Medieval Queerness

It’s June! If you’re part of the LGBTQ+ community (and maybe even if you aren’t), you know what that means: it’s pride month! 

Seeing as 2022 has been a terrible year for trans rights (and will almost certainly get worse), I’ve decided that this month (and perhaps longer) I will write about aspects of medieval queer culture. I will cover primarily European medieval queer history as that is what I am most knowledgeable about. (If you know good sources for other areas of the world, please let me know! I want to broaden my knowledge.) 

Before I go further, if you aren’t familiar with terms like “cisgender” or why I choose to use the word “queer,” I recommend that you read my article “Queer Saints: An Important Preface.” I wrote it back in 2020, so there’s some statements I’ve changed my mind on, but it’s still a good little introduction to anyone new to queer history. 

And if you are new to history, it may surprise you to discover queerness was prevalent in European medieval culture. Contrary to popular belief, being not straight/gender non-conforming was not invented in the 1960s. 

While the words heterosexual and homosexual were invented in the 1890s, and the word transgender was invented in the 1970s, that doesn’t mean everyone was straight or subscribed to traditional gender roles. They either didn’t have the words we do now, or called themselves something different.

I’ve complied a list of the queer medieval things I know about. Obviously as I learn more, I will add on to this list. Certain topics I will write about further in the future (or have already written about). Today’s list will simply name the item and provide a very brief description of it. The depictions vary from positive to negative. 

The items are divided into categories to make it easier for readers to find specifically what they are interested in. The categories are art, anecdotes, literature, people, poetry, and theology. Each category will include a brief explanation about it. 

Queer Medieval Anecdotes

Anecdotes include miracle stories, exempla, excerpts from chronicles, letters, memoirs, etc. Basically, any sort of story medieval audiences were told really happened or they were supposed to pretend it really happened. Some anecdotes here may seem fantastical to my modern audience, but I’m not going to argue the validity of each story. 

Dialogue on Miracles

Caesarius of Heisterbach’s two volume collection of miracle stories, Dialogus miraculorum, (AKA The Dialogue on Miracles) is filled with tales about people who do not conform to traditional gender roles and sexualities. The depictions vary from somewhat positive to negative. 

There are over 700 stories in the work, so I will list a few notable examples for brevity’s sake. More will be added in the future.

Gender Non-Conforming Demons

The Dialogue on Miracles is filled with stories about demons who switch between masculine and feminine forms to seduce and tempt humans. There are so many examples in the text it would take too long to list them all. 

Brother Joseph: Volume I, Book I, Chapter 40

After being orphaned on the way home from a Jerusalem pilgrimage, a young trans man experiences many shenanigans and near death experiences before finally becoming a monk. The shenanigans and near death experiences include transporting secret messages, accidentally helping a thief, being hanged and saved by an angel, and dealing with a bunch of horny monks. 

Queer Medieval Art 

Art is pretty explainable. Any motifs/subjects in medieval visual mediums. This does have some overlap with theology.  

Jesus Christ’s Side Wound

It’s not a vagina. It’s a side wound, I swear.

MPreg Jesus

Yes, you read that right. There are depictions of Jesus giving birth. It’s from His side wound and He’s giving birth to the Church, but it’s still a depiction of childbirth nonetheless. 

Satan Birthing Sinners

Yup, Mpreg Satan is also a thing. However, in the artistic depictions of this, he’s also eating the sinners before birthing them. (Arguably you could interpret it as Satan defecating the sinners but the way it’s portrayed looks more like childbirth.)

Queer Medieval Literature

In contrast to the previous category, Queer Medieval Anecdotes, Literature lists stories that are intended to be fictional/have an over arching narrative tale to tell. Some of these items are technically poetry, but they tell a narrative story with fictional characters, so I’ve put them here.

Le Roman de Saint Fanuel

Saint Fanuel, a cis gender man, accidentally gets pregnant from a magic apple. He gives birth to Saint Anne. (The Virgin Mary’s mother.) It’s not biblically canon, but someone wrote it.

The Monk’s Ordeal

A German story about a naive cis gender monk who thinks he’s pregnant after misinterpreting how sex works. 

