...in which I share some of my favorite medieval research resources and methods for the benefit of others interested in also writing about the Middle Ages

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Where do we begin?

When planning to write a medieval fiction novel, the obvious question is: Where to begin?

Speaking for myself (this is, after all, a blog devoted to the way I do my research), I like to start with the characters. And the first step in bringing a character alive is to assign him or her a name.

Since our fiction is set in the Middle Ages, we want our names to be as authentic to the time period as possible. No women named “Dakota” (for obvious reasons), or “Madison”, or “Jamie”, or “Bailey”. (A “bailey” was a walled enclosure of a castle, not a woman’s name.)

Interestingly, the often mocked, “Tiffany” originated as a form of the medieval “Theophania”, with the variant “Teffany” being recorded as early as 1200 AD, and “Tiffany” itself appearing by 1315. Still, since readers tend to be a skeptical audience, unless you intend to provide footnoted-authentication, you might want to leave all “Tiffanys” out of your stories.

As for the men: No “Blade’s”, or “Dillon’s”, or “Devon’s” (a place name, not a man’s name) or even “Jacob’s”, unless the character he’s representing is either a medieval ecclesiastic or a Jew.

How, of all the names circulating in the world today, can we learn which ones of present and past are acceptable for a medieval character?

One of the best resource books I have discovered on the subject is: The Oxford Dictionary of English Christian Names, by E.G. Withycombe. The author not only includes a roster of English Christian names, past and present, but traces most of them back to their historical roots.

An example: "Alan is a Celtic name of a popular early Welsh and Breton saint. It was introduced to England at the time of the Norman Conquest. In French, it was Alain and Alein, and the spellings Allan and Allen have both been used in England. Alain is still a favorite in Brittany, but is not much used in the rest of France today. Other variants are Aleyne and Aleyn."

From this information, I know that if I want to include a character named some version of Alan, my time setting in England must be after the Norman Conquest (October 1066). If I want to use the name for a lower class character, then it should be as a result of an intermingling of the Saxon and Norman races, or I need to set my story a few centuries later when Norman names have "seeped down" to the lower classes. A character from England or Brittany will likely be named Alan, whereas a character from France will be Alain or Alein.

The Oxford Dictionary of English Christian Names has been an indispensable resource book for me. From this book, I have assembled a list of medieval names, with their variant spellings per country, divided into male and female. Thus, whenever I start a new project or create a new character for a project-in-process, I don’t have to go digging through this book anew, but can simply choose from among the list I have already compiled.

The beauty of The Oxford Dictionary of English Christian Names for an author doing his/her own research—and may I mention that this volume would be equally helpful in compiling a list of names popular during the Regency or Victorian periods, or later, as well as the Middle Ages—is that you can use it to assemble your own lists in small snippets of time. Keep a pen and notebook handy, and thumb through the book, beginning with the “A’s”, while waiting for a child at piano lessons, or in the dentist or doctor’s office, or simply during a 15-minute break between tasks during your day. When you come across a name in vogue during whatever time period you are interested in, jot down the name and its variants, with any additional historical information you wish, in your notebook. Then later, when you have more time, type up the names you’ve gathered onto your computer and save them, until you’ve worked your way clear through the “Z’s”. At that point, you can print out your list if you wish and keep it in a binder, or simply keep a copy on your computer. (Personally, I prefer a hard copy so that I can refer to it away from the computer, as well as while sitting at the keyboard.)

BONUS: The Oxford Dictionary of English Christian Names often gives examples of surnames derived from Christian names, so if you are looking for surnames for your characters, you will find this book equally helpful for that, as well.

Regrettably, The Oxford Dictionary of English Christian Names is no longer in print, but used copies are available on the Internet. The website: http://www.bestwebbuys.com/The_Oxford_Dictionary_of_English_Christian_Names-ISBN_0198691246.html?isrc=b-search will take you to a site offering comparison price shopping for this volume. And always remember that if purchasing a copy is not within your budget, your local public librarian will be happy to locate and order you a copy through the Interlibrary Loan program.


Rebecca Talley said...

Wow, I had no idea so much went into selecting a name. Very interesting. Thanks.

Kristine said...

I too find it fascinating that you have done so much research to make certain you are authentically developing a character.

Donna Hatch said...

Thank you for your willingness to share how to select a character's name. I had no idea there was an OED for Christian names. Good info!
Donna Hatch