Tag Archives: life
Toadbollock, Dustiberd and Lytillskyll: historian on what names can tell us about everyday medieval life
Let me take you for a stroll down the high street of 12th-century Winchester – one of the great cities of medieval England – and introduce you to a few of the locals. Here’s Alberic Coquus, the cook, and over there is Ainulf Parcheminus, the parchment-maker. They are chatting to Luuing Scalarius (he builds ladders). Godric Softebred, who has his shop just down the road, is a baker – but his neighbours giggle behind his back and give his wife pitying glances.
You can’t miss Robert Crassus (“big, fat”), but I would hesitate to introduce you to Alfred Taddebelloc (“Toadbollock”) and you probably won’t want to stand too close to Radulf Scitliure (“shit-liver”, evidently cursed with chronic diarrhoea or some other stomach complaint). And perhaps we should simply cross the street to avoid me having to mention Godwin Clawecuncte (use your imagination) at all.
We know these names – with the intriguing clues they give about the people who carried them – from the two 12th-century surveys of Winchester property collectively known as the Winton Domesday. So, what’s in a medieval name? What can they tell historians about long-forgotten lives and individuals in the past? And why won’t you find anyone with the surname Toadbollock today?
These names don’t work in quite the same way as modern surnames. These (usually non-hereditary) medieval bynames add further detail to personal names, noting where someone was from, what job they did and even what they looked like or how they behaved.
Bynames often reflect physical attributes, such as those of Winchester’s Alestan Hwit (“white”), who probably had a fair complexion, or Alimer Longus (“tall”). You wouldn’t want to see Winchester’s Peter Agnell (“little lamb”) get into a fight with Godwin Bar (“boar”).
Many medieval historians have their own favourite names they’ve discovered during their research: Professor Anthony Bale of Birkbeck, University of London, mentions Tom Dustiberd (“dusty beard”) and the likely somewhat dishevelled Adam Charrecrowe (“scarecrow”), as well as Walter Boltuprith (“bolt-upright”).
Other bynames indicate trades and occupations. Richard Farrier was keeper of the king’s horses at Chester in the summer of 1283. Records show that he purchased cut grass for 20 horses, including that of the queen, and also for ten “great” horses arriving from Caernafon. He bought horseshoes, bridles, long ropes of hemp to make reins, as well as plenty of horse salve.
Other occupational bynames hint at less happy vocations. John Pynchware and his son worked as shoemakers in 15th-century Chester. But with a byname like that, how well did their shoes fit? Professor Matthew Davies of Birkbeck points to an apprentice tailor in London, 1486, named Rowland Lytillskyll. He doesn’t seem to have made it in his chosen career.
Bynames can also tell us about ethnic identities. Several people in 12th-century Winchester were called “Iudeius” – members of what would become the city’s thriving medieval Jewish community. Godwin Francigena, with his English personal name and byname meaning “Frenchman”, reminds us what a cosmopolitan, multicultural European city this was.
But sometimes bynames point to political and social tensions. Dr Adam Chapman, at the Institute for Historical Research, shares the example of the 14th-century Welshman known as Madog Drwgwrthgymro: literally “bad to Welshmen”, but translated by the historian Robert Rees Davies more provocatively as “Saxon-lover” – a smear based on perceived disloyalty and ethnic betrayal.
Another Welshman, William Cragh, features in medieval records as an outlaw –- or freedom fighter, depending on your viewpoint – who rebelled against Norman rule and was hanged, but came back to life (that’s another story. He cuts less of a romantic, heroic figure when we translate his Welsh byname – perhaps “Scabby William” had suffered some kind of disfiguring disease as a child. Still, he was more likely known by his fellow Welshmen by the patronymic “ap Rhys” (“son of Rhys”).
Somewhere in my own ancestry, someone probably worked as a clerk. Adam Chapman’s forebears possibly worked in a shop (“ceap-man” meant merchant, from the Old English “ceapan” meaning to sell or buy). Some bynames just stick around: Delia Smith doesn’t work in a forge, and Mary Beard doesn’t have one. But others, unsurprisingly, don’t outlast their original owners.
We see similar revisions when it comes to less appealing place names: just as William Cragh probably preferred being called William ap Rhys, the place where he was hanged in Swansea was renamed, in the late 19th century, from Gibbet Hill Road to the more estate agent-friendly North Hill Road.
So, why are medieval bynames so useful and engaging? For a start, some of them are hilarious – and they give us a humorous way into a seemingly remote and distant historical past. But, more than that, they offer a sense of connection with a real individual and a characteristic which defined them within their own, contemporary local community.
