Medieval baby names: what were people called in the Middle Ages?

How did people name their children in the Middle Ages? Why did we start using surnames? And what were the most popular names? HistoryExtra content director Dr David Musgrove chats to Dr James Chetwood about the way people’s personal names changed dramatically over the course of the Middle Ages, and what this tells us about medieval society

Naming of St John the Baptist, c12th century. From a wall painting in the crypt of Canterbury Cathedral. (Photo by The Print Collector/Print Collector/Getty Images)

What’s in a name? Quite a lot if you’re studying the changing nature of personal names in England over a 500-year period, as the University of Hull’s Dr James Chetwood has done. I interviewed him for the HistoryExtra podcast and we talked about the work he did for this doctoral thesis and the ongoing research he’s conducting in this field. His period of study is cAD800–1300, a time in which personal naming underwent a huge transformation.

Advertisement

In the ninth century, people in England largely used a traditional Germanic method of creating compound, or dithematic, names by combining two ‘themes’. These themes were originally words taken from everyday language.

There was very little repetition of names and any two people within a community or family would be unlikely to share the same name

There was a limited number of themes, but they could be combined in a variety of ways. Some could only be used only at the start of names, like Ead- and Cuth-; some only at the end, like -ric and -weard. Others could be used either at the start or the end, such as Beorht-/-beorht and Wulf-/-wulf. This flexibility allowed a huge number of names to be formed. In essence, a name was created for, rather than given to, each person. As a result, there was very little repetition of names and any two people within a community or family would be unlikely to share the same name.


Listen: James Chetwood explores the origins of people’s names in the Middle Ages and how names changed over the centuries


For context, this time is synonymous with the commencement of Scandinavian raiding on the coastline of England and Britain more generally. During this period, the inhabitants of what is now England were wandering around with personal names that were sufficiently unique to not require any additional elements.

Taking someone else’s name was tantamount to stealing their souls

There is a theory that part of this is down to a belief among pre-Christian Germanic peoples that body and soul were indivisible. Following this line of thought, taking someone else’s name was tantamount to stealing their souls. The argument is that as Christianity spread, this became less important and so naming patterns changed accordingly. Dr Chetwood sees some merit in that idea, but thinks it doesn’t completely explain as the system of dithematic naming continued long after Christianity took hold in various parts of western Europe. The system did change over the following centuries, with names acquiring additional elements. Dr Chetwood explained more in our podcast interview:

“The process of creating patronymic names – or by-names that refer to another member of the family such as ‘Johnson’ – is a later phenomenon. One of the key things about names in the 700s/800s is that people only had one name; they didn’t have a by-name or surname like we have today. This is perhaps one of the reasons why people had a wide variety of [unique] first names, because you didn’t need to have a surname. The development of by-names, both as nicknames or relationship names, including parental patronyms and matronyms, starts to come in around the 10th century.”

When did we start using surnames?

Surnames came into common use around the early Middle Ages so that people could distinguish between persons of the same given name. They were selected by making some reference to either their occupation (‘Taylor’ or ‘Smith’ for example), personal characteristics (such as ‘Strong’ or ‘Brown’), or location of their residence (like ‘Wood’ or ‘Marsh’). Others, now common, came from a child taking their father’s name – including Johnson (the son of John) and Macdonald (son of Donald).

As travel began to grow and communities met with more strangers, the practice became more general. From around the 1200s, a person’s adopted name was commonly passed on to the next generation and so the inherited surname was born. So it is possible our names are likely to tell us something about one of our distant ancestors.

This question was first answered in the November 2015 issue of BBC History Revealed magazine

By the end of Chetwood’s period of study, the way in which the people of England used personal names had been completely transformed.

“In the early 14th century, the majority of the population shared a relatively small number of common personal names. These were not created by combining individual name themes, but constituted indivisible linguistic items in their own right. People chose and bestowed names in a completely different way,” explains Dr Chetwood.

“Whereas 500 years previously, the chances of any two people in the same family or settlement sharing the same name was relatively slim, by 1300 it is likely that not only would a person share a name with any number of members of their own family, but they would also share it with numerous other people in their immediate vicinity.”

