Last week Netmums reported that more newborns are being given names from the middle ages. Here, medieval historian Helen Castor sorts the fact from the fiction
It starts promisingly enough with those Anglo-Saxon stalwarts Ned (Edward) and Alfred, and for girls some plausibly Norman French options: Alianor, Agnes and Beatrice. After that, I'm lost. To me, Cassandra says Trojan war or Jane Austen's sister. I've never come across a medieval Englishwoman going by that moniker, nor a medieval Englishman (or anyone else, for that matter) answering to Peyton or Alderney.
So if these aren't actually medieval names, what are? Well, fashions came and went in the middle ages, just as they do now. After the conquest of 1066, everyone who was anyone aspired to the Norman names of the new ruling classes – William, Robert, Matilda, Joan – rather than the Aethelflaeds and Aelfgifus of the defeated Anglo-Saxons. It wasn't until the mid-13th century, when Henry III decided to call his son and heir after the Anglo-Saxon royal saint Edward the Confessor, that Edward – until then as unprepossessing a choice as Egfrith – became once again a name to conjure with at the font. And if the crown had passed to Henry's grandson Alfonso, heir to the throne for 10 years before his early death in 1284, there might well have been an Iberian flavour to the "most popular" lists by the turn of the 14th century.
Medieval Netmums would have had their work cut out, mind you, since no public records were kept of baptisms (or marriages or burials) before the parish registers of the 16th century. What we do know is that babies were often named by or for their chief godparent, which could produce unpredictable results: the two eldest sons of the 15th-century Paston family were both called John, which also – confusingly – happened to be the name of their father.
But a world in which everyone is called John is clearly not the olde England this survey has in mind. The clue may be in the small print: coming into fashion, we're told, are "medieval-style" names. And that might mean HBO rather than history; Game of Thrones, not the real wars of the roses. The Pastons wouldn't have been thrown by meeting a Joffrey or a Margaery, especially since medieval spelling was a creative business. But the 146 American baby girls born in 2012 whose parents chose to call them Khaleesi are a reminder that in names, as in life, we're always going back to the future.
Helen Castor is a medieval historian
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