names-Essex-art - 6/9/99
"A Statistical Survey of Given Names in Essex Co., England, 1182-1272" by
Mistress Nicolaa de Bracton of Leicester.
NOTE: See also the files: names-AN-art, names-Ger-art, names-FAQ, names-msg,
names-Irish-msg, names-Norse-msg, names-Scot-msg, names-Scot-art, persona-art.
This article was submitted to me by the author for inclusion in this set
of files, called Stefanıs Florilegium.
These files are available on the Internet at:
Copyright to the contents of this file remains with the author.
While the author will likely give permission for this work to be
reprinted in SCA type publications, please check with the author first
or check for any permissions granted at the end of this file.
Mark S. Harris
AKA: Stefan li Rous
A Statistical Survey of Given Names in Essex Co., England, 1182-1272
by Mistress Nicolaa de Bracton of Leicester.
Scope of the Project:
In talking with members of the College of Heralds, I found that there was
still a great deal of research to be done into naming practices in the Middle
Ages. Much of the existing research deals with documenting given names or
surnames to their first recorded occurrence, or to simply compiling lists of
names suitable for Society use. Originally, when I began this research project,
my intentions followed closely that latter pattern: I wished to show the
variety of Anglo-Norman names available and to perhaps dispel the myth that
names from that period were limited in number and somehow ³boring². My scope,
however, expanded considerably with time and as I discussed the matter with
senior heralds, who were more interested in the actual patterns of naming
practices in the Middle Ages, rather than simply compiling lists of usable
names. Thus, the results of my research should satisfy two groups of people:
People looking for a suitable and documentable given name, and researchers
interested in knowing more about the evolution of naming practices.
The legal reforms of Henry II had a decided effect on written records in
England. Before Henry II, most court matters were handled locally, through
baronial and manor courts, or through borough courts in towns. Records-keeping
for both criminal and civil matters was spotty at best; while we do have a
limited number of charters dating back to Anglo-Saxon times, the number pales
when compared to the explosion of material related to the various royal courts
which appears after the 1180ıs. The reliance on written records at this level
had a corresponding effect on lower levels, which began to keep more detailed
records of transactions and cases in their jurisdiction .
For this project, I have chosen to focus on one published collection of
legal documents, the Essex Feet of Fines, a collection of the outcomes of land
transactions in that county . It was quite likely that every free-born man
and woman in England was involved in at least one of these actions at some time
during his or her life. These transactions took place in the royal Courts of
Common Pleas. There, the transaction would be presented as a dispute (fictional
or not), which would be settled by the court and recorded in a fines concordia
or final concord. As I mentioned, even though the term ³final concord² implies
the settlement of a dispute, there was not always a dispute involved. Often
these records show us that a lord is simply reassigning land to a new tenant, or
that someone has bought some property and is finalizing the deal. Sometimes the
records show us that a real dispute is occurring--two people arguing over who
should have legal possession of a piece of property, or a woman trying to claim
her legal dower (a portion of the family property intended to support her in her
widowhood). It is important to remember here that all land in England was
ultimately the property of the Crown and that the tenants-in-chief owed service
or rent for it. They could in turn become the lords of their own tenants and
collect rents or service; these tenants could in turn alienate part of their
lands for money or service, and so on down the line. This is termed
subinfeudation and was a constant concern of the Crown, which wished to keep as
much control as possible over the alienation of the land--the fear being that
someone could acquire large amounts of land and become a great lord (and thus, a
large power base) without being directly answerable to the Crown. Thus, all
land transactions after the 1180ıs took place in royal courts.
