Tag Archives: Sara

Medieval roots of modern names: The US 2015 top 51-100 for girls

While the top 100 boy’s names were all relative homogeneous amongst the groups that we looked at, the girl’s names are much more varied. We’ve noted in the previous groupings how rare names of Biblical origin are compared to the boy’s names; that’s not the case for this group of names in which names of Biblical origin are equal first with names deriving from surnames. This just goes to reinforce the great diversity in feminine names!

So let’s look at those Biblical names first. Sadie (52) is of American origin, originally a nickname of Sarah (58). Sarah itself is a relatively late spelling; the intrusive -h wasn’t found before the 16th C in England. Gabriella (54) is not a Biblical name, but it is a feminine form of one. While it’s masculine counterpart was used moderately commonly, the feminine form was rare outside of Spain and Italy in the Middle Ages. Madelyn (59) and Madeline (90) are two of the many variant spellings of Magdalene, originally a byname meaning ‘from Magdala’. One might view Madelyn as a prototypical ‘modern’ spelling with the y replacing i-e. And yet, Madelyn can be found in England in 1598. It’s actually Madeline that would be an atypical spelling, medievally! We include Genesis (65) in this list not because it is a Biblical name but because it is a name with Biblical origins. The penchant for naming children after book chapters is definitely a modern one! Returning to more traditional names, Eva (75) is a Latinized form of the name; it was never especially common, but it can be found in the Czech Republic, England, France, and Italy. The spelling Naomi is a post-medieval one; before the 17th C, the usual English (and French) form was Noemy or Noemi (77). Lydia (81), like Magdalene, could also be classified as a surname, given that it was originally a locative byname referring to a kingdom in Asia Minor. The name has historically been quite popular amongst Dutch-speaking communities, particularly Protestant ones. Isabelle (94) could also perhaps go into the names of French origin; you’ll struggle to find any Isabelle in the Old or New Testaments — but you’ll find plenty of Elizabeth‘s, and Isabelle derives from an Old Provençal form of that name. Similarly, one might expect to find Gianna (96) under the Italian names, but we have included it here as it is a feminine form of John. Both it and Giana can be found from the 13th C on.

It’s an eclectic group of surnames that turn up in this group. First we have the locatives: Kaylee (61) can be from either the French Cailly or the Lancashire Cayley. Hailey (64) is either from Hailey in Oxfordshire, or a descriptive for anyone who lives near a clearing filled with hay. Peyton (72) is the name of cities in both Essex and Suffolk, and Ashley (85) ‘clearing filled with ashes’ is the name of many medieval English placenames. In this subgroup we can perhaps also include Kylie (66). The origin of this name is disputed, and certainly we have no evidence that it was used in the Middle Ages. However, it is sometimes considered to be a feminine form of Kyle, which itself was a medieval placename, in Scotland. Next we have the occupationals, with Piper (68), of Old English origin and found from at least the 12th C on, and Taylor (76), of French origin, and also found from the 12th C on. The last four are all Irish patronymics in origin. Kennedy (57) is a an English form of Cennétig or Cinnéide, a rare name in Ireland used in the 12th and 14th C, and which first shows up in Scotland in the reign of William the Lion (1165-1214). Mackenzie (73) is an English or Scottish form of the patronymic byname mac Coinnich ‘son of Coinneach’. An earlier form of Coinneach, Cainnech, was used in Ireland between the 6th and 11th C. Quinn (97) is an English form of Irish Cuinn, the genitive (possessive) form of Conn, a masculine name used from the 10th to 16th C. Reagan (99) is also an anglicized form, of the masculine name Riacán used from the 9th to 12th C.

The next two biggest groups are those of Latin and Greek origin. The former kicks off with a name we’ve discussed before: Despite what many modern baby name websites nad books might say, Stella (51) is not a modern name, but can be found in 15th and 16th C Italy. Lucy (55) is a vernacular English form of a popular saint’s name, Lucia, though even in England Luce was the more typical form than Lucy. Bella (74) can be a pet form of any of various names including Isabella and Jacobella, but it can also be simply the Latin word for ‘beautiful’. The root of Ruby (83) is the gemstone name, but the name of the gem itself derives from Latin rubeus, rubea ‘red’. This is another name which many people consider to be a modern coinage which is not. With imperial roots, it is no surprise that Julia (89) has had a long history of use from classical Rome to the modern era. Some people credit Shakespeare with the introduction of the name into England, but this is false; the name was already in use there by the 13th C. Vivian (95) as the name of two early saints, but despite this the name was rarely used by women medieval. We have one late-period Italian example. Clara (98), on the other hand, enjoyed steady, if not excessively popular, usage throughout Europe.

