Anglo-Saxon Names, Part 2: An Apology

TEST PAPER I

UP TO THE END OF 1066

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.

Anglo-Saxon Names, Part 1: A Pronunciation Guide

WAVE OF EGG-KINGS

Soon after this event [the conversion of England] Egg-Kings were found on the thrones of all these kingdoms, such as Eggberd, Eggbreth, Eggfroth, etc. None of them, however, succeeded in becoming memorable—except in so far as it is difficult to forget such names as Eggbirth, Eggbred, Eggbeard, Eggfilth, etc. Nor is it even remembered by what kind of Eggdeath they perished.

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

The names: they are the first thing readers notice and remark on about a book set in the Anglo-Saxon period. Most of them sound strange, made up of unexpected groupings of letters. It’s unclear how to pronounce them—even which syllable is supposed to get the stress. And what do you do with a name that starts with Æð ?

Below I’ve provided a simple guide to pronouncing Anglo-Saxon names.

In general, you should pronounce every letter in an Anglo-Saxon name. There are not any silent letters. Emphasis is always on the first syllable.

Vowels:

A as in cart (short) or all (long)

E as in ever (short) or angel (long)

I as in igloo (short) or evil (long)

O as in octopus (short) or over (long)

U as in oops (long)

Æ (upper case) or æ (lower case) is called ash. It is pronounced like the a in ash.

Đ (upper case) or ð (lower case) This letter is called eth and represents a /th/ sound.

Þ (upper case) or þ (lower case) This letter is called thorn and also represents a /th/ sound.

Fun fact: The people of Iceland were originally taught to write by Anglo-Saxon missionaries. As a result, thorn and eth are still used in modern Icelandic. In Icelandic, thorn represents an unvoiced /th/ as in ‘thick’, while eth is used for voiced /th/ as in ‘them.’ In Old English they are used interchangeably for both voiced and unvoiced /th/.

The Mercian characters in the first Edwin story, Aethelwulf and Aethelred, are therefore pronounced Ath-el-wolf and Ath-el-red.

Consonants:

These are pronounced pretty much as in modern English, except for c, h, and g.

C – At the beginning of a word, c is thought to have been pronounced as /ch/, so the name of the Mercian king Ceolwulf would be pronounced Chay-ol-wolf.

H – This letter is pronounced as you would expect, except when it appears next to a t. The h in this -ht combination has a sound like Scottish ‘loch’. It is the origin of our modern -ght at the end of words like ‘night’ and ‘thought’—it used to be a throatier sound. The g was later added to the ht combination by Norman scribes who thought it needed an extra letter.

G – At the beginning of a word, this letter was sometimes pronounced as if the word began with a y. Many of our modern English words that start with a y today (yesterday, yearn, yarn, etc.) were spelled with an initial g in Old English. Elsewhere in the word, g is pronounced as you would expect in Modern English.

There are some consonant pairs that have special pronunciations.

HW – pronounced like modern wh. Sensibly, the Anglo-Saxons put the h first because that’s what sound comes first. It was those pesky Norman scribes that switched them around.

CW – pronounced like modern qu, as in ‘queen’ (Old English cwen). Again, this sensible Anglo-Saxon spelling was changed by Norman scribes.

WR and WL – You pronounce both the letters. Go on, try it!

And what do we do with the wave of Egg-Kings immortalized by that little comedic gem of a book 1066 And All That?

The Egg-Kings really had names beginning with the name element ecg. (More on name elements in the next blog post). The consonant combination cg was pronounced like our /dg/, so what the authors of 1066 remember as “egg” is really “edge”—as in ‘sword’s edge.’ Suddenly these Anglo-Saxon names move from comedy into more of a “military drama” category, don’t they? And if you read your Bede and Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, you’ll see that the Eggdeaths by which they perished were, in fact, more often edge-deaths.