These final concords were drafted by a notary in triplicate on a single
piece of parchment: two columns of identical text placed side by side, and a
third placed at the bottom or ³foot² of the document. Once the case was
decided, each party got a copy and the courts kept the ³foot² for their own
records . Thus, charter sources from these decisions generally fall into two
categories: those kept in private books of charters, and those kept in official
ones. Into the former category fall cartularies (books of charters) assembled
by abbeys and churches concerning their own lands (an important source, given
that about one-third of English lands were ultimately held by the Church--though
they, like any major lord in England, had many tenants) and other such
collections. Into the latter are the ³feet of fines², which were kept by
county. Why did I choose Essex County in particular? I had already become
familiar with the Essex records in another project, so it was natural to return
to an ³old friend², as it were. I had originally planned to use collections
from other counties as well; unfortunately, the indices in some of the other
published records collections are not so well organized as the Essex collection,
which made it quite likely that one could end up counting the same person three
or four times, thus throwing off the statistics. I was happy to find that the
Essex records alone attested to over 5500 individuals--a good-sized sample for
the purposes of statistical analysis. I do intend in the future to broaden the
scope of my inquiry to include other parts of England.
I must mention in passing that feet of fines are not the only kind of
record which may be of interest to those doing research into naming practices.
There are also, for example, several series of ³rolls² (so named because they
were kept on rolls of parchment) related to both the royal chancery and
exchequer; the four most significant are the Pipe Rolls, Liberate Rolls, Close
Rolls, and Patent Rolls .
Both collections of feet of fines and cartularies have a distinct
advantage over traditional narrative histories in that far more people are
mentioned in these types of records, and these people are from a wide range of
socioeconomic classes, which can often be determined by noting the size of the
properties transferred and the number of times a particular person appears as
either lord or tenant. As such, they give the researcher a much wider view of
naming practices in the whole of the population, as opposed to just the
nobility. Additionally, while women do not appear as often as men in these
records, they still appear far more frequently than in narrative histories.
The main limitation of these sources for the purpose of name research is
that they are in Latin. Most names in use in England at this time were either
of Anglo-Saxon or Norman-French origin, so notaries were forced to Latinize
them, making it sometimes difficult to ascertain exactly how the name was
spelled and used in the vernacular. Furthermore, especially in the case of
women, not all scribes Latinized the same name in the same way; there are even
scribes who apparently did not Latinize at all. Generally, notaries simply
added -us onto male names which did not already have an established Latin form
(e.g., those not in the Bible) or one which can be conjugated according to Latin
grammatical rules; and either -ia or -a onto female names with no established
Latin form (dropping any silent final ³e²), unless the name ended with ³l² or
³d², in which case the ending ³-is² was sometimes added instead. (Sometimes this
could lead to a second ³a² being added to names which already ended in ³a² :
Nicola => Nicolaa). Finally, there is the matter of abbreviations. Notaries
would often abbreviate personal or placenames by truncating the name and adding
an apostrophe at the end (i.e., Leycestrı = Leycestria or Leycestrensis); the
reader was expected to know and supply the correct ending, depending on the
context and grammar. Especially for obscure place names, it is sometimes
difficult to determine what the full name actually was (though one can speculate
if one has a decent knowledge of Latin and the way it works for place names.
Orbis Latinus may help remedy this problem). Another limitation is that
editors have sometimes translated charters into English and inconsistently
Anglicized names back out of Latin, or imposed modern spellings onto older
names. A final fact of which the researcher should be aware is the problem of
spelling. The letters ³i² and ³y² are almost always interchangeable; ³f² and
³ph² are also used interchangeably; and unaspirated ³h² may pop in and out of
names (e.g., Umfery/Humfery; Saer/Saher). When looking for documentation for a
particular spelling for names from this period, these rules should be kept in
My methodology was very simple. Using the index to the Essex Feet of
Fines, I simply recorded each instance of a particular name. This took about 15
hours of work to complete. After the tallies were complete, I entered the names
into a database, sorting them in two ways: Alphabetically, and by frequency of
occurrence. The percentage calculations were determined by dividing the number
of examples of a particular name by the total sample size. The results are to
be found in the listings following the text of this article.
