Choosing a Society Name: Hints for Newcomers

by Dietmar Reinhart von Straubing and Malachias von Morgenstern,
(Thomas N. Eastman, and
 Sean C. Laney,

With assistance from Talan Gwynek, Tangwystyl verch Morgant Glasvryn, and Arval Benicoeur.
Version 1.3, 2 May 2000; e-mail address updated May 2005. © 2000 by Thomas N. Eastman and Sean C. Laney
As a newcomer to the SCA you have an opportunity to choose your own name. Here are some helpful hints to get you started and hopefully help you avoid some common pitfalls.

  1. Everyone is encouraged to have a name, but you don't want to rush a decision that you may regret later. It might be helpful to choose a given name within your first six months or so and try it on for size. You may later decide on a different culture or find that the name just doesn't suit you.

    One way to avoid this problem is to pick a name that was used by many cultures in our period, and postpone choosing the particular culture. Such Christian names as John, Peter, Mary, and Elizabeth, and names of Frankish origin such as Richard, Henry, and William were adopted into many European languages by about the 14th century. If you pick such a name, you can fit it into a variety of cultures with minor changes and few problems. For example, William can be changed to the Italian Guillermo or the German Wilhelm. In fact, you'll be re-creating a period phenomenon: The 14th century Italian merchant Dino Rapondi signed his name Dyne Raponde in 1374 while in Paris; and the 15th century Italian banker Giovanni Sacchi was known in England as Jean Sac.

  2. There is more than one right way to choose a name. Unfortunately, there are even more wrong ways. It is better to pick a culture, and then look through names that we know were used by that culture, rather than to pick out a name, and later try to shoehorn it into whatever culture you can manage. Doing this will save you (and your consulting herald) a lot of headaches.

    Consulting heralds will help you as much as they can, but you can't expect the impossible. If you go to your herald with a name made up out of whole cloth, you're more likely to annoy him than anything else. If you make up a name, the chances that you have invented something authentic are about as good as getting dinner by dialing a random phone number and asking if they do take out. While spelling did vary, names followed rules, and spelling was not random. Please do not arrange random sounds and words with hopes of finding a name.

    Building an authentic name requires more than just picking authentic parts, just as building an authentic gown requires more than just picking authentic fabric. Medieval names were constructed in different ways from modern names. Cormac, Conall and Ó Ruairc are all fine 14th century Gaelic name elements, but Cormac Conall Ó Ruairc is not a correct 14th century Gaelic name: Gaels didn't use middle names until long after our period.

  3. Be very careful about your sources, and be sure that they are reliable. It is important to realize that most writers aren't interested in reproducing medieval names accurately. Just as you wouldn't choose your garb by watching Robin Hood, you shouldn't choose a name by reading historical fiction, fantasy, or role-playing games. The authors of those books have different interests than ours, and often compromise historical accuracy to serve other goals.

    Baby-name books are often poor sources for similar reasons. While they probably include a few period names, they include many others that may not have been, and it may be difficult to find out which is which. A random choice is likely to be a bad choice.

    The value of genealogical databases varies wildly, from excellent to mediocre to pure fantasy. It all depends on the author's interests, and that's the central message: Not everyone studying the medieval world cares about the things that are important to us

    If you are interested in a particular culture, there are usually standard references available towards which we can point you. Even history books may be dangerous, because they are not interested in preserving medieval spellings. Historians rarely give names in their original forms, preferring instead to use conventional modern spellings so that readers will be able to identify the name.

    Some things to look for in a reliable source:

    1. Does the source discuss specific dates with regard to names instead of general terms like ancient, old or traditional?
    2. Does the source use vague meaningless terms such as Celtic or Teutonic? If so, avoid it.
    3. Does the source assign an alleged meaning to each name? If so, it is probably unreliable.
    4. Does the source provide more than one variant of each name? Better yet, does it provide specific dates for different variants?
    5. Does the source make it clear whether the name discussed is a given name or a surname?
    6. Does it give examples of whole names, so that you can see the name elements in context?
    7. Does the source include a list of the sources that were used to compile the list?

