Cornish (and Other) Personal Names from the 10th Century Bodmin Manumissions

by Heather Rose Jones
(Tangwystyl verch Morgant Glasvryn,

© 1999, 2001 by Heather Rose Jones; all rights reserved.


A Very Little Historic Background

Cornish is a Celtic language in the Brythonic family, a close relative of Welsh and Breton, spoken on the Cornish peninsula in the south-west of Britain -- separated from Wales by the Bristol Channel and from Brittany by the English Channel. The various Brythonic languages are considered to begin diverging around the 6th century, but their close relationship can be seen in the similarity of the personal names found in them over the next several centuries. Unlike the case in Wales, the Anglo-Saxon advance in the Cornish peninsula was steady and eventually complete, reaching the eastern parts of Devon in the 7th century, the eastern part of Cornwall proper by the early 8th, and probably becoming complete in the mid 9th century. This advance should not necessarily be viewed as a "conquest"; native Cornish kings appear to have continued ruling in some areas as late as the early 10th century, and members of the two cultures appear to havelived together amicably, for the most part. (Wakelin 1975)

The Bodmin Manumissions

The most prolific sources of personal names for the various Brythonic languages in the post-Roman/pre-Norman period tend to be legal records kept by the church for various purposes. In the cases of Welsh and Breton, we have collections of charters -- grants of land made to some religious institution. For Welsh, for example, there is the Book of Llandav, with records from the 8-10th century (Sims-Williams 1991); for Breton, the Cartulary of Redon, among others, with records primarily of the 9th century. (de Courson 1863, Jackson 1953) In the case of Cornish, the best and virtually only source of personal names from this general period is a collection of marginal notes in a gospel book written in Bodmin, recording the manumission of slaves during the 9th or 10th century. (Ellis 1974, Wakelin 1975) The general format of the entries is, "Here are the names of the people that so-and-so frees for the sake of his soul: A, B, C, etc." There are three functions in which people appear in these entries: the owners, the freed slaves, and the witnesses. The names of the owners are primarily English, with a few Cornish, and some of Biblical origin. The names of the slaves are overwhelmingly Cornish -- even more so than the owners are English, but with some English and again some Biblical. About half of the names of the witnesses are Cornish, and the vast majority of them are identified as holding religious office.

There is a great deal of repetition among the witnesses: out of 219 witness listings, there are perhaps 100 different people with the two most common appearing 13 times, although the exact number cannot be determined with certainty, since assumptions have to be made about the likelihood of different people bearing duplicate names, or of the same person appearing with different office titles.

The Texts and the Transcriptions

The text of these manumissions have been transcribed and published a number of times. (Earle 1888, Förster 1930, Haddan & Stubbs 1869, Kemble 1846, Thorpe 1865) Of these, Earle is a sampling only. The others agree for the most part with a few differences in convention: Förster transcribes the manuscript's half-uncial "g" as yogh ({3}), while the others use the more usual letter. Kemble renders both edh and thorn as edh, while the others distinguish them. More substantial differences of reading that involve the interpretation of difficult letters, the interpretation of spaces or the lack thereof, and in some cases the flow of the text on the page, are given in full below, although I usually prefer one reading over the others. For reference, I have numbered the names in the sequence in which they appear in Thorpe.

The Languages and Other Context

The manumissions appear in two languages: Latin and Old English, although the separation is not complete. For example, the Old English form bisceop appears in a Latin entry where one would expect Latin episcopus. Similarly, Latin forms such as S[anctu]s Petrocus appear in Old English entries. There is also evidence, in the spelling of some of the Cornish names, that at least some of the scribes involved were familiar with a Cornish tradition of literacy. This shows particularly in the use of "gu" where a phonetic rendering under Old English spelling conventions would have "w". The language of the entry is noted with L or E for each name. By my count, there are 397 different name entries, of which 88 appear in Old English texts, 300 appear in Latin texts, and 9 appear in a list of names with no other context.

Interpreting the gender of the names is not always easy, and some of the published sources have drawn erroneous conclusions on this topic. The names of the freed slaves are usually given in lists, rather than individually, and the language introducing them is not always gender-specific. In Latin, they may be [nomina] illarum feminarum "[names] of these females", [nomina] mulierum "of women", [nomen] illius viri "of this man" -- but more often as [nomina] illorum hominum "of these people", sometimes for a clearly mixed-gender group (e.g. Huna et soror illius Dolo "Huna and his sister Dolo"), but sometimes for a single-sex group, or in the singular for one gender or the other. Similarly, in Old English records, one woman is identified specifically as wif (woman), but mostly we find mann (plural menn) used either specifically for men or generically for both genders. In interpreting the genders of the names appearing here, I have interpreted mulieris, femina, vir, and wif as indicating gender clearly. Similarly, where the surrounding context provides gender information (as with the above soror "sister" and similar cases in Old English), I have interpreted the gender with confidence. When any of the other terms are used, or no relevant language is present at all, I have first attempted to find cognates of the name in Welsh or Breton where the gender is clear, or other examples of the elements in the name, particularly the deuterotheme, that are specifically associated with one gender or the other, either in Cornish or in the other Brythonic languages (although it is not entirely impossible that this method would produce errors). In some cases, we simply have no clue. In the case of the Old English names present in the text, we can generally be on much surer ground, based on the large amount of comparative material that exists.

Although this article is inspired primarily by an interest in the Cornish names, all the names are listed and discussed (although the non-Cornish ones only briefly).

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