Yde and Olive

A poem about a princess who turns into a man.

Queer Medieval Miscellaneous

This category includes things like social norms, words, laws, etc. They all go in miscellaneous as I don’t want this list to get too overly complicated. Plus a lot of concepts here have a lot of overlap.

Ergi

An Old Norse slur for being the passive partner during sex between two men. Quite literally fighting words as if you called someone else this, they were in their legal right to fight/kill you. And if the person called this didn’t do anything about it, they could be outlawed.

Hares

Hares symbolized sodomy in the Middle Ages. (At least, it was one thing hares symbolized.) But why were hares associated with sodomy? Well, animal folklore was a popular genre in medieval European literature. However, folklore was misconstrued as scientific fact. And a crucial piece of hares’ folklore was that each year they were alive they grew, well, another bottom (to put it politely). Comparing someone to a hare meant that you were implying they participated in sodomy.

Queer Medieval People

Personally, I don’t like giving real historical people labels as I don’t know exactly what they would call themselves if they were alive today. However, based on observable behaviors, we can safely guess that some people certainly would not call themselves straight or cisgender. Depending on the historical figure and primary sources available, they may have already told us how they identify. 

Aelred of Rievaulx

A Cistercian abbot who wrote about the love he felt for other men. Lots of homoerotic language in his work “Spiritual Friendship.”

Eleanor Rykener

A 14th century trans woman who worked as an embroideress and sex worker in southern England. Unlike others on this list, the only reason she wasn’t lost to time is because of the surviving court records regarding her arrest for sodomy. 

Joan of Arc

While she did refer to herself as “Joan the Maid” she’s on this list as she is famous for her gender non-conforming style of dress. 

Marinos the Monk

A trans man who became a monk with his father. He was known to perform miracles and was accused of fathering a child with a local woman. I’ve written about him in detail as part of my Queer Saints series

Queer Medieval Poetry

While some of the queer medieval literature is in a poetical form, they are fictional stories with characters. Here, I have put poems that don’t necessarily have a fictional narrative, per se. Rather, they are poems that discuss the author’s personal thoughts. There is some overlap with Literature. 

Monastic Love Poetry

Monks wrote a lot of love poetry to other men, including their fellow monks. Some poems are rather tame and arguably are for a best friend. Other poems not so much.

Prayer for Transformation, an Excerpt from “Evan Bohan” by Rabbi Kalonymus ben Kalonymus ben Meir

This section is part of a larger poem by the Jewish philosopher Kalonymus ben Kalonymus. In it, Kalonymus laments being born a man instead of a woman. In the past, this excerpt was interpreted to be satire and “humorous.” 

However, as any trans person could tell you, the poem is a heart wrenching depiction of extreme gender dysphoria. Prayer for Transformation is distressingly relatable for anyone gender non-conforming. 

Queer Medieval Theology 

I’ll mostly be discussing Christianity as that is what I am most familiar with culturally. I don’t know enough about other faiths to speak with any sort of confidence about their religious practices or beliefs. 

However, if you aren’t Christian and there’s queerness in your faith dating back to the medieval era, feel free to reach out!

Jesus as Mother

This relates back to Jesus’s side wound and giving birth. 

Sources:

Abbouchi, Mounawar. “Yde and Olive.”  Medieval Feminist Forum. Subsidia Series no. 8. Medieval Texts in Translation 5. (2018). https://scholarworks.wmich.edu/mff/vol53/iss4/1/

(transcription), Aharon N. Varady, Aharon N. Varady (translation), Nir Krakauer (translation), Isaac Gantwerk Mayer (translation), Steven Greenberg, and Ḳalonymus ben Ḳalonymus ben Meir. “תפילה להפך – מאבן בֹחן: Prayer for Transformation, from the Poem ‘Even Boḥan’ by Rabbi Ḳalonymus Ben Ḳalonymus Ben Meir (1322 C.E.) • The Open Siddur Project ✍ פְּרוֺיֶּקט הַסִּדּוּר הַפָּתוּחַ.” the Open Siddur Project . the Open Siddur Project, August 31, 2020. https://opensiddur.org/prayers/civic-calendar/international/transgender-day-of-visibility/prayer-of-kalonymus-from-sefer-even-bohan-1322/.