These medieval names also give us glimpses into something the big chronicles, charters and official history books often don’t tell us much about: ordinary people and their ordinary, colourful lives.
The Vikings are in Melbourne. It is hard to see anything “Vikings” without thoughts of the seafaring thugs who invaded or raided much of coastal Europe and beyond. As Viking scholar Judith Jesch has reminded us, that is essential to what the word originally meant: Norse-speaking people who got into surprisingly small ships and went in search of adventure, very often violent.
However, this is not the full story. A new exhibition at the Melbourne Museum is at pains to demonstrate this other side.
What does the word ‘Viking’ really mean?
The television series Vikings goes out of its way to show how its characters did some pretty amazing things in their rovings – just surviving those sea voyages must rate high on the list – but mostly we know about them because they plundered far from home, to great effect. From 793 until 1066, or thereabouts, many people feared a visit from the Vikings more intensely than they feared their own rulers.
Jesch has also explained how the word broadened its meaning, even at the same time as Vikings became increasingly caricatured in poplar knowledge (think the Terry Jones movie Erik the Viking). “Vikings” can now mean all people from Denmark, Sweden, Norway, Iceland, the Faroe Islands, Shetland and many other colonies across the North Atlantic who lived during “the Viking Age”.
The Melbourne Museum’s exhibition takes this broader sense of the word and uses it against that other, narrower one. Brought to Melbourne by the Swedish History Museum, which owns the collection, it explores the lives of the Vikings as much more holistic than just the adventures of those Norsemen who went a-viking.
The approach will disappoint some people. There are weapons on show, some of them remarkably elegant for all the ravages of time, but none are better preserved than the bent sword from a burial mound in Sweden. Archaeologists reckon it was bent precisely to render it useless for violence – to prevent its misuse in the afterlife.
There are boats, both original and reconstructed. Compared to the palpably seaworthy wonders of Oslo’s Viking Ship Museum, though, the standout here is a half-ship plotted in the abstract by its rivets — the planks have all perished in the boat’s burial site, but the rivets that once fastened them have been suspended in their true positions in mid-air. It offers a haunting impression of the boat that once was.
Still, these are not displays to get the adrenalin pumping. The interactives will not push you to imagine yourself in armour, screaming from behind a wall of shields on some stricken hillside, mead in one hand and great axe in the other.
Instead, this exhibition focuses on domestic life, economy, religion and technology. Nobody should imagine that any visiting show at a museum can do comprehensive justice to even one of those four, but this one gives us plenty of concrete evidence if we wanted to imagine Swedish and similar communities in the Viking Age.
It shows us the basics of Scandinavian clothing, for example, which is so essential for imagining the people in those countries. Its displays of jewellery remind just how fine the silver and gold smithing traditions of Germanic Europe were — for example, a filigreed pendant depicting Mjölnir (“Mealgrinder”), Thor’s hammer.
The Mjölnir pendant is also an example of how this exhibition explores the religious and spiritual dispositions of the Vikings. The gradual progression of Christian conversion through Scandinavia and Iceland meant that some southern communities were converted long before the recognised Viking Age began. Others in the north held to their faith in the Aesir (one of two tribes of Norse gods) until well into the 12th century.
What we miss in that story of incremental northwards progression, though, is how varied and often contradictory the local beliefs were. There may have been as many different schools of Aesir worship as there were settlements across the Norse-speaking lands. Certainly, during the period of Christian conversion, many people practised a dual worship — keeping the old gods alive, even though the new God forbade it.
There is a wealth of riches in the exhibition, as you might expect, which could be chaos if it lacked a strong logic of curation. Importantly, then, elements of the curation speak with great depth. The collectors have clear points to make, and they use the exhibits to make them.
A case in point is the questioning, rather than definitive, discussion of hair combs. Archaeologists have curiously found such apparently mundane items in most of the Scandinavian burial sites. Were they for carrying into the next world, for a final grooming of the dead person before burial, or something else entirely? If we cannot understand those combs, how can we understand the worlds they joined?
This emphasis on the social and everyday is quite different from many other Viking exhibitions – in English-speaking countries at least – which have tended to focus on the martial vigour of those people who repeatedly invaded “us”. A recent example was the British Museum’s 2014 exhibition Vikings: Life and Legend, which cast them as fighting fanatics for their religion, a medieval precursor of Daesh or ISIS.
Here, the curators are trying first and foremost to redirect our attentions. War was only a part of the Viking life, and only for a segment of Viking society at that. Anyone who wears a horned helmet to see this exhibition may feel an urge to take it off.
Vikings: Beyond the Legend is showing at the Melbourne Museum until August 26 2018.
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