A Brief Rant on Names in
These Current Middle Ages

by Lady Sofya la Rus

I have run across some facts about medieval names over the years that seem to be frequently missed, and I've decided to address them here. I do not have any problem with the official Rules of Submission, although they are sometimes misunderstood.

Using Multiple Names is Period

While its true that SCA members are encouraged to play around with names, use their mundane names temporarily, change persona names as they do more research, and even have multiple names for multiple personas, there comes a time when one is generally expected to register a name. An "official" name. With an investment of money (the submission fee, copying costs) and suspense (waiting for the final approval) and frustration (if problems arise in the process).
This situation is hardly period. Unlike today, for most of our period, there really wasn't any such thing as a legal name, as a single official identifying name. Usually, the only permanent part of a medieval person's name was the given name. Any other identifiers could be, and often were, temporary and context dependent. What do I mean?
My "official" SCA name is Sofya le Rus. It was created with the idea that I'm a Russian woman named Sofya, who is currently living in England, where my neighbors would likely identify me as Sofya "the Russian" or "the Red" (Red is Sofya's favorite color). But they could just as easily call me Sofya Medica, because of my occupation. Or Sofya the Small as a physical description. Meanwhile any Russians would know me as Sofya Iakoleva Kliucheneva (written in the Cyrillic alphabet, of course) after my father, Iakov Kliuchen. On the other hand, in Germany, after my marriage, I might be called Sofja Sifridin, meaning Sofja, Sifrid's wife.
We use the same kind of descriptions today, we just don't think of such descriptions as "names". But that's just what names were in the middle ages. So even if you only submit one name to the College of Heralds, please remember, that in period you would likely have had many names. Play with it a little.

Weirdisms are Period

I hate the term "weirdism." It is used to refer to situations where a person's name combines features from more than one language, striking fear in the heart of the listener, and casting aspersions on the legitimacy of the name. Even though the rules of SCA name registration are actually quite reasonable on this issue, that seems to be lost in the translation for your typical SCA members.
But "weirdisms" are quite common in period English names (and probably the other languages, too), partly because of the native tri-lingualism of Anglo-Norman England (English, Anglo-Norman French and Latin), and because of the continual influx of foreigners. Cecil Henry L'estrange Ewen has an extensive discussion of what happens to foreigners' names in his book A History of Surnames of the British Isles. He states that most of the time, the newcomer's original byname or surname was discarded if favor of a new, more English-acceptible descriptive name, even while often keeping their relatively foreign given name. Eg. Johannes Goter de Kenterber or Martinus Florence or Gonsales de Plymmouth. At the same some, some foreigners kept their foreign surnames (this was obviously later in period, since surnames are a relatively new invention) to pass on to their offspring and be combined with English given names in due course.
Given names are not as likely to be changed in a new country, since most European given names are based on saints' names which have established equivalents in all Christianized European languages, even if the level of popularity of a particular saint's name in a given country is low enough that we don't have written documentation its use by common people in that country as a given name. (This sampling problem is particularly noticeable for women's names, since women are significantly underrepresented in the historical record.)
For example, "Sophia" is found in the records for many periods and countries but is not found in records of 13th-early 14th century England (as far as I can tell). However, since "Sophia" is an established saint's name and well known in countries that the English had extensive dealings with (and don't forget the famous Hagia Sophia), I doubt that citizens of England would have had any particular trouble using the "foreign" name, and in fact, the name might not have been "foreign" at all at that time in England, just not common enough to have been "fossilized" in the historic record. [Such reasoning is, of course, not sufficient documentation for the purpose of registering a name with the College of Heralds.]
This leads to a number of "weirdisms" that either are not actually "weird" at all (being merely artifacts of a sparse historical record), or are perfectly legitimate period practice. However, see "Written Names are not always Real Names", below.

Written Names are not always Real Names

In the SCA, we are necessarily constrained by the historical and archeological record for documenting our recreation efforts. This has its limits. Period authors often didn't bother to write down the information we're interested. (Find me a period Russian recipe, please!!) And bureaucrats in any century can be remarkably cavalier about how they record names, eg. foreign names via Ellis Island and "Multiple Spellings are Period" below.
In the Middle Ages, almost all names were "foreign names" for the scribes. This is because the records were usually written in Latin. So the tax scribe or parish priest would often convert a perfectly good name into a Latin form - Sifrid became Sifridus, Gilbert became Gilbertus. But as soon as old Petrus walked out of the clerk's office, I'm sure his wife said, "Peter, what took so long? We still need to buy turnips!"
It was even worse in 13th and 14th century England. By this time, the official records had been largely converted to Anglo-Norman French, arguably still a foreign language for the majority of people in England. But there was still a generous sprinkling of the old Latin forms, and they were in the process of converting to Middle English! So we have lots of names in the tax rolls that are a combination of languages with appropriately mangled spelling and grammar. So who knows what the medieval "man on the street" called the other "man on the street"!
Documentation of women's names is another problem. Medieval scribes were understandably reluctant to write more names than they needed to, and women's names were often expendible, since their father or husband was considered their legal representative. In fact, there are records in Russia where a woman is indicated only by her patronymic name (i.e. "daughter of..." or "wife of..." name). Since all Christian Russians had a baptismal name, we know these women had given names, even though we wouldn't be able to "document" them. So here, again, the written name is not quite the same as the "real" name.