Turning now to the Greek names, we’ve see two variants of Arianna (56), as well as one of Khloe (100). Maya (69) and Aurora (79) are two names of Greek origin (though Maya actually has more than one origin!) for which we have not yet found any evidence of medieval usage — though this is not to say that we won’t! Melanie (80) has also already shown up on this blog before, when we discussed names deriving from the color black. It was only rarely used medievally, in significant contrast to Katherine (84), one of the most popular women’s names of all time. Next, we have Alexis (86); a name which was found in the Middle Ages, but which was exclusively masculine. Its use as a feminine name is modern. Finally, we have Cora (88); we haven’t yet found an instance of the root name, but it gave rise to diminutive forms which are witnessed, including Corella and Corina.

There is but a handful of names of German origin. Mila (53) is a feminine form of Milo. The masculine form was quite common, but the feminine form was almost unused. Caroline (62) is a diminutive of Carol, a feminine form of Charles. We haven’t found any medieval examples of Caroline, but the diminutive forms were much more common than any of the full forms, with both French Charlotte and Italian Carlutia found in the late period. French-influenced Aubree (78) does not have the same origin that Aubrey has; the root name is Germanic Alberada or Alberadis. Alice (87) is an English form of a name that was popular throughout Europe in many different variants and diminutives; Alyssa (93) is one such, and while we haven’t yet found an explicit medieval instance of it, we would not be surprised to do so.

Next we have a group of names which have medieval roots as words, but were not used as names before the 19th C. The word Hazel (63) is Old English in origin, and you can read the entry for it in the Middle English Dictionary here. Autumn (67), on the other hand, is from an Old French word, used in Middle English from the 14th C. Medieval names were not generally taken from the stock of ordinary words; but one exception to this is the rise of virtue names such as Faith (91) in the 16th C. Serenity (71) is a modern coinage (it derives from Latin Serena); this word was not used in Middle English and only imported into English later.

Two names have long historical lineages but need to be classified as uncertain in origin. The usual tale of Eleanor (60) is that it’s from the phrase alia Aenor ‘another Aenor’, but this is unlikely given the early examples of the name, many of which include a -d-. Annabelle (92) has been in use in Scotland since the 12th C, and appears to be either a variant of or a misspelling of Amabel.

Brianna (82) is a feminine form of Irish Brian, and another name people point to as a modern coinage. However, Briana occurs as a name of a character in a 16th C Spanish romance, Espejo de Principe y Cavalleros. This poem was translated into English in 1578 and published under the title of The mirrour of princely deedes and knighthood: wherein is shewed the worthinesse of the Knight of the Sunne, and his brother Rosicleer, sonnes to the great Emperour Trebetio: with the strange loue of the beautifull and excellent princesse Briana, and the valiant actes of other noble princes and knightes. Now newly translated out of Spanish into our vulgar English tongue, by M.T. On an onomastically unrelated note, the “M.T.” here is one Margaret Taylor, the first woman to translate a Spanish romance into English and the first woman to have published a romance in English.

As the month draws to a close this is probably our last post in this series (perhaps until next year?), and it only seems fitting that we end with a name which in a sense epitomizes modern-day American naming practices, and which has no medieval roots whatsoever: Nevaeh (70), which is simply ‘heaven’ spelled backwards.

We hope you enjoyed this tour of the medieval roots of popular modern names!