    A good source does not have to meet all of these requirements, but the more it fulfills, the more likely it is to be a reliable source.

    If you have internet access, here are a few places you can start:

    If you find a name that you like, try to get as much information about it as possible, such as the culture, time period, purported meaning if any, and any other relevant details. It is very important to record the title, author, and publication data of the book, and the page you're referencing. Nothing can be more frustrating than finding 'the perfect name' and forgetting where you saw it.

    Try to learn at least a little about the naming practices of your chosen culture before trying to formulate a name. This will start you off on the right track, and may spark your interests in other aspects of your chosen culture.

  4. Don't get too hung up on the meaning of a name. Though it is given great importance in most baby name books, a majority of given names had no meaning. Names almost always derive from real words in some language, but remained in use centuries after the language had changed beyond recognition. Once these words began to be used as names, they were merely labels attached to a person, and soon lost their original meaning. For instance, the given name Thomas, consistently popular throughout the Middle Ages and still common today, is derived from an Aramaic word meaning twin. Yet, it would be silly to expect that everyone given the name is or was a twin. We all realize that the modern English name Heather is related to the plant heather, but hardly expect the plant to have anything to do with the person. Recently we encountered a young lady at the checkout counter when she celebrated her birthday. "June", she replied. Her nameplate said April.

Some general hints:

  1. It is best to use a single given name and a single byname. The use of middle names, confirmation names, and compound surnames arose after our period in most European cultures and only very late in our period in others. Your culture may use middle names or complex surnames, but it is best to avoid them unless you know that they are appropriate for your culture. In modern Spain, members of the nobility often have several given names and very complex surnames that combine their parents' surnames. This custom is modern; medieval Spanish names were much shorter and simpler.

  2. Naming customs are artifacts of particular cultures, so the more you know about the culture you're trying to re-create, the easier time you'll have choosing a name. For example, in choosing a name for an Iberian Jew, it is certainly helpful to know that the Jews were expelled from Spain and Portugal by the end of the 15th century!

  3. Choose name elements from a single language or culture. It is common in the Society to attempt to show mixed parentage in your name, but this simply wasn't done in period. On the rare occasions where people from different cultures inter-married, their children were named according to the culture in which they lived. People moved to another country would either keep their old names, or use local equivalents. For instance, if a Frenchman named Jean settled in an Italian city, he might have been known to the Italians as Giovanni Francesco, i.e. Giovanni the Frenchman. If he married and had a son, the boy might be known by two forms of his name: one French, the other Italian. But there would be no circumstance in which anyone would call him something half French and half Italian.

  4. Languages change over time, so try to match name elements that were used in the same time period. Old English (Beowulf), Middle English (Chaucer), and Early Modern English (Shakespeare) are different languages, so mixing name elements from each is poor re-creation.

  5. Names found in the Bible or Classical literature are not necessarily good choices for period names. Certain biblical names were definitely used, such as Adam, John, Mary, etc. However, most were not used until after the Reformation very late in period. Many of the rare late period names are Old Testament names, such as Elijah, Hephzibah, and Jedediah.

  6. Avoid the names of gems, or flowers and plants. With very few exceptions, such names were not used in period. Such names as Amber, Pearl, Ruby, Sapphire, Daisy, Ginger, Heather, Iris, Ivy, and Jasmine did not come into vogue until the 19th century.

  7. It has been common in America and England since the 19th century to use surnames as given names. Craig, Leslie, and Ashley are common given names today, but were used only as surnames in our period. This practice was generally unknown in the cultures we study: Given names and surnames were distinctly different classes of words. There are exceptions, but unless you know that surnames were used as given names in your period -- and even better, that a particular surname was used as a given name -- you should avoid it since it is probably poor re-creation.

    Similarly, common words and place names were only very rarely used as given names in medieval cultures. The best way to ensure that you have an authentic given name is to choose one that we know was used in the culture you're trying to re-create.

Other good articles have been written to help newcomers choose names. You may find some of the helpful.

A Brief Introduction to Medieval Bynames
Scottish Names 101
Quick and Easy Gaelic Bynames

Layout, editting, and publishing by Arval Benicoeur.