Monday, January 11, 2010

Real, odd 14th-century names

The Society for Creative Anachronism, a medieval historical re-creation I have been part of for a long time -- a shockingly long time -- has as a pioneering role-playing environment, some contradictory elements. SCA culture encourages research and serious re-creation, especially in regards to artifacts; at the same time there has been a "do your own thing" ethos, right from the very beginning.

When it comes to SCA members adopting personas and names, you end up with a mishmash of fantasy and non-medieval elements, because new members tend to pick names and identities before they know much of anything about medieval naming practices. There are established members who know quite a bit about this subject, but getting new members to listen to them is not so easy. People want to do their own thing.

One of the peculiar things about the situation is that in the real Middle Ages there were large numbers of oddball names. In fact, in today's SCA you are not safe in thinking that a weird name is necessarily the result of an ignorant mistake. Maybe the bearer knows things you don't know. I've been caught making premature judgments more than once.

Today I was reading a passage from a French work of the 15th century, The Chronicle of the Good Duke, which tells the story of Duke Louis of Bourbon and his military companions over decades of the Hundred Years War. The passage concerned a period in the 14th century when Louis and his gang succeeded in keeping English and mercenary troops from riding and raiding over the French countryside. But one of the English leaders was a little more daring and he had to be hunted down. He was named "Michelet."

What is odd about that? One of the most famous French historians ever is a nationalist-romantic 19th century scholar named Jules Michelet (above) whose interpretation of the Hundred Years War is particularly famous. He was quite a storyteller on top of his tireless reading of sources and archives, so he is still influential today.

"Michelet" looks to be a diminutive of "Michel," so I guess I should not have been surprised, but I found it astonishing to have that name staring out at me from an account of the Hundred Years War.

A few lines later I found out that one of the Frenchmen who hunted down "Michelet" was named "Odin." Perhaps this name had nothing to do with the pagan god of earlier centuries, but there it was. Odd.

Someday I will have to tell you about my friend who owned Odin's bowling shirt. Until then I leave you a depiction of Odin with no bowling shirt, nor any references to the Hundred Years War.

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Blogger andrewjameslowry said...

A question I once had in the SCA, "I know your name is Richard Larmer but what is your SCA name?"

5:12 PM  
Blogger the Wareham Forge said...

Remember 'Helmut Axehelm' - who could not use this, his legal name, inside the SCA?

7:56 AM  
Anonymous Patrick Nielsen Hayden said...

"In fact, in today's SCA you are not safe in thinking that a weird name is necessarily the result of an ignorant mistake."

I'm reminded of Jo Walton's observation that although the name "Tiffany", a diminutive of "Theophania", was in use in medieval France, you can't actually give it to a character in a historical novel, because everyone will read it as a glaring anachronism. Jo calls this "the Tiffany problem" and uses it to talk about the general fact that it's not enough to be accurate in writing historical fiction; sometimes you have to go to extra lengths to seem accurate as well.

7:06 AM  
Anonymous magistra said...

I always liked the bit in the film 'A Knight's Tale' where the hero uses the pseudonym 'Ulrich von Liechtenstein', which sounds ridiculous, but which is actually the name of a famous medieval jouster. Though to prove that modern films can't be quite as daft as medieval life, they didn't have Heath Ledger joust while dressed as a woman, like the real Ulrich did.

7:02 AM  
Blogger Genevieve la flechiere said...

Now that the SCA has extended firmly into Iceland, the birth names and persona names are getting harder to distinguish.

5:37 PM  

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