoms de France and Morlet’s Dictionnaire Étymologique des Noms de Famille are quite broad, they both contain very few dated medieval citations, and concentrate on modern usage, turning to history only for etymology), there is another motiviation that goes in to the choice of the order to deal with the huge — and ever growing — pile of resources to work through, and that is personal preference. When I was able to put my hands on a copy of Furnivall’s The Fifty English Wills in the Court of Probate, London, I knew I wouldn’t be able to resist it. Despite Withycombe’s central importance to the study of personal names in England, her coverage of the 15th century is rather sparse. This is no surprise, as it was over the course of this century that we see the transition from Latin or Anglo-Norman being the primary language of record in England to Middle (and then Early Modern) English. But it means that vernacular citations of given names are moderately rare in the early part of the 15th century. Working through the names in the wills in Furnivall gave me not only a look at the sometimes unique approach to spelling that Middle English has (Bartrice for Beatrice, anyone?) but also the fun of the personal glimpses into people’s lives that wills give you. In 1434, Roger Elmesley bequeathed to Robert Sharp, his godchild, “a rake of yren forto rost on his eyren”. Because everyone needs an iron-rack on which to fry their eggs! Lady Alice West of Hampshire was more cerebral in her bequests; in 1395 she left to her daughter Iohane “alle the bokes I haue of latyn, englisch, and frensch” (but not spelling, as a friend of mine commented). In a 1438 will, I learned a new word, when Richard Dixton left to Edmond of Cornewayle “an ersgerdyll of siluer”. Arsegirdles: The new fashion accessory of 2014? But most amusing of all was a request of the Countess of Warwick in 1439, who left money for “my image to be made all naked, andno thyng on my hede but myn here cast bakwardys”. She was to be buried in Tewkesbury Abbey, but alas, a (very quick) bit of poking around on the internet did not reveal to me whether or not the effigy can be found in the Abbey today.

This afternoon, with mixed sadness and anticipation, I reached the final will in the book. Sadness, because there will be no more fun gossipy wills to read. Anticipation, because now it’s time to pick the next source to begin working through, all towards the day when we are able to publish the first edition online. Now that’s worth giving up gossip for.


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