Anglo-Saxon names

Teju has a couple of great posts about names and what they mean (1, 2), specifically relating to Yoruba. Which set me thinking about Anglo-Saxon naming.

bit of the Anglo-Saxon chronicle

I have no idea exactly what relationship the Saxons had with their names, and I don’t know what academic work has been done on it—I’m just going on the impression I get from the names themselves—but the names are often easily parseable into combinations of words. Rather than take them from a literary source like Beowulf, here’s a list of names found in a poem which was about fairly contemporary events, The Battle of Maldon. The spellings are adapted somewhat to be closer to modern English pronunciation; i.e. ‘Æscferð’ becomes ‘Ashferth’, ‘Æþeric’ becomes ‘Atherich’.

Offa, Eadrich, Byrhtnoth, Athelred, Wulfstan, Ceola, Maccus, Alfere, Byrhtelm, Wulfmar, Alfnoth, Godrich, Godwin, Godwig, Alfwin, Alfrich, Ealhelm, Leofsunu, Dunnere, Edglaf, Ashferth, Atherich, Sibirht, Gad, Wistan, Thurstan, Wigelm, Oswold, Eadwold, Athelgar.

Now if I say that athel* means ‘noble’ and gar means ‘spear’, it looks an awful lot like ‘Athelgar’ means ‘noble spear’. Here are some other bits of A-S vocab so you can pay along at home:

ash – ash (the type of tree)
byrht – bright
ead – rich, blessed, happy
edg – edge, sword
ferth – soul, spirit, mind
god – good, God
helm – helmet
leof – desirable, pleasant, loved, a friend, a loved one
laf – what is left, remnant
noth – boldness
rich – power or powerful
sunu – son
stan – stone
wulf – wolf

So what happened to all these meaning-full names? Well, the Norman Conquest, basically. Skip forward a couple of centuries and despite English remaining in continuous use, very few of the old English names hung around. A few, mainly associated with saints and kings, are used to this day: Alfred, Edward, Edmund, Harold and Oswald must be the most common, but you occasionally meet a Godwin, Cuthbert or Dunstan.

By the 16th century, about 30% of men were called John, with another 40% called Thomas, William, Richard or Robert. And I believe they were generally named after their godparent, so there wasn’t much room for creativity there. And of the top 50 mens’ names from the 1560s and 1570s on this page, only two, Edward and Edmund, are of English origin rather than French or biblical.

Actually, it’s quite interesting that the Anglo-Saxons didn’t use Bible names; they’d been Christian for several hundred years by the time of the Battle of Maldon.

I doubt if we’re going to have a revival of these names any time soon; most of them sound distinctly harsh to the modern ear. I rather like Ælfric (i.e. Alfrich); apart from the sound of it, there was a man called Ælfric who was a grammarian, translator and hagiographer. According to Bosworth and Toller, ælf is ‘elf, genius, incubus’, so ‘Aelfric’ must be something like ‘elf-power’. Powered by elves? With the power of an elf?

And since ræd means ‘advice, counsel’, Alfred means ‘elf-advised’. That’s the joke in the name Ethelred the Unready, of course. He was Æthelræd Unræd— his name, Æthelræd, means ‘advised by princes’ or ‘noble advice’ and unræd means ‘ill-advised’. So called because it was on his watch that the Danes took over half of England.

*again, strictly speaking that would be æðel. I’m not going to footnote my spelling every time, but similar tweaks apply throughout.

8 Comments

  1. Angi Bunn
    13 February 2008 at 10:20 am | Permalink

    Hi,
    My sons and I trying to find out what their english names would be in the Anglo-saxon language and what the spelling would be in anglo-saxon. Their names are Raymond and Gregory.
    Dont know if you can help or even point me in the right direction to a website that may help.

    thanks
    Angi

  2. Harry
    13 February 2008 at 12:30 pm | Permalink

    Interesting question. Wikipedia says that the name ‘Raymond’ is derived from a Germanic name ‘Reginmund’. They have that derived from ‘counsellor-protected’, but something else I found says ‘regin’ is Old Norse for ‘gods’ so I wonder if it might be ‘protected by the gods’. Pure speculation on my part, though, and well beyond my expertise.

    In Anglo-Saxon the ‘e’ would be short, like ‘wren’, the ‘g’ would be pronounced as a modern ‘y’; so something like re-yin-mund. ‘Mund’ like ‘Edmund’.

  3. Harry
    13 February 2008 at 12:34 pm | Permalink

    ‘Gregory’ was an important name for the Anglo-Saxons because Pope Gregory I (Gregory the Great) was the man who sent St Augustine of Kent to convert the English to Christianity. You can see Ælfric’s homily on Gregory the Great here, in all its Anglo-Saxon glory. As you can see, Ælfric refers to him by the Latin version of his name, ‘Gregorius’; which doesn’t sound very Anglo-Saxon but is at least historically accurate.

  4. Beth
    16 March 2009 at 10:56 pm | Permalink

    I’m looking for a translation of my name, which is Elizabeth Anna, or a version of it. If you could tell me where to look, it would be greatly appreciated.

  5. Harry
    18 March 2009 at 12:54 am | Permalink

    Well, both Elizabeth and Anna are biblical names which appear in Luke’s Gospel, and I found a version of Luke in Anglo-Saxon online, in which they are written as… Elizabeth and Anna. Or strictly speaking Elizabeþ, but that’s just a different way of writing the ‘th’.

  6. Beth
    20 March 2009 at 10:26 pm | Permalink

    Thanks, I really appreciate the information, it makes a lot of sense.

  7. Gavin Snelgrove
    21 July 2009 at 3:42 pm | Permalink

    i know im of the anglo saxon blood line from wiltshire england, but what would my saxon name be. thank you yours truly Gavin Snelgrove

  8. Harry
    22 July 2009 at 2:02 pm | Permalink

    ‘i know im of the anglo saxon blood line ‘

    Unless you’re one of the very few people who can trace your family back a thousand years, I don’t see how you could possibly know.

    I guess most people with ancestors from England are likely to have some Anglo-Saxon blood, but then they probably have all sorts of other blood too; even allowing for a certain amount of inbreeding, you will have tens of thousands of ancestors to account for over the past thousand years.

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