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An Onomastic Calendar: April

  • April 1: Eleanor of Aquitaine died in 1204.
  • April 2: Baldwin I of Jerusalem died in 1118.
  • April 3: Edward the Confessor was crowned king of England in 1042.
  • April 4: Francis Drake was knight for circumnavigating the world in 1581.
  • April 5: Isabella of Hainault, queen of France, was born in 1170.
  • April 6: Raphael, the Italian painter, died in 1520.
  • April 7: Empress Mathilda becomes Lady of the English in 1141.
  • April 8: Barbara of Hesse, Duchess of Württemberg-Mömpelgard, was born in 1536.
  • April 9: Lorenzo dei Medici died in 1492.
  • April 10: Gabrielle d’Estrées, mistress of Henry IV of France, died in 1599.
  • April 11: Stephen IV of Hungary died in 1165.
  • April 12: Antonio de Sangallo, Italian architect, was born in 1485.
  • April 13: Paul the Deacon, monk and historian, died in 799.
  • April 14: Abraham Ortelius, cartographer, was born in 1527.
  • April 15: Leonardo da Vinci was born in 1452.
  • April 16: Adelaide del Vasto, queen consort of Jerusalem, died in 1118.
  • April 17: Bernard, king of the Lombards, died in 818.
  • April 18: Lucrezia Borgia was born in 1480.
  • April 19: Pope Leo IX died in 1054.
  • April 20: Pope Boniface VIII founded Sapienza Universita Roma in 1303.
  • April 21: Saint Anselm of Canterbury died in 1109.
  • April 22: Our editor in chief, Sara Uckelman, was born.
  • April 23: Dagobert III was crowned king of the Franks in 711.
  • April 24: William the Silent was born in 1533.
  • April 25: Sancho IV the Brave, king of Castille, died in 1295.
  • April 26: Simonetta Vespucci died in 1476.
  • April 27: Ferdinand Magellan died in 1521.
  • April 28: Edward IV of England was born in 1442.
  • April 29: Saint Catherine of Siena died in 1380.
  • April 30: Amalasuntha, queen of the Ostrogoths, died in 534/535.

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Protestant names: Old Testament influences on women’s names

In our previous post we highlighted three types of names which are distinctly Protestant, by which we mean that the majority of them came into use (or came into common use) in the second half of the 16th C as a result of their uptake by Protestants. The first class of these was Biblical names, and we’ll devote this post and the next three to these — separating out Old Testament from new Testament names, and separating out women’s names from men’s names. In this post, we kick things off looking at women’s names from the Old Testament, surveying the ones in the Dictionary that we have found used in French, Dutch, and English Protestant contexts.

Abigail: One of the wives of King David. Bardsley [1] notes that of all the OT feminine names, “none had such a run as Abigail” in England (p. 66). We find this name in all three of our contexts, from the 1560s on.

Deborah (entry available in next edition): The name of one of the Israelite judges. Our evidence so far is purely on the Dutch side, from the 1570s on, but this is an artefact of our incomplete data, nothing more. Withycombe [2] notes that Deborah was popular among Puritans in the 17th C, with Bardsley describing it as “an especial pet of the fanatics” (p. 66) — though he also says that the use of this name was the product of the Reformation more generally and not the Puritans more narrowly (as our data evidences).

Eve: The name of the second person created (and first woman), the wife of Adam. While the Biblical character went through a period of disrepute in the early Middle Ages, her name, unlike the others we were looking at, was in use prior to the 16th C, and was also used much more broadly than some of the other Old Testament names, being found in the Czech Republic, and in England and France from the 12th C. Bardsley attributes the popularity of Eve in England to the mystery plays (p. 35).

Judith: The eponymous character of one of the books of the Apocrypha. This name was also in use before the 16th C (in England as early as the 9th C!), but it wasn’t until the 16th C that it became common — common enough that the diminutive form Juda is found in England in 1577 and Judie is found in France in 1563. Outside of this 16th C Protestant usage, the name can be found in Germany, Latvia, and the Czech Republic in the 13th and 14th C.

Naomi: The name of Ruth’s mother-in-law in the Book of Ruth. Withycombe says the name did not come into use in England until the 17th C. Our single example comes from France in 1564.

Orpah: Another character in the Book of Ruth, Orpah was Naomi’s other daughter-in-law. This name was not used outside of England, and it was rare in England.

Rachel: A wife of Jacob and hence one of the matriarchs of Israel. Withycombe says the name was popular amongst Jews but not used in England until the 16th C. This name is perhaps the clearest indication of Protestant influences: Our only examples come from French, Dutch, and English contexts in the second half of the 16th C.

