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Early Britain - Anglo-Saxon Britain
Anglo-Saxon Nomenclature
by Allen, Grant (B.A.)


Perhaps nothing tends more to repel the modern English student from the early history of his country than the very unfamiliar appearance of the personal names which he meets before the Norman Conquest. There can be no doubt that such a shrinking from the first stages of our national annals does really exist; and it seems to be largely due to this very superficial and somewhat unphilosophical cause. Before the Norman invasion, the modern Englishman finds himself apparently among complete foreigners, in the Æthelwulfs, the Eadgyths, the Oswius, and the Seaxburhs of the Chronicle; while he hails the Norman invaders, the Johns, Henrys, Williams, and Roberts, of the period immediately succeeding the conquest, as familiar English friends. The contrast can scarcely be better given than in the story told about Æthelred's Norman wife. Her name was Ymma, or Emma; but the English of that time murmured against such an outlandish sound, and so the Lady received a new English name as Ælfgifu. At the present day our nomenclature has changed so utterly that Emma sounds like ordinary English, while Ælfgifu sounds like a wholly foreign word. The incidental light thrown upon our history by the careful study of personal names is indeed so valuable that a few remarks upon the subject seem necessary in order to complete our hasty survey of Anglo-Saxon Britain.

During the very earliest period when we catch a glimpse of the English people on the Continent or in eastern Britain, a double system of naming seems to have prevailed, not wholly unlike our modern plan of Christian and surname. The clan name was appended to the personal one. A man was apparently described as Wulf the Holting, or as Creoda the Æscing. The clan names were in many cases common to the English and the Continental Teutons. Thus we find Helsings in the English Helsington and the Swedish Helsingland; Harlings in the English Harlingham and the Frisian Harlingen; and Bleccings in the English Bletchingley and the Scandinavian Bleckingen. Our Thyrings at Thorrington answer, perhaps, to the Thuringians; our Myrgings at Merrington to the Frankish Merwings or Merovingians; our Wærings at Warrington to the Norse Væringjar or Varangians. At any rate, the clan organization was one common to both great branches of the Teutonic stock, and it has left its mark deeply upon our modern nomenclature, both in England and in Germany. Mr. Kemble has enumerated nearly 200 clan names found in early English charters and documents, besides over 600 others inferred from local names in England at the present day. Taking one letter of the alphabet alone, his list includes the Glæstings, Geddings, Gumenings, Gustings, Getings, Grundlings, Gildlings, and Gillings, from documentary evidence; and the Gærsings, Gestings, Geofonings, Goldings, and Garings, with many others, from the inferential evidence of existing towns and villages.

The personal names of the earliest period are in many cases untranslateable—that is to say, as with the first stratum of Greek names, they bear no obvious meaning in the language as we know it. Others are names of animals or natural objects. Unlike the later historical cognomens, they each consist, as a rule, of a single element, not of two elements in composition. Such are the names which we get in the narrative of the colonization and in the mythical genealogies; Hengest, Horsa, Æsc, Ælle, Cymen, Cissa, Bieda, Mægla; Ceol, Penda, Offa, Blecca; Esla, Gewis, Wig, Brand, and so forth. A few of these names (such as Penda and Offa), are undoubtedly historical; but of the rest, some seem to be etymological blunders, like Port and Wihtgar; others to be pure myths, like Wig and Brand; and others, again, to be doubtfully true, like Cerdic, Cissa, and Bieda, eponyms, perhaps, of Cerdices-ford, Cissan-ceaster, and Biedan-heafod.

