Hello, Nicola here! I've always been interested in the fashion in names, what's fashionable and what's not in any given period. For an historical author this is, arguably, important in order to make sure that we aren't anachronistic. Now, I realise that I may be stirring up a hornet's nest here but I have to ask the question. Writers, do you give your characters names that would have been in fashion at the time, or do you call them by a name that appeals to you, even if it isn't strictly authentic to the period? Readers, do you mind if a Regency hero is called Tank or do you just assume that it is derived from the ancient Germanic Tancred and is therefore totally acceptable?
The Norman Conquest of Names
It was in fact a recent BBC TV series about the Normans that made me think again about the issue of names and language. One of the points made by Professor Robert Bartlett (good Norman name) in the programme was that the Norman invasion of England sowed the seeds for much of the English language as it is today, a thousand years later. This includes names. The names of the Norman conquerors quickly became popular and remain common to this day – William, Robert, Alice, for example. The names of the Anglo Saxons, in contrast, are less familiar: Leofric, Ethelbert, Eadric.
This was because the ruling elite set the fashion. William quickly became the most common male name in England even amongst the peasantry. Interestingly this was not simply because newborns were baptised with Norman names; some adults actually changed their names because thet wanted to be accepted in Norman society and not be dismissed as a peasant with an Anglo-Saxon name. One very cute fact I did learn about Anglo-Saxons prior to 1066 was their custom of creating new names for children by combining existing names. So for example Alfred and Edith might produce baby Aldith. I rather like this custom – if it was still in practise it would have led to a baby Fiadria in our family!
The Influence of the Church
By the 13th century the Christian church in western Europe was wielding considerable influence over the naming of children. Saints' names were particularly popular as people believed in their powers of protection and intercession. A flood of new names appeared in fashion at this time: John, Simon, Matthew, Daniel, Mary, Elizabeth, Anne. A curious fact from the period is that there were more new masculine names than feminine ones. Girls were quite often called by a masculine name. In church records of the period Phillipa would be feminised but this was to meet Latin grammar requirements only. In real life she might well be called Philip. Where a girl was given a genuinely feminine name there was often a taste for the exotic such as Camilla, Pavia and Melodia, which are all found in 12th century English records.
Later, in the 17th century, the Puritan church was responsible for the adoption of obscure Old Testament names such as Habakkuk (the chap in the statue above) as a sign of piety, even going so far as to name children Penitence, Grace of God and Stand Fast on High. These did not become fashionable in the mainstream of society…
Jane Austen and the naming of characters
I am indebted here to author Elizabeth Hawksley who recently wrote a fascinating piece on this topic on the UK Historical Authors' Blog. You can read the whole article if you click here and scroll down to "Jane Austen and Names" but Elizabeth has given me permission to quote a few paragraphs.
"The convention is for the eldest son and daughter to be named after their parents, as Sir Thomas and Lady Bertram, nee Maria Ward, do in Mansfield Park. Jane Fairfax in Emma is named after her dead mother. In Persuasion, Charles Musgrove's elder son is called Charles, and so on.
Money also has an important role in the choice of name. In Emma, John Knightley is a younger son with no estate of his own. The Hartfield estate, where his wife Isabella was brought up, has no male heir so as the elder daughter, Isabella will inherit. The financial importance of this is echoed in John and Isabella's eldest son's name. "Henry is the eldest, he was named after me, not after his father," says old Mr Woodhouse, Isabella's father. Plainly such a departure from the norm requires an explanation. Names, therefore, are not chosen because the parents like them but with regard to family connections or a hoped-for inheritance.
Occasionally Jane Austen uses a name as a pointer to character. Take the dreadful Augusta Elton in Emma. The name Augusta came in with the Hanoverians and might therefore be considered somewhat parvenu. George III's sister and mother were both called Augusta. Jane Austen neatly indicates Augusta Elton's social pretensions in the name she gives her."
A Hero Called Tiger
And so to the Regency, and a glance at the peerage and baronetage of the time shows us those names that were in vogue in the Ton and those that were not. We've all come across anachronistic names in historical romance. Some readers don't mind; others have this as a pet peeve, something that pulls them right out of the story.
A good let out clause for a writer who fancies using a name that was not in fashion in the 18th/19th century is the custom of taking surnames as first names. This happened quite often in aristocratic families; both Berkeley Craven and his brother Keppel Richard Craven, brothers to the Earl of Craven were given family names as first names in the Georgian period. This was in contrast to the Craven heir who was always called William.
Of course even a surname used as a first name needs to sound authentic to the period (in my opinion) in order not to jar. Dare I say it, heroes named after wild, or even tame animals will probably sound wrong unless it is used as a nickname, although was it Georgette Heyer who had a character called Lion, for Lionel? Confession time, though. I am in no position to criticise. I deliberately named two dukedoms after birds of prey rather than actual geographical places.
An interesting fact from this period is that it sees the adoption of "celebrity" names for babies. This is no modern phenomenon. There were a great many Horatios after the Battle of Trafalgar and a number of Percys in honour of Percy Bysshe Shelley.
As an endnote on the subject of language, I loved this comment from Professor Bartlett on the effects of the Normans on the English language: "Modern English has many words with similar meanings, as French words were assimilated into everyday language. There is a long-standing association of all things French with the upper classes and all things Anglo-Saxon with coarseness. Pig is English in origin, pork is French. Sheep is English, mutton is French. Cow is English, beef is French. When it is in a cold and muddy field covered in dung it's named in English. When it's been cooked and carved and put on a table with a glass of wine it's referred to French." Bien sur.
What do you think about the great name debate? Are you happy with a historical hero called Lion or Tiger? Which Anglo Saxon name would you like to see revived? And if we went in for the custom of name-combining from our parents, what would you be called? This is Sylpete, signing off!