Rebecca: The wife of Isaac and the mother of Jacob and Esau. We find examples of this name amongst Dutch and English Protestants.

Ruth: The eponymous character of an Old Testament book, the daughter-in-law of Naomi and the sister-in-law of Orpah. It was more popular than either of these, but still never common.

Sara (entry still being written): The name of the wife of Abraham and mother of Isaac. To be honest, the only reason this entry isn’t yet available is because it’s the entry for my own name, and I feel a higher level pressure on it than any other. But we already have amassed a large number of examples of the name, which was found in England and France from as early as the 12th C. A handful of other scattered examples can be found between then and the 16th, but the appropriateness of including this name in our discussion of Protestant influences is evidenced by the huge jump in examples that are found in the second half of the 16th C, again across English, French, and Dutch contexts.

Susan (entry still being written): The name of a character in the Apocrypha, the name is found in England from the 12th C (again another result of the mystery plays), but wasn’t common there until the 16th C. It’s popularity, in England, is somewhat earlier than some of the other newly adopted Old Testament names: Our earliest 16th C example is from 1530. A similar pattern of us can be seen in France; it is found, rarely, in the 12th-13th C, and then suddenly relatively popular in the Protestant registers in the late 16th C.

Tamar: The name of three Old Testament characters, the most prominent of which being the daughter of King David, who was raped by her half-brother Amnon. As a result, Tamar’s reputation was not highly regarded in the medieval and post-medieval periods; Bardsley notes that “surely Tamar and Dinah were just as objectionable as Venus or Lais…Bishop Corbett brought it as a distinct charge against the Puritans, that they loved to select the most unsavoury stories of Old Testament history for their converse” (p. 71). Half of the fun of reading Bardsley is seeing his 19th C social commentary, which is again in evidnece when he says “Arising out of the Puritan error of permitting names like Tamar and Dinah to stand, modern eccentricity has gone very far, and it would be satisfactory to see many names in use at present forbidden” (p. 76). But Bardsley shouldn’t be laying the blame on this name with the Puritans, for the name was used by Protestants more broadly; our single example (so far) comes from France.


[1] Bardsley, C.W., Curiosities of Puritan Nomenclature (London: Chatto & Windus, 1880).

[2] Withycombe, E.G., Oxford Dictionary of English Christian Names, 3rd ed., (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1977).


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Nicknames: Feminine diminutive suffixes in medieval German

In today’s post, we take a look at an area which has an amazing diversity of diminutive suffixes used in women’s names: medieval Germanic dialects (including Dutch ones from the Low Countries, because of their close kinship with Low German suffixes).

In terms of the vocabulary that we introduced in our previous post, German feminine nicknames were, for the most part, formed by adding such diminutive suffixes, rather than creating a hypocoristic form by truncating it (there are a few exceptions, such as Els, from Elizabeth, and Greta from Margaret.) These diminutive suffixes varied by dialect and by region, making it possible to identify, sometimes with a high level precision, where a name comes from on the basis of the type of suffix that it uses. So let’s start by taking a look at the distribution of the various dialects, and their divisions into Low German, Middle (Central) German, and High (Upper) German:


Starting in the south, High German dialects are typified by diminutives formed from -lin, including variants such as Swiss -li and Bavarian -el or -l. Examples of names formed with this diminutive suffix include Aͤnnlin, Aͤnlin, Aͤndlin, and Bridlin, Elsslin, and Bettlin, diminutives of Anne, Brid (Bridget), and Elizabeth (respectively) found in Rottweil, Baden-Württemberg, in 1441. [1] From the same source, we also have Keterlin, Kaͤtherlin, Kaͤterlin, diminutives of Katherine. These particular examples, from Rottweil, are likely examples of -lin added to a hypocoristic of Katherine, but other examples, from further south and east, may involve the Bavarian or Austrian diminutive -erl plus -lin.

