By Cait Stevenson
It is not, strictly speaking, true that every Christian in late medieval Europe had the same six names. So what if the most well-known medieval women writers today include Marguerite Porete, Margery Kempe, Marguerite d’Oignt, Margaretha Ebner, and Marguerite de Navarre? When it comes to Christine, there’s only de Pizan and Ebner!
When you expand to the more well-known holy women, you also get Christina of Markyate, Christina Mirabilis, and Christine of Stommeln. Henry VIII’s six wives only had three different names among them. The two most famous executed men in Henry’s England were both Thomas.
Even setting aside the stunning number of royal Henrys / Heinrichs / Enriques / Enricos / Henris / and so on, it’s tempting to say that by the fifteenth century, western Christians did indeed share the same six names, and easy enough to point to famous saints as the source.
Nevertheless, names like “[x]” and “[x]” attested in [English court records] show that medieval parents and godparents didn’t feel quite so restrained by lists of the most popular saints. Let’s look at some of the reasons all those Margarets, Thomases, and [x] got their names.
Sometimes the obvious is obvious for a reason. Saints’ names were indeed the overwhelming choice at baptism. In the late fifteenth-century collection of mystical poetry from the Franciscan convent at Villingen, well before the tradition of choosing new names upon taking religious vows, the twenty-two named nuns include:
- Agnes Blum, Agnes Richatti, Agnes Bützli, and Agnes Sattler (St. Agnes, apocryphal virgin martyr)
- Anna Bruhl, Anna Humpissin, and Anna Linsin (St. Anne, apocryphal name for the Virgin Mary’s mother)
- Magdalena Bröcki and Magdalena Wagner (biblical Mary Magdalene, considered a saint)
- Ursula Funk and Ursula Haider (St. Ursula, apocryphal virgin martyr alongside 11,000 others)
The idea was that a particular saint would take special care of their namesakes. So just like not all saints were accounted equally powerful, not all saints were created equal in naming. For girls, the various virgin martyrs of the early Church were extremely popular sources of names, especially Katherine of Alexandria and Margaret of Antioch. Katherine was perhaps the most popular woman saint of the late Middle Ages besides Mary; Margaret was another one of the prominent fourteen “Holy Helpers,” and she was the particular saint for helping pregnant women and women in childbirth.
There were trends over time, too. In the fifteenth century, with the growing importance of the Bible in lay religious life, saints with biblical roots also increased their namesake popularity, as with St. Anne and Mary Magdalene seen above.
In the late fourteenth century, Katherine of Alexandria got a major boost in the namesake rankings through Catherine of Siena. Perhaps the most famous woman saint from the Middle Ages, Catherine’s ascetic feats and mystical stigmata spread the promise of her success as an intercessor across western Europe. Thus, Nuremberg author and visionary Katharina Tucher (d. 1448), who admired Catherine of Siena enough to purchase a copy of her hagiography, had a daughter called Katrei and chose to retire to the convent of St. Katherine’s.
Medieval Europeans didn’t have to be kings to name their children after themselves. Albrecht Durer (1471-1528), the famous German artist and less famous author, was the son of a man also named Albrecht Durer. The elder joyfully asserted in the family chronicle that his son’s name was in his own honor.
What’s so interesting about parades of medieval Juniors, though, is that parents typically didn’t have the ultimate say in their children’s names. A baby’s godparents, who stood up for them at their baptism into the Church, chose the formal name. Indeed, in the Albrechts’ case, Albrecht the Elder noted that the Younger’s name was chosen by his godfather, Anton Koberger. The presumable lesson here is to choose your baby’s godparents very, very carefully.
No, there weren’t a lot of little Beowulfs toddling around fifteenth-century Winchester. But families like Bavarian nobles Bernhardin and Katharina von Stauff couldn’t help but turn to some of their favorite (we hope) book characters in the 1480s and 90s. They named three of their children after characters in Wolfram von Eschenbach’s Arthurian epic Parzival: Argula (Orgeleuse), Feraris (Feirafiz), and Gramaflanz.
Cait Stevenson earned her PhD in medieval history from the University of Notre Dame. She is the author of How to Slay a Dragon: A Fantasy Hero’s Guide to the Real Middle Ages. You can follow Cait on Twitter @sunagainstgold
Top Image: Bibliothèque nationale de France MS Latin 10426, fol. 134v