Athelstan, Viktor. “Joan of Arc and the Lord Have an Understanding: She’s on a Mission from God.” The Mediaeval Monk, June 4, 2022. https://themediaevalmonk.com/2022/06/04/joan-of-arc-and-the-lord-have-an-understanding-shes-on-a-mission-from-god/.

Athelstan, Viktor. “Queer Saints: Marinos the Monk, a Transgender Saint.” The Mediaeval Monk, April 25, 2021. https://themediaevalmonk.com/2020/09/12/queer-saints-marinos-the-monk-a-transgender-saint/.

Baltimore, The Walters Art Museum, MS W.218 Book of Hours (Cistercian) fol. 28v: https://www.thedigitalwalters.org/Data/WaltersManuscripts/html/W218/description.html

Boswell, John. Christianity, Tolerance and Homosexuality: Gay People in Western Europe from the Beginning of the Christian Era to the Fourteenth Century. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1981.

Caciola, Nancy. Discerning Spirits: Divine and Demonic Possession in the Middle Ages. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2006. 

“Caesarius of Heisterbach.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, September 14, 2020. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Caesarius_of_Heisterbach.

“Ergi.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, March 27, 2022. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ergi

Gutt, B. (2019). Medieval trans lives in anamorphosis: Looking back and seeing differently (Pregnant men and backward birth). Medieval Feminist Forum, 55 (1), 174-206. https://ir.uiowa.edu/mff/vol55/iss1/7/

Harper Douglas, “Etymology of heterosexual,” Online Etymology Dictionary, accessed June 2, 2022, https://www.etymonline.com/word/heterosexual.

Harper Douglas, “Etymology of homosexual,” Online Etymology Dictionary, accessed June 2, 2022, https://www.etymonline.com/word/homosexual.

Harper Douglas, “Etymology of transgender,” Online Etymology Dictionary, accessed June 2, 2022, https://www.etymonline.com/word/transgender.

Halsall, Paul. “Medieval Sourcebook: The Questioning of John Rykener, a Male Cross-Dressing Prostitute, 1395.” Internet History Sourcebooks Project. Accessed June 4, 2022. https://sourcebooks.fordham.edu/source/1395rykener.asp.

Heisterbach, Caesarius of, and G.G. Coulton. Dialogue on Miracles. Translated by H. Von E. Scott and C.C. Swinton Bland, vol. 1, Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1929, https://archive.org/details/caesariusthedialogueonmiraclesvol.1/page/n4/mode/2up.

“John/Eleanor Rykener.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, May 16, 2018. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John/Eleanor_Rykener.

“Kalonymus Ben Kalonymus.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, April 18, 2022. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kalonymus_ben_Kalonymus.

M.W. Bychowski, M.W. “Eleanor Rykener.” The Lone Medievalist. Accessed June 4, 2022. https://lonemedievalist.hcommons.org/women-of-the-middle-ages/eleanor-rykener/.

Oxford, Bodleian Library MS. Bodl. 270b, fols. 6r: https://digital.bodleian.ox.ac.uk/objects/4cf7e9d2-c06e-4029-a3b1-152736320897/

“Poetry 101: Learn about Poetry, Different Types of Poems, and Poetic Devices with Examples – 2022.” MasterClass. Accessed June 4, 2022. https://www.masterclass.com/articles/poetry-101-learn-about-poetry-different-types-of-poems-and-poetic-devices-with-examples#15-types-of-poetic-forms.

Stehling, Thomas. Medieval Latin Poems of Male Love and Friendship. Garland Pub., 1984. 

Swan, Emily. “Jesus’s Vagina: A Medieval Meditation.” Medium. Solus Jesus, November 8, 2019. https://medium.com/solus-jesus/jesuss-vagina-a-medieval-meditation-ef78367ac2af.

“The Monk’s Ordeal by Der Zwickauer.” Short Story. In German Verse-Couplet Tales from the Thirteenth to the Fifteenth Centuries. S.l.: SCHWABE AG, 2020. 