Edwin of Wimborne – the first book

The first Edwin of Wimborne mystery is still in search of a publisher. Sometimes that can be a long process! However, this is what the first book is about. It’s a mystery set in the time of King Alfred featuring the fictional detective couple Lord Edwin and Lady Molgifu (Molly).

England, AD 879. Called away from his own wedding to accompany his brother on an urgent diplomatic mission for King Alfred of Wessex, the young royal official Lord Edwin of Wimborne becomes suspicious of an ‘accidental’ death that occurs during their stay in neighboring Mercia. As Edwin investigates he uncovers a tangle of deadly ambitions around the Mercian kingship. Back at home, Edwin’s bride Molly becomes embroiled in events that may have far-reaching consequences as well. Can Edwin unravel the true course of events in time to save an innocent man and foil a disastrous political plot bolstered by a band of renegade Vikings? When Molly finds the royal estate of Wimborne prey to neglect, embezzlers and seething local discontent, can she turn the tide and make it safe for King Alfred?

My Love Affair with Ordnance Survey Maps

Close-up from popular edition Ordnance Survey map of Wimborne and Ringwood, 1925. Photo by author.

“After you left I sent down to Stamford’s for the Ordnance map of this portion of the moor, and my spirit has hovered over it all day. I flatter myself that I could find my way about.” – Sherlock Holmes, The Hound of the Baskervilles

I first became acquainted with Ordnance Survey Maps during my years working at the English Place-Name Society. In the back room there was a large cabinet with a lot of wide, shallow drawers where the maps were kept, pristine and protected, ready for visiting scholars to pull out and spread on a big table for study. This was an important collection of older maps that reflected the names and topography of the historical periods relevant to place-name studies.

Ordnance Survey Maps were, and still are, produced by Ordnance Survey, the national mapping agency for Great Britain. The origins of this agency go back to the Jacobite rising of 1745, when the forces of King George II lacked the detailed maps they needed to find and root out Scottish supporters of Bonnie Prince Charlie (Charles Edward Stuart). In 1747, military officers were charged by the king to make a survey of the Scottish highlands at a scale of 1 inch to 1000 yards. It was soon obvious that having good maps of all parts of Britain would be advantageous for a variety of reasons, so as surveying instruments advanced, the mapping campaign continued. The first maps of the southern counties were published in 1801; the other counties followed in succeeding decades. To allow my spirit to hover over Anglo-Saxon England, I like to use these Old Series or First Edition Ordnance Survey Maps, which show Britain before the changes brought about by the railways.  

The Old Series, as well as other series and maps, can be accessed freely on the internet via www.visionofbritain.org.uk. The resolution is very good, and you can zoom in closely to see the tiniest details. You can also toggle around onto different sheets of the series without having to exit and click on another file.

Sometimes, though, hovering in spirit over a virtual map is too distant a remove; you need to have a physical map spread out before you. Copies of old maps can also be downloaded and taken to a local printer to be printed on a large sheet of paper. Several years ago, my geography-loving son paid $6 of his own money to have a map of Dorset printed for me as a birthday gift. Isn’t it remarkable that we like to give and receive gifts that reflect a shared interest?

I also have a 1925 Popular Edition map of Wimborne and Ringwood that I found on Ebay. It is paper backed with cloth, one inch to one mile, printed in beautiful colors and incredibly fine detail.

It’s easy to take maps for granted. We forget that accurate maps bring together a wealth of different kinds of data. The Ordnance Survey maps used scientific measurements from an instrument known as a theodolite to accurately measure the land. However, the mapping also required crews of trained cartographers to record houses, churches, rivers, hills, swamps, farm fields, surviving Roman roads, and Iron Age tumuli in every corner of the land. They tramped out to remote villages before the age of rail travel to write down place-names according to local spellings. They did this in all seasons and weathers, year after year. Thanks to them, Sherlock Holmes and I can hover over our chosen parts of the country in spirit, and imagine what villainy might be lurking there.