A Statistical Survey of Given Names in Essex Co., England, 1182-1272

Magistra Nicolaa de Bracton

Scope of the Project:

In talking with members of the College of Heralds, I found that there was still a great deal of research to be done into naming practices in the Middle Ages. Much of the existing research deals with documenting given names or surnames to their first recorded occurrence, or to simply compiling lists of names suitable for Society use. Originally, when I began this research project, my intentions followed closely that latter pattern: I wished to show the variety of Anglo-Norman names available and to perhaps dispel the myth that names from that period were limited in number and somehow "boring". My scope, however, expanded considerably with time and as I discussed the matter with senior heralds, who were more interested in the actual patterns of naming practices in the Middle Ages, rather than simply compiling lists of usable names. Thus, the results of my research should satisfy two groups of people: People looking for a suitable and documentable given name, and researchers interested in knowing more about the evolution of naming practices.

The legal reforms of Henry II had a decided effect on written records in England. Before Henry II, most court matters were handled locally, through baronial and manor courts, or through borough courts in towns. Records-keeping for both criminal and civil matters was spotty at best; while we do have a limited number of charters dating back to Anglo-Saxon times, the number pales when compared to the explosion of material related to the various royal courts which appears after the 1180's. The reliance on written records at this level had a corresponding effect on lower levels, which began to keep more detailed records of transactions and cases in their jurisdiction(1) .

For this project, I have chosen to focus on one published collection of legal documents, the Essex Feet of Fines, a collection of the outcomes of land transactions in that county(2) . It was quite likely that every free-born man and woman in England was involved in at least one of these actions at some time during his or her life. These transactions took place in the royal Courts of Common Pleas. There, the transaction would be presented as a dispute (fictional or not), which would be settled by the court and recorded in a fines concordia or final concord. As I mentioned, even though the term "final concord" implies the settlement of a dispute, there was not always a dispute involved. Often these records show us that a lord is simply reassigning land to a new tenant, or that someone has bought some property and is finalizing the deal. Sometimes the records show us that a real dispute is occurring--two people arguing over who should have legal possession of a piece of property, or a woman trying to claim her legal dower (a portion of the family property intended to support her in her widowhood). It is important to remember here that all land in England was ultimately the property of the Crown and that the tenants-in-chief owed service or rent for it. They could in turn become the lords of their own tenants and collect rents or service; these tenants could in turn alienate part of their lands for money or service, and so on down the line. This is termed subinfeudation and was a constant concern of the Crown, which wished to keep as much control as possible over the alienation of the land--the fear being that someone could acquire large amounts of land and become a great lord (and thus, a large power base) without being directly answerable to the Crown. Thus, all land transactions after the 1180's took place in royal courts(3) .

These final concords were drafted by a notary in triplicate on a single piece of parchment: two columns of identical text placed side by side, and a third placed at the bottom or "foot" of the document. Once the case was decided, each party got a copy and the courts kept the "foot" for their own records(4) . Thus, charter sources from these decisions generally fall into two categories: those kept in private books of charters, and those kept in official ones. Into the former category fall cartularies (books of charters) assembled by abbeys and churches concerning their own lands (an important source, given that about one-third of English lands were ultimately held by the Church--though they, like any major lord in England, had many tenants) and other such collections. Into the latter are the "feet of fines", which were kept by county. Why did I choose Essex County in particular? I had already become familiar with the Essex records in another project, so it was natural to return to an "old friend", as it were. I had originally planned to use collections from other counties as well; unfortunately, the indices in some of the other published records collections are not so well organized as the Essex collection, which made it quite likely that one could end up counting the same person three or four times, thus throwing off the statistics. I was happy to find that the Essex records alone attested to over 5500 individuals--a good-sized sample for the purposes of statistical analysis. I do intend in the future to broaden the scope of my inquiry to include other parts of England.

