Toad Testicles, Foul-Beard and Broad-Arse
Nicknames can easily raise an eyebrow, but they have value to the historian beyond humour.
If we were to visit Winchester in the latter years of the reign of Edward the Confessor (1042-66), we might have bumped into a man named Alfred ‘Toad Testicles’, who lived in the suburb that had grown outside the city’s West Gate. Alfred appears just once in the surviving written record, 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 he 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 is 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 found before the Conquest.
Modern English primarily uses inherited surnames to distinguish between similarly named people, disambiguating Maggie Thatcher and Maggie Smith, for example. Quite when inherited surnames became common practice is a matter of scholarly debate, but it is clear that they were not the norm before the Conquest, nor for a considerable time after. Instead, pre-Conquest England used a number of additional names, often termed ‘bynames’. 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 to which Alfred ‘Toad Testicles’ belongs, that we might call nicknames: creative names that do not follow the predictable patterns outlined above but allow those who coin them a degree of 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 notable exceptions. Bede’s Ecclesiastical History mentions two missionaries 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, the short-reigning Edmund ‘Ironside’, is given his nickname as a result of his brave if unsuccessful resistance to Cnut, if later chronicle evidence is to be believed.
But the majority of early medieval English nicknames remain 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-11th-century charter, actually thin? Perhaps it is a mistake to try and ‘solve’ a nickname by finding a specific and concrete meaning.
Yet these nicknames are more than amusing anecdotes for the historian. In a large enough quantity, a corpus of nicknames 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 to curb negative behaviours by publicly criticising them; 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 seriously to think 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, as such to his face?
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 recorded 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 nicknames derives. Did women not use nicknames as frequently, or are they simply recorded less frequently by our sources?
Perhaps the primary value of studying historical nicknames, however, 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 does not factor into account those nicknames of which we are unaware. 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.
Tristan Alphey is a PhD student at the University of Oxford, researching nicknaming before 1100.