-lin and -lyn are typical of Middle High German; it wasn’t until the shift into Early New High German that the spelling -lein starts to appear, such as Marlein (from Mary), Grethlein (from Margaret), Ketherlein (from Katherine), and Elßlein (from Elizabeth), all found in Kulmbach in 1495. [3]

People are often surprised to find nicknames in medieval records, since there can be a misconception that the only things that made it into medieval documents were the formal forms of names. Certainly it is the case that there were probably many more nicknames in use than the documentary evidence displays. The examples we have in written records were almost certainly predated by spoken examples, perhaps by centuries. But nicknames were not wholly excluded from formal documents: If this was the form of the name that the person was known by, this would’ve been the form used to refer to him in a record. As it turns out, the suffix -lin or -lyn are relatively old: German masculine examples can be found in Latinized contexts from the 13th C, including Choncelinus 1280 and Cunzelin 1294 (from Conrad), Reinboldelinus 1286 (from Reinbald), and Volfelinus c. 1236 (from Wolf). [2] But we’ll say more about masculine nicknames in another post! Another diminutive suffix whose use can be dated to at least the 13th C is -i, in the feminine names Beli 1267 and Jutzci 1295. [2]

In Low German, -ke(n) and its derivative are typical, found also in the Low Countries, and connected to Slavic -ka. (Diminutives of -ke also stretch further north, being found in Scandinavia.) While we have more examples of this suffix used with men’s names than women’s names, this is primarily an artifact of our data (containing more men’s names than women’s), rather than reflecting anything about the reality of the use of the suffix by women. Examples of this from across the Low German-speaking spectrum include An(n)eke (from Anne), found in Estonia and Latvia, Heilka, a diminutive of some name beginning with Old High German heil, hele ‘whole’ found in the mid 12th C, and Kattryneke, also found in Latvia. In the Low Countries, we can see examples such as Saerken (from Sara), Aelken (from Alice), Neelken (from Cornelia) [4], Claerken (from Clara), Grietken (from Margaret), Mariken (from Mary), Jacomynken (a double diminutive from Jacomine, a variant of Jacoba via the form Jacoma) [5] as well as Tanneken (from Anne), a variant which we just found an example of amongst the Dutch Protestant community in London in the 16th C.

In between these, -chen is characteristic of Middle German dialects, and it is a cousin of another Dutch diminutive, -ge(n). Most of our examples of this, so far, come from the Low Countries, with names like Claertgen (from Clara), Aeltgen (from Alice), Grietgen (from Margaret), Ariaentgen and Adriaentgen (from Adriana), and Maritgen, Marijtgen, and Marrijtgen from (from Mary) [6].


[1] Mack, Eugen, Das Rottweiler Steuerbuch von 1441. Königsfestgabe des Rottweiler Geschichts und Altertumsvereins unter der Schirmherrschaft Seiner Majestät König Wilhelms II von Württemberg. (Tübingen, H. Laupp, 1917.), pp. 126-151

[2] Socin, Adolf, Mittelhochdeutsches Namenbuch. Nach oberrheinischen Quellen des 12. und 13. Jahrhunderts (Basel: Helbing & Lichtenhahn, 1903; Hildesheim: Georg Olms Verlagsbuchhandlung, 1966), pp. 10, 31, 48-9, 52-3, 63, 174.

[3] Wilhelm Lederer, Kulmbacher Einwohner 1495, in: Geschichte am Obermain Band 3, Jahresgabe 1965/66, Lichtenfels, S. 71-81.

[4] Daniel van der Meulen, Brieven en Andere Bescheiden Betreffende Daniel Van der Meulen, 1584-1600: Deel 1, Augustus 1584-September 1585, (‘s-Gravenhage : M. Nijhoff, 1986-)

[5] Fonds Plaiser, Antwerpsch Archievenblad.

[6] van de Spiegel, Ronald & Frans van Rooijen, “Kohieren van Het Weekgeld 1573” (http://www.interphrase.nl/frans/FransWeb/Archivalia/WEEKGE.INL.htm)


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Gwendolyn, Rowena, Rhiannon, and Morgana: Medieval vs. ‘Medieval’ Names

Yesterday, DMNES editor-in-chief Dr. Sara L. Uckelman gave a talk at the Middle Ages in the Modern World conference in Lincoln on “Gwendolyn, Rowena, Rhiannon, & Morgana: Medieval vs. ‘Medieval’ Names”. This post is a summary of her talk; slides for it are available here.

The goal of the talk was to explore answers to three main questions:

  • What names do people think are medieval, but are in fact modern?
  • What names do people think are modern, but are in fact medieval?
  • Where does the mismatch come from?