I must mention in passing that feet of fines are not the only kind of record which may be of interest to those doing research into naming practices. There are also, for example, several series of "rolls" (so named because they were kept on rolls of parchment) related to both the royal chancery and exchequer; the four most significant are the Pipe Rolls, Liberate Rolls, Close Rolls, and Patent Rolls(5) .

Both collections of feet of fines and cartularies have a distinct advantage over traditional narrative histories in that far more people are mentioned in these types of records, and these people are from a wide range of socioeconomic classes, which can often be determined by noting the size of the properties transferred and the number of times a particular person appears as either lord or tenant. As such, they give the researcher a much wider view of naming practices in the whole of the population, as opposed to just the nobility. Additionally, while women do not appear as often as men in these records, they still appear far more frequently than in narrative histories.

The main limitation of these sources for the purpose of name research is that they are in Latin. Most names in use in England at this time were either of Anglo-Saxon or Norman-French origin, so notaries were forced to Latinize them, making it sometimes difficult to ascertain exactly how the name was spelled and used in the vernacular. Furthermore, especially in the case of women, not all scribes Latinized the same name in the same way; there are even scribes who apparently did not Latinize at all. Generally, notaries simply added -us onto male names which did not already have an established Latin form (e.g., those not in the Bible) or one which can be conjugated according to Latin grammatical rules; and either -ia or -a onto female names with no established Latin form (dropping any silent final "e"), unless the name ended with "l" or "d", in which case the ending "-is" was sometimes added instead. (Sometimes this could lead to a second "a" being added to names which already ended in "a" : Nicola => Nicolaa). Finally, there is the matter of abbreviations. Notaries would often abbreviate personal or placenames by truncating the name and adding an apostrophe at the end (i.e., Leycestr' = Leycestria or Leycestrensis); the reader was expected to know and supply the correct ending, depending on the context and grammar. Especially for obscure place names, it is sometimes difficult to determine what the full name actually was (though one can speculate if one has a decent knowledge of Latin and the way it works for place names. Orbis Latinus (6) may help remedy this problem). Another limitation is that editors have sometimes translated charters into English and inconsistently Anglicized names back out of Latin, or imposed modern spellings onto older names. A final fact of which the researcher should be aware is the problem of spelling. The letters "i" and "y" are almost always interchangeable; "f" and "ph" are also used interchangeably; and unaspirated "h" may pop in and out of names (e.g., Umfery/Humfery; Saer/Saher). When looking for documentation for a particular spelling for names from this period, these rules should be kept in mind.



My methodology was very simple. Using the index to the Essex Feet of Fines, I simply recorded each instance of a particular name. This took about 15 hours of work to complete. After the tallies were complete, I entered the names into a database, sorting them in two ways: Alphabetically, and by frequency of occurrence. The percentage calculations were determined by dividing the number of examples of a particular name by the total sample size. The results are to be found in the listings following the text of this article.


Observations and Conclusions on the Data from the Feet of Fines for Essex

It is quite striking to note the wide variety of names in circulation for both men and women (including names of Anglo-Saxon, Norman-French, and Welsh origin), but it is equally striking to note how dominant a relatively small number of names are for both sexes. The top twenty men's names account for just over 80% of the men named; the top twenty female names account for 71% of the women. The size of this sample was quite large, so small errors which may have crept into the data through counting errors and the like are not likely to disturb the overall picture. This data covers an entire century in Essex, so it is not easy to identify trends in "popular names" other than the very general ones I noted, partially because while the documents themselves are dated, it is impossible to date the lifespans of the people named therein. More useful would be to compare this data with either similar data from another area of England (perhaps a northern one) to determine whether these popularity trends are localized; or, alternately, to do a similar survey of names from feet of fines in Essex during the next century, perhaps up to the end of the reign of Edward III, to determine how these trends change with time.

A final note: It is interesting to see the relationship between royal names and their popularity amongst the people at large. Henry III named his eldest son Edward, after his patron saint, Edward the Confessor(7). The name does not seem to have been popular in England at that time, and even at Edward1s accession in 1272, if the Essex information is to be believed, it was still not a common name. It shall be interesting to see in future studies how one hundred years under monarchs named Edward affects the popularity of Edward as a given name.


