Finding a Name and Arms for the Historical Re-Creation
By Alan Terlep (known in the SCA as Alan Fairfax)
NOTE:Because more than 95% of our clients are members of the SCA,
this article spends some time talking about SCA practices. However, the
principles apply equally well to people in Renaissance Festivals or other
If you get involved in a living history group, at some point you will feel
pressure to "get a name." Even people who are generally known by their
modern name usually have a medieval name that they don't use. Names are
one of the biggest components of the culture that groups like the SCA are
trying to build--and whether or not people use your new name in daily use,
it will come up in courts and "formal" SCA settings. Armory--a coat of
arms or a badge--aren't used quite as widely, but many people find that it's
fun to be able to put up a banner with a design and say, "that's my arms."
Finding vs. Passing
In the SCA, there is an organization called the College of Arms (CoA
for short) which registers names and arms. Some other organizations have
similar groups for registration. In the SCA, registering a name and arms
with the CoA does not give it any kind of legal protection--other people
can use that name or coat of arms. On the other hand, many people consider
it discourteous to use a registered name or coat of arms, and some kingdoms
require people to register or submit a name or arms before getting awards
or fighting in Crown Tourney.
Even though it may not be particularly useful, many people like to
have their name and arms officially recorded. When you submit a name
or arms, you can expect to spend $8-$10 US and wait 6-12 months to find
out whether it has passed. That time and money are spent checking the
submission against all the other registered items, and determining
whether it follows the SCA rules for submission. When your submission
is registered, you'll have something that's official and which follows
some historical guidelines. You won't necessarily have a historical
name, though. Despite the time spent, getting something registered
doesn't ensure that it's historical. Why not? Partly because there
are some deliberate loopholes--for example, you can include a part of
your real name in your SCA name whether or not it was used in the
Middle Ages. But this is also because it's hard to define a style
with rules. Imagine trying to write two pages which explain the
difference between country music and other kinds of music in terms
that people with little musical knowledge can understand. It's not an
easy task. On the other hand, people get annoyed when heralds say,
"you can't have this because it's not medieval. No, I can't explain
why--I just know it." Therefore, we have rules that catch some, but
by no means all, of the non-medieval names and arms which are
submitted. So when you're looking for a name and arms, you have to
decide how historical you want to be. There are different procedures
for names and arms; I'll talk about both.
Why Be Historical?
The simple answer is that it's more fun. We play at being
medieval people. The best place to start at being a medieval person
is with your name and arms, the foundation on which all your other
accomplisments will be based. There's also a practical reason to look
for an authentic name and arms: it's simpler. If you choose something
that can be found in history, you don't have to wonder if it will
pass. Plus, the research you do is likely to lead to other facts
about your time and place that you can use to investigate other fields
of interest or to build a persona story.
Finding a Given Name
Names can be divided into "given names," the name by which people call
you, and "bynames," the names which are added to given names.
("Surnames" are a subclass of bynames which are unchanging and often
inherited; in most medieval cultures a person might be given multiple
bynames. It's usually better to look for a given name first, and a
byname second). People are going to use your given name more than
your byname, so it's easier to pick a given name and match the byname
to it than the other way around.
The best way to find a medieval name is to start with a culture, not a
name. If you start out looking for a French name, you'll have a place
to start. Name research books are written by language, so it will be
much easier for you to look if you have a culture to start with.
Don't be too quick to become a Celt, Viking, or Italian either--there
are a lot of interesting cultures out there that are under-represented
in the SCA (see Under-Represented
Cultures). Go to your library and look up an area in the
Encyclopedia Britannica or, if you can
find it, the Encyclopedia of the Middle Ages.
If you are starting with a name that you've chosen from a non-medieval
source, then you've already made your life harder: You have to try to
find documentation for something that may not have existed at all.
Consider where you got the name in the first place. If you made it
up, or if you took it from a modern fantasy novel or role-playing
game, then it probably will not be a correct medieval name. Most
modern fantasy authors do not research historical names before naming
their characters; they just make 'em up. And it would be a surprising
coincidence if a name made up by a 20th century writer happened also
to be a historical name from medieval Europe.