Names like the ones found in the title of the talk, Gwendolyn, Rowena, Rhiannon, Morgana, were taken as proto-typical ‘medieval’ names: Names that the average non-medievalist (or maybe only dilettante medievalist) would probably classify as medieval but whose historical lineage is much more complicated.

The first clear historical use of the name Gwendolyn dates to the 19th century. However, many people think that it is much older due to the variant names which can be found medievally — not as the names of actual people, but as the names in literature. The feminine name Gwendoloena appears in Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Historia Regum Britanniae (c1135), but his source for this name appears to be a misreading of the Old Welsh masculine name Guendoleu as Guendolen (an easy mistake in many medieval scripts!).

Rhiannon likewise appears in medieval literature, uniquely as the name of a legendary/divine character in the Mabinogion. Though the name has become popular in and out of Wales in modern times, there is no evidence that it was used by real people during the Middle Ages.

Rowena is another literary name, best known because of the character in Sir Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe.

Morgana, of the four, is the exception. It, too, is a literary name, best known as the name of the Arthurian enchantress Morgan le Fay, whose name occurs in many forms (Morgen, Morgain, Morgaine, Morgana) in medieval accounts. Unlike the other names, it was used outside of literature: Morgana can be found in Rome in the early 16th C.

But it is not just that people assume many modern names are medieval which are in fact not, but also the reverse happens. We have discussed some of these here previously, in consideration of made-up names. What is interesting when surveying these examples is that many of the names which people in the English-speaking world incorrectly point to as modern coinages were not used in English historically, but rather in other languages (Amanda being an exception); thus, if we interpret these people as saying that use of these names in English is modern, then perhaps we have less to complain about their assertion. Secondly, some names that people incorrectly think are modern they think are because there is a clear post-medieval moment of creation that can be pointed to: e.g., Cedric in Ivanhoe, Wendy in Peter Pan. Here we must be careful to not say that Scott and Barrie did not coin the names, for the process by which a name is coined is not one that can only occur once. Scott and Barrie may have seen themselves as creating a new name for their characters, and if they did not have any knowledge of the previous uses of these names, then there is nothing to prevent us from saying that they did coin these names for their characters, it just happens that the names they coined had previously been coined. Thus, we must differentiate between the actual use of a name throughout history from our epistemic access to its use: One who does not know (and further, could not reasonably have been expected to know) of the previous existence of a particular name can plausibly lay claim to having (re-)coined it.

Having surveyed examples of names which fall on both sides of the line, the third question considered was “Where does the mismatch come from?” Why is it that non-specialists views of what counts as a “medieval name” or a “modern name” are so far off the actual mark? This is a complex issue with many possible contributing factors. Two important factors were singled out:

  • Literature
  • Shifting standards of cultural and personal identity

Literature: Many of the names cited above have close connections with literature. People read books which are apparently set in the Middle Ages, and assume that the names being used there are appropriate for the setting, because they are rarely told otherwise. The renewed interest in the Middle Ages of the Victorians brought with it new access to medieval literature and legend which provided fertile fodder for the desire of the Victorians to romanticise the Middle Ages. The roots of our modern historical and romantic views of the Middle Ages can both be located in these Victorian developments, and there often was no clear line drawn between the two, allowing literary names to pass easily from fiction into fact. Thus, the inheritance of the 20th and 21st C of the Victorian views of the Middle Ages brought with it a stock of names which naturally came to be viewed as “medieval” without distinguishing whether they came from medieval fact or medieval fiction.

But this summary shouldn’t be taken as saying “Oh, the Victorians couldn’t tell the difference between fact and fiction”; and this is because there are reasons why one might not feel the need to distinguish names from historical sources from literary ones, and that is because medievally one fertile source for names was in fact literature. We are familiar with the use of Arthur, Lancelot, Gawain, and Guinevere outside of literature in the Middle Ages; the popularity of these names is directly attributable to the popularity of the various songs, stories, and legends that circulated throughout Europe. But Arthurian cycles were not the only source of literary names in the Middle Ages. Other sources include the related tales of Tristan and Isolde, stories of Greek heroes and other legendary characters such as Hector, Alexander, Lavinia, and Hercules, Germanic romances such as the tales of Roland, and lays and troubador songs which are less well-known to modern audiences but which gave us the characters of Digory, Crescentia, and Griselda. And let us not forget the non-human characters, such as crafty Reynard the Fox, whose name became so closely associated with foxes that the term renard came to simply mean ‘fox’ in medieval French. Given that so many medieval names were in fact drawn from myth, literature, and legend, it is excusable for the non-specialist to assume that other important medieval literary names were also used by real people in the Middle Ages.

