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Naming Conventions: Medieval Europe (esp France and England)

Started by Pam Wilson on Saturday, January 8, 2011


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1/8/2011 at 10:13 PM

Those of us working in the 10th-12th century in France and England and related families generally use the following conventions.

For medieval names, here are my naming conventions:

LANGUAGE. Please try to use the language forms that would be closest to the original language (French, German, Italian, Spanish). Sometimes forms will be found in medieval records in Latin as well, and of course each of these languages had medieval predecessors which are quite different from the modern versions, as well as regional dialects. Generally, in cases where the English translation of a word is unrecognizably different from the native one, I try to include the English version of the name or location somewhere in the name (in deference to the large number of English-speaking Geni users who may be searching for someone of Burgundy, for example, although I've rendered their name "de Bourgogne"). For men, I may put that alternate translation in the maiden name field. Some examples are Bourgogne/Burgundy, Bretagne/Brittany, etc. I always try to keep in mind what people may be using to search for a profile. Better to have more than enough search options than too few.


First name: First/given name plus disambiguating nickname or number (Charles "The Bald", Guillaume I, etc.)

Middle Name:
(1) alternate spelling of first name in parentheses as applicable (e.g. Adele in FN field, (Adelais) in middle name field. If there is something else important in the middle name field then I sometimes append the parenthetical alternate name in the first name field. OR
(2) patronymic IF there is another "last name"--e.g. FitzRoger in MN field if there is "de____" as last name. If given a choice, for French and AngloNorman names I privilege the geographic names (de ___) as last names rather than the patronymics.

Last Name: Usually a place-based "of/de/av/van _____" for medieval figures.

Suffix: Here is where to place the title (Comte de Vermandois, 4th Earl of Surrey, etc.)
For women, I put their maiden name in BOTH the Last name and the Maiden Name field. If and when Geni gives us a title field, we can move these to that field, but for now the suffix field is useful as a title field.

In cases where there is more than one place-based name (there are many children whose parents are lords of more than one place, for instance), I put the main one in the Last Name field and alternate ones in the Maiden Name field or, if there is no Middle Name, I sometimes put the secondary one in the Middle Name field. (Note: to reveal the Maiden Name field for men, it is necessary to change the gender to female, make the data entry, then change the gender back to male)

DISPLAY NAMES should repeat the essential information of the First, Middle, Last and Suffix (Title) fields. Please do not put any NEW information in Display Names since this field is unstable and frequently disappears when it is clicked upon, losing whatever information is listed there.

Remember that there are also Nickname fields (which should be renamed "Also Known As") as well as Occupation fields; these are viewable down in the lower part of the profile.

1/8/2011 at 10:22 PM

On a related note, please always use title case (not ALL CAPS) for names.

When you encounter a name that begins with a prepositions (such as "de ____" or "van/av_____"), be sure to use LOWER CASE for the preposition and include the preposition **in the LAST NAME field with the name of the place** and not alone as a middle name.

One of the most common edits I make is moving "De" from the middle name to the last name field and changing the "D" to lower-case "d".

Private User
1/8/2011 at 10:42 PM

Yeah, I wanted to write a macro for that. I think this must have been a GEDCOM upload legacy thing?

Private User
1/9/2011 at 1:17 AM

Pam and I differ greatly in conventions here.

Here an example of how I handle names in that region and period:

First Name:
Birth name in their respective language, followed by their ordinal, ex. Arnaut I. All name variants, I place in the Nickname field.

Middle Name:
Middle names are rare at this time and if the person had two names, they usually used both in combination, ex. Pèire Bernat. In most cases, I put the nickname in this field, enclosed in single qoutes, but with nicknames (aka names) receiving more prominence soon, I may place them there exclusively, ex. 'el Gran'.

Last Name:
Obviously, people did not have surnames in this period (at least as we use them today). Though I question this practice myself, I usually put either the person's familial place of reign (usually being born a prince of somewhere). where they were born, and in some cases, their house name, ex. de Roergue.

Patronymic names are also placed in the surname field, before any typographic name, ex. Remíriz de Aragón. The reason for this is that in Spain and several other countries, patronymic names developed into surnames and, in that sense, are important in differentiating branches.

Much like Pam, I use this field for titles, ex. Comte d'Urgell. I many cases, a person will have multiple titles. For simplicity and legibility, I choose the title of most importance, though there are exceptions to this.

Maiden Name:
In all cases, I leave this blank. Again, all name variants and other titles, I place in the Nickname field.

Also, not too dissimilar to Pam, I use this field a more concise reiteration of the full name, often omitting redundant typographic surnames, ex. Ponç I, Comte d'Empúries.

Unlike Pam though, I will often use the display name field for a person's name in a language other than their own for when they gain their highest importance in a foreign kingdom, either by marriage or conquest, ex. Esteveta de Fois, Reina de Navarra vs. Estefanía de Foix, Reina de Navarra. In this example, Estefanía de Foix, would also be placed in the Nickname field.

Also occasionally, a person is commonly know by their nickname. In thoses cases, I will place this name after the given name, often omitting the ordinal, ex. Guifré el Pilós, Comte de Barcelona.