You can use any name you like; no herald is going to stop you from
using your favorite name. But if you want to re-create medieval
culture, then your name is an easy place to start. So the best
approach is to choose your name from a medieval source. There are a
number of sources for medieval names:
If you are looking for a specific name, don't be hung up on details of
meaning or spelling. Like modern names, most medieval names weren't
given because of their meaning. The spelling of names did vary, but
not randomly. Names were spelled to reproduce their pronunciation,
but the sound assigned to each letter also varied from one language to
another, just as it does today. So in order to figure out how a name
can be spelled in a particular language, you have to understand how
the letters correspond to sounds. For example, in medieval German,
the letters "V" and "F" were pronounced the same. So the medieval
German name "Friedrich" could also have been spelled "Vriedrich," and
it was. A common mistake in the Society is assuming that modern
English pronunciation and spelling rules can be applied to medieval
names. We may pronounce "y" and "i" the same in many words, but in
Middle English and Old Welsh (among others), they represent different
- The best place to find a name is in a book on medieval names which
include dates (see our bibliography for a list of good ones). Don't
be afraid of foreign-language books; all you need to find is a name
followed by a date; it's often possible to pick a name and date out of
an entry even if you can't read a word of the language. If you're not
sure of what you're reading, copy the whole thing and send it
in--someone will make sense of it.
- Name lists from SCA sources can also be useful, but be careful!
The Ordinary (the books of SCA names which has passed) is not a
reliable source for documentation; as stated earlier, many registered
SCA names were not actually used in the Middle Ages. There are an
increasing number of lists which take names from medieval sources; if
there's one for the culture you're interested in, you can use that.
If possible, make sure that the sources for the name list are period
- Histories are good sources, but many authors use modernized or
Anglicized forms of the names they mention. For example, a lot of
histories mention "King Charles of Spain." "Charles" is an English
form of the name "Carlos," which is the name the Spanish kings
actually used. Author's introductions often explain how names have
been treated; check and see if the author explains what forms they
used in writing.
- Avoid fiction as a source. You don't meet people named "Obi-Wan" or
"Aragorn" today, and there's no guarantee that a name used in fiction
was also used by real people.
Finding a Byname
A "byname" is any name which is added to a given name to distinguish
different people using the same given name. Bynames aren't surnames;
they aren't passed from generation to generation and they were given
by convenience, not by birth. Surnames were first used in Western
Europe starting in the 1300's and were generally used there by about
1500. People were given bynames to distinguish them from
other people in the area with the same name; these designators were
usually straightforward, chosen by the neighbors for the neighbors.
You'll run into an occassional person with a name like "Erik Bloodaxe"
but almost everyone was given a fairly straightforward name. There
are basically four types of bynames. Most cultures have examples of
them all, but each culture has certain patterns which stand out as
The first three groups are pretty easy to document. If you find a
period example of a name, place, or occupation, you can use it as the
basis for a patronymic, locative, or occupational name. You may have
to make some grammatical changes but you can be fairly sure that
you've got the right idea. Epithets are trickier because not every
descriptive phrase is likely to be a period descriptive phrase. If
you're looking for an epithet, remember the following things: Epithets
were chosen by the community for convenience, not for dramatic effect.
If you have two friends named "Dave," you'll probably call them "Big
Dave" and "Small Dave," not "Dave Bloodwolf" and "Dave Goblinsbane."
Medieval people weren't any different. In general, metaphors weren't
used to describe people. A name like "Drakenhand" doesn't mean, "He
strikes with a dragon's hand," it means, "His hand looks like a
dragon's claw." A wise person would have been called "John le Wyse,"
not "John Lightningmind." A modern example might be a good
illustration: when I was in college there were two people named Dave
in my group of friends. One was 5'4; he was "Small Dave." The other
was 6'3; he was "Big Dave." Later we met another Dave who was 6'5";
we called him "Bigger Dave" or "Neurotic Dave" and sometimes called
the 6'3" Dave "Dave the Geek" since he had started working as a
- Names of relationship, such as mac Domhnaill (Domnall's son), Mastroguilio
(Guilio's servant), or Ivanovna (Russian, "Ivan's daughter")
- Locatives, based on a place of origin. Some referred to specific
places, such as "al-Maghrebi" (Arabic, "North African") or von
Bayern." (German, "Bavarian") Others referred to general areas, such
as "du Nord" (French, "from the north") or "della Torre." (Italian, "from
- Occupational names are based on an occupation, such as "Chapman" (English, "merchant").
