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This is a very limited collection of questions and answers on the topic of Welsh names and naming practices that I thought might be of general interest. I've written vast amounts of material on this topic (and have vast amounts of data that I haven't yet processed into generally useable form), and this FAQ is by no means intended to be a comprehensive or even systematic approach to the topic. It's simply a convenient place to put some possibly useful information. For various reasons, a lot of the questions seem to focus specifically on women's names.
For more general information on historic Welsh names, I highly recommend the articles in the Medieval Names Archive -- with the disclaimer that most of the Welsh articles were written by me, and that the articles only scratch the surface of the available information.
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Question: I'm trying to put together a medieval Welsh name, but I'm worried because I hear all these stories about "bad sources". What are some good sources for Welsh names, and what makes a source good or bad?
Answer: Keep in mind that what makes a source "good" or "bad" is the purpose you plan to put it to. There are a number of possible purposes in designing an SCA name, and different sources will work better or worse for each of them. One possible purpose is to design a name that is completely typical and ordinary for the historic period you're interested in -- a name that would be unremarkable if you ran into it in a historic record. Another possible purpose is to design a name that you'll be able to register with the College of Arms. Another possible purpose is to design a name that resonates very strongly with your personal history and tastes, or that has a particular sound, or that incorporates a particular element to which you are attached. Not all these purposes can be accomplished at the same time, and I'm going to focus on the first one -- designing a historically-accurate name -- simply because it's the one I can give the best advice for.
The first rule of thumb is that if you want to put together a "historic" name, then you want to brainstorm by looking at historic names. It's possible to come up with a historic name by looking at baby-name books, or fantasy novels, or names that other SCA members are already using, but to succeed you'll need to use up an awful lot of your lifetime allotment of luck. You can find examples of historic names either by looking at things modern people have written about medieval people, or by looking at things medieval people wrote about themselves.
In the second case, you might have chronicles (medieval historians describing the people and events of their day), or legal records (for example, tax rolls, or rental records, or descriptions of lawsuits), or personal records (correspondence, memorial stones, etc.). Using these may sometimes require some background knowledge. For example, if you're reading a medieval register of lawsuits, which will be in Latin, you need to know enough Latin to know where the lawsuit ends and the name begins. If you're reading a chronicle, you'll need to know when it's talking about local people and when it's talking about foreigners (with foreign names that wouldn't be useful for your purpose) and when it's talking about ancient history which may actually be mythological rather than historical. Examples of this type of record that can be useful for Welsh include:
Brut y Tywysogion "Chronicle of the Princes" - A "history of the world and Wales" that starts out with the creation of the Earth (the early parts aren't very useful for Welsh names) and goes up through the 14th century. It mentions a fair sprinkling of foreigners, and by its nature if concentrates on the names of important nobility (and primarily of men).
The Description of Wales - A travelogue written by a 12th century Anglo-Welsh writer. He mentions by name a number of the people he met on his travels. Because he was writing in Latin, he would have recorded Latin forms of the name, but you're likely to be reading a modern English translation which will use the modern Welsh forms of the names.
The Merioneth Lay Subsidy Roll of 1292-3 - A transcription of a property tax roll levied in 1292 -- it has a list of every person in the region of Merioneth along with the amount they paid. About 10% of the entries are women, which is a fairly high proportion for this type of record, making it an unusually good source of women's names. The names were recorded by an English clerk writing in Latin, so they aren't necessarily written the way a Welsh person writing in Welsh would have recorded them.
The Extent of Bromfield and Yale 1315 - An "extent" is a type of rental record -- like the Domesday Book, this is an exhaustive listing of all the land in a given lordship, with indications of who rents which land for how much and what additional rights or responsibilities they have associated with it. Because land-control tended to be associated with the male memebers of a community (that is, even if the land were held by a family as a whole, it would be recorded in the name of the male head of household), this record has extremely few women's names. On the other hand, it gives an interesting picture of differences in names between the towns (with a high English population) and the rural areas (almost exclusively Welsh).
Rhuthin Court Records 1295 - This is a register of court cases from the town of Rhuthin: who stole what from whom, who assaulted whom, who owed money to whom, and what was done about it. Both men and women got into trouble regularly, so the record has a good balance between the sexes.
The other type of source for historic names are modern people writing about medieval people. This may be modern historians, or people researching the origins and history of names -- or in the best case scenario, it may be modern people writing articles to help people choose historic names for groups like the SCA. Each of these has its strengths and weaknesses. History books are generally very reliable in terms of facts, but the authors aren't interested in the names as names -- they're only interested in using them to identify the people they're writing about. So they usually use modern forms of the names -- sometimes names that would never have been used by the people themselves.
