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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:

Feminine

Masculine

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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Diminutive forms in 16th C England

A remark in this post on an onomastics blog that I follow, that

it seems like people in the past were a lot less nickname-happy than people today. I’d be shocked to hear of, say, a Renaissance Amelia who went by Amy, or a 19th century pioneer Joshua who went by Josh

got me thinking. The comment surprised me because in the data I’ve worked with over the last decade and a half has included quite a few marriage and baptismal records from late 16th C English parish registers, and I’ve come across quite a few diminutive forms. I decided to cull data from an albeit very small data set (the data which is currently in the Dictionary‘s database, which is a very small excerpt of the data I’ve collected over the years), and do a bit of analysis.

Diminutive forms of names can mostly be classified into two types: Those where the radiconym was also in use, and those where it wasn’t. In the later case, by the 16th C, it may not really make sense to speak of those names being diminutives, if there no longer is, and hasn’t been for a long time, a name that they are a diminutive of.

In this category, we can class such names as Ursula, Wilmot, and Thomasine and their (very numerous) variants. These names derive from Ursa, Willelma/Williama and Thomasse/Thomasa, respectively, but these forms have historically been vanishingly rare in English. (Thomasse appears in French, Guillerma and variants in Spanish, and Ursa in Italian.) A masculine witness to this is Lancelot, and its variants; these are etymologically diminutives of Lance, but the popularity of the Arthurian character meant that the double diminutive form was far more popular than the radiconym.

Of the names where the radiconym was still in common currency, we can further divide the examples into those where the diminutive form is roughly as common as its root, and those where the nickname is substantially less common. In the former category are names such as Alison, Marian, and Isabel. The latter category are the ones that I believe the poster quoted above would find most surprising:

  • Annie 1586, 1597 (from Anne)
  • Beaton 1581 (from Beatrice)
  • Davy 1599 (from David)
  • Emot, Emet 1418, Emote 1580 (from Emma)
  • Ebbot 1597, Ebbet 1597 (from Elizabeth, or possibly Isabel)
  • Eliza 1567, 1581, 1582, 1584, 1594, 1595 (from Elizabeth)
  • Elineta 1563 (from Ellen, or possibly Eleanor)
  • Kate 1596 (from Katherine)
  • Nancy 1583 (from Anne)
  • Sybbie 1573 (from Sybil)

And this is only looking at examples which have 16th C citations; I omitted a number of 15th C examples.

This is but a small data set, and thus no strong conclusions should be drawn from it. But I think it’s certainly clear that nicknames were used in the Renaissance, even in as official contexts as marriage and birth records.

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