Documenting Your Name
Date Written: August, 1986
Last Updated: Summer, 2016
Author: Aelfwynn Gyrthesdohtor

Policy Level: Informational
Intended Audience: All
Abstract: Reprint of article from the Known World Handbook. Mostly deals with English and Anglo-Saxon names. (Used with permission)


A Medieval Person usually had one given name, like Richard or Joan, and one byname, like Hawkridge or Shoemaker, to distinguish them from any other Richards or Joans in the area. The given name would probably have been a common one, as most parents gave their children popular or traditional names Ė novelty in names wasnít cultivated until long after our period. The byname would have indicated the personís ancestry, home, occupation, or some personal characteristic. Of course, names did change from country to country and century to century Ė an Anglo-Saxon from the time of Edward the Confessor had a very different sort of name from a Norman of the same period, and both were quite different from English or French names five hundred years later.

In the Society, you need a given name. It must be, or at least sound like, a name parents would have given a child at some time and place in our period. You also need at least one other name to make the combination uniquely yours, and the whole must be reasonably medieval. Some things just donít work as Society names, so if you want something unusual, talk to a herald before you get attached to it.

The best place to get ideas for names is books about the Middle Ages, modern histories as well as chronicles, stories, and poems written in period. These will show you what names were like in medieval times. However, medieval fiction is not as good a source as you might think, as writers often coined fanciful or allegorical names for their characters.

Modern historical fiction and fantasy can also be useful sources Ė but be careful. Some authors use authentic names, and some modern fantasy names will fit well in Current Middle Ages even if they arenít authentic. However, many fantasy names are not at all medieval, and you canít use a name from a world with post-period technology. Again, your herald is your best defense against falling in love with something impossible.

There are also specialized references on names. A good book can give you ideas or help you confirm that your chosen name is medieval, but a book that isnít concerned with medieval use can lead you astray. The most useful references give period examples and dates. See what your local public or college library has to offer, or get in touch with your local herald.

The best book on English given names is probably The Oxford Dictionary of English Christian Names, by E.G. Withycombe. It lists a wide variety of names used in England from Anglo-Saxon times to the present, and gives lots of period examples. It also gives foreign variations of many names, and discusses naming practices from Antiquity onward. Other good sources are The Oxford Dictionary of Saints, by David Hugh Farmer, The Penguin Dictionary of Saints, by Donald Attwater, and American Given Names, by George R. Stewart.

A Dictionary of British Surnames, by P. H. Reaney, gives period forms for most of the entries. Two books that might be easier to find are English Ancestral Names, by J. R. Dolan, which concentrates on occupational names, and The Penguin Dictionary of Surnames, by Basil Cottle, which has surnames of all types. The Surnames of Scotland, by George F. Black, lists Scottish given names as well as surnames, with many examples of period forms.

There are also papers and monographs by Society members on various types of period names. These are not widely available, but your local or Kingdom herald may have access to them.

One warning: Donít use baby name books. Although they can give you ideas for names, they are not concerned with medieval use, and tend to mix old names, new names, suggestions for names, and names that started out as surnames without making it clear which is which. If you find the perfect name in a baby name book, try to locate it in a more reputable reference. If you canít, be sure to enclose a copy of the page where you found it when you submit your name to the College of Heralds; it may give the heralds the clue they need to prove that your name is acceptable.

The best documentation of a given name or a period byname is a photocopy of a page from a good reference showing the name and an indication of its use in period. Once thing to remember is that a given name can be used as a byname, but a medieval byname canít necessarily be used as a given name. If your byname is in English and has a fairly obvious meaning, you shouldnít need to provide further documentation, although it certainly wouldnít hurt to do so. If you found the perfect name in a work of fiction, be honest and tell the heralds exactly where you found it.

If you want a name in a language other than English, find out how names work in that language. Itís much too easy to pick a name that sounds fine to you, but really means something gross or foolish. You need at least enough information to demonstrate to the Heralds that you have a valid and acceptable name in the language you have chosen.

Documenting your name and registering it with the College of Arms may seem like a lot of trouble, but itís actually for your protection. It ensures that your name will be different from all others in the Society, something the mundane world canít offer. The College of Arms is the only place you can get your name approved and reserved. The Registry will record whatever you write on your membership form, but this does not mean the name is yours. The Registryís list isnít official, and the two groups donít compare notes.