Personal Names and Naming Practices in Medieval and Early Modern Scotland with Dr Matthew Hammond

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Blog post author: Craig Conner

Cover of the present volume (Boydell and Brewer Ltd)

On Tuesday 15th of October, the Centre for Scottish and Celtic Studies gladly welcomed Dr Matthew Hammond, research associate at King’s College London and a leading expert on the development of Medieval Scotland from the eleventh to the fourteenth centuries. Dr Hammond’s research interests include Scottish charters and land-holding structures, familial networks, identities and, crucially for this seminar, personal names. His visit marked the launch of an innovative new volume ‘Personal Names and Naming Practices in Medieval and Early Modern Scotland’, comprised of contributions from scholars of a variety of disciplines, including several from the CSCS itself and edited by Dr Hammond. He is also a co-creator of the People of Medieval Scotland (POMS) database, alongside the Centre’s own Prof. Dauvit Broun and others, and it was the creation of that database which facilitated the necessary collaboration and data-set which made this book possible. Drawing on the expertise of several scholars specialising in aspects of Scottish History and Celtic studies, the volume represents the most complete study to date of the long, multi-lingual development of personal names in medieval Scotland. While the topic has been of interest to scholars for decades, this multi-lingual heritage meant that the topic required considerable expertise in Gaelic, Norse, Welsh, Old English, French and Latin across a broad span of time to truly do the subject justice. It was through this multi-disciplinary approach that the volume was assembled, and several contributors including Dr Nicholas Evans, Prof. Thomas Owen Clancy and Dr John Rueben Davies, were present to speak on their own topics alongside Dr Hammond.

Discussing the earliest topic in terms of chronology, Dr Evans began the presentation by outlining his analysis of personal names from early medieval Gaelic chronicles from Ireland and Scotland. Despite the prominence of names within the various Irish Annals and the 10th century ‘Chronicle of the Kings of Alba’, little scholarship has gone into investigating what names found in these texts can tell us about the cultures of Northern Britain and Ireland in the period. Dr Evans’ work therefore offers us a foundational study for the topic. The sources under examination primarily deal with Gaelic-speaking world, with some reference to the Pictish and Northern Brittonic kingdoms, making Irish individuals predominate within those texts. Judging by the seventh and eighth century evidence, Evans found that most individuals were designated by a single name or by a patronymic phrase (i.e. X son of Y), and significantly the names relating to Gaelic-speaking Dal Riata tended to closely follow Irish names and naming conventions, albeit with the inclusion of some local and Pictish names uncommon to Ireland. By contrast, while high status Pictish individuals might be named in relation to their father as was the case in Gaelic regions, there was no Pictish equivalent of the avonymic surname (X grandson of Y) found in some Gaelic names, indicating that a grandfather’s identity did not have a significant bearing on an individual’s status in comparison in Pictish society, making avonymic surnames a distinctly Gaelic practice. Further, when discussing evidence relating to the new hybrid kingdom of Alba from the 10th century, Evans noted that while names of both Gaelic and Pictish origins remained common, this Gaelic avonymic practice was notably absent from the new ‘Scottish’ polity, dominated as it was by the East-coast lowlands of the old Pictish kingdoms. These interesting insights shed light on both the shared features of naming practices between Northern Britain and Ireland during the period, but also point to where those practices diverged and highlight the relative strength of Pictish cultural influence within Alba, despite the growing dominance of Gaelic language and culture within the kingdom.

Next, Dr Davies discussed his own contribution to the volume, namely a chapter on Old Testament personal names in 13th century Scotland prior to the outbreak of the Wars of Independence. Particularly. Dr Davies focussed on the question of why individuals from different backgrounds and regions in Scotland were commonly given biblical names. This widespread custom was used across ethnic and linguistic boundaries, but Davies argued that though some motivations were universal, some groups held specific reasons for selecting these names for their offspring. For example, the obvious Christian associations of such names points to personal piety as an obvious motivation; the prominence of Hebrew names amongst individuals within monastic institutions might also suggest an adherence to a reformed agenda of church practice on the part of those individuals or their parents. Such piety, alongside familial tradition, were surely motivations common to most cultures present in thirteenth century Scotland. For comparison, Davies noted that particularly for families of Anglo-Norman or Breton descent, biblical names could have signalled an interest in or interaction
with the phenomenon of crusading which had become well established on the continent from the turn of the twelfth century onwards. In contrast to this more recent development, Davies highlighted that giving children biblical names had been a commonplace custom for those of Brittonic descent, stretching back to the early medieval period when they were chosen as a marker of Christian civility to distinguish Britons from their non-Christian neighbours. For those of Brittonic descent, a name taken from the Old Testament could also represent a continued pride in their British heritage with its long Christian traditions. Davies concluded by empathising that factors both old and new, local and international, played a part in the development of these naming practices. But despite the broad range of motivations behind the custom, he argued that the popularity of names like Adam, David, Mary, Michael and Simon, shared across social and cultural divides helped bridge some of those differences. The popularity of Old Testament names in Scotland is therefore an example of both the continuing diversity between medieval Scotland’s cultures and an example of a shared cultural practice which, regardless of the motivations behind it, allowed the kingdom a degree of social cohesion and unity inspite those internal differences.