Multiple Spellings are Period

This is a hard concept for us in a post-Noah Webster world with international spelling bees, crossword puzzles and Scrabble tournaments. But for vast spans of our recorded history, consistent spelling was unheard of, especially in the Middle Ages. The same name will be spelled two or three different ways on the same page! I'd known this all ready, but I was still amazed when I actually sat down and did a relatively systematic study of spelling in medieval English. Go to my page Spelling Russian in Period English to see for yourself.
My byname "le Rus" shows up in period examples also spelled as "Russ", "Rous", "Russe", and "le Ruse". But looking at the range of possible spellings of the sounds in this name, one would not be surprised to someday run across "Ruce", "Rows", "Roos", etc. [But I would not recommend trying to register a name with an alternate spelling that is not specifically listed in a standard text on names.]
My byname also brings up the related question of grammar, because the spelling of words is often used to indicate grammar. In modern English, the difference between "I lead" and "I led" as in "I lead/led the horse to water" is fairly important. This is even more true in the other European languages.
In modern French (and in medieval French, as it is in Latin and the other Romance languages), nouns have gender and any modifiers must agree with that gender. So "the red man" is l'homme rouge (le is blended into homme) while "the red woman" is la femme rouge. "Le" is for masculine nouns, while "la" is for feminine nouns. Eric the Red is Eric le Rouge, while Erica the Red is Erica la Rouge. For some words, the ending of the noun changes with gender also, so that "Eric the red-headed" is Eric le Roux while Erica is Erica la Rousse.
Now compare the spelling of these words to the alternate spellings for "le Rus" discussed above! There's a lot of overlap there! And one of the documented spellings, "le Ruse," was actually taken from a woman's name (Margareta's in 1285, to be exact). But according to the rules of French grammar, it should have been "la Ruse." (This is why you'll usually see my name written "la," not "le.") So why the difference? Was the clerk who wrote it ignorant of the grammar? Or was the he just being careless? Hmmmm.......

Multiple Alphabets are Period

This issue is very closely related to the issue of multiple spellings. Most languages we deal with for names in the SCA are written in some variation on the Latin alphabet we all learned in preschool or kindergarten. But not all!!! Chinese and Russian names are written in a very different alphabet, both mundanely and in period. So since the Latin alphabet is the required medium for all official paperwork in the SCA, including name registration, it is impossible to submit Chinese or Russian names in their "period spelling"! And yet, somehow, this fact gets forgotten even by experienced heralds. (The process of getting my SCA name approved is a perfect example.)
So not only do we have to deal with inconsistent period spelling in the original language, we also have to deal with how to convert the names to a Latin alphabet that is suitable for written communication with most members of the SCA. Several conversion schemes can exist for each language since there is never a nice, neat one-to-one correspondence between the available Latin letters and the phonology of the language being converted. I know of at least 4 transliteration systems for Russian.
I suppose this would be a good place to discuss the difference between transliteration and translation...
Translation preserves the meaning of the foreign word when it is brought into a new language. Rouge translates into "red".
Transliteration tries to preserve the spelling and sound of the foreign word, basically creating a new word.
It's nice if you can manage to encode the old spelling in the new language, ideally having one new letter for each old letter that was in the word. In this way, it should be easy to work backward and reconstruct the original language if so desired (useful for linguists, librarians, etc.) So rouge might be transliterated to "rouje". Another example: night (pretending it is a foreign word) would be transliterated as "night."
However, it is also important to convey the sound of the foreign word in its new form. This is useful to help Heralds pronounce a name correctly when reading a scroll in court, for example. Rouge might become "roozh", while night (again, pretending it is a foreign word) could become "nite".
Any transliteration system must try to strike a balance between the spelling and the sound, some tending to go more one way, and some more the other. In Russian transliteration, the International Scholarly System definitely tends to emphasize spelling preservation, while on the other hand, the Revised English System goes for good pronunciation, and the Library of Congress system (used by Paul Wickenden of Thanet in his Russian name dictionary) is somewhere in between.
Current SCA heraldic name registration favors transliteration over translation. I don't think I'd get very far trying to register the name "Sofya of James the Sexton" as a Russian name. However, I would be able to register Sofja Jakovleva Kljucheneva or Sofya Yakovleva Klyucheneva or Sofia Iakovleva Kliucheneva, which would be transliterations of the Russian, based on the International Scholarly, Revised English and Library of Congress transliteration systems, respectively. [You may have to include the documentation for these transliteration systems with your name submission paperwork, since many Heralds do not know about them.]
Often, it is reasonable to use more than transliteration system, depending on the word you're working with and the situation you're using it for. In my Russian name, I like to write "Sofya" because if I write it "Sofia" I'm afraid people will tend to pronounce it like Sophia Loren, not like "sofa" with a prettier ending. On the other hand, I tend to write Kliucheneva with an "i" instead of Klyucheneva with a "y", because I think the "y" in the middle of the name is a bit confusing and looks odd. I'll even use a third transliteration system and spell Jakovleva with a "j" instead of an "i" or "y" when I'm feeling especially frisky. [Once again, though, you might not want to do this on an official SCA name registration.]
Well, I guess that's enough ranting for now.
Send comments and questions to lkies@jumpgate.net
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