‘Toad Testicles’, ‘Foul-Beard’ and ‘Broad-Arse’: Nicknames Before the Norman Conquest
This article appears in the March edition of HistoryToday, a public history magazine available here https://www.historytoday.com/shop/buy-current-issue. It is shared here in line with their policy of allowing authors to post their articles on their private websites.
If we were to visit Winchester in the latter years of the reign of Edward the Confessor (who ruled England from 1042 until 1066), we might have bumped into a man named Alfred ‘Toad Testicles’ who lived in the suburb that had grown up outside the city’s West Gate. Alfred appears just once in the written record that survives for us to study, in a document now known as the Winton Domesday; two surveys that compile a list of landholders and their incomes throughout early medieval Winchester. Beyond this single sparse reference, which only tells us that Alfred was in possession of a single tenement in Winchester, Alfred remains completely unknown to us. The origin of his nickname remains (perhaps mercifully) obscure.
Colourful and imaginative (sometimes shocking and rude) nicknames appear frequently across England before the Norman Conquest. Next door to Alfred in Winchester we find an Alwin ‘Pebble’; also in Winchester we find Ælfstan ‘Broad-Arse’. Ælfstan ‘the Bald’ appears in the ninth-century Fonthill Letter sent to king Edward. Alwine ‘Sardine’ is a witness to a land grant by king Cnut, and Herbert ‘Iron-Feet’ is among the monastic community at the New Minster in Winchester. Thurstan ‘Buttock’, Æthelstan ‘the Fat’, Osferth ‘Blackbeard’, and Ælfstan ‘Limping’ are all variously found before the Conquest.
Modern English primarily uses inherited surnames to distinguish between similarly named people; confusing Maggie Thatcher with Maggie Smith would help nobody. Quite when inherited surnames became common practice in England is a matter of scholarly debate, but it is clear that they were not common before the Conquest, and were not the norm throughout society for some considerable time after the Conquest. Instead, pre-Conquest England used a number of additional names, often termed ‘bynames’, to distinguish between similarly named individuals. Sometimes these bynames reference places (Ælfric ‘the Scot’), sometimes family relationships (Leofnoth ‘son of Osmund’), sometimes occupations (Edwin ‘the Smith’). But my interest lies primarily with that subsection of bynames that Alfred ‘Toad Testicles’ belongs to, that we might call nicknames; creative names that don’t follow the predictable patterns outlined above but allow those who coin them a degree of creative freedom.
Any attempt to understand these nicknames, and the social pressures that spawned them, is complicated by the fact that contemporary sources very rarely provide an explicit explanation of a name’s origin or ‘meaning’. There are a few notable exceptions. Bede’s Ecclesiastical History mentions two missionaries (ultimately martyrs) sent to the Continent in the late seventh century named ‘White’ Hewald and ‘Black’ Hewald, on the grounds of their difference in hair colour. The son of Æthelred II, short-reigning king Edmund ‘Ironside’, is given his nickname as a result of his brave if unsuccessful resistance to king Cnut, if later chronicle evidence is to be believed.
But the great majority of early medieval English nicknames remain remarkably, frustratingly, unclear. Variations in spellings, cross-language misinterpretations and the possibility of mishearing by scribes recording names from oral testimony mean that we cannot always be clear what terminology is being employed. Robert Inuesiat, who appears in Domesday Book in 1086, has a nickname that has been variously translated as ‘perverted’ and ‘playful’, giving wildly different images of his personality. Even when we can identify more concretely the vocabulary used, our task is far from easy. What about deliberate double-entendre; it is not hard to see how the name of Wulfric ‘Large Pole’, who appears as a landowner in Wiltshire in 1086, may have raised a snicker. Irony is also lost to the historian when a name appears without context. Was the Æthelstan ‘the Fat’, who appears in a mid-eleventh charter, actually skinny? Perhaps it’s a mistake to try and ‘solve’ a nickname by finding a specific and concrete ‘meaning’.
Are these nicknames any more than amusing anecdotes for the historian? In a large enough quantity, a corpus of nicknames of a society can begin to allow us to explore a society’s concerns and priorities. It has been suggested, among the study of nicknames in a broad range of societies, that nicknames are often used curb negative behaviours by publicly criticism; perhaps we can also begin to reconstruct social concern before the Conquest. Was Eadwig ‘the Wholly Drunk One’ causing too much of a disturbance with his drinking; was Wulfwig ‘Wild’ a violent and unpleasant individual?
If we are to think seriously with nicknames, to use them as meaningful sources of evidence, a multitude of further questions emerge. The first is chronological; is there evidence of use of this nickname during the life of the named individual, or is it applied solely by those writing about them after their death? It is somewhat confusing that the few examples that survive into popular imagination are creations of later periods: Edward ‘the Confessor’, Alfred ‘the Great’, Æthelred ‘the Unready’.
Where is the nickname used; in public forums, in widely circulated documents, or behind people’s backs as a snide comment? This is a particularly pressing question when we are dealing with negative, critical or offensive nicknames; would we have greeted Ælfric ‘Foul-Beard’, who lived in Winchester during the reign of Edward the Confessor, with his nickname when addressing him?
How many nicknames are now lost to us; was it the norm for everybody to have one, but only a few survive in written sources to today? How does this vary by social status; is a general absence among slaves the result of genuinely different practices or simple invisibility of the lowest ‘ranks’ of society? What about gender? Women infrequently appear with nicknames within our period but there are notable examples; Æthelgifu ‘the Good’ appears in the act of freeing two slaves, and it is presumably from this act of charity that her nickname derives. Did women not use nicknames as frequently, or are they simply recorded less frequently by our sources?
These are all valuable questions that any historian trying to carve meaning out of the body of nicknames of a historical period must grapple with. But I think the primary value of studying historical nicknames, both in reconstructing past lives and pedagogically in the teaching of history, is that they help to humanise the people of the past. We still employ nicknames today; to praise and to ridicule, to show our affection and to bully. Few escape school without having been given one, and this doesn’t factor into account those nicknames of which we are not aware. In many ways our cruder humour has not advanced much; whether we know an Eadwig ‘Wholly Drunk’ personally or not, we can well imagine the contexts in which his name may have arisen.
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It is interesting to see that this tradition persisted in certain groups. Cape Breton immigrants, for instance, used physical appearance nicknames to distinguish between family members who, due to naming conventions, carried the same official names