In the truly historical age, the clan system seems to have died out, and each person bore, as a rule, only a single personal name. These names are almost invariably compounded of two elements, and the elements thus employed were comparatively few in number. Thus, we get the root æthel, noble, as the first half in Æthelred, Æthelwulf, Æthelberht, Æthelstan, and Æthelbald. Again, the root ead, rich, or powerful, occurs in Eadgar, Eadred, Eadward, Eadwine, and Eadwulf. Ælf, an elf, forms the prime element in Ælfred, Ælfric, Ælfwine, Ælfward, and Ælfstan. These were the favourite names of the West-Saxon royal house; the Northumbrian kings seem rather to have affected the syllable os, divine, as in Oswald, Oswiu, Osric, Osred, and Oslaf. Wine, friend, is a favourite termination found in Æscwine, Eadwine, Æthelwine, Oswine, and Ælfwine, whose meanings need no further explanation. Wulf appears as the first half in Wulfstan, Wulfric, Wulfred, and Wulfhere; while it forms the second half in Æthelwulf, Eadwulf, Ealdwulf, and Cenwulf. Beorht, berht, or briht, bright, or glorious, appears in Beorhtric, Beorhtwulf, Brihtwald; Æthelberht, Ealdbriht, and Eadbyrht. Burh, a fortress, enters into many female names, as Eadburh, Æthelburh, Sexburh, and Wihtburh. As a rule, a certain number of syllables seem to have been regarded as proper elements for forming personal names, and to have been combined somewhat fancifully, without much regard to the resulting meaning. The following short list of such elements, in addition to the roots given above, will suffice to explain most of the names mentioned in this work.
  • Helm: helmet.
  • Gar: spear.
  • Gifu: gift.
  • Here: army.
  • Sige: victory.
  • Cyne: royal.
  • Leof: dear.
  • Wig: war.
  • Stan: stone.
  • Eald: old, venerable.
  • Weard, ward: ward, protection.
  • Red: counsel.
  • Eeg: edge, sword.
  • Theod: people, nation.


By combining these elements with those already given most of the royal or noble names in use in early England were obtained.

With the people, however, it would seem that shorter and older forms were still in vogue. The following document, the original of which is printed in Kemble's collection, represents the pedigree of a serf, and is interesting, both as showing the sort of names in use among the servile class, and the care with which their family relationships were recorded, in order to preserve the rights of their lord.
Dudda was a boor at Hatfield, and he had three daughters: one hight Deorwyn, the other Deorswith, the third Golde. And Wulflaf at Hatfield has Deorwyn to wife. Ælfstan, at Tatchingworth, has Deorswith to wife: and Ealhstan, Ælfstan's brother, has Golde to wife. There was a man hight Hwita, bee-master at Hatfield, and he had a daughter Tate, mother of Wulfsige, the bowman; and Wulfsige's sister Lulle has Hehstan to wife, at Walden. Wifus and Dunne and Seoloce are inborn at Hatfield. Duding, son of Wifus, lives at Walden; and Ceolmund, Dunne's son, also sits at Walden; and Æthelheah, Seoloce's son, also sits at Walden. And Tate, Cenwold's sister, Mæg has to wife at Welgun; and Eadhelm, Herethryth's son, has Tate's daughter to wife. Wærlaf, Wærstan's father, was a right serf at Hatfield; he kept the grey swine there.
In the west, and especially in Cornwall, the names of the serfs were mainly Celtic,—Griffith, Modred, Riol, and so forth,—as may be seen from the list of manumissions preserved in a mass-book at St. Petroc's, or Padstow. Elsewhere, however, the Celtic names seem to have dropped out, for the most part, with the Celtic language. It is true, we meet with cases of apparently Welsh forms, like Maccus, or Rum, even in purely Teutonic districts; and some names, such as Cerdic and Ceadwalla, seem to have been borrowed by one race from the other: while such forms as Wealtheow and Waltheof are at least suggestive of British descent: but on the whole, the conquered Britons appear everywhere to have quickly adopted the names in vogue among their conquerors. Such names would doubtless be considered fashionable, as was the case at a later date with those introduced by the Danes and the Normans. Even in Cornwall a good many English forms occur among the serfs: while in very Celtic Devonshire, English names were probably universal.

The Danish Conquest introduced a number of Scandinavian names, especially in the North, the consideration of which belongs rather to a companion volume. They must be briefly noted here, however, to prevent confusion with the genuine English forms. Amongst such Scandinavian introductions, the commonest are perhaps Harold, Swegen or Swend, Ulf, Gorm or Guthrum, Orm, Yric or Eric, Cnut, and Ulfcytel. During and after the time of the Danish dynasty, these forms, rendered fashionable by royal usage, became very general even among the native English. Thus Earl Godwine's sons bore Scandinavian names; and at an earlier period we even find persons, apparently Scandinavian, fighting on the English side against the Danes in East Anglia.

