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Kings, Queens, and Bible Figures…or Not

It’s very easy for people with a dabbling interest in modern baby names to look at recent trends in Anglo-American naming practices (e.g., in the last century or so), compare them with what they know of modern-but-not-so-recent trends (e.g., in the 19th C or so), often taken from their own genealogical history, and then make sweeping pronouncements about “how people chose names for their children” or “what names people could name their children” before modern times. Sometimes these claims are influenced by data going even further back; everyone who knows a bit about names knows about Puritanisms like “Fly-Fornication” and “Bestiality” (oops, wait, that one’s a Pratchettism, not a Puritanism).

But it’s a mistake to think that because things changed between the 19th and the later 20th C, that everything before the 19th C was the same. Or even that because things changed in the 16th C, everything from the 16th to the 19th C was the same, and that everything before the 16th C was the same.

Today I came across someone claiming that in historical England, the only options were to name kids after kings, queens, and Bible figures. While it’s certainly true that some popular names were also the names of kings and queens (but there, the other of influence probably goes the other way: Kings and queens were given the names they were because they were common/popular, not that those names became common/popular because they were born by a king or queen) and that some popular names were also the names of important Biblical figures, this claim is problematic in a number of ways.

The first is that it overlooks a substantially-sized group of names that were quite common throughout English history: Names of non-Biblical saints, like Agnes, Margaret, Ursula, Katherine, and Cecilia, which were a particularly generative source of names for women. But even if we include that under “Bible names” (interpreting that to broadly cover “religious” names in general, rather than strictly to narrowly cover only names found in the bible), there are still numerous names — some enormously popular — that do not fit any of these categories.

Some years ago, now, we did two posts on the “most popular” women’s names and men’s names; now, these posts covered not only England, but all the names found on these lists were quite common in England. Let’s take a look at them.

Amongst the feminine names, Alice is a standout counterexample. While there were a few minor continental saints with this name, as well as an empress and a queen consort of Cyprus, these saints were not venerated in England and there’s no reason to think that the two royal women would have had any influence on the popularity of the name outside of their own lands. Yet, Alice was, and continues to be, enormously popular in England, with examples from as early as the second half of the 12th century. Another name on the list, Ellen, shows a similar trajectory: A handful of minor saints with local influence, none of whom were English, and one minor queen consort of a country other than England. And yet, we see this name in England from the early 12th C as well, it’s popularity influenced by the appearance of the name in medieval Arthurian romances (yes, medieval people named their children after literary characters, just as modern people do!).

Turning to the masculine names, Charles was never as popular in England as it was on the continent prior to the post-medieval English kings named Charles, but the name was used, despite there being no biblical, royal, or saintly connection. Another name that cannot be called biblical, royal, or saintly in England is Robert, a name whose popularity in England was driven by the Norman conquest. Sometimes, people just adopted names because they were a part of the changing cultures/fashions/fads of the times. Now, there was a minor (non-Biblical) 13th C English saint named Roger, and that might have contributed to an increase in the popularity of that name, at least in the region where the saint lived. But the name was already in use a century earlier, so the saint cannot have been the driving force (and, again, it’s more likely that a saint has a name because it was popular, rather than that the name was popular because it was given to a saint). A curious name is Walter: It is perhaps the most popular name in medieval Europe (not just medieval England) which was never the name of a saint or a ruler. This didn’t prevent it from often being in the top 5 most popular men’s names in 16th C English parish registers.

Now, these are just some of the most popular names, across all of Europe and a thousand-year-plus timespam. If we look more specifically just at England, and to some of the “not amazingly popular, but not totally unique” names, what we find there is that the number of non-religious, non-royal names proliferates. Such names include:

Feminine

Masculine

If we moved on to names that are found rarely, we’d have an even larger swathe of names to pick from.

So, yes, certainly names of kings and queens and saints (saints more so than Bible figures more generally) were popular names in England; but they were by no means the only choice of names available to medieval English people.

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What name forms were used by both men and women in 14th-16th C France?

That’s a question we recently received, so we thought we’d devote a post to answering it!

When French developed from Latin, it retained a gendered marking for the majority of its names — marking which is most obvious when looking at masculine/feminine pairs of names. In Old French, the most common way of feminizing a name was simply adding an -e to the end, but in Middle French, especially by the early 15th C, it became more common to duplicate the final consonant and then add -e.

Some names, however, (particularly ones that already ended in -e!), were used in the same form by both men and women. Here are some examples:

Claude was used in this form by both men and women in France in the 16th C.

While the more common masculine form of the name was Dennis, both Denise and Denyse were used by both men and women at the end of the 13th C.

Gile, which can be a form of Giles or sometimes Gilo, is also the Old French vernacular form of the feminine form of both names, found in the early 14th C.

A bit of a rarity, but Guillaume was used by both men and women in the early 14th C.

Laurence was the usual Middle French vernacular for both men and women in the 16th C.

While Marin was almost exclusively masculine in the 16th C (and the expected Middle French feminine form would be Marine), we have one lone example of Marin used by a woman.

Phelippe, Phlippes, and Phlippe were all used by both men and women; the first form is an Old French one found in the early 14th C, while the latter two are 16th C Middle French forms.

Finally, Robert. Diminutive forms such as Robine and Robinette were much more commonly used by women, but Robert itself was used, albeit rarely, by both men and women.

So, there you are! These are the names we’ve found that were used in exactly the same spelling by both men and women in Old and Middle French.

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An Onomastic Calendar: May

  • May 1: Mathilda of Scotland died in 1118.
  • May 2: Anne Boleyn was arrested for treason in 1536.
  • May 3: Cecily Neville, Duchess of York, was born in 1415.
  • May 4: John Wyclif and Jan Hus are condemned as heretics at the Council of Constance in 1415.
  • May 5: Gerberga of Saxony died in 968/9 or 984.
  • May 6: Dieric Bouts, Dutch painter, died in 1475.
  • May 7: Remigius de Fécamp died in 1059.
  • May 8: Pope Saint Benedict II died in 685.
  • May 9: Hernando de Alarcón set sail for the Gulf of California in 1540.
  • May 10: Emperor Claudius Gothicus was born in 210.
  • May 11: Anne of Bohemia, queen consort of England, was born in 1366.
  • May 12: Berengaria of Navarre was crowned queen of England in 1191.
  • May 13: Julian of Norwich experienced her mystical visions in 1373.
  • May 14: Simon de Montfort became de facto ruler of England in 1264.
  • May 15: Mary Queen of Scots married her third husband, James, Earl of Bothwell, in 1567.
  • May 16: Baldwin I was crowned Latin emperor of Constantinople in 1204.
  • May 17: Anne of Denmark was crowned queen of Scotland in 1590.
  • May 18: Eleanor of Aquitaine married Henry II of England in 1152.
  • May 19: Saint Alcuin of York died in 804.
  • May 20: Abraham Ortelius issued the first modern atlas in 1570.
  • May 21: Albrecht Dürer was born in 1471.
  • May 22: Saint Rita of Cascia died in 1457.
  • May 23: Girolamo Savonarola was burned to death in 1498.
  • May 24: Magnus Ladulås was crowned king of Sweden in 1276.
  • May 25: Pope Boniface IV died in 615.
  • May 26: Saint Augustine of Canterbury died in 604.
  • May 27: Ludovico Sforza died in 1508.
  • May 28: Caterina Sforza died in 1509.
  • May 29: Philip VI was crowned king of France in 1328.
  • May 30: Jerome of Prague was burned for heresy in 1416.
  • May 31: Manuel I of Portugal was born in 1469.

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