By this stage, people were passing down family names from father to son and mother to daughter, as well as sharing names with their neighbours and friends, with the effect that “a small number of popular names came to dominate”.

“In addition to what can now be accurately termed ‘baptismal’ names, the majority of people also bore a surname or byname,” adds Dr Chetwood. “This was not, at this time, the system of fully hereditary surnames as we know them today, although in some cases surnames had most likely begun to be passed down through families.”

What caused this change? One might conclude that the main driver was the seismic political event that took place in 1066, when the Normans under William, Duke of Normandy took over England. But as Dr Chetwood explains, it’s more complicated than that:

“It’s a very sensible and logical explanation for lots of things that change, because after 1066 there is an influx of different names from the continent. However, I think that changes were already happening before the Norman conquest.”

There are two significant developments, the first being a shift from Old English Germanic names to continental Germanic names (for example, names like William, Richard and Robert are the same type of name as Alfred, Edward and Wulfric, but just from a different linguistic background). They are Norman names in as much as they are carried by Norman people, but they are linguistically Germanic and formed in the same dithematic way.

But by the time of the conquest, it’s likely that both Old English and Continental Germanic names had stopped being formed dithematically, and people just used names as we do today, naming their child Richard or Edward, without forming them from two parts. This made it easier for English people to choose new names brought over from the continent without completely changing how they used names.

Later, there is another shift as ‘Christian’ names become very popular across the whole of western Europe. These do have some regionality, but many of these names are the same right across Europe, like John. By the 13th century, religious names of Greek, Roman or Biblical origins had become very popular, but many of these sorts of names didn’t come over straight after the Norman conquest.

What drove this change towards a more homogenised naming system? It could partly be down to the development of surnames and by-names that mean there is less need to have such a wide choice of first names, but also, it’s potentially down to a change in the way that people are living between 800 and 1300.

Dr Chetwood explains: “In the 600/700s, people would live in very small, dispersed settlements with maybe a couple of other extended family groups in close proximity. From the ninth/10th century onwards, there are more people and they start to live closer together in what we now know as villages.

“Their lives are in full view of each other all the time – in the fields that they’re working in to create food, and in the same communal spaces, like churches. This creates a society where being like other people is more beneficial. You could see that as a good thing with community values and a ‘we’re all in this together’ attitude, or rather as just a case of not wanting to stand out. But we see across a greater propensity to try to be like the people in the immediate location.”

In some towns 50 or 60 per cent men would all be called one of about four or five names

One impact of this is that people increasingly start to choose the same names for their children, to an almost extreme extent. People share the same names today, but to far less a degree. By the 14th century, in some towns 50 or 60 per cent of the men would all be called one of about four or five names.

I asked Dr Chetwood if he had come across any particularly surprising personal names in the course of his research. I have to warn you that there is some graphic language in the answer.

“In the 11th century, there are a large portion of people who have these creative, nickname/by-names in addition to their given names. Some of them are a bit rude. There’s a bloke just known as Peacock. There’s someone called Tesco.

“In the Winton Domesday, there are a number of people with either just the name Bollock or with ‘bollock’ in their surname. There’s an Alfred Toad Bollock, for example.

“But the worst name I found is someone called Godwin Clawcunt.”

Dr Chetwood explains that although these names were probably insulting to some extent, they weren’t anywhere near as offensive as they might be considered today, when using rude words related to bodily functions and sex is seen as taboo or rude. In the past, there would have been much more of a taboo about blasphemy.

Though perhaps a somewhat unsavoury way to finish, it’s a fascinating piece of research that’s interesting in its own right for our understanding of personal names, but also for a wider reflection of how society transformed during the medieval period.

Medieval baby name charts 

Popular boys and girls names from the Middle Ages

Looking for a baby name with a historical twist? We asked Dr Chetwood to choose what might feature in a baby naming book from the medieval period…

11th century

Boys 

  • Leofwine
  • Ælfric
  • Leofric
  • Godwin 

Girls

  • Ælgifu/Alveva
  • Ælflaed
  • Leofgifu
14th century

Boys

  • John
  • William
  • Robert 
  • Thomas

Girls

  • Alice
  • Matilda
  • Cecilia
  • Annabel/Mabel

Advertisement

Dr David Musgrove is content director at HistoryExtra