Books that are about the origins and history of names can range anywhere from excellent to abominable. Look for books that give you specific dates for specific examples, and that give you multiple examples of a name and multiple variants of the name (this is a sign that they are showing you how the names actually appeared in historic documents, rather than simply talking about the name as an abstract concept. On the "bad" end, for historic purposes, are things like baby-name books, which aren't really interested in accurately presenting the historical context of the names. For Welsh, the best, most widely-available book of this type is Welsh Surnames by T.J. Morgan and Prys Morgan (University of Wales Press).
Sources created specifically for naming historic personas may be as simple as a list of names that appear in a particular historic source, or may include analysis and discussion of how the names are put together, what types of nicknames people used, why particular types of names were used, and so forth. When considering how useful and reliable this type of source is, you need to judge things like: Where did the author get their data? (If they don't tell you, then for all you know they made it all up.) Do they make clear the difference between historic fact and personal interpretation? Do they seem to be generally knowledgeable about the material they're working with? (Often someone will put together a name-list for a culture they aren't very familiar with simply because it's badly needed and better than nothing.) One caveat is that many people have put together name lists for the use of people playing historic-based RPGs or creating historic fiction, and as a general rule, these tend to be relatively unreliable -- so pay attention to what an article says its purpose is. Don't try to use it for something it isn't intended for.
I have a conflict of interest in claiming that the best collection of reliable Welsh name articles of this type are in Arval's Medieval Names Archive, because an awful lot of them are written by me -- but I'll say it anyway. Arval has worked hard to seek out web-based resources that hold to a high level of historic accuracy. Another source of this type of resource are the annual published proceedings of the SCA's Heraldic Symposium, which your local heraldic establishment may be able to provide access to. And knowledgeable people are usually open to answering questions personally, as long as the questions are reasonably well-focused.
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Question: I am trying to come up with a name for my early 7th century Welsh persona. I suppose that would stick me in Old Welsh, and I was wondering if it is correct to use 'merch' instead of 'ferch' -- I just want to be sure that I'm as accurate as possible. I looked in a history book about the rulers of Britain and I noticed that a lot of the rulers in Wales ca. 550 and thereabouts only listed one name. Were the authors just saving space by not sticking in full titles or is it period to have just one name for 600 A.D.? I know these are strange questions, but any help would be appreciated!
Answer: "Strange questions"? You have no idea how strange the questions are that some people send me! These are extremely normal.
The era you've picked is one that presents a lot of difficulties, particularly for women's names, simply because of the scarcity of sources. The major sources for Welsh personal names from this period are a handful of inscribed stones (primarily memorial stones, and pretty much all written in Latin), a collection of charters (with lists of witnesses) preserved in the Book of Llandav (the contents were re-copied at various later dates, but the 7-10th century spellings of the names were often preserved fairly well), and a very small number of other sources, such as legal records recorded in the margins of gospel books (e.g., a couple of records of this type in the gospels of St. Chad). At a slightly greater remove, we have historical annals, compiled at a later date in Latin, and translated into Welsh even later, that refer to various prominent figures from the time-period you're interested in. These can be somewhat useful for knowing what names may have been in circulation, although they're not useful for the specific early forms of names or the overall name formats. There are also some non-Welsh sources (e.g., the Anglo-Saxon chronicle and similar works) that refer to prominent Welsh people of the time. Even less reliable, although still useful, are genealogies and saints' lives compiled at various later dates that include mention of people alleged to have lived at the period you're interested in. Among these sources -- with the exception of the genealogies -- the number of women named from the period you're interested in can be counted on the fingers of one hand. This doesn't give us a lot to work with (and some of what we have is of questionable accuracy), but it's more than nothing.
Have you read my article titled "The First Thousand Years of British Names"? If you haven't, I'm going to suggest that you go look it over first. It covers a fairly broad scope of time (from the Roman era up through the turn of the millennium) so not all of it will be applicable to the period you're interested in, but it will give you a better "hands on" idea of the type of evidence we have to work with. A copy of the article is included in Arval's Medieval Names Archive.
