Tag Archives: Ralph

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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An onomastic calendar: September

Earlier this month over on Twitter, we started an #OnThisDay series, which every day highlights an individual associated with an important medieval event and gives a link to the relevant Dictionary entry for that person’s given name. Here’s a summary of the September onomastic calendar:

  • September 22: Anne of Cleves, future wife of Henry VIII, was born in 1515.
  • September 23: Yolande of Valois was born in 1434.
  • September 24: Ralph de Stafford was born in 1301.
  • September 25: Louis III of Naples was born in 1403.
  • September 26: William II of England was crowned king in 1087.
  • September 27: Ermentrude, queen of the Franks, was born in 823.
  • September 28: Gertrude, queen of Hungary, was murdered in 1213.
  • September 29: Margaret, queen of Scots, was born in 1240.
  • September 30: Yaroslav II, grand prince of Vladimir, died in 1246.

We’ll do a similar summary at the end of each month.

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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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Every day is Christmas when you’re an onomast

Sometimes, when I stop and think about the scale of our undertaking, it can seem a bit daunting. EVERY name from EVERY European document for more than 1000 years? 1000 editorial assistants working 1000 years wouldn’t be enough, if you think about it rationally.

So the easiest thing to do is don’t (think about it rationally, that is). We know this is a big project, and one that will hopefully outlive us. And in the meantime, one way to make incremental steps towards breadth of coverage — rather than the depth that we could get if we, say, concentrated on 16th C English parish registers — is by keeping many pots on the stove at once, that is, working on multiple sources at once. Each editorial assistant can choose what and how many projects to have on hand at the same time, with some choosing to keep to their onomastic specialities (such as Hungarian) or to a culturally-linked but relatively under-developed area in terms of medieval onomastic research (such as Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, and Finland), while others of us simply flit from source to source as new possibilities become available.

One result of this tactic is that you never know what you are going to find. Those of you who follow us on Twitter know that last week thanks to a Cambridge University Press booksale we came away with 19 volumes from their “Cambridge Library Collection” on the cheap. One of them, Historic and Municipal Documents of Ireland, A.D. 1172-1320, caught my eye because we have had some people complain (with justification) that our current coverage of Ireland is quite minimal. (It’s not nonexistent, but currently we have Irish citations in only five entries, Henry, Laurence, Ralph, Robert, and William, none of which, the astute reader will note, are especially Irish.) Tonight I sat down to flip through it, and item III is a late 12th C document headed “Dublin Roll of Names” — 45 pages of them. Most of them are distinctly Anglo-Irish in origin, but casual flipping shows a little bit of the underlying Gaelic substrate peaking through, such as an occurrence of Padin, a Gaelic diminutive of Patrick; Gillafinean, a form of Gaelic Gilla Finnén; and Galgethel, at the moment unfamiliar but almost certainly to be Gaelic in origin. 45 pages of names from Dublin? It’s like Christmas has come three months early.

In addition to systematically working our way through sources transcribing names, we also often do individual consultations for people who are looking for further information about the use of a particular name, and these searches often serendipitously lead to gems. The other day, while searching for examples of Ava which were not diminutives, we found a mid-11th C charter from Ghent with the most lovely list of women and their daughters, some familiar, some distinctly unusual:

Ermengardis, Emma, Tisvidis, Ava, Ermentrudis, Memlendis, Lulend, Badin, Nodelend, Bivin, Bernewif

This afternoon, speculation on Facebook about how an early 9th C Frankish woman could’ve ended up with the given name Suspecta lead us to return to the original source to look up the names of her family members, which include father Teutfredusb (Theodefrid, mother Fulca (entry available in the next edition, s.n. Fulka), and siblings Seats (obscure, in both origin and gender), Teodarus (Theodeher), Gisledrudis (entry available in the next edition, s.n. Giseltrude), and Teodara (entry available in the next edition, s.n. Theodara).

I’ve been studying names in some form or another for more than two decades, and the thrill of finding an onomastic gem never fades. The Dictionary is, to some extent, merely an excuse to go on finding them.

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