'Toad Testicles' and 'Boar-Biter': The Nicknames of Winchester, c.1110.
A colourful and shocking set of nicknames in early medieval Winchester leave historians as confused as they are amused; what might they have meant?
Winchester in the Early Medieval Period
As a site of urban archaeology, Winchester fascinates the historian. Settled by the Romans, its redevelopment begins in the mid-ninth century as king Alfred began developing ‘burhs’ - fortified towns - to combat invading Viking armies across Wessex. A impressive defensive wall appears to have built directly on the pre-existing Roman defenses. Early medieval Winchester is remarkably urban in form, with evidence for a system of regulated street layout alongside a division of land into tenements.A clear religious role is also evident, and Winchester housed three religious institutions: the Old Minster, the New Minster (after c.1110 Hyde) and Nunnaminster. All three of these were royal foundations, and a royal presence is well-attested. A royal palace likely stood in Winchester (although this has not yet been excavated), and a substantial number of pre-Conquest royals were buried here. From the reign of Cnut, Winchester appears to have functioned as a royal treasury. Thinking of a ‘capital city’ in an early medieval context is perhaps unproductive, but it is clear that Winchester represents a significant urban centre.
Photo Source: https://brill.com/display/book/edcoll/9789004421899/BP000004.xml
Names in Winchester: The Winton Domesday
For those interested in early medieval names, Winchester is a gift as a result of the sheer quantity (and quality) of data it provides. Before the Conquest, the New Minster began the construction of a Liber Vitae - a book of names - that records the religious brothers of the house and their lay patrons. This is a huge source of raw name data, but each name is decontextualised, and the individuals are largely unknown. But today we’re concerned with the text known as the Winton Domesday - an extensive list of landowners and their properties in early twelfth-century Winchester.
Winchester itself does not appear in Domesday Book in 1086; neither does London, and it is possible that the records for these urban centres existed in a now-lost manuscript, or were never fully written up. Winton Domesday comprises of two texts; the latter, which need not concern us here, was written in 1148 at the bequest of the bishop of Winchester and is longer in length. The former, which concerns us here, is dated to c. 1110 during the reign of King Henry I. The text provides us with an explicit statement of its purpose and outline:
‘A record of the lands of the king which pay landgable and brewgable in Winchester, just as they used to pay in the time of King Edward. King Henry, wishing to know what King Edward had in every way in his demesne at Winchester, ordered this to be declared by the oath of his burgesses’.
It is the chronology breadth that makes this source so interesting to the historian of names. Containing details for both those holding land after the Conquest and those who held that same land before, during the reign of Edward the Confessor, the first survey of the Winton Domesday allows us to chart changes in the names of its inhabitants. How did the influx of Norman landowners, and the introduction of Norman-French, change the process of giving names in England?
Outside the West Gate of the city, during the reign of king Edward, we find an individual named Alfred ‘Toad Testicles’ holding a single tenement.We have no more information on Alfred beyond this, nor any clue on what this rather strange nickname might mean. Further into town on the High Street, however, we find another individual named simply Lewin ‘Testicle’. References to testicles as nicknames appear with alarming frequency within early medieval England; do they denote fertility? General masculinity? Injury or venereal disease?
Many of the nicknames in Winchester remain as unclear to modern historians as ‘Toad Testicles’; explicit explanation of the origin of a nickname is remarkably rare in all early medieval texts, and completely absent from Winton Domesday. The historian of nicknames is therefore met with a substantial amount of guess-work when it comes to attempting to ‘understand’ these names. Are they light-hearted jokes? Are they intended to offend and bully their bearer? Was everyone supposed to understand their meanings, or just a small group of close friends?
Robert ‘Feeble, Fragile’ held property on Flesmangere Street in c.1110. Perhaps this nickname references a perceived lack of bravery or masculinity. Or perhaps this nickname is a reference to a physical impairment; if so, is this intended as an act of mockery? Certainly in Winchester we also find an Eadric ‘Blind’ and Godwin ‘Deaf’, and nicknames pointing towards impairment (both physical and related to mental health) are relatively frequent within this time period.
Although some nicknames seem to be straight-forward observations, as in the case of Brunstan ‘Blackbeard’, others may be metaphorical. Ælfric ‘Penny Purse’ may be a reference to a miser. Leofstan ‘Bottle Cat’, von Feilitzen suggests, may be an appropriate nickname for a drunk; he would have been in good company with Eadwig ‘the Wholly Drunk One’, who appears as a near-contemporary at Bury St. Edmunds.
What of comedic irony and double-entendre? Was Siward ‘Mouse’ (c.1110) a small man or was he perhaps a very large man with an ironic name (as in Robin Hood’s ‘Little John’)? Were Edwin ‘Good-Soul’ and Godwine ‘No Harm’ menaces to Winchester society, and Leving ‘Foolish', Stupid’ a thinker?
There also seem to be a number of colourful nicknames that might indirectly reference employment. Alwin ‘Boar-Biter’ may have trained the dogs used for hunting, or perhaps he shared some of the social characteristics of these animals. Godwine ‘Prison’ may have run or supplied the prison we have attested in Winchester (if it was not a comment on his actions and morality. Luwold ‘Taste!’ may have been a hospitable barkeep and Ascelin ‘Cheese-Cellar’ in possession of a well-stocked basement.
Perhaps some are critical too, trying to mock and reform unacceptable behaviours. Ælfric ‘Foul-Beard’ could presumably do with a shower, and Winstan ‘Soot-Board’ may have run an unclean and unhygenic shop.
I’ll leave you today with a resident of Golde Street in the reign of King Edward known, perhaps uncharitably, as Alestan ‘Broad Arse’. I’m reliably informed that if you don’t sign up to the newsletter using the button below (it’s free, or you can give me your money if you have loads going spare…), you too will be given a similar nickname.
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Ottaway, P., Winchester: An Archaeological Assessment: Swithun’s ‘City of Happiness and Good Fortune’ (Oxford, 2107), 206.
Ottaway, Winchester: An Archaeological Assessment, 261.
Yorke, B., ‘Royal Burial in Winchester: Context and Significance’ in R. Lavelle, S. Roffey and K. Weikert (eds.), Early Medieval Winchester (Oxford, 2021), 59-80, at 60-6.
Biddle, M., Winchester: The Development of an Early Capital (Göttingen, 1972), 257.
Biddle, M., Winchester in the Early Middle Ages: An Edition and Discussion of the Winton Domesday (Oxford, 1976), 33
I hope you will forgive a necessary simplification here in reference to the translation of these nicknames. The translations of these nicknames are drawn from two sources: Tengvik’s seminal Old English Bynames (Uppsala, 1938) and von Feilitzen’s chapter within the Biddle Edition of Winton Domesday quoted above. Translation is never a perfect art and many of these nicknames remain contested and unclear: it is not my intention here to suggest that these are the definitive (or indeed even ‘correct’) translations of the names.