Anglo-Saxon Names, Part 2: An Apology



8. Have you the faintest recollection of

(1) Ethelbreth?

(2) Athelthral?

(3) Thruthelthrolth?

9. What have you the faintest recollection of?

1066 And All That, W.C. Sellar & R.J. Yeatman, 1930

It’s a question every author of a book set in the Anglo-Saxon period has to come to grips with: what to do with the names? Even though Old English, the language of the Anglo-Saxons, is the ancestor of our modern tongue, and many of its words survive in daily use, the same cannot be said of Anglo-Saxon personal names. Very few Anglo-Saxon personal names survive in (sort of) modern usage: examples are Edward, Godfred, Herbert, Baldric, Osmund, Winston.

Women’s names are even more difficult than men’s. The names that have remained in use to the modern age tend to sound antiquated: Bertha, Hilda, Winifred, Edith (Eadgyth), Audrey (a worn-down version of Æðelþryð, believe it or not!).

Anglo-Saxon names took two forms: monothematic (one word or element of meaning), and dithematic (two words or elements of meaning). Monothematic names were more common in the earlier centuries of the Anglo-Saxon period; later they became less common in the upper levels of society, with dithematic names becoming more favored.

Here’s how a dithematic name like Edwin works: Ed- means ‘fortune,’ and -win or -wine means friend, so Edwin’s name actually means ‘fortune’s friend.’ Every name is made from some mix-and-match of elements like this, known as the prototheme and deutorotheme, but the two elements or themes do not always fit together in a meaningful combination.

What was more important, in many cases, was the alliteration. Alliteration is a form of rhyme in which two or three words begin with the same letter. Alliteration works best in Germanic languages like English that have the emphasis on the first syllable. English speakers still instinctively favor alliteration—it just sounds ‘catchy.’ If you don’t believe me, ask Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck.

Since the Anglo-Saxons didn’t have surnames, they used alliteration to show family relationships. Case in point: King Æthelwulf (‘noble wolf’) of Wessex. Æthelwulf’s children were Æthelstan (‘noble stone’), Æthelbald (‘noble-bold’), Æthelswith (‘noble strength’; daughter), Æthelberht (‘noble-bright/noble fame’), Æthelred (‘noble counsel’), and Ælfred (‘elf-counsel’). The royal lines of other Saxon kingdoms used a similar pattern with different repeating elements: Sige- (‘victory’) was favored as a prototheme by the kings of Essex, for example, and Os- (‘pagan god’) by the Northumbrian royal line. A person could also have a byname or nickname, and dithematic names were sometimes shortened with an affectionate diminutive ending.

Fiction and Non-Fiction

Every author or publisher that has to work with Anglo-Saxon names has to make some decisions about how to print them. In scholarly publications, the preference is usually for a standardized West Saxon spelling complete with thorns, eths, ashes, etc. There is an expectation that the reader will be able, or at least willing, to cope.

That’s not necessarily the case for readers of fiction. I enjoy a mystery set in ancient Rome or medieval China, but I’m not a scholar in those areas. I appreciate all the help the author is willing to give me to understand the setting and characters, including their names.

I have seen a variety of different approaches to Anglo-Saxon personal names and place-names in novels set in the period. On the one hand you have books that use the Anglo-Saxon forms wherever possible—even for well-known place-names like London, which becomes Lundenwic. Some readers find it confusing, while others feel that it brings a greater feeling of immediacy and authenticity to the story.

Others try to normalize and shorten even the names of (relatively) well-known historical characters. I remember reading a novel aimed at the youth market that referred to Alfred’s daughter Aethelflaed as Fleda throughout, presumably because it looked more like what modern people would expect of a girl’s name. 

For the Edwin stories, I’ve tried to find a happy medium. I use the modern spelling of English place-names. It seems smoother, less jarring, to read the modern spellings in a line of text written in Modern English. With a slight pang of regret, I decided not to use thorn, eth, and ash, opting instead for the more approachable (I hope) th and ae. Recurring characters like Edwin and Edmund are given more familiar-sounding names. My husband and I found the female name Molgifu in a German book on Anglo-Saxon personal names whose title I have lost track of. I think the name was attested once in written sources, which means it was rare. We seized on it, though, because it gave our female lead a chance to have a readily pronounceable nickname. I gave the Abbess of Wimborne the unmanageable name Eormengyth (Yor-men-gith, approximately), only because I knew I could refer to her as ‘the Abbess’ on most occasions. Finally, please accept my heartfelt apology for Anglo-Saxon personal names. As you have read, I have tried my best to choose easier names for main characters. I have simplified spellings. I have referred to people by their titles or nicknames when possible. I put a list of characters at the beginning of the book for readers to refer back to. However, I can’t give Anglo-Saxons modern names, or change the names of historical figures just because they all start with Aethel. You just have to dive into their world and live by its rules for a little while.

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