An Oxford Historian
Obscene and Offensive Early Medieval Nicknames
Updated: May 28, 2021
FAIR WARNING - there are some naughty words below.
One of the remarkable features of Early Medieval nicknames is their shock factor. The frequency of names that modern audiences find offensive is outstanding, and we're left questioning how these names fitted into normal contemporary life.
Crucially, these names aren't simply used within closed groups and behind locked doors - we find down-right offensive names in public documents for wide circulation. The intentions behind these are largely lost to history - are they genuinely offensive, are they light-hearted banter, are they attempts to socially criticise unacceptable behaviour?
Nicknames referencing male genitalia are remarkably frequent in the Anglo-Saxon corpus. The Survey of c.1110 in Winton Domesday has an individual identified simply as Balloc ('Testicle' - Tengvik, 286). Why Alfred Caddebelloc (literally 'Testicle Testicle') was doubly named is unclear.
Sometimes there is additional information, as with Humphry Aurei Testiculi ( 'Goldenbollocks' - Tengvik, 285). Æthelfrith Taddebelloc ('Toad-bollocks' - von Feilitzen, 50) is a mystery that we should perhaps be content not unravelling...
Interestingly, nicknames in Landnamabok tend to focus instead on penis puns. Landnamabok contains two nicknames that can be translated (euphemistically, admittedly) as 'horse-penis' - Auðun skǫkull (Peterson 2015, 219) and Þorkell vingnir (Peterson 2015, 240). Peterson's thesis contains a multitude of other examples from across the Old Norse corpus, including the unfortunate Kolbeinn smjǫrreðr ('Butter-Penis' - Peterson 2015, 65). What is actually at play here? Well, it seems likely that these are tied closely to ideas of male prowess, allowing for ridicule or (self?)praise of an individual.
Roger Deus Saluæt Dominas - 'God-Save-the-Ladies' (Tengvik, 389)
Found in Domesday, this is presumably in reference to a prolific 'ladies man'. It's unclear in what tone this name is intended - light-hearted jest or criticism.
Clawecuncte - Claw Cunt (Tengvik, 389)
Even by early medieval standards, this one is a bit of a shock. Remember this is found in an official document (Winton Domesday - the Survey of c.1110), rather than a secret joke among friends. As above, the implication here is unclear. It is potentially a method of social punishment at unacceptable behaviour. We certainly find both Anglo-Saxon and Viking nicknames that appear to vilify unacceptable traits, in a form of collective social pressure (eg. violence, feud-starting etc). However, a 'Gropecunt' lane is evident in London from the early 13th C, supposedly named for its prostitutes - it seems likely that a similar connotation is being played on here.
Herjólfr holkinrazi - Man with a Crouched Arse (Peterson 2015, 163)
From Landnamabok. While this is crude and potentially scatological, it seems to reference a physical attribute of the owner, a disability, and thus falls under the category of observable nicknames.
Bucge - Cimex (Bed Bug) (Kemble 1846, 16)
Within the Anglo-Saxon charters, Kemble identifies two women with the nickname Bucge, translated as Cimex, bed bugs. This, he suggests, stems from the bedbug's nature as 'a familiar beast and a friend to man'...
Female nicknames are substantially less frequent in early medieval sources (especially Anglo-Saxon ones), but there's no real way of telling whether this reflects a social reality of differential nickname usage, or simply reflects a lower frequency of references to women in the sources.
Eysteinn meinfretr - Harm-Fart (Peterson 2015, 195)
Tamer than most of the examples here, this example from Landnamabok still seems like a strange nickname to have immortalized. Presumably, it's a classic example of 'banter', or an 'in-joke' among friends. What is unclear, however, is how widespread the use of this name was - would Eysteinn have taken kindly to someone outside his immediate kinship group using the name? Certainly, socio-onomasts have constructed models looking at the role of nicknames as a crucial password for access to a group, defining membership by their knowledge.
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Check out my previous articles on Anglo-Saxon (here) and Viking (here) nicknames for even more examples, and feel free to send any questions my way!
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Kemble, J. M. On the Names, Surnames and Nicnames of the Anglosaxons (London, 1846)
Peterson, P. R., ‘Old Norse Nicknames: Origins and Terminology’, in Names (published online 24 April 2018), doi: 10.1080/00277738.2018.1452886
Peterson, P. R., ‘Old Norse Nicknames’ (D.Phil. thesis, University of Minnesota, 2015)
Peterson, P. R., 'Old Norse Nicknames' (MA thesis, Háskóli Íslands, 2012)
Tengvik, G. Old English Bynames (Uppsala, 1938)