Tag Archives: Robert

NaNoWriMo: Balancing truth and accessibility

In our first post on this month’s monthly topic, we discussed two easy ways in which authors of historical fiction can improve the historicity of the names they use. In this post, we tackle the specific problems that attend to certain periods and cultures, offering suggestions for how to balance truth (i.e., historical authenticity) and accessibility (i.e., the reader’s enjoyment of the work). [1]

Certainly periods and cultures are easier to handle than others; a writer of novels set in 16th C England will have a surfeit of familiar names to choose from — names that have remained in use in English-speaking contexts and could easily be found on the streets, in the classrooms, and in the boardrooms of today. Populating such a novel with John, Alice, Margaret, Henry, William, and Robert not only results in accurately named characters, but it also results in characters whose names are accessible to the reader.

But supposing you’re writing about the Holy Roman Empire in the late 12th and early 13th C. There are a surfeit of records from this period, but they are predominantly in Latin, not in the vernacular. Four possibilities present themselves: (1) Use the Latinate forms of the names, (2) attempt to reconstruct plausible vernaculars, (3) use modern vernaculars, (4) use modern English forms. Each of these have their pros and cons, and which option is the most suitable will depend on a large part in how you wish to balance truth and accessibility, that is, how authentic do you wish to be while not putting off those readers who are not versed in medieval languages or names. For example, writing about the late 12th C Holy Roman Emperor, one could call him (1) Fridericus, (2) Friderich, (3) Friedrich, or (4) Frederick.

(1) This option weights truth over accessibility. It guarantees that you’re using name forms that are appropriate for the time and place, but having every man’s name ending in -us can not only come across to the reader as pretentious (using an archaic form of language nowadays primarily restricted to academic and legal contexts), it can also make it difficult for readers to differentiate the characters on the basis of their names, when the names are functionally too similar.

(2) This option probably strikes the onomast’s perfect balance, but it is also the option that is the most difficult to exercise for those who don’t have specialist knowledge in medieval languages. Unless you’re going to keep a professional linguist or onomast on retainer as a Subject Matter Expert [2], this option may not be feasible – but below we will offer some suggestions.

(3) This option probably strikes the author’s perfect balance, ensuring that the names being used are names that are appropriate for the place and period, even if the specific spelling or form is modern. The standard modern forms of names in non-English European languages – such as Hans, Friedrich, Heinrich, etc. – are likely to be familiar to readers even if they only know or speak English, making the names accessible.

(4) This option weights accessibility over truth. The names become wholly assimilated to the most accessible form, regardless of its appropriateness for the time period and culture in question. One difficulty that can arise with taking this option is the handling of names that don’t have a modern equivalent; these will never be maximally accessible because they will not be familiar to those who are not otherwise historically-versed.

As is clear, each of these options has different trade-offs. The most important thing is not which option is chosen, but that whichever option is chosen, it is followed uniformly and consistently!

In closing we’ll address a few comments to the author who is in (3) but wants to move towards (2), without necessarily keeping an expert on retainer. Of course, we cannot give any recommendations that will be universal across any culture, but we can offer a few pointers:

  • Relational bynames: Most cultures used relational bynames of one type or another, and they are more common the earlier the period. Determine what the appropriate relational markers are for the vernacular of your place (e.g., merch ‘daughter’ and map ‘son’ for Old Welsh; ingen ‘daughter’ and mac ‘son’ for early Gaelic, both Scottish and Irish; di ‘of’ in Italian), as well as any grammatical changes that the relative’s name might undergo following one of these words.
  • Extrapolate: If Friderich is a plausible vernacular form of 12th C Fridericus, then what might Henricus become? If Bernier is a plausible vernacular form of 12th C Bernerus, what might Garnerus or Warnerus become?
  • Diminutives: Extrapolation also works for diminutives. If you’ve found Imeldina, Jacobina, and Franciscina in 14th C Italy, then what might be plausible diminutives of Thomasa and Anthonia?

Sometimes, very small adjustments can result in a big difference!


Notes

[1] Throughout this post, and indeed this series, we’re going to assume that the authors we’re advising are writing in English. Of course, our advice can easily be adapted to people writing in other languages.

[2] Some authors do! And any author who is interested in doing so, the DMNES staff is always happy to receive queries and do consulting.

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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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A Milestone

As of a little while ago, we have passed the 2,000 mark for number of distinct citations that have been entered into the Dictionary. This is but a small droplet in the pool of medieval onomastics, but it’s still an impressive herald of what we should be able to accomplish before releasing the first edition at the end of September, now just over three months away.

These 2,000 citations represent just over 600 distinct names — though it would be a mistake to think that this means there are roughly 4 citations for each individual name! Instead, many of the names are represented by a single citation, while other names, such as John, Henry, Robert, Richard, and William are already proving that they are going to be documented in minute detail, with, ultimately, multiple citations not only per decade but likely per year.

Not all of these 2,000 citations will make it into the first edition, since some of them require further research into the etymology and origins of the names they represent, but a good percentage of them will be and, we are sure, many more are yet to be added.

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