...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, October 3, 2007

More on names...

Here is a quick and easy tip for both supplementing your collection of names drawn from The Oxford Dictionary of English Christian Names, and for identifying how frequently certain names were, in fact, used during the Middle Ages.

Walk into any library or bookstore and grab a medieval biography off a shelf. In this example, I am using William Rufus, by Frank Barlow. I admit my disappointment in the dry and plodding text of this biography (I’d hoped for a more colorful and lively treatment of this particular king of England). However, I did find it useful in the following manner, a trick which you can use with pretty much any medieval biography.

Flip to the index at the end of the book, and simply run down the list of names referred to in the text. While in the case of William Rufus, you will run across a few new and unusual names such as Achard (an abbot), Amieria (wife of a man named Warin), Boso (name of both a monk and a knight), Gisulf (a royal scribe), and Jarento (a bishop), you will also be able to quickly identify a list of “most popular names in use” during the time period.

For example, citing from the index:

Alan appears 5 times for different men
Baldwin appears 6 times
Geoffrey appears no less than 25 times
Gerald/Gerold appears 5 times
Gilbert, 12 times
Guy, 6 times
Henry, 10 times
Herbert, 4 times
Hugh, 31 times!
Humphrey, 4 times
John, 8 times
Nigel, 4 times
Odo, 6 times
Osbern/Osbert, 7 times
Peter, 6 times
Ralf, 22 times
Ranulf, 7 times
Richard, 19 times
Robert, 44 times!
Roger, 23 times
Simon, 5 times
Stephan/Steven, 5 times
Thomas, 4 times
Thurstin, 7 times
Walter, 15 times
William, 61 times!!! (beating out Robert, hands down)

Because men played a more frequently documented role in medieval times than women, it is harder to draw conclusions about the frequency of individual female names from such biographical indexes. However, from William Rufus we can collect the following information on women:

A form of Adela or Adelaide/Adelais appears 5 times for different women
Judith appears 3 times
Matilda appears 6 times

But it isn’t always necessary to know what the most popular names were in order to arrive at names for our characters…only that certain names were in use at all during the Middle Ages.

Drawing from the index of Eleanor of Aquitaine: A Biography, by Marion Meade, we can compile the following list of female names in use, at least during the 12th Century:

Aenor (the mother of Eleanor of Aquitaine)
Constance (appears 4 times)

While a quick glance through the index of William Marshal: Court, Career and Chivalry in the Angevin Empire 1147-1219, by David Crouch, will add such female names as:


As you can see, within a very short space of time, you can assemble an excellent starting list of medieval Christian names, merely by running through various indexes in biographies of medieval personages. All for the price of a few minutes’ browsing at a bookstore or your local library!

Never underestimate the value of a good index. In future posts, I will point out additional ways that this book feature can speed along research that will assist in setting a vivid and accurate setting for our medieval fiction.

Next post: I have a name. Now what am I going to wear?


Elizabeth Chadwick said...

What a great idea Joyce,
I hope many writers will find your blog useful. I too use Withycombe as a starting point. If I need to find a medieval name beyond those of real people, I usually turn to the indexes of cartularies and historical records- e.g. The Early Records of Medieval Coventry edited by Peter Coss which has an index of names and places separate to the main one, thus cutting down the finding time. (There's a guy in there called Richard Midnyte - how great for a hero!) Being as it hones in on the English population at ground level, it's exactly what I want. If I was heading into Poitou or Aquitaine, then I'd look at the index of something more strongly concerned with their history to get a flavour of their preferred names. If you're checking indexes at the back of wider books - such as prof Crouch's Marshal bio or Marion Meade, you need to keep an eye on those regional variations. For e.g. Aenor and Eleanor would not have been used in England until well into the mid 12thC and only by the aristocracy. It's not an appropriate name for a cowherd's daughter unless there are exceptional circumstances!
Anyway, good luck with the blog and I hope people enjoy it. I was alerted to it by a Google alert I have set up for any mention of William Marshal.

Jeri Westerson said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Jeri Westerson said...

Oh! How nice to find this blog. Like Elizabeth, I love exploring names and where that exploration leads you. It lead me to Dave Postles' Talking ballocs: Nicknames and English Medieval Sociolinguistics. It's actually a little less prurient than you might expect from the title, and gives a lot of insight into the expressions of a community by the use of nicknames, what they are, and for whom.

Joyce DiPastena said...

Thanks, Elizabeth and Jeri. I'm glad you enjoyed my blog, and thanks for the additional resource tips!