A Word on Surnames

While my primary interest in this paper was to examine given names, I will add a few notes on surnames. In the Essex Feet of Fines alone, nearly 4000 individual surnames are attested. The sheer volume of names thus would make including a listing in this article little more than a copy of the index.

The surnames in the Essex records fall into several broad categories:
Patri- and matrinomics. These names are constructed as follows: name Fitzfather's or mother's name. It is difficult to tell whether these have become formalized surnames which do not change from generation to generation.

Occupational names: There are many of these in the records. Some appear to be well on their way to becoming surnames, rather then simply descriptive epithets; but others are clearly not surnames. They may or may not be proceeded by a definite article (le,la, l', the). A list of those from the Essex fines: (most are preceded by a definite article)
Baker, Botiller/Boteyller/Butler, Brazur, Bruerer, Bucher, Carpenter, Carver, Carter/Chareter, Chamberlain, Cancellar, Chaplain, Chastelain, Cirographar, Clerk, Constable/Cunstable, Cordewaner, Cornmonger/Cornier, Despenser/Dispenser, Doreward, Draper, Ferur, Forester, Frankelyn, Fucher, Fuller, Goldsmith, Marchant/Marchand/Merchant, Mareschal/Marshal, Miller, Parker, Paumer, Peleter, Ploughman, Porter, Priest, Shoemaker, Smith, Taillur/Tayllur/Taylor, Tanner, Vintner, Wodeward

Descriptive names: Most usually either based on physical characteristics or on nationality. Again, some have become inherited surnames and others are not formalized.

Place names: These fall into two categories: Actual place-names, and surnames derived from placenames. These are often difficult to tell apart. Generally, anyone with a surname with the form (place)-ensis is likely to be a resident of or a recent arrivee from the mentioned place. It is a bit more difficult when dealing with names of the form de + placename. With the Essex data, one can tentatively conclude that if someone has a name of the form de + (place in Essex) that that person actually lives in that place and that the surname is more properly a placename, though it may be evolving into a proper surname. In the majority of the cases, however, it seems that names of this form are actually family names by this time. Finally, we have a few names constructed in the form att(e) +geographical feature or name of the + geographical feature. Most of the former category seem to be approaching true surnames, while most of the latter do not seem to be inherited.

Other surnames: These seem to be, for the most part, names originally of one of the other categories in which definite articles (le, la, l', the) or prepositions (fitz, atte, de) have dropped off.

In general, the best way to understand how these surnames worked is to view them in action; see the index in the Essex Feet of Fines.



(1) Harold J. Berman, Law and Revolution . Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1984. pp. 455. A good treatise on the switch from oral records and transactions to written ones in England during this period is M. T. Clanchy, From Memory to Written Record, 2nd ed. Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 1993.
(2) Kirk, R.E.G., ed. Feet of Fines for Essex . Colchester: Essex Archaeological Society, 1899.(DA 670 E7A12).
(3) Berman, 456ff.
(4) Clanchy, 68-9, 88.
(5) Clanchy discusses all of these rolls in some depth.
(6) Graesse, Benedict, and Plechl, Orbis Latinus ; Klinkhardt and Biermann: Braunschweig, 1972. This book allows the researcher to determine the Latin word(s) for almost any place on earth; or, if one knows the Latin placename, to look it up to find the modern spelling. The authors are German, so modern German spellings are used for places in modern-day Germany and Austria, so you'll see Köln, not Cologne.
(7) Maurice Powicke, The Thirteenth Century. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1962, p. 15, 159, 161 describe Henry III's devotion to this particular saint, whose cult had been largely neglected until Henry III rescued him from relative oblivion.

On to the name lists....
Men's names
Women's names

Copyright 1997 Susan Carroll-Clark. All rights reserved.