Tag Archives: Thorsten

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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The ‘elements’ of names: Earth (part 2!)

So after we posted our first post in what was to be a four-part series (one for each element) on names involving the four elements (read Part 1: Earth), a number of people pointed out that we totally overlooked a candidate for “earth”: ‘rock, stone’!

Well, rather than feeling too sheepish and embarrassed about such an oversight, we figured we’d simply fix this by making a follow-up post. So in Earth-Part-Two we’re going to look at all the names we have that derive from an element meaning ‘rock’ or stone’.

The most classic example is, of course, Peter, deriving from Greek πέτρος ‘rock’. The most well-known bearer of the name, Peter the first Catholic pope (at least from the medieval point of view!), was given his name as a metaphor for the foundation of the church itself. As the Wycliffite translation of the Bible (1395) puts it:

And Y seie to thee, that thou art Petre, and on this stoon Y schal bilde my chirche, and the yatis of helle schulen not haue miyt ayens it. (Matthew 16:18)

As the name of a disciple and pope, Peter was enormously popular in Europe. Our earliest citation is from the end of the 7th C in Germany, and by the time we hit 1600, you can’t turn around without bumping into a Peter or three. Geographically, almost every country that has citations in the database has an example of Peter — it’s even one of the three names we find in Algeria. The popularity of the name is reflected in the diversity and quantity of pet forms witnessed:

Pär, Peczold, Peep, Peireto, Per, Pere, Pereto, Perin, Perino, Perkyn, Perocto, Peron, Perono, Peronet, Perot, Perreau, Perrecars, Perrenet, Perresson, Perreset, Perret, Perrichon, Perrin, Perrinet, Perrod, Perron, Perronet, Perrono, Perrot, Perrotin, Perrusson, Pers, Perucho, Peschel, Peschil, Peschlin, Pescho, Peschyl, Pesco, Pesko, Pesold, Pessek, Pessel, Pesshico, Pessico, Pessko, Pesslin, Pesyco, Peterl, Pethe, Peto, Petrecono, Petreman, Petrezolo, Petricono, Petrin, Petrino, Petriolo, Petrocho, Petrocino, Petrono, Petrosino, Petrussio, Petruche, Petrucio, Petrutio, Piep, Pierel, Pieren, Pieret, Pierozo Pierren, Pierron, Pierrot, Pyotrussa

Of course, given the popularity of the masculine name, it’s no surprise that the feminine form, Petra was also relatively widespread throughout medieval Europe (although it was rare before the late 13th C). What might be surprising is that with one exception, all of our examples are of diminutive forms — too many to list here. Another name that needs to be mentioned in this context is the feminine name Petronilla. The root of this name is the Roman nomen Petronius. Petronius itself may possibly derive from the same Greek root; but it is not clear that it does. Nevertheless, medievally the name was treated as a feminine form of Peter, and it was moderately popular throughout England, France, and the Low Countries, with a handful of examples also turning up in Germany, Italy, Spain, and Switzerland.

But Greek isn’t the only language to have given us rocky names! We also have two Germanic/Scandinavian elements meaning ‘rock ” or ‘stone’ that were used in monothematic and dithematic names: Old Icelandic hallr ‘rock, stone’, found in the compound Haldor; and Proto-Germanic *stainaz ‘stone’, which gave rise to Old Icelandic steinn, Old English stān, Old Frisian, Old Saxon, and Old Dutch stēn, and Old High German stein.

This latter element was quite a popular element, both as a prototheme and as a deuterotheme:

Country Prototheme Deuterotheme
England Alfstan, Brihtstan, Dunstan, Goldstone, Thorsten, Wulfstan
Estonia Thorsten
France Steinhard Thorsten
Germany Steinhard
Iceland Thorsten
Ireland Dunstan, Thorsten
Norway Thorsten
Scotland Thorsten
Sweden Steinarr Holmsten, Thorsten

The element itself was also used as a standalone, monothematic name: Sten. We have examples from Finland, France, and Sweden.

We could also stretch the definition of “earth” as far as names derived from precious stones, but perhaps we’ll draw the line here and save those for another post on their own sometime!

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Book haul!

We were back at the International Medieval Congress in Leeds this last week, and came away with a book haul that is worth devoting a post to:

The Assize of Bread Book, 1477-1517 is a record from Southampton regarding fines related to selling poor-quality bread. It’s a mix of Latin, (Anglo-)French, and Middle/Early Modern English — sometimes all in the same entry so that we get to play “What’s the matrix language?” with records such as this:

Alysawne Chayne vendyt a John Debarde xxviij die ffebr’

(In passing, isn’t Alysawne an absolutely delicious form of Alison?)

Not directly onomastics, but welcome for background research, is Glossaire de la Langue d’Oïl (XIe-XIV siècles), published in France in 1891. It’s been rebound in a beautiful tooled leather binding, and we are not above noting that this played a role in our choice to acquire it!

What do Anschetillus, Daniel, Wimundus, Aelais, Evardus, Hugo, Tustinus, Serlo, Gauterius, and Regnarius all have in common? They’re all Norman names found in the late 12th C, in the Charters and Custumals of the Abbey of Holy Trinity, Caen: Part 2, the French Estates.

From a century later and across the channel, we have The Warwickshire Hundred Rolls of 1279-80: Stoneleigh and Kineton Hundreds. The late 13th century isn’t the most exciting of times, onomastically, in England, but we look forward to a good crop of solid names.

One of the fascinating things about looking at early records is watching Latin develop into vernaculars; sometimes you can be reading a charter for awhile before realizing “hey, wait, I’m not exactly sure WHICH language this is in.” Such is the case for many of the charters in Foundations of Crusader Valencia, Revolt & Recovery, 1257-1263: Diplomatarium of the Crusader Kingdom of Valencia, where Latin bleeds into Spanish and the documents will fill a gap we have in terms of names from 13th C Iberia.

Providing us with a wealth of Scottish material is the two-volume Liber Protocollorum with the Rental Book of Diocese of Glasgow. Did you know that the most typical Scots spelling of John was Jhon? It will be fun to see this book give up its treasures — quite literally, as many of the pages in these volumes haven’t been cut!

The last book is truly amazing — a very detailed edition and commentary on A Sixth-century Tax Register from the Hermpololite Nome — aka Coptic/Greek names from Egypt! Look for this in a Dictionary edition coming soon (just as soon as we figure out the most efficient way to enter names in a non-Roman alphabet!)


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