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  • Adrian J. Boas

On Originality and the Usefulness of Names


Lead Seal of Baldwin IV, Jerusalem, 1173 - 1183 (American Numismatic Society)

A popular childhood book was the whimsical history of England titled 1066 and All That written by two British humourists, W. C. Sellar and R. J. Yeatman. Perhaps the source of my love of the past lies in its sense of fun. Among the historical characters it presented was King Henry IV, Part 1, who, on becoming aware that he was not “memorable”, a very necessary quality in this book, patriotically abdicated in favour of King Henry IV Part II, a pun of course on Shakespeare’s two plays. One of the problems of studying royalty (or perhaps one of the advantages, depending on your point of view), is the lack of imagination that royal families have traditionally displayed in name-giving. Think of what happened when Edward VIII of England abdicated. There must have been quite a bit of hair-tearing before they came up with a highly original name to call the new king, his younger brother. How about Albert I? Frederick I? Arthur I/II? No... by George, I've got it. Let's call him... George VI!


Perhaps the repetition of royal names is a malady resulting from too much inbreeding. Some students of history see it as a good thing. It makes the reading of history books at least less bewildering that reading a Russian novel. On the other hand, you might often find yourself wondering - was it Louis XI who did that, or Louis XII? But a surfeit of Georges, Henrys and Louis does admittedly make for some wonderful song lyrics, such as the Herman's Hermits hit - Henry the Eighth, a song about a man named Henry who became the eighth husband of a neighbouring widow who would only marry men named Henry, or that of the American comedian, Allan Sherman - You Went the Wrong Way Old King Louie, which, by systematically listing each of the preceding Louis, pointed out that Louis the sixteenth was a worse French king of the lot.

But personal names are not only the cause of simplification, complication or good lyrics. They are a valuable source of information on changes in society and the preservation or abandonment of traditions. The study of personal names is known by the technical term anthroponymy. A no less valuable field is the study of surnames, that are often informative of trades of past generations and of places of origin (and of bynames, the precursors of surnames, the difference being they were not hereditary). My own surname preserves on the one hand the name of a biblical character, Boaz from the Book of Ruth, thereby pointing to my belonging to a monotheistic faith, and more specifically to Judaism, being a name more typically adopted by Jews, and on the other hand, in its specific spelling with an “s” alluding to my Dutch ancestry. However, my other names are perhaps of less interest or use, being names chosen by my parents to honour a friend (about whom I know nothing) and a favourite uncle. Today perhaps, the broad range of names in use, the outcome of the massive twentieth century movements of population, makes personal names less useful, or at least, more difficult to analyse.

A ground-breaking study of anthroponymy in the Latin East was carried out a few years ago by Iris Shagrir, in an effort to expose trends and patterns of personal names employed by Frankish settlers in the kingdom of Jerusalem during the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. Using a database of 6,200 names collected from legal and commercial documents, Shagrir, professor of medieval history at the Open University of Israel, was able to show a “double allegiance to the cultures of both their European homeland and their new one in the Levant,”* just one more example of the dualism, or perhaps more accurately, the multifaceted character of Frankish society in the Latin East.


* Iris Shagrir, Naming Patterns in the Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem, Oxford, 2003. The quote is from Iris Shagrir, “The Medieval Evolution of By-Naming: Notions from the Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem”, in Iris Shagrir, Ronnie Ellenblum and Jonathan Riley-Smith, eds., In Laudem Hierosolymitani. Studies in Crusades and Medieval Culture in Honour of Benjamin Z. Kedar, Crusades Subsidia 1, Aldershot and Burlington, 2007, p. 49.

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