Tova Rosen. “Circumcised Cinderella: The Fantasies of a Fourteenth-Century Jewish Author.” Prooftexts 20, no. 1–2 (2000): 87–110. https://www.jstor.org/stable/10.2979/prooftexts.20.1-2.0087.

Interesting Place Names in The Domesday Book

In the past, I compiled three lists regarding female names, male names, and nicknames from the Domesday Book. Today’s list will be of place names. There are a lot of amusing town/village names. I figured I would share some I find particularly interesting for no real reason or logic as to why I find them interesting. I just do. Like my other name lists, this one will be added to in the future.

Abbotsbury

Boscombe

Broadclyst

Crowland

Culverthorpe

Fittleton

Fobbing

Huntspill

Littleton Drew

Much Wenlock

Norton Bavant

Pershore

Poynings

Shaftesbury

Sompting

St Benet of Hulme

Tavistock

West Ham

Wimbish

Wootton Bassett

Worthy

Yalding

Source:

‘Domesday’, Prosopography of Anglo-Saxon England, http://www.pase.ac.uk.

A List of Digitized Medieval Manuscript Collections

For fun I look at medieval manuscripts. However, as I do not have in-person access to these manuscripts, I look at the digitized versions provided by libraries, museums, universities, and other cultural institutions. At the end of this blog post, I’ve provided a list of links to digitized collections.

Medieval illuminations and marginalia are beautiful, fascinating, and sometimes just down right funny. They give modern day readers the ability to travel back in time and interact with the scribes, illuminators, and past readers who are people just like them. (Not to mention the animals that interacted with the manuscripts as well!) People who made notes indicating important parts of the text, drew silly looking monsters doing sillier things, rubbed out drawings they considered lewd, wrote their names on the pages, and so much more.

Despite the fact medieval manuscripts are hundreds of years old, a significant number of them are not in the public domain. Many medieval manuscripts are copyrighted or under some sort of restriction that prevents commercial and non-commercial use. However, there are some institutions that allow their manuscripts to be used freely or with attribution.

That is why all the medieval illuminations I feature on my Instagram have the manuscript number, institution name, and any other information the owner requires in my captions. I include this information on open access images as well so people can find the sources if they want to do further research or simply look at them on their own.

Because of the many restrictions (which are often confusing to read), there are a lot of manuscripts I’m unable to share. However, people can still access them for free if they only intend to look at them.

Please be aware individual institutions have different policies regarding how their images can be used. Always check the source’s rules about distribution before using them!

This list will be added to as I find more digitized medieval manuscript collections.

Bibliothèque nationale de France, Paris France

The BnF’s website is kind of difficult to navigate. That being said, I’m sure it would be easier if I could read French.

Bodleian Libraries, Oxford UK

British Library, London UK

The British Library has several databases for its collection. Here are two places I particularly like:

J. Paul Getty Museum, California USA

Morgan Library and Museum, New York City, USA

Walters Art Museum, Baltimore USA

Interesting Penances in the Canons Attributed to Saint Patrick

Previously I wrote an article explaining what penitentials were. Today I want to go deeper and share some real life penances from translated penitentials. It would be impossible to write down every single penance, so for this series of articles I will be sharing ones I find particularly interesting and why.  Today’s penances are from the canons attributed to Saint Patrick. 

It is important to note that the canons attributed to Saint Patrick are technically not penitentials. They are canons. (Hence the name!) Canons are laws the Church made to govern clergy and lay folk. However, the canons attributed to Saint Patrick contain sections written in a penitential format. (The penitential format being a sentence to a paragraph describing a sin and a person’s penance for committing that sin.) 

For my translation I am using the Medieval Handbook of Penances: A Translation of the Principal Libri Poenitentialesby John T. McNeill and Helena M. Gamer. 

A woman confessing to a priest. Yates Thompson MS 27 f.51v.
A woman confessing to a priest | Yates Thompson MS 27 f.51v | Source: The British Library

While the canons are attributed to Saint Patrick, the earliest surviving manuscripts of both texts date several centuries after the saint’s death. Because of this, it is questionable whether or not Saint Patrick had anything to do with their authorship, whether he influenced them through his personal writings or what people think he might have thought. The manuscripts date to the ninth century and are thought to contain material from what is believed to be a seventh century Irish synod. 