To answer your immediate specific questions: the 7th century would be the early part of the Old Welsh period, in terms of language. I haven't found any examples of what the "daughter" word would look like in Welsh that early, but there's a probably 10th century example in a genealogy in the form "merc" that is probably close to how the word would have been written in your period. The pronunciation, however, would still be closer to the later medieval "verch" -- spelling took a while to catch up with the pronunciation changes in the language. In your period, the initial sound-changes (mutations) were not normally reflected in the written language, although they were present in the pronunciation. As far as the "one name only" pattern in history books, part of that comes from a difference in attitude towards "names" versus "identifying descriptions". To some extent, yes, a person's "name" was more likely to be thought of as just their given name at that period -- but if you wanted to be more clear about which Iudgual you were talking about, you would add the sort of identifying descriptions that we're used to thinking of as bynames: patronyms, personal nicknames, occupations, etc. History books generally get away with only using a single name because, once they've established the identity of the person you're talking about (by describing their date, location, parentage, etc.) they don't have to use a longer description for clear reference. It's not so much a matter of saving space as avoiding awkward repetition and unneeded information. If you're reading a history book about the early history of the USA, you'll find a lot of references simply to "Washington" and "Jefferson", but it certainly doens't mean that that was all there was to their names! In medieval historic narratives, you'll often find the pattern where the first time an individual is mentioned, you get a full genealogy and reference to place of residence and what territories (if any) the person ruled -- but after that the person is only referred to by their given name. It's much more a matter of literary style than of naming practices. (You find similar things in later medieval legal records: the first mention of a person is fairly detailed, and subsequent mentions in the same entry are only by given name.) In general, don't rely on how people are identified in history books for information on how their names would have been understood by their own contemporaries -- writers of history books have very different concerns and priorities (and may refer to people by versions of names that were never used in that person's lifetime).
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Question: When I told my herald I wanted to be named "Rhiannon", she got this weird look on her face, so I decided to use "Bronwen" instead, but then she started banging her head against the wall, and when I gave up on that and wrote "Ceridwen" on the submission form, she actually started to cry! What's wrong with my herald? I know these are all perfectly good medieval Welsh names.
Answer: It is a great misfortune that the women's names from medieval Wales that the average person is most familiar with are among the least suitable for re-creating good, historic names for ordinary people. The three names you mention are all those of characters in medieval Welsh legend, but there is no evidence that they were ever used by real people until the modern period. (The beginnings of the fad for reviving Welsh legendary names are in the late 19th century.) While many of the most common men's names from medieval Wales are comfortably familiar-yet-exotic to the average person (e.g., Griffith, Madog, Llywelyn, and so forth), many of the most popular women's names from the medieval period strike the modern ear as either too exotic (like "Perweur") or not exotic enough (like "Eva"). The legendary names are appealing to many women because they have that touch of exoticness while being fairly familiar from their revival in modern times.
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Question: I've been trying to choose a name -- I've looked at all the online articles, but it seems like all the good ones are taken, and I'm just not attracted to the other names.
Answer: One of the things I've noticed is that people simply aren't as attracted to names that they've never seen or heard in use before. (while simultaneously wanting something "unique") The most popular Welsh male names tend to be reasonably familiar to our ears, so it's a bit easier for them. But due to a variety of social and historical factors, the vast majority of medieval Welsh women's names -- even some of the most popular ones -- are names we're extremely unlikely to have encountered casually. And conversely, the names of Welsh origin that people (statistically) are most likely to fall in love with and want to use are ones that they've encountered before -- which usually means names taken from the medieval romances (which often weren't names in common use) or names popular in modern Celtic-inspired fiction, or "Celtic revival" names used in modern Wales that may or may not have been used historically.
As a general pattern, people tend to be attracted to names that come with a "story" attached -- even when they have no thought of borrowing that specific story for themselves. Without a "story", a name is just a sequence of sounds, and while people are often attached to a particular initial sound or overall "look-and-feel", they rarely fall in love with a name solely for the specific sequence of sounds it has.
So what does it mean for a name to be a "good one"? Very often it means that it's a name that you've encountered used by someone whom you like or admire or are simply intrigued by (real or fictional). But this often means that people pass over some very popular medieval names simply because they have never gotten that initial toe-hold of exposure -- they've never had a "hook" that created a resonance for the name that people could identify with.
Here are some Welsh women's names from the Middle Ages that I think have been unduly neglected, and some stories to attach to them. (I'm skipping some names that were common in medieval Wales that are already fairly popular in the SCA.)
