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Old English Bynames by G. Tengvik: Book Review

Updated: Apr 26

Tengvik's 'Old English Bynames' is a towering contribution to the study of early medieval nicknames, and is equally valuable to both the historian and the linguist. Although perhaps held back by its early date, and well in need of a new edition and publication run, this is a colossal contribution to the subject.

I owe a great deal to Tengvik's Old English Bynames. Not only did it help put me on the path to my current research for my PhD, it is itself an invaluable resource to anyone researching early medieval English bynames and naming culture more broadly.

Despite my admiration, I know remarkably little about Tengvik. Published in 1938 as part of the Nomina Germanica series, the title here seems to be a product of Tengvik's PhD research. To the best of my knowledge, he never published again. The book itself is now incredibly hard to get a hold of, and I only managed to get ahold of mine through long treks through second-hand websites- I recommend a thorough Google for anyone interested.

Despite its title, Tengvik is not dealing exclusively with 'Old English' names in the linguistic sense, and many of the names here are in Latin, Old Norse and Old French too. Instead, the book focuses on collecting and categorising additional names ('nicknames'/bynames/ epithets) within what we might term the 'Anglo-Saxon' and very early Norman context in England.

The body of the text is divided into four parts, in what comprises of a large name dictionary or onomasticon. I'll be honest with you here, dear reader - while this is an invaluable work of scholarship well-presented, I wouldn't recommend reading it cover to cover...

The first section looks at bynames resulting from locations, particularly place-names. The second compiles bynames stemming from Christian names, while the third focuses on bynames from office and occupation. Finally, we have what Tengvik calls Nicknames - descriptive names focusing on physical characteristics, metaphors and similies. It is this latter grouping that my own research into 'Anglo-Saxon' nicknames focuses on, although I side with using the Latin term agnomina (after Peterson's suggestion) to describe this kind of descriptive byname.

Each name is accompanied by a brief contextualization of where the name is found, along with a discussion on translation. Indeed, Tengvik is remarkably good at acknowledging a broad range of possible interpretations and translations, even if he ultimately disregards alternatives. Now, some of these translations have later been contested, especially by von Feilitzen (whose work on the bynames in the Winton Domesday is the closest we have to a follow-up on Tengvik). This is somewhat of an inevitability given the complex web of allusions and metaphors we're treading when we translate 'nicknames', but the majority of Tengvik's translations seem to hold true.

The achievement here is incredible. I often slip into complacency when it comes to the use of Google for my PhD. Most primary sources are available almost instantly, many in a searchable format, while secondary literature is frequently also easily accessible. To compile a list of bynames this big, across a huge range of sources and dates with none of the modern advantages, is surely an applaudable achievement in itself.

Certainly, the text suffers from its age in regard to the totality of the sources it employs. Equally, the standardisation of early medieval sources that followed later in the 20th century is absence - several now well-known sources are referenced only by their manuscript names and, predating Sawyer's later work categorising the Charter evidence, there's a lot of searching needed to follow up on references. With a little bit of effort, however, these slight drawbacks are easily overcome.

Tengvik is not explicitly attempting an analysis of his data, rather its compilation, but makes valuable contributions to analysis in his asides. An introductory section impressively lays out a conceptual framework for the study of 'nicknames', including the question of hereditary names. A brief compiling of numbers illustrates some over-arching trends, including Tengvik's suggestion that the use of 'nicknames' increases with the Viking settlement in the Danelaw, and then the Norman Conquest.

All in all, this book is remarkable for both its scope and its academic rigor. I appreciate it's somewhat of a niche topic for most but can highly recommend it to anyone interested in going a bit deeper into the question of early medieval names.

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