Where the "modern" sounding names in my historical fiction came from (hint: real history)
Updated: May 3
What's in a name? Fodder for contention, apparently
For the Enemy's Keeper series, I did my best to choose character names that were either plausible or documented to exist for the time period. I made an equal effort for these names to resonate with my modern young adult readers today (and with myself as the author).
I didn't expect to be accused of choosing names "completely incompatible" for the Anglo-Saxon/Norman period of AD 1075 England.
This blog post is to address this issue, which I am not alone in facing. It's been called the "Tiffany Problem", when "somebody writing historical fiction does something that is well-researched and accurate, but the reader doesn’t buy it because of their perception of the past."
Let's get to the names
Matthew de Marcotte
Matthew was recorded in the AD 1086 Domesday book as Matthew 'of Horbling' and Matthew de Mortagne.
(PASE stands for The Prosopography of Anglo-Saxon England. According to their website, "PASE is based in the Department of History and the Centre for Computing in the Humanities, at King’s College, London, and in the Department of Anglo-Saxon, Norse, and Celtic, at the University of Cambridge")
Matthew was not a popular name. But yes, it existed in the time of my book.
Both Matthews in Domesday were landholders by AD 1086, not infants. They were most probably alive in AD 1075, the time of my book, making my choice for Matthew de Marcotte's name entirely reasonable.
(Note: Matthew introduced himself as Matthew Marcotte when speaking English, dropping the "de". I did this to improve the flow of dialogue. If he introduces himself in French later in the series, I will include the "de".)
Marcotte derives from Old French, which was spoken from the 8th to 14th centuries in places including Normandy. Since then, people with this last name have settled in many countries, including the USA (Reference: Dictionary of American Family Names)
Tobias (Toby) Buckner
(There is a separate discussion of the surname "Buckner" towards the end)
Tobias was a real bishop of Rochester. He was consecrated between AD 699 and 716 and died in 726.
There was also a priest in Kent named Tobias in the 7th century.
Tobiah was a figure in the book of Nehemiah of the Bible, from which Tobias was derived.
With church clergy and Biblical figures serving as reference points, my decision in naming a character Tobias in my book is in no way outrageous.
(Reference from the Prosopography of Anglo-Saxon England (PASE)
PASE is an absolutely invaluable name source for medieval enthusiasts!
Edward, Emma, Ransley
The first two names are recorded in the Domesday Book.
In addition to Domesday, one of the rebellious earls in the Revolt of the Earls, Ralph de Gael, was married to a woman named Emma de Guader.
Emma was also the wife of King Æthelred "The Unready", King of the English from 978 to 1013 and again from 1014 until his death in 1016. Many other women recorded in history prior to my book were also named Emma.
King Edward of England was king shortly before William the Conqueror took the throne.
Ransley is a dialectic variation of Rawnsley, a hamlet near Cannock in the county of Staffordshire. As the name of a place, it could also have been a given name. Remember, we are talking about plausible names for fictional characters in historical fiction, not hard facts.
Interlude: let's talk about historically plausible names
I define historically plausible names as those deriving from existing words or influences in a certain time period. For example, names from the Bible are plausible because both Anglo-Saxons and Normans had adopted Christianity generations before my novel (and, as we just saw, not one but two Matthews from the Gospel of Matthew were recorded in the Domesday book). Also plausible are names derived from Old English words.
As an aside, here are implausible names for 11th century Anglo-Saxons: the Chinese names "Yuqiu Zhang" or "Chunyang Li". While you can argue the Silk Road already connected China with Europe at the time... I will still not use those names!
The "plausible" category encompasses all the "maybes"... names believable enough to make it into historical fiction.
Think about the names parents give their children today. Some names follow the trend. Some are completely original. Why should we assume the millions of 11th-century Anglo-Saxons never gave creative names to their children, derived from words already in their vocabulary?
Based on my research, peasant women do not seem to be well recorded in historical documents. In other words, their names are not well-preserved, and the names of women we have access to today tend to belong to those of high social status. Please give me a good reference for peasant women's names, if you find one!
Heather (from Hadre or Hedre , Old English)
Heather is a flower native to England. Tenacious despite its delicate appearance, heather brings stunning color and beauty to acidic, sandy, and nutrient-poor soils (1,2). A very fitting name for my protagonist, Heather.
Heather was spelled Hadre in Old English (3,4)
Hadre was a real place in Leicestershire, England as recorded in the Domesday book of AD 1086. (4,5)
It is entirely conceivable that a peasant named his or her daughter Hadre (Old English) because of the breathtakingly beautiful heather that painted the hills where they lived, or because they had ties with Hadre, a real place recorded in Domesday. Again, we are talking about historical plausibility.
In my novel, I chose to modernize the spelling to of Hadre to Heather. After all, my book is not written in Old English.