Canons of a Synod of Patrick, Auxilius, and Iserninus

Section 6

This section is about the cleric dress code. Whether you were a sexton, priest, or any type of cleric in between, it was vital that you were always clothed in public. The canon specifically says clerics cannot be seen without their tunics on and they must “cover the shame and nakedness of his body” (pg. 77). The canon also states that clerics must have Roman style tonsures. (There were different styles of tonsures. I will be writing an article about that in the future.) Furthermore, any wife of a cleric must be veiled at all times. (This was written before clerical celibacy became a rule rather than a suggestion.) If any clerics and their wives disobeyed this, the canon orders them to be “despised by laymen and separated from the Church” (pg. 77). 

Based on the fact this rule exists, it seems that it was a regular problem that clerics and their wives went out in public not dressed appropriately. Or it happened at least once and new rules had to be made. If it was neither of those things, it might have just been as fear for the creators of this canon and they wanted to cover all of their bases before something did happen!

Section 8

At the time this canon was written, clerics acting as a surety for pagans were a common enough practice. The text specifically says it “is not strange” (pg. 77), nor was it strange if the pagan failed to pay up. If this happened, the cleric was responsible for the debt. It did not matter if the amount was really, really big or really, really small. Either way he had to pay it out of his own pocket. Also if the cleric fought the pagan he was “justly reckoned to be outside the Church” (pg. 77). 

The fact that this was a valid and common concern gives us an interesting insight into Christian and pagan relations during the seventh century. Christians and pagans must have been on amicable enough terms to get into such legal contracts with each other. 

Section 9

This part of the canon prohibits monks and virgins from different places from socializing. They were not allowed to stay in the same inn, travel in the same carriage, or even talk to each other. 

While the canon does not specify what the monk and virgin’s penances will be if they break this rule, I do understand why it is in place. If you want to prevent any sort of unchaste behavior, the easiest way to do so is not allow two parties to be in the vicinity of each other. However, the practicality of some of it is questionable, especially in regards to not staying in the same inn. If a monk arrives at an inn and a virgin is already there, it might be extremely impractical to try to find another inn with no virgins, especially if the village was small. However, if they were only staying in separate rooms, this rule would be easier to follow. 

Section 14

If a Christian killed someone, had sex outside of marriage, or saw a diviner, they had to do penance for a year. (I will note that the one-year penance is for each individual sin, not if you do all three sins together.) Once their year of penance is up, the Christian had to be absolved by a priest in front of witnesses.  

The fact that the sins of murder, unwed sex, and getting your fortune told are all classified under the same severity gives us a good view into what the authors of this canon considered serious spiritual crimes. Personally, I would not classify future telling and fornication on the same level as murder, but clearly these authors did!

Section 16

If a Christian thought someone was a vampire or a witch, the person with these beliefs “is to be anathematized” (pg. 78). Furthermore, if the same person who believed someone was a vampire/witch went around telling people about it, they were no longer allowed in the Church until they stopped slandering their neighbor and did penance. 

While the text does not specify what their penance would be, it is certainly interesting to see how official reactions to witchcraft accusations changed from the early Middle Ages to the Early Modern Period!

Section 19

If a Christian woman “takes a man in honorable marriage” and then leaves him for “an adulterer” (pg. 78), she was to be excommunicated.

The language in the translation is particularly interesting. I want to make note of the phrase “honorable marriage.” I’m not entirely sure if this refers to their marriage being legitimate or if it means the relationship itself was healthy. It’s also interesting that the third party is referred to as the one committing adultery, not the woman leaving her husband. 

Section 22

Here we have another reference to an honorable marriage. This focused on what should happen if a parent arranged an “honorable marriage” for their daughter but because she loved someone else the parents canceled the original agreement and kept the bride price anyway. Both the parent and the daughter were to be “shut out of the Church” (pg. 79) as punishment. 