Private User
1/12/2011 at 6:42 PM

hi there,

having read this I am now excited to see this issue getting attention. I am not sure how, or if, general users can play a roll in developing such an important resource, but I certainly have, or will have some input (possibly of value) at some point.

rather than just rambling off comments, and if my input is germane, I'd like to share some comments once you all feel you have a relatively well formed draught.

one thought I feel is worth mentioning at the moment:

should we take into consideration any naming conventions being used currently by any other notable resources? (, geodom, etc) perhaps there is a convention long established by "before the Internet" resources that will or have migrated to digital that deserves some consideration. my main point is to avoid creating such a unique naming model that the raw data is unable to be merged or deployed, distributed, integrated etc. I think it might be prudent to build data with the most flexible cross-system usability.

please forgive me if my sophomoric knowledge of genealogy resource and documentation has caused me to be totally off-base here.

1/16/2011 at 2:03 PM

Victar, I don't think we differ greatly at all. You only pointed out a few minor differences in the conventions that we use.

I agree with all of your practices, and they are generally in line with mine.

1/16/2011 at 2:11 PM

Tristram, we would certainly like to hear any of your suggestions. One of our issues is that, for the time being at least, we are "stuck" with the database fields that Geni has created, which are less than ideal for medieval names and titles.

That's why much of this discussion is about *where* (i.e. which field) to put certain information, and how to arrange it. The question of what information to put is not nearly as controversial!

We all agree that we need as much information as possible about what a person may have been called. We also agree that there exist in the literarure many linguistic variations of these names,, and so we also need to know these variants in order to adequately research these persons.

The ability to search by various spellings of names is a significant determinant, because in today's internet-based search research enviromment, what you enter in a search determines what you find.

So if I am searching for all the counts of Toulouse, and I enter "toulouse", I may miss a profile (in Geni search) or significant information (in resource searches) if they are written as "Tolosa". That's why it's important to inform our users, not all of whom are multilingual, of the various ways to write and search for names (William and Guillaume, Rodger and Roger) rather than determining which is THE correct one.

To me, what we place in the name fields is whatever will be most helpful to the ordinary person trying to search for more information about these historic figures.

Private User
1/16/2011 at 2:36 PM

@Pam, you're right, we probably align more than differ. Glass half full ;-).

To reiterate another post I made, everything placed in the Nickname/AKA field is now used in search results. No need for ridiculous names anymore like Guillaume (William) Roger (Rodger). Just use their original name in their original language.dialect and place all alternatives in the Nickname/AKA field.

1/17/2011 at 1:08 AM

As I'm working on house-cleaning of Charlemagne at the moment, I'm sure I'm stepping all over lots of toes eg:

by adding into names GRATUITOUS LOCATOR DESCRIPTIONS such as "Carolingian, daughter of Charlemagne and Himiltrude". So long as everyone knows I'm doing it as a way of avoiding further confusion while I'm re-organising and merging lots of profiles back into one, as they appear - sometimes after the initial work on the profile, due to untying incorrect merges further on. I'm not sure that for the high traffic Charl line these shouldn't stay as a way of pre-empting at least some wrong merges in the future, but on that I'm happy to go with the consensus.

In terms of ORIGINAL LANGUAGE NAMING - it's sometimes difficult to decide with Charlemagne and heirs because there was no generic language across his kingdom, and so, for eg, Old French as well as Old German might equally have been used, depending on who was speaking. And where/if/when Latin should be used - I think I'll have to consult Pam, Ben and Justin on.

I AVOID USING PARANTHESIS ( ) in case confusion arises because the programme shows maiden names in parenthesis, so I only use the slash key / between alternate versions of names, and ellipsis " " to show nicknames.Good to know about the improved search capacity as that does affect how I put in names - I've lumped all alternatives and extras in the middle name field up until now, as I'd previously noticed that it reduced the possibility of matches being made to have them in the frst name field. Should I start putting more in the first name field, do you think?

The PLACE NAME AS LAST NAME thing is not so straightforward for me: in that Medieval Europe appears to have been PATRILOCAL (until Charl refused to let his daughters go ;-)), so I put place names that relate to birth (most seem to) in the maiden name field for women, and the last name field for men.

1/17/2011 at 1:11 AM

PS I'm also going to send this as a 'heads up' comment in a message to all the collaborators on the Charlemagene clean up project.

1/17/2011 at 3:01 PM

I'm going to be coming back to this thread over and over. Thank you Victor and Pam especially.

10/6/2012 at 9:43 AM

Some months ago I promised to find and post this quote about the practice in the Middle Ages of sometimes changing the given name of a wife. It wasn't widespread, but it happened often enough to be worth noticing:

"The wife was sometimes so completely absorbed into the family of the one man who had the right to give her children that her own Christian name was changed. (At that time there was no family name or surname handed down from generation to generation.) Mathilde might thus become Blanche or Rose -- a mark of her complete break with the past, her completed capture. Yet if she was to play her part in the house and fill it with legitimate children, her blood and her womb were necessary. And in her offspring that which came from her ancestors through her blood would mix with that which her husband inherited through his blood from his ancestors.

"This conjunction was openly proclaimed in the choice of names for the children: boys and girls were named after forebears from both the father's and the mother's side. A family might appropriate a wife by changing her name, yet outsiders might still invade the clan in the form of the descendants named after them."

Georges Duby, The Knight, the Lady and the Priest: The Making of Modern Marriage in Medieval France (1983), 44-45.

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