Vincent, Nicholas. "Domesday Names: An Index of Latin Personal and Place Names in Domesday Book." The English Historical Review, vol. 114, no. 456, Apr. 1999, p. 405. Gale Literature Resource Center, link.gale.com/apps/doc/A54466601/LitRC?u=anon~8454ce49&sid=googleScholar&xid=dec65c54. Accessed 30 Apr. 2022.
https://www.surnamedb.com/Surname/Heather (An internet surname database with 20 years of experience and counting)
Aelfric le Despencer (aka "Spencer")
Spencer's name in my novel reflects both his personal story and the Anglo-Saxons' adoption of surnames after the AD 1066 Norman Conquest. Whereas Anglo-Saxons did not have surnames before the Conquest, they adopted surnames as early as 20 years later, as recorded in the Domesday book. Based on my readings, the process began early but was gradual. (Reference:
Spencer is derived from Despencer, a name that first arrived in England after the Norman Conquest. As was typical of some Norman surnames, Despencer describes the occupation of its name bearer. It comes from the French word despensier, which means butler or steward. Such people were the dispenser of goods in an estate.
(Smith, Eldson Coles, New Dictionary of American Family Names New York: Harper & Row, 1956.)
Here is how the occupation despensier could be used as a surname during the time of William the Conqueror:
"Robert le Despencer, of the Conqueror's time derived his name from his office of steward to the king, and appears, from the numerous lordships he possessed, to have been a person of great eminence."
(Burke, John Bernard, The Roll of Battle Abbey. London: Edward Churton, 26, Holles Street, 1848)
Finding favor within Evelyn's household, young Aelfric of my novel was given the surname le Despencer and eventually took a shortened form, Spencer, as his preferred name.
Spencer's back story is explained in my prequel novella, Evelyn's Seeker, which I am currently writing.
William (the Conqueror), Ralph de Gael, Bishop Geoffrey de Montbray
These are major historical figures in the AD 1075 Revolt of the Earls, whose names I of course didn't modify. Notice how "modern" their names sound.
This name is the modern rendition of "Aveline", which is Old French for "hazelnut". It was introduced by the Normans in 1066AD and was recorded as a given name in 1175 as Avelina of Holme (in Norfolk).
I chose the spelling 'Evelyn' for my novel written in American English.
Remember, I'm not out there to prove a flesh-and-blood Evelyn (or Aveline) existed in AD 1075, England. I'm aiming for historical plausibility.
Zelrin, Axlan, Svein, Lukas
Axlan, Svein, and Lukas are Danish names; Zelrin's name was my creation but based on sounds and conventions of Danish names. After all the research I did, I felt entitled to be creative in naming a fictional character in a work of historical fiction.
What about the surname, Buckner? Isn't that too modern? And Anglo-Saxons didn't have surnames, let alone hereditary surnames?
As I wrote previously, Anglo-Saxons did not have a surname before the Norman Conquest, but their adoption of surnames began shortly thereafter.
The driving force of adopting a hereditary surname was the form of governance William the Conqueror brought to England- feudalism.
"It became important that the king should know exactly what service each knight owed. Lawyers and officials made sure that the parties to payments both to and by the exchequer – e.g. for transfers of land or those concerned in criminal proceedings – could be clearly identified." (Reference from University of St. Andrews)
It is entirely plausible that Ransley had adopted a surname by AD 1075, almost 10 years post-Conquest, for the practical purposes as detailed above. Buckner may sound modern, but has its roots in Old English:
"Recorded in several forms including Buck, Bucke, Buckman, Buckner, and Bucknor, this is an English surname. It has a number of possible origins. Firstly, it may derive from the Old English pre 7th Century "bucca" a male goat or "bucc" a male deer, and would have originated as a nickname for a man with some fancied resemblance to the animal, e.g. strength, speed or sturdiness...
The first recorded spelling of the family name is shown to be that of Godwig se Bucca. This was dated 1055 a.d., in the Old English Byname Register for the county of Somerset, during the reign of King Edward, the Confessor, 1042 - 1066. Throughout the centuries, surnames in every country have continued to "develop" often leading to astonishing variants of the original spelling."
Read more: https://www.surnamedb.com/Surname/Buckner#ixzz7SEQ034w5 ." (Reference: The Online Surname Database)
As for Xavier ...
Yup, I'm human, folks! I failed to look up Xavier when writing my book as he was only mentioned a few times by other characters and will never appear (spoiler? Sorry) as a character himself.
Turns out Xavier has its origins in Arabic. So like my Chinese name examples, I will rule this one... implausible!
That was a long post. While I didn't cover every single name, I hope it shows that I have put considerable care into selecting names for my book, Forbidden Ties- Enemy's Keeper Book 1.
It's available for FREE on NetGalley and Book Funnel until July, 2022.