Parchment names, paper names

“Katerina de Caldewelle”: do I translate her Katherine of Caldewelle, Katherine de Caldewelle or just Katherine Caldewelle? How about William Faber? Should I just call him Smith? Or was he William the Smith? Is it Adam Bercarius or Adam the Shepherd?

“Does any of this matter?” I hear you ask. Yes, it does, if the document is 14th or 15th century, because there is still some doubt and variability about when locative and occupational names become fixed hereditary surnames, and I might easily skew the evidence by the way I translate.  It is one of the great myths of English history that the Black Death stimulated migration of labour, and it was of course those migrant workers who adopted the names of their birthplaces as surnames.  But the myth was debunked decades ago; society was already changing, and labour on the move, when Plague struck in 1348-9.

And how about that little word ‘de’ in front of a name?  Should it be left in Latin or translated into English (‘of’ or even ‘from’)?  I’ve got to admit that antiquarian spellings of surnames retaining the prefixes ‘de’ or ‘le’ really make me queasy. They were often revivals by Victorian snobs. So I would always prefer to at least modernize the prefixes – replacing ‘de’ with ‘of’ and ‘le’ with ‘the’. I tell my Palaeography students that the French prefix ‘le’ has an unexpectedly particular force in Mediaeval and Early Modern Latin documents: it effectively means “Look out – this next word is English”. We find it in the ‘metes and bounds’ of mediaeval land charters and court rolls: le grenele waterfalllez buttesle brokencrose. And it can make a big difference interpreting some surnames whether they are prefixed de or le.

The Bloys are a Norfolk Tribe; three descendants of the same family clubbed together to trace their line back as far as possible. It’s a great idea, doing the work together where they can, sharing it out, or sharing the cost where there was no avoiding it. They hope to discover royal connections: Stephen de Blois (1095-1154) was the King of England. The Bloy genealogists have had amazing luck. In one day’s research in the archives of Magdalen College, Oxford, I added two centuries to their lineage, back to Thomas le Bloy who was alive circa 1390. Notice that little word ‘le’. Remember what that means? The next word might be English, and the Middle English bloy meant ashen grey or white, so Thomas was maybe fair haired, and not from Blois at all. Or maybe it was a mistake. Not everything you read in manuscript is true after all. It’s been filtered through scribal fingers, and it’s not as if Thomas had filled in an official form with a biro, is it?

WhitehallResearching the history of Whitehall Museum in Cheam, which is a timber-framed Tudor manor house, appropriately now painted white, I read that it may have got its name from a local family named Wight, and not from the colour it was painted. Every 14th century Latin charter I read was witnessed by Robert de Wyht. Hold on a minute, shouldn’t that have been le wyht? Look up wiht in a Middle English Dictionary, and you find that it’s a topographical feature, a bend in a river or a valley, so Robert and his family lived in that kind of place. Maybe, before suburbia, that was a good description of Whitehall’s location, and it gave its name to the family and not vice versa.

The surname Wight can also be from a North Country English and Scots word meaning brave: this surname would have been prefixed ‘le’. Philologists (language historians) always want to see the earliest available spellings of words and names before offering etymological judgment, and these de and le surnames are perfect examples of why.  Wight is rare (just over a thousand in England in 1911, compared with just over a hundred thousand Whites), but it is etymologically two different surnames, and might easily have shifted to White by assimilation. It would make a fascinating One-name study.

Returning to Latin Christian names, how should we translate them?  My Roman Catholic school friends (born before Vatican II transposed the Latin liturgy into the vernacular languages of the modern world) had all been baptised in Latin, but went by their English equivalents at home and school.  Secular legal records in England and Wales had been kept in Latin until 1733, with similar effect: Jack in the market or the fields, John in his Anglican Sunday Best, but Johannes in Court. There’s a convention, that I was taught on my Archive Master’s degree at Liverpool University, that Latinized Christian names be ‘put back’ into English. It’s a reversal of the Mediaeval Latin convention that Christian names were usually written in Latin and declined grammatically as Latin (whereas most surnames with a very few aristocratic exceptions remained in English or French). You can look up equivalences of both Christian names and surnames in Trice Martin’s Record Interpreter. Egidius is Giles, Galfridus Geoffrey, Reginaldus Reynold (not Reginald, mark ye), Carolus Charles, and so on. As a translator (or as an archive cataloguer) I simply reverse the process. But what if I’m working on a document from Wales? It’s straightforward enough that Riseus is the latin form of Rhys (which is the orthodox modern spelling and you would rarely find it in a mediaeval or early modern document where the anglicisation Rice is often preferred and gives us the patronymic surname Price), but does Johannes now become John or Sion or Ifan (or even Ieuan) in my translation? Hugo was the Latin form of Hugh, which was often used as an Anglicisation of the princely Welsh name Hywel: how can translators avoid both muddle and offence there?


Some names pose a similar problem in English archives. We were taught to translate the Latin Juliana into English Gillian. But what about Isabella? It was the normal mediaeval Latin equivalent of Elizabeth. Elizabetha takes over in the sixteenth century; the Virgin Queen was never Latinized as Isabella, perhaps because by then it sounded more foreign as the name of so many Spanish Princesses. Insofar as women are named in our mediaeval written records (and they are, particularly as bakers and brewers), Isabella is one of the commonest names; but what was the parchment Isabella’s name at home or in the fields?


2 Comments Add yours

  1. Paul Booth says:

    I prefer translatiing the Christian name, myself, and leaving the surname (including ‘de’, ‘le’ and ‘de’) as in the original. Somehow, ‘John of Bebington’ doesn’t seem quite right – it implies something more than the name might actually mean.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Peter Foden says:

      What’s the force of the preposition ‘de’ then? It cannot (in most cases) indicate that John was the Lord of Bebington. It might mean that he was born there, or wouldn’t stop talking about the good old days when he lived there. You must be right: where we don’t fully understand what’s going on, it’s best not to restrict meaning by translating.
      Turning from the mediaeval to the nearly-modern, how about the Scots distinction between ‘of’ and ‘in’; the Laird is ‘of’ the Big House, but the tenantry are ‘in’ their townships. Was this ever used in England or Wales? It keeps us in our place doesn’t it?


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