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'The Sardine' and 'Wolf's Arse': Animal Nicknames in Early Medieval England
Any study of medieval nicknames is a complex act of interpretation; what did these nicknames ‘mean’? Are they literal or are they metaphorical? Do they depend on obviously observable features or do they recall past events? Did they ‘mean’ the same thing to everybody who used them? Sometimes - as in the case of Humphrey ‘Goldenbollocks’ - we can have a guess at the possible implications of a name; sometimes they are totally lost to us.
Nowhere is this complexity of interpretation clearer than in those nicknames that reference animals. This appears as a relatively frequent theme among the names of early medieval England, across the period c.410-1100, in a range of different source types and given to a range of social ‘classes’. So, today I thought we’d take a look at some of the animal nicknames, and explore their possible origins.
Many of these may be occupational, denoting people who keep, sell, or hunt certain animals. Godwine Hert (‘hart’) lived in Bury St. Edmunds 1087x98;Robert Dop (‘waterfowl’) held land in Winchester c.1110. In some cases this seems like a convincing explanation, but the name is applied to individuals of some substantial rank. Eadric Snipe (‘snipe’), a thegn of king Edward, held land in Cambridgeshire before the Norman Conquest of 1066. Alwine Smelt (‘sardine’) signs a grant of land by king Cnut dated 1028x35 (S 982). Given that we have no consistent evidence for inherited nicknames in this period, how else might we explain them?
Alternatively, some animal nicknames might reference physical characteristics shared with animals. Alwig Ceuresbert (‘goat’s beard), who held Crookham (Berkshire) before the Norman Conquest, helps us establish this link.Is William Capra (‘nanny-goat’), an extensive Norman land-holder by 1086, intended in a similar vein? Possibly the nickname Mus (‘mouse’) may reference a small individual; certainly, we have a substantial number of nicknames that reference tall and stout individuals. Ælfwine Mus appears on the legend of coins, as a moneyer of Ilchester during the reign of Cnut.
Some of these nicknames might be metaphorical references to character traits. Godric Finc (‘finch’) appears as a witness in a lease by Ealdred, bishop, to Athelstan 'the fat' (S 1406, 1046x53); was he a flittering and excitable person?Did Hugh L’Asne (‘donkey’) have a distinctive braying laugh? Leofstan Bittecat (‘bottlecat’), a freeman who held a garden in Winchester c.1100, may be denoting a drunkard. King Harald Haranfot (‘harefoot’), son of king Cnut and king of England 1037-40, may be a reference to a swift runner.
Finally, it is possible that some of these nicknames derive from specific past events that involved these animals. A passage from Landnámabók, an account of the Viking settlement of Iceland, is often cited by historians of names to illustrate this point. It tells of the origin of the nickname of ‘Ravens’-Floki:
‘Floki took three ravens with him on the voyage. When he set the first one free it flew back from the stern, but the second raven flew straight up into the air, and then back down to the ship, while the third flew straight ahead from the prow, and it was in that direction that they found land’.
How many of our English examples derive from an important, amusing or embarrassing event in an individual’s past life? We might imagine individuals spooked by startling birds, or knocked over by roving goats, or chased by donkeys. This much is sadly unknowable to the historian.
I’ll leave you today with what appears to be an amusing pairing of nicknames found in Domesday Book, and let you choose which you’d prefer: Humphrey Uis de Lupo (‘wolf’s face), who held land in Berkshire in 1086,stands in contrast to Odo Cul de Lou (‘wolf’s arse), who held land in Wiltshire.
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Many of the individuals named here appear multiple times, especially if they are landholders in Domesday Book. In the interest of simplicity, the footnotes here point towards a single appearance. Where possible, digital resources are referenced. Should a sudden need to find every single reference to a nickname over take you, you are most welcome to email me.
Feudal Documents from the Abbey of Bury St. Edmunds, ed. D. C. Douglas (München, 1981), 25.
‘Winton Domesday’, ed. and trans. Barlow, in M. Biddle (ed.), Winchester in the Early
Middle Ages: An Edition and Discussion of the Winton Domesday (Oxford, 1976), 31-
142, at 67
Eadric 182 - https://domesday.pase.ac.uk/Domesday?op=5&personkey=53840
Alwing 14 - https://domesday.pase.ac.uk/Domesday?op=5&personkey=52509
William 48 - https://domesday.pase.ac.uk/Domesday?op=5&personkey=41297
Hugh 28 - https://domesday.pase.ac.uk/Domesday?op=5&personkey=42090
‘Winton Domesday’, 49.
Von Feilitzen, O., ‘The Personal Names and Bynames of the Winton Domesday' in M. Biddle (ed.) Winchester in the Early Medieval Ages (Oxford, 1976),143-229, at 208.
Liber Eliensis, ed. E. O. Blake (London, 1962), 160.
Landnámabók, ed. and tr. H. Pálsson and P. Edward, (Winnipeg, 1972), 17.
Humphrey 6 - https://domesday.pase.ac.uk/Domesday?op=5&personkey=40700