All of this so far has been directed at the level of individual given names, but misperceptions about medieval naming patterns also exist. These — most often in the form of insistence on a precise spelling of a name or on the belief that multiple languages can, and were, combined in the same name — have their origins in other factors. Specifically, we argue that the standards of personal and cultural identity that people have today are closely tied up with their names in a way that simply wasn’t the case medievally. In most western countries, people have a canonical form of their name which is instituted upon them soon after birth and which requires legal action in order to change. The centrality and importance of the name which is instituted upon them along with the difficulty involved in changing it means that this originally instituted name, in precisely the form in which it was instituted, has primary significance. Sara is not the same name as Sarah, and one who refers to the former by the latter will be reprimanded. This emphasis on the originally instituted name in exactly the way it was instituted as the legal marker of personhood of a person is simply not the way names were viewed medievally. Because orthography was not, for the most part, standardized (though this does not mean — as some people take it — that you can spell any name any way you wish!), Willyam was the same person as Wylliam who was the same person as Guilliam: It was the name, rather than the spelling, that was emphasized.

Identity: The second contributing factor is the close relationship between cultural and personal identity that many people have today. When you are introduced to someone, quite often one of the first questions you are asked is “Where are you from?” And if the answer you give conflicts with other evidence present in the conversation – for example, someone with an overt American answer giving her origin as the north of England, or someone with an obviously Polish surname giving his origin as southern France – then this usually immediately triggers further questions to explain the apparent clash between name, location, and origin. On a view of personhood and identity where where you are from and where your ancestors were from play an important role, then you expect that at least some of this information is indicated by a person’s name. And it is true that you see this sort of information encoded in (some) medieval names, specifically bynames which are locative in origin or which are ethnic descriptives such as ‘English’, ‘German’, ‘French’; these are quite common medievally and show that, similarly to us, medieval people were cognizant of cultural background and origin and deemed it important enough to codify in people’s names. But whereas modern people of mixed cultural backgrounds often have names which display multiple aspects of this mixed cultural (think for example of two people whose surnames are clearly tied to a specific language or culture who give their child the hyphenated form of their names), the combination of multiple languages into a single name is not something that was done, medievally. Though this cultural background is important and relevant, it was not inflexibly encoded into the name. Instead – and this ties back to the idea that variation in spelling does not necessarily indicate variation in name – the form of the name would depend on the linguistic context in which it was being used. A magnate from the Low Countries writing letters in the 14th C will say “Ego Lodevicus”, “Wij Lodewijk”, or “Nous Loys” depending on whether he is writing in Latin, Middle Dutch, or Middle French. John Hawkwood, notorious English mercenary, was known as Giovanni Acuto amongst his Italian friends. Other examples are easily found.

Having discussed the mismatch and some of its causes, it’s worth concluding by briefly considering the question “What can we do about it?” The most straightforward way to minimize the mismatch between what we think happened in the Middle Ages and what actually happen is through the dissemination of information, which goal was one of the original motivations for creating the Dictionary.


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It’s No Joke!

Today, the creation of dictionary entries began in earnest. While the details of the database back-end are still to be hammered out, the structure of the entries is now sufficiently settled that the editorial team is able to begin the process of collecting the information that will go into the entry for each header name, and to create the files for those entries. With an extensive list of possibilities to choose from, since we are drawing our initial data from Dr. Uckelman’s Database of Medieval Names, it’s hard to decide where to begin. For my own part, I decided to begin with three lovely and moderately unusual names which are linked through their meanings: Old French (and also Middle English) Douce, Italian Soave, and Dutch Zoete, all of which mean ‘sweet’. I also decided it was only right and proper that I at least begin to write the entry on Sara; I expect most of the rest of the editorial team will also be keen to write the entries on their own names!

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