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Early Britain - Anglo-Saxon Britain|
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.