The Wild Variety of Medieval Names: French Men in the Hundred Years’ War
By Steve Muhlberger
Lots of people are interested in the medieval origins of personal names. But there are more riches in the world of names than many of us realize. Those of us who read French history mainly in English may start out with the feeling that everybody was named Louis, Charles, Philip, and a few others. When we scratch the surface we find many names that are completely unfamiliar.
I’m one of those people who get a thrill from running across unusual or even unique names. When I was translating The Chronicle of The Good Duke Louis (II) of Bourbon, I found plenty. The book was a product of the 1420s, commissioned by a later Bourbon duke to remind the political people of the virtues of the Bourbon line. Jean Cabaret, the writer, spent a lot of effort describing Duke Louis’ early successful campaigns against the English and various mercenary groups. He was interested not just in the “Good Duke,” but in the warriors Louis trained (who were perhaps his sources). In his account of the 1370s and 80s, Cabaret gives us a treasure trove of names – formal and informal – used by the kind of minor nobles who sought profit and position as professional warriors. It’s the latter group, all men, who are the source for this essay.
In English we often talk about “first names” and “last names.” First names often connect the bearer to important people, while our last names identify our families. Among the warriors of fourteenth-century France we see a similar logic, but a wider variety of possible names.
In France, the first name could be that of the child’s patron saint. Hordes of boy-children and many, many girls were named Jean or Jeanne (ultimately after John the Baptist). It was commonly believed that one’s “patron saint” might ease your path to salvation or bail you out from a sticky situation here on earth. People had earthly patrons, too, who might provide less profound but still valuable benefits. Naming your son Jean could create or reaffirm valuable earthly connections Young Jean’s name might please rich, son-less Uncle Jean, who might give his young namesake preference, even leave him a desirable inheritance.
But first names were as a result not very distinctive. Names were attached in the form X de Y. X might be a first name, while Y could be a location, a fief, or an estate from the family’s history. It was a form of advertising.
The famous knight Geoffroi de Charny, though a man of amazing talents, was of only moderate rank. His father was plain old Jean de Charny. Jean’s son’s name, Geoffroi, had no obvious prestige, but when he rose to prominence he named his son Geoffroi. He was establishing a dynasty, an effort that Geoffroi the son also pursued.
Another example of using names to build up a noble dynasty’s identity can be seen in the case of the late fourteenth-century Crusader, single-combat champion and Marshal of France Jean le Meingre “called Boucicaut.” This Boucicaut’s father was also called Jean le Meingre (the skinny one?) and was also a Marshal of France. Apparently the family was adding to their history by adding to their collection of names. Chroniclers called the famous marshal “Boucicaut (scholars are uncertain what this means);” though Cabaret confides to us that the son was also called “the little marshal.” I feel sure that no one called him that to his face – he was as belligerent an example of chivalry to be found in the chaotic fourteenth century.
The form X de Y is perhaps the most common way nobles were identified in The Chronicle of the Good Duke because it could be used to describe everyone from monarchs to obscure men at arms trying to make a living from war. The first name (X) could be as simple as an ordinary “Jean” or the less ordinary Ciquot “of the marsh” or “Odin (de Rollat).” Or you could emphasize one part of your social identity by prefacing a name with “Le”. We’ve seen that the Boucicaut clan remembered one ancestor for a physical attribute “Le Meingre” while other lords and officers were called by the names of their fiefs or offices. Le Borgne de Veulce was known to Cabaret only by his obscure title. On the other hand, it only made sense to call the prominent Count of Bar “Le Barrois.”
Some of Cabaret’s obscure names may indicate that the bearers were anxious to advertise their rise in status. Tachon of the Glene implies that Tachon was collecting the gleaning tax that harvesters paid for the right to glean the fields after the first harvest. That hardly sounds like a rich or prestigious appointment, but in fact he was a man of substance: “for his good customs people called [him] ‘the good bailli of the Bourbonnois.’”
Then there was Ouldrai of the Forest, who might have been a French version of Robin Hood. (Robin is first recorded or rather invented in the fourteenth century as a forest-dwelling champion of justice against abusive knights and sheriffs.) Was Ouldrai a more legitimate Robin Hood? Or did legitimacy not come into it?
Cabaret’s desire to commemorate the heroes of the young Duke of Bourbon’s glory days provides us with some unusual names that we might never know otherwise: Champropin, Michaille, Guyon Gouffier, Bertier “the Hermit.” My favourite names, though, belong to the Wolf brothers. Sir Blain Loup was one of the Duke of Bourbon’s marshals at the Siege of Verteuil. And with him was his brother Bliombéris Loup.
Is Bliombéris really a name? Yes. Bliombéris was a name out of medieval romance literature. Many other Frenchmen were named after a legendary figure, even Lancelot. Bliombéris is hardly the only name taken from romance – but is sure a good example of such – and such fun!
Steven Muhlberger, before he retired from Nipissing University, studied and taught Late Antiquity, the history of democracy, Islamic history, and chivalry. His most recent scholarly works include The Chronicle of the Good Duke Louis II Bourbon published by Freelance Academy Press.
Top Image: French nobles in the 15th century – British Library MS Add. 18750, fol. 3
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