Personally, I believe this makes quite a bit of sense. If you call off a marriage and money is involved (whether it be a bride price or a dowry), returning said money is the proper thing to do. Otherwise, your actions could be considered theft. 

Section 31

If two clerics get into such a bad disagreement that one of them hired a hit man to kill the other, then “it is fitting that he be called a murderer” (pg. 80). The cleric was also “to be held an alien to all righteous men” (pg. 80). 

Based on this, it seems clerics hiring assassins on each other was another common enough occurrence! I do not know enough about early medieval Ireland to say if this is true, but if it was written in an official canon, then at the very least church officials were afraid of this kind of thing happening. 

Canons of the Alleged Second Synod of Saint Patrick

Section 9

If a cleric fell “after attaining to clerical rank” he would “arise without rank” (pg. 82). If people knew what he did, cleric was to “lose his ministry” (pg. 82). However, if no one knew (besides God of course!) the cleric kept his ministry.

It seems that this section is implying as long as no one knows you did something wrong, you don’t have to be punished for it. The language in this section is a bit strange as well. The translation uses the word “fall/fallen” to refer to the sin the cleric committed. A few footnotes in the book implies that “fallen” refers to sexual sins, however this part of the text is unclear over whether it refers to a sexual sin or sinning in general. 

Section 11

After two people have fallen, they were to think about whether or not they still loved and/or desired each other. If both people died, then this was not a concern because two corpses can’t hurt each other. If they were both alive then “they shall be separated” (pg. 82).

There’s certainly a bit of sass in this part of the text! Basically it means unless both people in a romantic/sexual partnership are dead, they must be kept apart because the temptation will be too much. Personally, I enjoy it when historical authors throw in a bit of sass in their serious works. It reminds me that humanity has not really changed over the millennium. 

Section 25

If your brother died, you (the surviving brother) were not allowed to sleep with his wife. It did not matter that he died. After he and his wife slept together, they were made “two in one flesh” (pg. 85), thus she was now considered your sister. 

Apparently a lot of synods forbade people from marrying their dead brothers’ wives. While personally I would not consider it incest, I do understand why people found sleeping with your now widowed sister-in-law kind of icky. There’s definitely a lot of emotional baggage that comes with doing it. I personally think having sex with your sibling’s ex (even if they are dead) is kind of a selfish thing to do. However, I do recognize that levirate marriages are an actual practice in many different cultures, so I will clarify that there is a difference between marrying your dead brother’s widow and only having sex with her without any sort of love and commitment. This is especially true if you live in a time/place where sleeping with a woman will ruin her reputation forever. 

Section 27

When a father planned a marriage for his daughter, he needed to ask what she wanted before he arranged anything. Even if “the head of the woman is the man” and the daughter had to do what she’s told anyway, “God left man in the hand of his own counsel” (pg. 85). 

Basically, even if a father can make his daughter obey him, it’s still good to check what his daughter wants. It’s her life and she should have a say in her husband. She might know something about her future suitor that her father does not or she might not even like him in the first place! 

Section 28

When getting married for the first time, your first betrothal and wedding vows “are to be observed in the same way” (pg. 85). These first vows were “not made void” (pg. 85) if you ended up marrying a second time. The only exception is if your first marriage broke up because of adultery. 

In an earlier section, the Canons of the Alleged Second Synod of Saint Patrick stressed that oaths and vows are to be taken extremely seriously. It is not surprising that this applies to wedding vows as well. If your spouse has committed adultery, they clearly do not take their vow seriously so it is understandable that would be the one exception to making such a vow invalid. 

Sources:

McNeill, John Thomas, and Helena M. Gamer. Medieval Handbooks of Penance: A Translation of the Principal Libri Penitentiales and Selections from Related Documents. Columbia University Press, 1990. 

Örsy, Ladislas M. , Huizing, Peter J. and Orsy, Ladislas M.. “canon law”. Encyclopedia Britannica, 19 Feb. 2021, https://www.britannica.com/topic/canon-law. Accessed 2 September 2021.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Levirate_marriage

Interesting Early Medieval English Nicknames

In England, last names did not really exist in the early Middle Ages. At least, surnames did not exist in the same capacity as they do today. It was only after the Norman Conquest in 1066 did people start to use last names. 

