18 Baby Name Ideas From Medieval Literature
When I decided one of my college majors would be literature with a focus on Medieval literature, everyone (not unreasonably) promised I would never, ever use that degree once I graduated. Well, the joke's on you, naysayers, because I'm here to share baby name ideas from Medieval Literature. Because, really, isn't it time names like Lancelot and Igraine made a comeback?
In addition to Medieval literature, one of my other favorite things is naming little humans. The only reason I'm sad I stopped at two children is that I wish I could name all the babies. Seriously, there are so many fun names out there! And I feel like naming someone is such an act of love and significance. We named our son after our favorite author, and we gave our daughter (to quote my husband) a name that would "let the world know we were celebrating her from the moment she was born."
The Middle Ages, especially Medieval England, is a time of linguistic tumult and diversity, because at the time a lot of different groups were coming together, sharing stories, and swapping languages. As a result, this period of time produced some badass names, some fancy names, some classic names, and other names that (maybe) could stand to be revived, including the following:
Dante's The Divine Comedy is a seminal work of medieval literature (and with good reason: it's pretty cool) and follows the author's imagined travels through the various levels of Hell, Purgatory, and Heaven. Beatrice, who was based on an actual woman who captivated Dante's imagination, guides the protagonist through Heaven and represents divine knowledge. The name means "she who makes happy."
A character in Marguerite de Navarre's incomplete and posthumously published Heptameron, "Amador" means "one who loves." While this Amador is a bit of a jerk (he "loves" a woman so uninterested in his advances that she goes into a convent), the name is commonly used for other lovesick male characters of the period.
Branwen is a Welsh name still used today that means "beautiful (or blessed) raven." In a collection of stories called The Mabinogion, Branwen is the daughter of King Llyr, who marries the King of Ireland in an attempt to restore peace to the warring kingdoms. It doesn't go so well, but Branwen is one of about 10 people to survive the whole kerfuffle so... well done, Branwen!
The legendary King Arthur comes up a lot in Medieval literature, from Geoffrey of Monmouth's History of the Kings of Britain to Sir Thomas Malory's Le Morte d'Arthur. Scholars still aren't really sure if such a figure actually existed, but the tales built up around this idealized king have intrigued audiences for centuries. Like so much about Arthur, the origin (and therefore exact meaning) of the name is unknown.
Emaré is a profoundly weird story even by Medieval lit standards. It's about a beautiful woman who keeps getting jerked around by horrible men (seriously, they keep just sending her out to sea to die wearing a gorgeous dress) but uses her wits to ultimately install her son as emperor. The origin of this name is unclear.
The Decameron is a collection of one hundred short stories as told by 10 young nobles in a villa outside of Florence, which sounds like a lot of fun until you realize they're only there to escape the Black Death that's decimating the city.
One of the nobles is Filomena, whose name means "beloved."
Considered one of the most important poems written in Old English, Beowulf is part Greek myth, part Game of Thrones. Beowulf is the hero of the Geats who faces several monsters and eventually becomes king. The name itself comes from the Old English words for "bee" and "wolf." So, "bee-wolf," which is at once hilarious and somehow badass.
In Marie de France's La Fresne, there's a character known as "La Codre" which translates to "Hazel" so it totally counts.
While the story focuses on La Codre's long-lost-twin-sister-turned-chambermaid, La Fresne, whose riches to rags back to riches story is convoluted and fun, La Codre, we are assured, has her own happy ending.
Cador is the cunning Earl of Cornwall in Le Roman de Silence.
After slaying a dragon, the brave knight Cador marries his beloved Eufemie and they have a daughter, whom they name Silence, and decide to raise her as a boy so that she may inherit Cador's lands when she comes of age. Silence goes on to have loads of awesome adventures with minstrels and knights and lusty queens before eventually deciding to live as a woman and becoming a queen herself.
Guinevere, King Arthur's complicated queen, is almost as widely written about as her famous husband. Interpretation of her character differs depending on who's telling the story. Sometimes she's a loving, virtuous wife. Other times she's a wicked temptress who had an affair with her husband's best friend, Lancelot. All versions are pretty interesting. Her name is Welsh and can roughly be translated to "White Enchantress" or "fair and smooth."
Dante Alighieri, author of The Divine Comedy, kinda owned the Italian literary scene in the Middle Ages, and his work was well regarded and studied even within his lifetime. Interestingly enough, the name Dante means "enduring," and his writing certainly is that... as is the name! You don't find too many "Cador"s anymore, but I know a bunch of "Dante"s.
So you thought adding "y" to a name was a modern invention? Welcome to the Middle Ages, baby! Because spellings were not set in stone back in those days, there are so many seemingly random "y"s, especially depending on the year, region, and writer.
Jankyn is a character in The Canterbury Tales, the fifth and favorite husband of the Wife of Bath. Whether you want to read their volatile relationship as "passionate" or "toxic" is up to you.
Héloïse and her lover, Abelard, unlike most of the folks on this list, were actual people. Both brilliant academics, the two struck up an ill-fated love affair, had an illegitimate child (named Astrolabe), and were secretly married. So you know, things were going great until other people got mad about the whole relationship, Héloïse was sent to a convent and Abelard was castrated by his former friends. The two continued their relationship via written correspondence. "Héloïse" means "holy wood."
Another from Marie de France, Lanval is a knight of the round table who takes a beautiful fairy maiden for a lover. When he rebuffs the amorous advances of Guinevere, the queen accuses him of homosexuality and he's put on trial. At the last minute, his fairy mistress comes to save him on a white horse and rides away with him to the magical island of Avalon. The meaning of the name is unknown.
In a modern context, "Julian" is usually a boy's name, but in a Medieval context "Julian" could also be feminine, as in Julian of Norwich, a mystic theologian who was called to a religious life after a near death experience in her 30s. She spent much of her life in willing seclusion, living in a small cell in a church wall as an anchorite, but would speak to people who came to seek her counsel (such as fellow writer Margery Kempe). The name "Julian" means "youthful."
Gawain is one of King Arthur's most famous knights of the round table, and the tale of Gawain and the Green Knight is a still-popular Medieval tale. In it, the bold Sir Gawain gets into an epic feud with a giant knight and there's a whole to do with enchantresses and magic sashes and lessons learned by all. The origin of this name is unclear.
Another figure of Arthurian legend (specifcally in the version written by Chrétien de Troyes), Lunete is the charming, clever, diplomatic handmaiden of Laudine, wife of one of Arthur's favorite knights. She's also a bit of a matchmaker, convincing her lady to marry the knight and helping them work through a rough spot in their later years. Her name is a French version of the Welsh "Eilun," meaning "idol."
The tragic love story of Tristain and Isolde is told over and over in Medieval literature. Isolde is an Irish princess married to Tristan's uncle, King Mark of Cornwall. A love potion, however, has cursed the two to long for each other... which means a lot of sneaking around and eventually getting caught and killed for their affair. Isolde is a name of uncertain origin, but is speculated to mean "ice ruler."