Observations and Conclusions on the Data from the Feet of Fines for Essex
It is quite striking to note the wide variety of names in circulation for
both men and women (including names of Anglo-Saxon, Norman-French, and Welsh
origin), but it is equally striking to note how dominant a relatively small
number of names are for both sexes. The top twenty menıs names account for just
over 80% of the men named; the top twenty female names account for 71% of the
women. The size of this sample was quite large, so small errors which may have
crept into the data through counting errors and the like are not likely to
disturb the overall picture. This data covers an entire century in Essex, so it
is not easy to identify trends in ³popular names² other than the very general
ones I noted, partially because while the documents themselves are dated, it is
impossible to date the lifespans of the people named therein. More useful would
be to compare this data with either similar data from another area of England
(perhaps a northern one) to determine whether these popularity trends are
localized; or, alternately, to do a similar survey of names from feet of fines
in Essex during the next century, perhaps up to the end of the reign of Edward
III, to determine how these trends change with time.
A final note: It is interesting to see the relationship between royal
names and their popularity amongst the people at large. Henry III named his
eldest son Edward, after his patron saint, Edward the Confessor . The name
does not seem to have been popular in England at that time, and even at Edwardıs
accession in 1272, if the Essex information is to be believed, it was still not
a common name. It shall be interesting to see in future studies how one hundred
years under monarchs named Edward affects the popularity of Edward as a given
A Word on Surnames
While my primary interest in this paper was to examine given names, I will
add a few notes on surnames. In the Essex Feet of Fines alone, nearly 4000
individual surnames are attested. The sheer volume of names thus makes
including a listing in this article little more than a copy of the index.
Rather than do that, I have photocopied the index as an appendix to this
article ; eventually, I hope to use a scanner to merge this information for
The surnames in the Essex records fall into several broad categories:
Patri- and matrinomics. These names are constructed as follows: name
Fitzfatherıs or motherıs name. It is difficult to tell whether these have
become formalized surnames which do not change from generation to generation.
Occupational names: There are many of these in the records. Some appear to be
well on their way to becoming surnames, rather then simply descriptive epithets;
but others are clearly not surnames.
They may or may not be proceeded by a definite article (le,la, lı, the). A list
of those from the Essex fines:
(most are preceded by a definite article)
Descriptive names: Most usually either based on physical characteristics or on
nationality. Again, some have become inherited surnames and others are not
Place names: These fall into two categories: Actual place-names, and surnames
derived from placenames. These are often difficult to tell apart. Generally,
anyone with a surname with the form (place)-ensis is likely to be a resident
of or a recent arrivee from the mentioned place. It is a bit more difficult
when dealing with names of the form de + placename. With the Essex data, one
can tentatively conclude that if someone has a name of the form de + (place in
Essex) that that person actually lives in that place and that the surname is
more properly a placename, though it may be evolving into a proper surname. In
the majority of the cases, however, it seems that names of this form are
actually family names by this time. Finally, we have a few names constructed in
the form att(e) +geographical feature or name of the + geographical feature.
Most of the former category seem to be approaching true surnames, while most of
the latter do not seem to be inherited.
Other surnames: These seem to be, for the most part, names originally of one of
the other categories in which definite articles (le, la, lı, the) or
prepositions (fitz, atte, de) have dropped off.
In general, the best way to understand how these surnames worked is to
view them in action; see the index in the Essex Feet of Fines .
Copyright 1996 by Susan Carroll-Clark, 53 Thorncliffe Park Dr. #611,
Toronto, Ontario M4H 1L1 CANADA. Permission granted for republication in
SCA-related publications, provided author is credited and receives a copy.
If you reprint this article I would appreciate a notice in your publication
mentioning that this article was found in the Florilegium. An email to myself
notifying me of this article being reprinted would also be appreciated.
Copyright © Mark S. Harris (Lord Stefan li Rous)
All Rights Reserved
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