Tag Archives: Gerard

Monthly topic: Why did medieval people choose the names they did?

Things have been rather quiet over at DMNES central over the summer as our staff members have been busy going to conferences, enjoying their holidays, and working on research papers. Now the summer sun is gone and the fall days are coming, and we’re hoping to get more active here on the blog again.

There are many interesting aspects of historical naming practices that one can study, and one of the most difficult ones is the question of motivation — why did medieval parents (or parish priests in some cases!) choose the names they did for their children? Very rarely in the records that we have to hand are explicit reasons given; sometimes, strong implicit evidence can be deduced from context, such as a child baptized by the same name as an elder, already deceased, sibling. General trends can also be identified, such as rises and falls in the popularity of saint’s names (I have long since wondered if the reason why Thomas is the most popular male name in the 16th C parish registers of Ormskirk, Lancashire, while in every other contemporary data set, the most popular name is John, is because of some connection with Saint Thomas in the town; however, I’ve been unable to find any such connection), or the rise of virtue names, which we’ve discussed before.

But information at the specific level is generally incredibly rare. This is what makes the Polyptyque d’Irminon such an amazing resource. The document was compiled around 823 by Irminon, abbot of Saint-Germain-des-Prés, and was a catalogue of the lands owned by the abbey between the rivers Seine and Eure. As part of the catalogue, the names of the tenants are recorded — and not only the tenants, but also the names of their wives, and their children. This makes the polyptyque a treasure trove of 9th C names which is almost unparalleled — among other things, it is one of our best witnesses for Frankish/Old French feminine names.

Entries are formulaic, and tend to repeat the same information. Here is a representative example:

Giroldus servus et uxor ejus colona, nomine Dominica, homines sancti Germani, habent secum infantes II, his nominibus, Gisloldus, Gerardus. Tenet mansum ingenuilem I, habentem de terra arabili bunuaria IIII, de vinea aripennum I, de prato dimidium aripennum. Cetera similiter.

Girold slave and his tenant wife, by name Dominica, people of Saint Germain, have by themselves two children, by name Gislold, Gerard. He holds 1 free farm having 4 bunuaria of arable land, 2 arpents of vineyards, and half an arpent of pasture land. The rest is similar.

(From this you can see that the source is an amazing trove of information about medieval farm culture, if that’s your thing.) This example was picked at random, but also for a purpose: Take a look at the men’s names, and you’ll see that the names of the sons both reflect the names of their father! Gislold shares the deuterotheme with Girold, while Gerard shares the prototheme — Gir is a common French variant while Ger is a more typically German form.

Examples of similar patterns — including women’s names, and combinations of both parents names, especially when the number of children grows — can be found on pretty much every page, and we’ll spend some time this month looking at some of the examples. They show a fascinating glimpse into the reasons and motivations behind the names!

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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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The “most popular” names, for men

Last week we investigated the ‘most popular’ medieval names for women, including a long discursus on why the scare quotes. All the same caveats hold when we turn to look at the men’s names: Without access to systematic data that counts individuals only once and provides the same level of coverage in every place and time, there is no way to say definitively what the most popular medieval given names were.

Unsurprisingly, the list of men’s names that I review on a daily basis because I can pretty much guarantee some editorial assistant has added new citations of is longer than the list of women’s name. And many of the names on it will strike few as surprising (though I personally find it interesting how they cluster into pairs or triples in terms of the letter they start with, and how weighted towards the end of the alphabet they are):

These names have remained enduringly popular, with all of them showing up in, e.g., the top 100 of the Top Names Over the Last 100 Years in the US (John: 2; Robert, 3; William, 5; Richard: 7; Charles, 9; Thomas, 10; Paul: 17; Jacob: 34; Henry: 52; Peter: 55; Walter, 57; Roger, 66; Philip, ; 94note that since this counts individual variant spellings, rather than combining all variants together, this list separates Jacob from James, which comes in at no. 1).

But others on the list may be more surprising — names that have fallen out of common use, or which while still familiar nowadays may not strike one as especially typical of the Middle Ages. These names are:

Of these, the two that I found the most surprising — the ones I hadn’t really realized were as popular as they are until we started compiling such a huge corpus — are Louis and Theodoric. Louis, from its early Latinized form Hludowicus to its modern forms such as Louis, Lewis, Lodovico, Ludwig, and Luis, was an amazingly productive name, showing up in all cultures touched by the Carolingian empire, and, later, France (there being more medieval French kings named Louis than any other name). The popularity of Theodoric can be traced back to Theoderic the Great, ruler of the Ostrogoths at the fall of the western Roman empire. His deeds entered legend, and his name spread across Europe, spawing many variants and diminutives: In fact, more distinct spellings of this name are recorded than any other name we have catalogued so far (and that includes John!). In French, it became T(h)ierry; in Dutch, Derek and Dirk; in High German, Dietrich; in Low German, Diderik. The range of diminutive forms includes examples that a non-expert would scoff at as related: Who would think that Thidemann, Dytlin, Dietz, Tile, Tous, Tijdeke, and Thierrion are all nicknames of the same name?

All of these entries are already quite diverse in the citations they include, but will only become more so in the future. Mark your calendars, we are one week away from the publication of the next edition (our final one of 2015)!

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99 Carolingian Charters

It sounds like the start of a bad drinking song: “99 Carolingian charters to transcribe, 99 charters to ‘scribe, write names down, share them around, 98 Carolingian charters to ‘scribe!”

But what it really is is what I completed today. In the midst of taking down enough citations for Karolus, Ott(h)o, Lotharius, and Fridericus that even I began to find them boring, there were also more fun aspects — the random and unexpected feminine name (one in a matronymic byname!); a pair of testators Gerardus albus and Gerardus niger; a man called Dodo (where’s the byname avis to go with it?); a fascinating example of a tri-thematic Germanic name (Gerbtratwine); and the question of what fonts will we be able to use on the Dictionary website in order to properly display the Gothic alphabet. In the course of working through the etymologies of the names in these charters, I’ve learned just how much I have to learn about the difference between Old High German and Old Saxon, and I’ve marveled and, really, just how few themes you need to have to create a complex and elaborate system of dithematic names. 20+ years doing onomastics, and there’s still so much to learn.

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