A Tutorial



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Isolating the name forms; anthroponyms and descriptors

If you have not already done so, read Section II of Keats-Rohan, Naming and Identity.

The names occurring in the sources contain important information in themselves. Whatever the difficulties posed to the modern interpreter, there is no doubt that onomastics - the study of all kinds of names and naming naming systems - is an important aid to understanding past societies, at all social levels. The name forms that will be indexed in the Index of Names will provide a key resource for the researcher in its own right. The task must be approached with care and rigour. In preparation for the task, we should start we an overview of naming practice.

Onomasticians are in broad agreement about the naming systems used in the Middle Ages, though, unfortunately, terminology is somewhat variable. Essentially, a person's name had two elements, a personal name, or anthroponym, such as Robert, and a second name that could take several forms. It is best to follow the practice of students of early name systems and refer to these second name elements generically as "descriptors", because they function in documents as descriptions of the person in relation to a specific circumstance. "John the priest" might in another circumstance be '"John, youngest son of Robert", with no reference made to his ecclesiastical status.

When a second name element was passed from father to son and then to grandson, it is called a "surname". More common at this time were "bynames", a second name element that identified an individual but was not inherited by his heir. Both these types of descriptor fall into four main groups.

  • First, the '"toponym", which relates to a place. Sometimes the reference is locative, based on a place-name - de Oxenforde, of Oxford, sometimes it is topographical, i.e. it relates to a localized feature of a place - de Bosco, of the Wood. This distinction is important: it can distinguish persons of higher status (who use locative bynames) from persons of lower status (topographical bynames); the first is likely to be used by a high status person in reference to some key holding, such as a castle, or to identify him once he has left his place of origin; the second is more likely to indicate where the bearer actually lived. Another type of name in this general category is the ethnonym, which identifies an ethnic group, e. g., Brito, Breton. These names can be difficult to interpret as their significance is as much – or more - cultural as geographical.

  • The second type is a patronym, a name that identifies the bearer's father: John son of Robert, Johannes filius Roberti, modern Robertson. Metronyms, identifying the bearer's mother, also occur, but are much rarer.

  • The third type is an occupational descriptor, a word that describes its bearer's occupation, such as 'cook', 'smith', 'priest'. Many such names became inherited surnames and ceased to describe the bearer's occupation. Some such names are formal titles, indicating an office borne at a specific point in a person's life, e.g. Archbishop of Canterbury.

  • The fourth type is a nickname, a name given (often maliciously) to the bearer to identify some special characteristic. One and the same individual can occur in documents under several different descriptors.

One of the barons established in England after the Norman Conquest in 1066 occurs as Richard son of Gilbert, Richard son of Count Gilbert, Richard de Bienfaite, Richard of Clare and Richard of Tonbridge.

Marking-up Names

When you first begin work on your sources you will know very much less about the individuals that make up your group than you will at the end. You will want to preserve all the information that name forms can provide by noting all their occurrences, even if they obviously relate to the same person within a text.
All the name forms in the source texts should be isolated, even if they appear to indicate the same people. When you create the name index you are working with evidence about names, not people. Although we shall encounter a few exceptions, the general rule for this first stage is to avoid interpretation of the data. That will come at the second stage.

To mark-up the names in this tutorial we shall use a set of tags.

Study the following example:

<name> Alberic <descriptor> de Ver </descriptor> </name>

The whole name record is contained within the <name> </name> tag. Note that tags always come in pairs, an opening tag <name> and a closing tag </name>. The descriptor is tagged separately within the name-record tag, which isolates the given name without the need for a separate tag.

Subsequently we shall enter the data into tables, which is a simpler way of doing things, but the tagging system will force you to think carefully about, and to become familiar with, the name data you encounter.

As you mark-up each document, remember that initially we are tagging name records.We are not trying to identity individuals, only to isolate name forms that indicate an individual. Tag all name forms even if you suspect that the same person is mentioned more than once.

Using a <name> </name> for the personal name and <descriptor> </descriptor> for the second name element, mark-up Document 1.

Exercise 1

Start with Document 1.


Check your work by clicking on the English/Latin below:
English | Latin (links will open in separate windows)

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©University of Oxford

The compilers were Dr Katharine S. B. Keats-Rohan with the assistance of Dr Olga Borymchuk and Jacquelyn Fernholz.