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 re-creation groups.

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 sounds.

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 characteristic. 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 computer technician.

These names had all the characteristics of medieval names.

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 your arms.
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.

Getting Help

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