Dyddgu (pronounced roughly DUTH-gee with a "hard" g)
This name occurs in a wide variety of spellings (many of which suggest that either it had a lot of local dialectal pronunciations, or it was simply a sound that English scribes had a particularly difficult time with). If the scholars are correct about the above form being the correct underlying one, it means something like "beloved day". It appears pretty much throughout Wales and from at least the 13-15th centuries, although it seems to have more or less dropped out of use in the 16th. Dafydd ap Gwilym addressed at least two poems to a woman named Dyddgu (or, given Dafydd's habits, perhaps to two different women named Dyddgu). In one, the poem is nominally addressed to her father -- praising his mead and his hospitality to poets -- and then bemoaning Dyddgu's lack of interest in his wooing, before settling down to a long catalog of her virtues and beauty. ("fairer than the snow in spring ... pale is the brow beneath a diadem ... black her hair ... more black than a blackbird or a brooch of jet") In the other, he compares the virtues of Dyddgu and Morfudd (see below), neither of which he had the wit to woo before they were married. Dyddgu is "a slender, worthy, gentle girl, fulfilled of all endowments, true and wise, dear, cultured, expert in all skills, and, in a word, inheritress of land". He continues "Morfudd is not like that -- but thus she is, a glowing red ember, loving those who rebuke her, a stubborn lass, always exasperating, possessing [a matter fitting for respect] a house and husband, lovely indeed she is." (The rest of the poem is devoted to excoriating Morfudd's jealous husband.)
Efa (pronounced EH-vah)
This Biblical name was astoundingly popular in medieval Wales (and Welsh forms of Adam were equally popular).
Generys (pronounced roughly geh-NEH-riss)
This seems to have been a name of only local popularity in the Merioneth area (mid-western Wales) and I've only found it in the 13th century. I actually have no idea what it may originally have meant.
Gweirfyl (pronounced roughly GWEHR-vill)
A name with similar distribution to Dyddgu -- throughout most of Wales and found in the 13-15th centuries. A woman named Gwerfyl Mechain is one of the few female poets we know by name from the medieval period. In addition to poetry on more usual topics, we have a few pieces of hers that go far beyond the category "bawdy" and downright into the category "I'm not sure I can read this in mixed company without dying of embarrassment." One is a complaint that male poets are generous in praising a woman's face and hair and will even go so far as to praise her breasts, but always leave out the most important part, or as she calls it in some of the more printable language, "the place where children are conceived". In a much more decorous poem, she declares: "I keep the custom of the Ferry, a tavern none can blame, a white-robed moon giving sweet welcome to him that comes with silver. 'Tis my desire to be, to all men's content, a faultless world to my guests, and to sing among them in familiar converse as I pour out the mead." (I'm still working on getting my hands on a copy of the original Welsh version.)
Gwladus (pronounced roughly goo-LAHD-is)
I think this name gets short shrift today because, as "Gladys" it sounds more like something your grandmother would be named, and isn't "exotic" enough. People sometimes connect it with the Roman name Claudia, but this is somewhat unlikely. Gwladus Ddu, the daughter of Llywelyn ap Iorwerth ("the Great") typifies the complicated state of Anglo-Welsh relationships in the 13th century. She was married into the de Braose family (who had only a generation before lost hold of their English possessions and were invested solely in their border territories in the central eastern parts of Wales) during a period when they were on the outs with King John and allied with Llywelyn, only to have her husband's allegiance shift back to the English side in the next decade. (The various interactions between the de Braose family and the royal house of Gwynedd in the first half of the 13th century are the stuff of which soap operas are made. For a very readable fictional treatment of them, try Edith Pargeter's (i.e., Ellis Peters') "Heaven Tree" trilogy.)
Hunydd (pronounced roughly HEEN-ith)
This is another name of specialized local popularity, appearing primarily in the southeastern corner of Wales, around Monmouth and Abergavenny. A woman named Hunydd, the daughter of Huttrid did not have a Good Year in 1250 in Abergavenny -- she was fined eleven goats in penalty for theft, and two heifers for being a fugitive. (But she appears to be a different person from the Hunydd, wife of Gibelot, who in the same session was fined a cow for shedding blood.)
Lleucu (pronounced roughly LEY-kee, although some spellings suggest a pronunciation closer to "LEY-OO-kee")
This name occurs throughout Wales and had an enduring popularity through at least the 16th century, no doubt partly due to people associating it (mistakenly) with the name of saint Lucy. The Welsh roots appear to mean something akin to "beloved light", which reinforced the connection with the name Lucia/Lucy.