But the sequel to the Norman Conquest shows us most clearly how the whole nomenclature of a nation may be entirely altered without any large change of race. Immediately after the Conquest the native English names begin to disappear, and in their place we get a crop of Williams, Walters, Rogers, Henries, Ralphs, Richards, Gilberts, and Roberts. Most of these were originally High German forms, taken into Gaul by the Franks, borrowed from them by the Normans, and then copied by the English from their foreign lords. A few, however, such as Arthur, Owen, and Alan, were Breton Welsh. Side by side with these French names, the Normans introduced the Scriptural forms, John, Matthew, Thomas, Simon, Stephen, Piers or Peter, and James; for though a few cases of Scriptural names occur in the earlier history—for example, St. John of Beverley and Daniel, bishop of the West Saxons—these are always borne by ecclesiastics, probably as names of religion. All through the middle ages, and down to very recent times, the vast majority of English men and women continued to bear these baptismal names of Norman introduction. Only two native English forms practically survived—Edward and Edmund—owing to mere accidents of royal favour. They were the names of two great English saints, Eadward the Confessor and Eadmund of East Anglia; and Henry III. bestowed them upon his two sons, Edward I. and Edmund of Lancaster. In this manner they became adopted into the royal and fashionable circle, and so were perpetuated to our own day. All the others died out in mediæval times, while the few old forms now current, such as Alfred, Edgar, Athelstane, and Edwin, are mere artificial revivals of the two last centuries. If we were to judge by nomenclature alone, we might almost fancy that the Norman Conquest had wholly extinguished the English people.

A few steps towards the adoption of surnames were taken even before the Conquest. Titles of office were usually placed after the personal name, as Ælfred King, Lilla Thegn, Wulfnoth Cild, Ælfward Bishop, Æthelberht Ealdorman, and Harold Earl. Double names occasionally occur, the second being a nickname or true surname, as Osgod Clapa, Benedict Biscop, Thurkytel Myranheafod, Godwine Bace, and Ælfric Cerm. Trade names are also found, as Ecceard smith, or Godwig boor. Everywhere, but especially in the Danish North, patronymics were in common use; for example, Harold Godwine's son, or Thored Gunnor's son. In all these cases we get surnames in the germ; but their general and official adoption dates from after the Norman Conquest.

Local nomenclature also demands a short explanation. Most of the Roman towns continued to be called by their Roman names: Londinium, Lunden, London; Eburacum, Eoforwic, Eurewic, York; Lindum Colonia, Lincolne, Lincoln. Often ceaster, from castrum, was added: Gwent, Venta Belgarum, Wintan-ceaster, Winteceaster, Winchester; Isca, Exan-ceaster, Execestre, Exeter; Corinium, Cyren-ceaster, Cirencester. Almost every place which is known to have had a name at the English Conquest retained that name afterwards, in a more or less clipped or altered form. Examples are Kent, Wight, Devon, Dorset; Manchester, Lancaster, Doncaster, Leicester, Gloucester, Worcester, Colchester, Silchester, Uttoxeter, Wroxeter, and Chester; Thames, Severn, Ouse, Don, Aire, Derwent, Swale, and Tyne. Even where the Roman name is now lost, as at Pevensey, the old form was retained in Early English days; for the "Chronicle" calls it Andredes-ceaster, that is to say, Anderida. So the old name of Bath is Akemannes-ceaster, derived from the Latin Aqua, Cissan-ceaster, Chichester, forms an almost solitary exception. Canterbury, or Cant-wara-byrig, was correctly known as Dwrovernum or Doroberna in Latin documents of the Anglo-Saxon period.

On the other hand, the true English towns which grew up around the strictly English settlements, bore names of three sorts. The first were the clan villages, the hams or tuns, such as Bænesingatun, Bensington; Snotingaham, Nottingham; Glæstingabyrig, Glastonbury; and Wæringwica, Warwick. These have already been sufficiently illustrated; and they were situated, for the most part, in the richest agricultural lowlands. The second were towns which grew up slowly for purposes of trade by fords of rivers or at ports: such are Oxeneford, Oxford; Bedcanford, Bedford (a British town); Stretford, Stratford; and Wealingaford, Wallingford. The third were the towns which grew up in the wastes and wealds, with names of varied form but more modern origin. As a whole, it may be said that during the entire early English period the names of cities were mostly Roman, the names of villages and country towns were mostly English.

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