After this, Dr Hammond spoke about his work examining the development of the ‘Meic/Mac’ component in surnames throughout Gaelic Scotland and Ireland between the eleventh and thirteenth centuries. Hammond noted that while today many Gaelic surnames are identified by the components Ua/O (‘grandson of Y’) or Meic/Mc/Mac (‘son of Y ’) which designate membership of a defined kindred, this development towards distinctive Ua/Meic surnames grew at different paces in Ireland and Scotland historically. The use of the avonymic ‘Ua/O’ in Ireland was pioneered by the most powerful royal dynasties and had become a technical, exclusive name for members of those kindreds by the eleventh century, regardless of the name of an individual’s father or grandfather. By comparison, the use of the patronymic Meic/Mac in eleventh century Ireland and Scotland grew steadily, but of the 300 Scottish examples of Meic names from the POMS database, many eleventh and twelfth century examples used the term in a more general, descriptive manner ( i.e. X literal son of Y, not X descendent of Y). It was not until the thirteenth century that the Meic component generally attained its more technical, exclusive definition, as evidenced by the development of surnames by powerful kindreds such as Meic Domhnaill or Meic Dhùghaill. The inconsistent use of this terminology raises interesting questions about the development of elite familial identity during the period. For example, Hammond highlighted the conventional assumption that the Meic Dub/MacDuff Earls of Fife claimed descent from Dub, the 9th century King of Alba, and were therefore of distant royal descent. Hammond pointed out that the more general use of Meic in the eleventh century, from which the earliest example of a ‘Dub’ in the lineage appears, makes it more likely that the thirteenth century earls took their surname from this eleventh century ancestor and not from the ninth-century king. Dr Hammond concluded with the hope that these new insights would encourage further reappraisals of the nature and development of elite identity and kindred formation within Medieval Scotland in years to come.

Finally, Prof. Clancy rounded off the presentation with the subject of his chapter, the spread of literary personal names in twelfth and thirteenth century Scotland, which was co-authored with Dr Hammond. Clancy noted that the POMS database shows that there was a prominent fashion for giving individuals names drawn from contemporary literature in Scotland during the period. Many of these names come from chivalric Romance literature, which was divided into subgenres based on their various geographical settings. For example, Classical names from the Matters of Rome (e.g Alexander, Phillip) predominated, but others from the Matters of France ( e.g. Roland, Oliver) or Britain (e.g. Arthur, Isolde) were also represented, alongside names from Gaelic literature (e.g Ness, Deirdre, Corc). Clancy noted that these literary names are most commonly found in families based in Southern Scotland and Northern England, particularly among Anglo-Normans granted lands by King David I (Prince of the Cumbrians, 1113-24, King of Scots 1125-53). His reign marked a sustained influx of continental culture, practices and people into Northern Britain, so this trend towards literary names is commonly seen a direct result of those developments. Clancy argued however, that it would be a mistake to view this as a trend confined to only Anglo-Norman families; literary names from different genres were used by Gaelic, Brittonic and English-speaking kindreds, showing that their popularity cut across the ethnic and linguistic boundaries. Rather than viewing this cultural exchange solely an intrusion of Francophile culture into these native societies, Clancy argued that their adoption represented a growing interaction with these texts (in French, Latin or in Gaelic translations) so that these stories became part of a shared cultural framework for elites across Southern Scotland. In the absence of evidence, Clancy warned against interpretations that view these interactions as being purely one-sided exchanges. While it is often assumed that the twelfth century lord of Galloway named Roland/Lochlann was given the Gaelic name Lochlann at birth and used the French name Roland as a byname, Prof. Clancy argued it is equally possible that the reverse was the case, and that Lochlann was used as easy alternative to Roland for the lord’s Gaelic kinsmen. Clancy concluded by arguing that the study of the growth in literary names can give us insight into not just the spread and exchange of different literary traditions in medieval Scotland. It also represents an opportunity to reappraise conventional assumptions of how Scottish elites of various ethnic backgrounds engaged with different literary traditions, and on what terms they adopted or adapted elements from those cultures.

Illustration from a 19th century edition of the Chanson De Roland (Song of Roland), a popular chivalric romance from the Matters of France genre.

The volume is available now from the website of its publisher, Boydell And Brewer ltd:

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