Morfudd or Morfydd (pronounced roughly MOHR-fith)
This wasn't as common a name as some of the others, but there are 13th century examples from all over Wales. In popular culture, the name was closely associated with a tune which gave its name to a musical mode known as "The Tune of Morfudd's Pipes", which (based on people's comments) was excessively mournful and morose. A woman named Morfudd was the subject of a whole sequence of poems by Dafydd ap Gwilym. Although the poems are couched in the conventions of love poetry, the real Morfudd seems to have been a friend and neighbor of Dafydd's (along with her husband), and most scholars consider the flirtatious tone to have been an open game between them rather than a serious romance. "Lovely Morfudd, woe to the weak idle poet who loves her -- handsome, gracious, gentle girl -- a web of gold, her hair"
Nest (pronounced pretty much like the English word "nest", which is probably part of the problem)
People often shy away from names that sound like familiar words, and that is likely one of the reasons this very popular medieval Welsh name gets ignored. It is probably a variant of the saint's name Agnes. The most beautiful (and notorious) woman in 12th century Wales was named Nest. She was the daughter of the Lord Rhys -- the most powerful Welsh figure in southern Wales in his day -- and married to Gerald of Windsor, the constable of Pembroke Castle (and grandfather of Giraldus Cambrensis). She also had numerous lovers, including King Henry I of England. Nest was known as "the Helen of Wales", not simply for her beauty, but for the political uproar that often swirled around her. It is uncertain to what extent she was complicit on the occasion when her second cousin Owain took it into his head to mount a surprise attack on the castle where Gerald and Nest were living, and abduct Nest (although with an assortment of Gerald's children by Nest and others), but the Chronicle of the Princes records that Nest advised her husband, "'Go not to the door, for there are thine enemies around it, but come with me.' And she led him to the privies which adjoined the building, and he escaped through the pit of the privies." And after that, things started getting complicated.
Perweur (pronounced roughly PEHR-wehr)
Not as common a name as some, but distributed fairly well throughout Wales in the 13th century. Perweur, the daughter of Rhun Rhyfedfawr was one of the "three lively maidens" of the isle of Britain.
Now, the prince and poet Hywel ab Owain Gwynedd, in the 12th century, knew the worth of women with these names. In a single poem, he praises eight women, six of whom have names in the list above! In the condensed version: "a girl who must be chiefly praised -- Gwenllian, summer-weather-hued; fair Gweirfyl, my gift, my mystery, whom I never had; seemly Gwladus, shy, childish young woman, beloved of the people; bright Lleucu, my love, laughing; pretty Nest, like apple blossom, my golden passion; the virgin Generys who does not relieve my passion; for Hunydd [and] Hawis ... (teeth are good to keep the tongue quiet)."
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Question: My persona is a widow ('cause I find it more convenient than being single or married) -- I know if she were married she's be known by her husband's name, but would that change if she were widowed?
Answer: Latin legal records of Welsh people commonly identify women by marital status and by their husband's name. This seems to be vanishingly rare in Welsh-language records, however, and even in Latin records it varies considerably from document to document. In all cases, it would be reasonable to say that even if a woman were married or widowed, the most typical way of identifying her would be as her father's daughter rather than as her husband's wife or widow. For "widow", two Latin options appear -- the more common being relicta followed by the late husband's name, with the use of vidua (not followed by anything) being significantly rarer.
To re-emphasize, "married bynames" -- i.e. names that identify a woman by her husband in any fashion -- simply weren't the fashion in Wales. When you find them (in Latin), it tends to be a product of the norms of the English legal system in which the names were being recorded. So unless there is some strongly overriding reason not to do so, I tend to advise women with married or widowed Welsh personas to use names similar to what an unmarried woman would have used, i.e. focusing on patronyms and personal nicknames.
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Question: I keep seeing the "daughter" word in names spelled both "verch" and "ferch" -- which one is right? I'm confused.
Answer: It depends on the time-period. The use of the letter "f" to spell the sound [v] doesn't become commonly widespread until around the 15-16th century. (It's used in certain positions in words, and in certain words earlier than that, but it doesn't become typical in all situations until late period.) The lenited form of the word meaning 'daughter' is normally spelled with a "v" up through the 15th century or so, then "f" becomes more typical (in Welsh-language contexts) after that. In English contexts (e.g., legal records) the spelling with "v" continues through the end of period, because it represents the pronunciation in English.
So, for example, if your father's name were Dafydd, and your name were written in Welsh in the 16th century, it might appear written as "Myfanwy Fach ferch Dafydd", but the same name written in the 13th century would more likely be something like "Myvanwy Vach verch David". (Just to pick two time-points -- of course there are other spellings possible at other times.)
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