- Epithets are terms which describe a characteristic of the person.
They can represent a phyiscal characteristic ("Barbarossa," German
"redbeard"), a character trait ("Heppni," Norse "prosperous, lucky"),
or even an event in the person's life ("Knockwalledowne")
These names had all the characteristics of medieval names.
- They were simple and literal.
- They were chosen for the convenience of the community, not the individual.
- They weren't dramatic, or even complimentary.
If your name fits these criteria, you're well off.
Finding Historical Arms
Because heraldry is an art, it's harder to pin down the "rules" for a
coat of arms. Here are some general suggestions which will help you
get a historical coat of arms. Heraldic arms came into use in
northern France in the late 12th century. The use of heraldry spread
through western Europe quite fast, but there are still lots of times
and places in our period where arms were not used at all. If you have
a persona from one of those places, you have a quandry: You can be
true to your persona and not use arms, or you can follow Society
custom and use arms that don't fit your persona. This is a choice
that only you can make; there is no right or wrong choice. Your
culture may have used some sort of non-heraldic personal insignia. If
so, you may be able to design heraldic arms which also serve as an
insignia appropriate to your persona.
Early heraldry was very simple. There was a limited set of colors and
charges (things pictured on the shield). The range of designs grew
slowly as the use of heraldry spread. Styles of armory changed just like
styles of clothing. Armorial style tended to change less quickly, of
course. Arms were inherited from one generation to the next and only a
small number of new arms were designed in each generation. And since
acquiring arms was, in at some sense, a form of upward social mobility,
new armigers wanted to associate themselves with the older noble families
by using the same design style.
There are exceptions, of course. Some times in history saw rapid change
in armorial style. England after the War of the Roses is one example.
The new nobility created by the Tudor kings adopted arms which are
distinctly different from those used by their predecessors.
The upshot is that armorial design style varies from time to time and
from place to place, and just as you might study your culture's clothing
styles for a culture before trying to make garb for your persona, you may
want to study the armory used in your period before you try to design
On the other hand, there is a style of heraldry which is common to many
of the cultures we study. This style is well-understood by Society
heralds, and is described in the rules for submissions. Many people in
the Society use this style, regardless of their personae. A discussion of
the common style can be found in Compleat Anachronist #20, "Heraldry".
KEEP IT SIMPLE! There's no such thing as too simple. If you want a arms
that's going to be medieval, use one thing on your arms--you can look
through hundreds of coats of arms from the 1400's without finding a single
one that uses anything more than a group of charges and an ordinary. Don't
get carried away with color; two or three colors is enough. Four is too
many. When you design a arms, add up the colors and charges in a arms.
If it's more than 8, you can be pretty sure that it won't pass. If it's
more than 4, you can be pretty sure that it's not a good example of medieval
heraldry. Purple and green are much rarer than other colors. Although
they're found in period, they're uncommon.
It's one thing for me to say, "do research on 13th-century Italian names,"
and quite another to do it. You should always get two opinions on whatever
you do. Like all academics, heralds disagree and may well give you
radically different opinions. But where do you find experienced heralds?
You can write to your kingdom herald--or, better yet, to Laurel. They're
guaranteed to have some experience, and are surprisingly willing to help
out. If you talk to a herald and say, "I want a really accurate name,"
you'll get help. If you want a response, you can submit your name and note
that you're looking to have it changed to fit a specific time and place. It
will get checked by many of the most experienced heralds in the SCA, who
will do their best at coming up with the answers you're looking for.
Last Modified March 9, 2000