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Tuesday, 13 September 2011

Names in the sixteenth century

One of the things that always irritates me [and I confess this is usually in Regencies more than earlier books] is the use of anachronistic names.

I confess that I am sad enough to have run statistical analysis from as many sources as I could get my hands on to find the most popular names and the relative frequencies of the same from pre-conquest to 1536.  Later I'll be posting charts of what might be considered the central stock of names in 1510.

Names in the Early 16th Century

In a Catholic society saints’ names are generally popular and the Medieval habit of naming a child for the day of the saint on which it was born was still in use.  The habit of using names to indicate Christian festivals such as Pascal for Easter was also prevalent.  Pascal, Easter, Pentecost, Christmas and Noel were given regardless of gender; Pascoe and Paskall were more male names, Loveday and Osanna were female.

Generally speaking the names used from the Bible were New Testament names and at that, names of the apostles or prominent figures, although Timothy is a striking exception as a less prominent character.  Some Old Testament names were used, although they did not truly come into vogue until the Puritans made them popular.  Those that were used were: Adam, Solomon, Elias (Elijah), David, Daniel, Gideon for boys, Joseph probably being for St Joseph rather than he of the notorious coat; and Eve, Miriam, Susan (rare) and Sara for the girls.  Similarly the Puritans popularised ‘virtue’ names, but there were those that had been in use throughout the Middle Ages like Pleasance, Constance and Prudence (considered old fashioned by this time).

The early middle ages had  seen some fanciful names for women that largely died out; some remained that have  difficult origins to trace like Galiena; which may also have been the origin of Shakespear’s Aliena.  As more people became literate the names from stories became popular amongst the literati, with the Arthurian cycle and the Song of Roland being popular sources; and some descended and altered to fit vernacular ideas.  Such an one is Ismay, probably from Ismene, one of the daughters of Oedipus and the subject of independent Medieval poetry.

Note: a female name ending –a was probably only the way it was represented on documents in Latin.  Most Odalias would have been Ottilie; Caterina would have been most likely to be Catelin for best and Kate or Kitty to her intimates. Note the interchangeability of 'l' and 'r' that began with the Normans.

The most common names had the most variants; few of which appear in documents as the Latin or ‘proper’ forms would have been used; a girl might be in a Parish register as Mary or Maria and yet go through life unaware her name might be anything but Poll.

Generally Saxon names were vanishing but a few never disappeared or remained popular owing to the popularity of the saints that bore those names. Most might be found in isolation.

It should be noted that some names were the same for men as for women, such as Hilary, Eustace, Clement, Jordan.

New Variants replaced old favourites; Elizabeth was becoming more popular than Isabel (a trend that Princess, later Queen Elizabeth was to cause to continue, one in four girls bearing the name in the late sixteenth century); Dorothy was a new variant to replace Theodora; and Audrey gave a new lease of life to Etheldreda from which it developed. Diminutives too were subject to change in fashion; Joan had the connotations of prostitution in the term ‘Jumping Joan’ and Jane became more popular in its stead; Jill was tainted with the word ‘jilt’ that grew from it.  Pernel came to mean a priest’s mistress, and also fell out of favour over the century.

It is worth noting that many of the names that were out of favour with the literate, who are the ones whose names we know of because they signed documents, may have continued amongst the peasantry who named children after relatives, maybe, even as we do today, perpetuating older names for a little longer, or as part of a family tradition.

Some diminutives were used for more than one name, eg Jankin for John, James and Jacob (and James and Jacob were often counted together, both being Jacobus in Latin documents); or Hann for Henry, John and Randolph.  Lina and Lota were such common female diminutives they may almost be considered as separate names rather than be placed into several categories, since –lin(a) and –lot(a) were common diminutive endings, eg Emelina, Magota.

Most common names


ThomasJohn, William, Robert, Richard, Henry


 Joan,    Ann/Agnes,   Mary, Margaret/Marjorie, Catherine, Elizabeth/Isabel

                                                                Always around


Ralph, Adam, Hugh, Edward, Roger, Lewes, Matthew, Mark,  Luke, Peter, Paul, Francis                                                                                                  


Sidony, Alice, Emma, Juliane, Cecily,Joscelin, Eleanor, Constance, Barbara, Pernel

                                                New (fashionable or returning to favour)

Male  Horatio, Hector                                               

 Female Audrey, Frances,  Elizabella, Lavinia, Ismenia, Dorothy,

Frances, unlike its male counterpart Francis,  was not often given as a name until well into the 16th Century unless there was a familial tie to France; if say, a relative is being honoured. The spelling of neither name was at this time set in terms of gender but it is easier to separate them for the modern eye.

Odd Pre-Conquestnames also survive like:

Male Aylmer/Elmer, Alwin, Athalbert/Albert  Baldwin/Bowden/Baldric/Bowcock, Bardolph, Bertram, Colman Edgar, Edmund (esp. E Anglia), Edwin, Godwin, Herbert, Osric, Oswald

Female, Osyth, Hilda, Edith etc

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