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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:



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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Medieval roots of modern names: The US 2015 top 26-50 for girls

Just as the top 26-50 boy’s names continued the strong showing of Biblical names, the girl’s top 26-50 continue the trend of being much more diverse in origin. In fact, we will see in this a handful of names which do not have any medieval European origins at all.

The biggest class of names in this group are those of Latin origin. Natalie (no. 27) derives from Latin natalis ‘of, related to birth’. Its use as a name comes from the phrase dies natalis ‘day of birth’, i.e., Christmas day, the day of the birth of Christ. The name was thus used for pepole who were born or baptised on or near Christmas day. It was never a common name, medievally. Aria (no. 29) is identical with a Latin word for ‘open space, park; courtyard; empty space’; while we haven’t found any conclusive examples of this word being used as a medieval name, there was a masculine St Ario and a related Latin feminine name Arria, which was used in the classical Roman era and also in early France. Camila (no. 43) is a variant of Camilla, the feminine form of a Latin cognomen, which was used in 16th C Italy. Claire (no. 49) is a French form of Latin clara ‘clear, bright, shining’, the name of an influential 13th C saint. The name was not much used before the 13th C, but the saint’s importance caused it to spread throughout Europe in the 14th and 15th C. Violet (no. 50) is another Latin name by way of French: it adds the French diminutive -et to Latin viola, the name of type of flower. The name was moderately popular in Scotland in the 16th C.

Next up are the names of Greek origin. The root of the name Alexa (no. 32) is the same as the prototheme of Alexander but while the masculine name was quite popular, the feminine variants are much more rare. While researching this post, we found our first example, from early 16th C Barcelona. Look for an entry on this name in an upcoming edition! We saw a variant spelling of Zoe (no. 33) in the previous post on women’s names; this spelling is the more typical spelling. Penelope (no. 34) came into use in the Middle Ages due to the fad for adopting names of classic mythology from the 16th C. Ariana (no. 46) is, strictly speaking, an Italian form of a Greek name (Ariadne). It’s a difficult name to determine if it was used medievally, since the Latin word Ariana was used not as a name but as an adjective to describe a woman as adhering to the Arian heresy! To date, we have no clear evidence that Ariana was used as a given name in the Middle Ages.

We have more Biblical names in this group than in the previous one, but still not as many as in the comparable boy’s group. The first, Lillian (no. 26) is included in the group because it is, originally, a diminutive of Lily which was itself, medievally, a nickname of Elizabeth and not related to the flower name. Hannah (no. 28) is a common modern variant of Hebrew Anna, but the aspiration of the initial vowel and the addition of the extra -h at the end was quite a late development, with Anna (no. 44), the standard Latin form, being far more common. Leah (no. 36) is a curious name: Given it’s context as the name of a relatively important Old Testament character, one would expect to find examples of it used amongst the Protestants. So far, we have not yet found any, and Withycombe s.n. Leah indicates that the name came into use in the 17th C.

In this group of names, we have our first Arabic names! One of them, has a long history of use in Europe: Layla (no. 30) was found in Arabic records in al-Andalus (Andalucia) between 700 an 1200. These same records don’t include Aaliyah (no. 48), so we are uncertain about its use in Arabic contexts in Europe.

The remaining names are rather eclectic. There are two names of Germanic origin: Allison (no. 39) is an English and French diminutive of Alice, deriving from Adelaidis while Skylar (no. 42) is not a given name at all, in origin. It is a phonetic rendering of Dutch schuyler ‘scholar’, used as a descriptive byname in the Middle Ages. Then we have two names which were originally place names: Brooklyn (no. 31) is like Skylar, a phonetic rendition of an originally Dutch place name, Breukelen. Paisley (no. 45) is a place in Scotland, which in the 18th C gave its name to the distinctive Persian textile pattern that was produced there. Two further names are best classed as miscellaneous: Nora (no. 41) can be a diminutive of a variety of names, including Eleanora, Honora, Dianora, or even perhaps Gunnora. Ellie (no. 47) too can be a diminutive of Eleanora, but also of Ellen.

Finally, we have one name of Irish origin: Riley (no. 35) is an English version of Early Modern Irish Raghallaigh, the genitive (possessive) form of Raghallach, a masculine given name used in the 13th C; one name of Old English origin: Audrey (no. 37); one name of New World origin: Savannah (no. 38), originally deriving from Taíno, the language spoken by the Taíno people of the Caribbean; and one name of modern origin: Samantha (no. 40) can be dated to the 17th C, but so far no earlier examples are known.

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