Because last names were uncommon, people had to use other ways to distinguish them from others in their area that shared their name. For example, the Domesday Book referred to people by the place they lived, their profession, who their parents were, their relation to the king, their title, or a nickname of some kind.

Shepherd returning with a lost sheep while a lady greets him | Ms. Ludwig XV 9 (83.MR.179), fol. 109 | Source: The Getty Museum

When I looked through the Prosopography of Anglo-Saxon England to create my lists of early medieval names, I stumbled upon quite a few nicknames. A good portion of early medieval nicknames are quite funny, unusual, or have some sort of story behind them. 

Unfortunately, the origins of many of the nicknames are lost to time. However, if I could not find any concrete information about the person, I researched the nickname. This gave me some context of their potential backstory.  

Because so much has been lost to time, any comments of mine about how each individual earned their nickname is purely speculation. 

Due to the size of the Prosopography of Anglo-Saxon England’s database, I will gradually add more names to this list. 

My list includes early medieval nicknames I found interesting, funny, unusual, or hilariously specific. Some are tamer than others, but hopefully, you find this list just as interesting as I do.

Eadmær Ator

Apparently “ator” is Old English for poison or venom. It definitely makes me wonder what Eadmær did to get that nickname!

Almær Ator

Eadric the wild

Clearly Eadric behaved in absurd ways to get this nickname.

Alweald the bald

Siward the fat

Ælfric the small

Wulfric Cave

“Cave” could potentially come from the Latin word “calvus,” meaning bald.

Wulfwig the wild

Godwine Frambolt

“Fram” means “bold, active, strong” in Old English. “Bolt” means “bolt, bar.” Frambolt may indicate that Godwine was very strong or perhaps he made very strong bolts/bars. 

Hereweard the Wake

The Old English word for “wake” means the same thing in modern English. Hereweard was probably known for being a vigilant person or perhaps even an excellent guard. 

Ælfric the black

Alwine Devil

Siward Sot

“Sot” either comes from the Middle English word for a foolish or a dishonest person. In Old English, “sot” means soot. 

Azur Rot

Even in Old English and Middle English “rot” meant “decay/putrefy.” I wonder what Azur did to earn this last name!

Beorhtmær the Englishman

I find it interesting that the people around Beorhtmær wanted to specify that he was English.

Oswine the wild, canon of Dover

Ælfric the whelp

Godwine Fot

“Fot” means foot in Old English. 

Leofnoth Sterre

“Sterre” means star in Middle English.

Eadric Grim

“Grim” in Old English meant “fierce, severe, terrible, savage, cruel, angry.” I couldn’t find any detailed information about Eadric Grim as a person, but based on his last name I don’t think he was a person you wanted to be around!

Albert the Lotharingian

Ælfgar the tall

Almær Holdfæst

Holdfæst appears to be another way to spell “holdfast.” 

Beorhtric the black, free man

Eskil Barn

“Barn” could have several possible meanings. The first comes from the Old Norse word for child. Upper-class men used the name Barn, possibly meaning “a young man of a prominent family.” Or it simply could indicate that Eskil worked or lived near a barn. 

Almær the man of Bondi the staller

Alweard the stumpy

Alwine Frost

“Frost” had the same definition as today. It’s possible Alwine either had a cold personality or simply had white hair, giving him a frosty appearance. 

Alwig the harper

Alfred, the man of Esgar the staller

Alric Bigga

“Bigga” meant large, strong, or stout. It is possible Alric was a very large person. (Or perhaps extremely small depending on his peers’ sense of humor!)

Ealdred Bot

“Bot” in Old English has several meanings, including (but not limited to!) help, rescue, repair, improvement, and penance. Perhaps Ealdred Bot was a very helpful person or a handyman of some kind. 

Ælfgar Thræc

I had some trouble with this one. I believe “thræc” starts with a “þ” (a thorn) in Old English. If I’m correct, that means Ælfgar’s nickname is “þræc,” which means violence, force, or pressure. Probably not a person you want to be around!

