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The Latinization of Names in the Middle Ages

Magistra Nicolaa de Bracton

Latin was the language of learning in the Middle Ages. It was spoken and written first by scholar monks and bishops, then later by cathedral school and university students, and finally, by the classicizing humanist scholars of the Renaissance. However, most of these peoples' names were not Latin names -- they were French, German, Polish, Italian, English, or one of the many other languages spoken in Europe. In order to converse with their fellows in Latin, or to record their names as the authors of scholarly works, or to cite other scholars, it became necessarily to render into Latin their personal names, surnames, and place-names. Latinized personal names were often used in charters for everyone else as well. This article will hopefully give the SCA scholar the means to do the same.

Personal names:

If you had a name that was a local form of one already in the Bible, Latinization became an easy matter. Peter, Pedro, Per, or Petr became Petrus: John, Jean, Giovanni, or Ivan became Ioannes, and so on. If your SCA name is one of these, a look through a list of the names in the back of any copy of the Vulgate (the Latin Bible) should show you the proper Latin form. Established saints' names work the same way: If you are a Lorenzo or a Lawrence, your Latin name would be Laurentius; if you are a Cecily, your Latinized name would be Cecilia. Finally, some names are descended from Roman names, such as Julian from Julius or Julianus. Chances are, if your name is one from a Romance language, it will have a Latin equivalent. (Be wary of French names, though--quite a number of popular French names were Norman in origin, and thus of Germanic derivation; furthermore, the fact that the Carolingian empire extended into German speaking lands, and that before that, the Germanic-speaking Franks who overran the Romans left even more Germanic names in the French language). An excellent place to root out Latin spellings of Biblical and saints' names is to look up the English version in the Oxford English Dictionary (the huge unabridged version, which larger reference libraries should own) and follow the derivation of the name back to its Latin form.

If your name is not a biblical one, the Latinization was usually based on basic Latin grammar. Most names simply added -us (for males) or -a (for females): e.g. Robert--Robertus; Richard--Riccardus; Henry--Henricus; Helewise -- Helewisa; Mathilde -- Matilda. Names ending in "n" and "m" were sometimes left unchanged (for those of you who know Latin, they become third declension and do not add an ending in the nominative case), though for the English "Alan" you see both "Alan" and "Alanus". Names ending in "is" were generally left that way, because that is a perfectly valid Latin nominative ending. Names with different forms in different languages were usually left that way; thus, you would see "Guillemus" in France and "Willemus" in England. Some names varied from these rules: Thus "Guy" is latinized in England to "Wido" and in France to (you guessed it) "Guido". Anything was possible when scribes were confronted with names in languages like Irish or Welsh. Generally, it seems, the scribe or scholar would sound out the name and try to render it into something resembling Latin; thus, for the Welsh "Llywellyn", you1d probably end up with something like "Lewellenus" or even "Lewis" or "Louis". There is no one "right way" to Latinize these sorts of names.

Surnames:

Surnames were usually Latinized like personal names: simply by rendering into something recognizable in Latin letters and adding -us or -a. Scholars, however, were frequently known only by their first name and a place name or Latin nickname in their publications.

Place-names

Generally, for a scholar, a place name could be derived from one of a number of locations: Place of birth, the location of their home base monastic house, the location of an office which they held, and so forth. When presented with these place names, which were very often quite "un-Latin", scribes and scholars did one of two things:

If the place had a name in the Roman Empire, and they were aware of that name, it would be used: e.g., Trier--Augusta Treverorum (or just Treverorum); Straussbourg--Argentoratum; York--Eboracum, etc.

However, not everyone was aware of these old names, so another common practice was to, once again, sound out the name and try to render the name into something resembling Latin. There was no uniformity in these transliterations, although having a famous scholar from your town usually guaranteed that certain spellings would be more "popular". Here are just a few examples:

Canterbury: Cantuaria, Cantebrigia, Canthuaria, Cantorbena, Cantuariensis. etc.
London: Londinium, Lundinium, Lundonia, Lieodonias, Lindoniam, Trinovatium, etc.
Paris: Lutetia Parisiorum, Leucotecia Parrhisiorum, Lucotetia, Lutecia, Parisiacensis, Parisium, Parisus, Parius, etc.
Leicester: Cestrensis, Cestria, Ledcestria, Legecestreris, Legorensis, Leogara, Leycestria
Toledo: Toletum, Tholetum, Toleitela, Tolletanensis
Stockholm: Holmia, Holmiae, Stocholmia
Pskov: Plescova, Pscovia, Pscovensis
Troyes: Trecae, Treucae, Tricas, Tricasium
Ireland: Hibernia, Coruscha, Irlandia
Barcelona: Barcinona, Barchimonenis, Barcino, Barcellona

For the first three, these were only a selection of the possible variants!

My source for these names is a three volume work called Orbis Latinus (co-written by Graesse, Benedict, and Plechl; Klinkhardt and Biermann: Braunschweig, 1972). This work will give you a Latin name for virtually every place in the medieval and modern world (including, should you ever wonder, how to render places like Pnomh Penh or Rwanda into Latin). It may take a little searching if you are looking for a particular name, because the names are listed in Latin first (it's intended as resource for people who come across Latin place names in texts and want to know the "real" spelling). You1ll also notice that spelling varied widely for even the same place name as the medieval scribes and scholars tried to render very un-Latin names into a usable Latin form.

You'll also notice that some of the above forms have something in common: They end in -ensis or -nensis. This is simply a Latin ending meaning "of". You can Latinize just about any name this way--see the examples above to get the basic idea. (Toronto--Torontonensis, etc.), and you can turn any other Latin version into a place of origin by using this ending. If your name is "Robert of York", you should properly be "Robertus Eboracensis", not "Robertus Eboracum". If your place-name is a big place, however, you can just use the genitive form (ask someone who knows Latin) if you prefer, so "Patrick of Ireland" could be either "Patricus Hiberniensis" or "Patricus Hiberniae" (the genitive form).

I hope this will give you a fun and period way to vary your SCA name without having to actually change it. As I mentioned earlier, this is particulary suited for those with scholar personae. Good luck!

Copyright 1994, 1997 Susan Carroll-Clark. All rights reserved.