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.
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.
Apparently “ator” is Old English for poison or venom. It definitely makes me wonder what Eadmær did to get that nickname!
Eadric the wild
Clearly Eadric behaved in absurd ways to get this nickname.
Alweald the bald
Siward the fat
Ælfric the small
“Cave” could potentially come from the Latin word “calvus,” meaning bald.
Wulfwig the wild
“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
“Sot” either comes from the Middle English word for a foolish or a dishonest person. In Old English, “sot” means soot.
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
“Fot” means foot in Old English.
“Sterre” means star in Middle English.
“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
Holdfæst appears to be another way to spell “holdfast.”
Beorhtric the black, free man
“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
“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
“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!)
“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.
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.
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?
“Wisce” means “a meadow liable to floods.”
Eadgifu the girl
“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!)
I am going to guess that Alweard was in charge of ringing bells.
Wulfmær the chubby
Heoruwulf the man of Eadgifu the fair
My educated guess here is that Eadlufu may have been a thief.
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!
“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
It seems like there may have been some type of incident with Godwine’s umbilical cord.
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.
“Haldein” means half Dane.
Leomær the beadle
Thorsten the red
“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.
“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
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.