Sælgifu the almswoman

I included Sælgifu on this list because she is one of the few women I’ve found so far who is known by their profession. (Besides nuns.) “Almswoman” is an archaic word for a female beggar. 

Alweard Gleawbeorht

Gleawbeorht is made out of the words “gleaw” meaning wise/prudent and “beorht” meaning bright/clear. Perhaps Alweard was known for being wise and a clear speaker?

Godric Wisce

“Wisce” means “a meadow liable to floods.” 

Eadgifu the girl

Eadric Lang

“Lang” meant tall in Old English. Presumably, Eadric was tall. (Or he could have been very short if the people who gave him his name wanted to be funny!) 

Alweard Bellrope

I am going to guess that Alweard was in charge of ringing bells. 

Wulfmær the chubby

Heoruwulf the man of Eadgifu the fair

Eadlufu Thief

My educated guess here is that Eadlufu may have been a thief. 

Eadric Spuda

Oslac the white

Ælfric the pig

I am going to make another educated guess and say that Ælfric was not a literal pig. I wonder what he did to earn that name!

Esbern Croc

“Croc” means “pot” in Old English.

Wulfwine the meadmaker

Ælfhild the abbot’s mother

Tovi the man of Ælfric son of Goding

Godric ‘Fifteen Acres’

I’m guessing Godric either owned fifteen acres or he was involved in an incident regarding fifteen acres. 

Alwine the white

Thorkil the steersman

Godwine Wombstring

It seems like there may have been some type of incident with Godwine’s umbilical cord. 

Alwine Bucstan

Depending on whether or not “buc” is spelled with a “ú” (and the PASE doesn’t specify), “buc” could mean either buck like a deer, belly, or a pitcher of some sort. “Stan” means stone. So Bucstan could mean buck stone, belly stone, or pitcher stone. 

Godwine Haldein

“Haldein” means half Dane. 

Leomær the beadle

Thorsten the red

Ælfgar Cida

“Cida” possibly comes from the Old English word “cídan” which means complain or blame. If this is right, then I have a feeling Ælfgar may have been known as a whiner. 

Edwin Grut

“Grut” is Old English for “groats, course meal” and comes from Old Norse for “porridge.” Perhaps Edwin made a very good porridge or there was some embarrassing incident he was part of that involved porridge. 

Wulfric the wild

Esgar the Crippled

Sources:

Bosworth, Joseph. “LANG.” An Anglo-Saxon Dictionary Online, edited by Thomas Northcote Toller et al., Faculty of Arts, Charles University, 2014, https://bosworthtoller.com/21145

Bosworth, Joseph. “croc.” An Anglo-Saxon Dictionary Online, edited by Thomas Northcote Toller et al., Faculty of Arts, Charles University, 2014, https://bosworthtoller.com/42165

Bosworth, Joseph. “BÚC.” An Anglo-Saxon Dictionary Online, edited by Thomas Northcote Toller et al., Faculty of Arts, Charles University, 2014, https://bosworthtoller.com/5364

Bosworth, Joseph. “buc.” An Anglo-Saxon Dictionary Online, edited by Thomas Northcote Toller et al., Faculty of Arts, Charles University, 2014, https://bosworthtoller.com/41078

Bosworth, Joseph. “stán.” An Anglo-Saxon Dictionary Online, edited by Thomas Northcote Toller et al., Faculty of Arts, Charles University, 2014, https://bosworthtoller.com/28714

Bosworth, Joseph. “CÍDAN.” An Anglo-Saxon Dictionary Online, edited by Thomas Northcote Toller et al., Faculty of Arts, Charles University, 2014, https://bosworthtoller.com/6118

‘Domesday’, Prosopography of Anglo-Saxon England, http://www.pase.ac.uk.

Reaney, Percy H., and Richard Middlewood Wilson. A Dictionary of English Surnames. Routledge, 1991. 

https://www.historic-uk.com/CultureUK/Surnames/

https://old-engli.sh/dictionary.php

https://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/almswoman

https://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/ator

https://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/beorht

https://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/bot#Old_English

https://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/fot#Middle_English

https://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/gleaw

https://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/rot#English

https://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/sot

https://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/sterre