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  • Writer's pictureAn Oxford Historian

What can nicknames tell us about history?

Recently, St Cross College ran their yearly history prize. This involved, among other things, producing a plain English explanation of your current research. I thought I'd take this opportunity to share the result, and a little bit more about my research. How can we use nicknames for past societies to ask important questions about the past, its people, and how everyday life worked?

The eleventh-century Feudal Book of Abbot Baldwin records an individual named Wulfric ‘Pick the Crust’. This is one of a number of colourful and descriptive nicknames we find throughout the sources of early medieval England, and it illustrates well the ambiguity and lack of clarity that these names present to modern audiences. Did Wulfric have bad table manners or was he so poor he needed to scrounge for food? Distinct from patronymic (eg. son of…), occupational (eg. the farmer) or geographical (eg. of Kent), these nicknames are remarkable because there is no simple formula for their construction: they require an act of imagination to create.

When given freedom to choose a name for someone, why did the early medieval English pick specific themes and focuses? Why do some people have nicknames and some do not? What determined which names were acceptable and unacceptable: a great number of examples are remarkably shocking to modern ears, even those included in official legal documents and given to powerful individuals? It is the central argument of this thesis that these are meaningful questions to the historian, and exploring them holds the potential to provide more information on the early medieval period.

It is clear that a society’s nicknames are the product of its unique cultural context. Just like the literature or art or music of a specific society reflects its preoccupations and concerns, so too do the names it chooses for its inhabitants. This link has been established by a field of study known as socio-onomastics. A relatively new discipline, first emerging in the 1970s, socio-onomastics aims to study the socio-linguistic implications of naming. Medieval nicknames have traditionally been studied fruitfully through an etymological lens, exploring the origins and ‘meanings’ of names. It is time now to apply a socio-onomastic approach, and explore the impact of name choice on the social systems of historical contexts.

This link between names and culture is crucial. We have little surviving evidence for the day-to-day process of life in early medieval England: written sources are sparse and tend to focus on elites or ecclesiastical contexts, while archaeological evidence remains difficult to interpret and necessarily incomplete. What we do have, however, is a large corpus of nicknames drawn together from a mix of written sources. Although more predominantly recording rich landowners and politically important figures, these also record lesser landowners, monks, and even slaves. Here, the written sources of early medieval England have all been surveyed, and early Norman sources up to the year 1100. The Domesday Book, a survey of Norman-conquered England conducted in 1086, provides the single biggest source of names. Charter evidence is also crucial, as are the Liber Vitae – books of names of individuals associated with religious houses. A few nicknames appear throughout the other written records from the period, including the large corpus of ecclesiastical and epic poetry. The result is a corpus of some 2,500 nicknames, distributed across the period and the country. This in itself is a substantial contribution to the field – no attempt has been made to construct a complete corpus of nicknames since the 1930s, which is now substantially out-of-date.

With this relationship established, and the wealth of data collected, we can begin to work backwards from the names to try and cast light on the social systems that created them. In doing so, we might begin to explore the invisible and non-spoken practices of everyday life in early medieval England.

Findings so far have been very encouraging. The corpus can be divided up into a number of themes, illustrating established and accepted ways in which ‘nicknames’ were given. Age, body and disability, colours, nature, moral judgement, and anecdotes all provide examples of similar themes among nicknames. A particular grouping of names around socially-disruptive attributes would seem to criticise character traits that could threaten the maintenance of peace. Violence, anger, and abuse are readily and publicly called out.

Particularly interesting has been those names that revolve around disability. Theory draws an important distinction between physical impairment, the biological implications of a body, and ‘disability, which is created when a society excludes and ‘others’ an impaired individual. There are a number of nicknames that appear, in modern translation, to be exclusionary: Eadric ‘the Cripple’ appears in the Domesday Book, for example. Were these names intended to mock and exclude their bearers? Was onomastics weaponised as a tool of social prejudice?

In reality, the vocabulary used for these names tends to point towards specific medical ailments rather than offensive and generalising terms, and appear primarily to be references to appearance in an attempt to differentiate individuals with the same forename rather than acts of malice. Previous translations have too readily transitioned the modern exclusionary vocabulary of disability to the written source. There is no occasion of the Old English equivalent of the word ‘disabled’ used as a nickname, for example. The result is a model of impairment that seems far more accepting than a traditional image of the ‘Dark Ages’ has suggested.

Disabled individuals are often written out of history, deliberately or accidentally, and this is particularly true in regard to early medieval contexts. When all we have is the names of these individuals, a socio-onomastic approach is the perfect chance to reconstruct both the lives of individuals and the possible origins of their names, and the social attitudes towards them that underly the creation of their names.

This research project also has great potential to help humanise the past and its inhabitants. It is often hard to see the individual within early medieval history, not least because of the Old English language in which many of the texts were written. For the public, the 'Anglo-Saxons' cluster mostly around the invasion of 1066 and Beowulf. But, today, many of us still have nicknames: rude names, ironic names, offensive names intended to mock, light-hearted names shared among friends. When we see our patterns of life reflected within those of pre-Conquest England, we are starkly reminded that the past is peopled not just with Kings and saints but with very real people not unlike ourselves. Let us hope that we are not remembered to history as ‘bad neighbour’, as one Domesday landowner was.

  • Interested in history and archaeology, and keen to access more information and resources? I have recently released a set of free, online notes for the history of 'Anglo-Saxon' England - this is available here.

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  • Check out my previous articles on my own personal PhD research on Anglo-Saxon (here), Viking (here) and obscene (here) nicknames.

  • A new Deep-Dive article on the Westfield Farm cemetery can be found here.

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