Old English Names: Cæd, Bæd and Dangerous to Know - 11 minutes read
In the Life of Saint Guthlac, the author, Felix of Crowland, describes how the early English saint received his name:
For, as those who are familiar with that race relate, the name in the tongue of the English is shown to consist of two individual words, namely ‘Guth’ and ‘lac’, which in the elegant Latin tongue is ‘belli munus’ (the reward of war), because by warring against vices he was to receive the reward of eternal bliss [and] everlasting life.
By the time Guthlac received his name in 673, it is likely that most English people would have borne names formed in this way – by combining two words taken from Old English. How such names came to dominate, and how the people who bore them came to be seen as ‘English’, is less clear. These are questions that tie into a wider debate around the events of fifth- and sixth-century Britain. As the Roman Empire disintegrated around the beginning of the fourth century, the people of the former province of Britannia were left to fend for themselves. Within a couple of centuries, while memories of Britannia remained, the people who inhabited it were no longer Roman or British, but spoke new languages, occupied new boundaries and possessed new identities. These people were Mercian, Saxon, Anglian or Northumbrian – the ancestors of the English.
For a long time, it was assumed that it was the people that were new. The closest things we have to eyewitness accounts portray the transformation as a brutal one. Bede, writing in the 730s, explains how:
The Angles or Saxons came to Britain at the invitation of King Vortigern … and were granted lands in the eastern part of the island on condition that they protected the country; nevertheless, their real intention was to subdue it. It was not long before such hordes of these alien peoples vied together to crowd into the island that the natives who had invited them began to live in terror.
That terror was described by Gildas, a Romano-British poet writing in the mid-sixth century, who lamented that:
All the major towns were laid low by the repeated battering of enemy rams … Church leaders, priests and people alike, as the swords glinted all around and the flames crackled. A number of the wretched survivors were caught in the mountains and butchered wholesale. Others went to surrender to the enemy: they were fated to be slaves for ever, if they were not indeed killed straight away. Others made for lands beyond the sea.
The story told by Bede and Gildas is one of a clash of peoples, in which native British inhabitants were swamped by hordes of violent invaders from across the North Sea. The Britons were either killed or forced to flee, both westwards, within Britain itself, as well as abroad to places such as Brittany, where Gildas himself eventually emigrated. As the Britons moved out, they were replaced by large numbers of settlers from continental Europe.
This view of the adventus saxonum (the ‘coming of the English’) was largely adhered to by historians for centuries; however, since the second half of the 20th century, it has been called into question, particularly by archaeologists. Although there was clearly a significant transformation in the material culture of post-Roman Britain, as well as the way in which they buried their dead, it became apparent that there is no way of knowing whether these were evidence of new people, or just new ways of doing things. Instead of mass migration, the transformation was increasingly seen as a process of ‘elite emulation’, where a relatively small number of newcomers arrived from northern Germany, bringing their ways with them. Gradually, the native Britons came to adopt the languages, customs and identities of the new ruling elites.
When it comes to the English language – one of the biggest legacies of the early medieval transformation of Britain – the problem is that the evidence still seems to point in the other direction. In most situations where language shifts have taken place we can see the impact of the old language on the new one: the borrowing of words, for example, or an influence on grammatical structure that reflects ongoing interaction between speakers of both languages, or large numbers of people learning a new language in a short period of time. The British language (Brittonic) seems to have very little impact on English in either of these ways. Linguistics points to minimal interaction between Britons and Saxons.
What’s in a name?
Personal names may offer us a way of bridging this divide – or at least bringing the two sides closer together. Names are linguistic items, forming part of a spoken and written language. But they are also items of ‘immaterial culture’. They can be chosen, used and passed down from generation to generation, or discarded when they become unfashionable. Examining the personal names of the people of early medieval Britain can shed some light on how the different peoples of the island interacted.
Names show without much doubt that migration was a factor – both into and away from Britain. Not only do we see the appearance of Old English names in large numbers, predominantly into southern and eastern Britain, but we see evidence of the flight of the Britons across the Channel to Brittany in the form of a huge influx of Brittonic names there. We also see significant numbers of Irish names, particularly in Wales, but also in many areas of Britain, showing that migration came from west as well as east.
The broad pattern of personal names seems to tie in well with the picture painted by Bede and Gildas: Saxon arrival, British flight. But within this, small details tell a more nuanced story. We know for certain that some of the names borne by prominent figures in the history of the early ‘English’ kingdoms were, in fact, British. The Anglo Saxon Chronicle tells us that Cerdic (d.534), the first king of Wessex, ancestor of Alfred and the first dynasty to rule the kingdom of England, arrived in Britain by boat. But he had a British name. Cerdic almost certainly comes from a Brittonic name Caraticos (or Coroticus), which by the sixth century was usually written as Ceretic.
Cerdic of Wessex was not the only post-Roman British ruler with this name. In the fifth century, Saint Patrick wrote a letter to the soldiers of a tyrannical ruler in northern Britain, Coroticus, admonishing him for his vicious treatment of a recently baptised group of Irish converts. Patrick was most likely referring to Ceretic Guletic, king of Alt Clut. Meanwhile, Bede refers to a sixth-century ‘king of the Britons’ named Cerdic – probably Ceretic of Elmet, or Ceredig ap Gwallog. This Cerdic sheltered Hereric, the father of Abbess Hild of Whitby, after he was exiled by king Æthelfrith (not so successfully; Hereric was poisoned and killed). So, while the Chronicle claims that Cerdic of Wessex was an English arrival, his British name suggests otherwise. It is more likely that he was, in fact, a local British leader – or potentially a product of an early union between Saxon newcomers and a powerful British family.
Among Cerdic’s successors there are several whose names look suspiciously British, including Ceawlin, Cerdic’s grandson, who reigned between 560 and 590, and king Cenwalh, who ruled 50 years later. The second element of Cenwalh’s name, walh, was an English term used to refer to British people, and is the origin of the English name for Wales. Its appearance in Cenwalh’s name could well reflect an element of British identity, either as a name given at birth, or one that was given to him at some point by English speakers.
British names for English people?
These names point to a British element among the rulers of the Saxon kingdom of Wessex for some time after its initial foundation. Wessex was, after all, bordered by lands still ruled by Britons, and contact between Saxons and Britons was inevitable. Indeed, the West Saxon kings must have ruled over a significant number of Britons. In 685, the throne was seized by a ‘young and vigorous prince’ of the West Saxons named Cædwalla. His name was unequivocally British, coming from the Brittonic Cadwallon, meaning ‘one who leads in battle’, and was in common use in Wales at the time. Just 50 years earlier, his namesake Cadwallon ap Cadfan, king of Gwynedd, defeated Penda of Mercia, before allying with him to attack – and temporarily subdue – large portions of Northumbria.
By the end of the seventh century, the laws of Ine – passed by the king of Wessex (whose name was English) around 694 – suggest that the Walas (Britons) were treated more harshly than their Englisc equivalents. But the names of Ine’s predecessors reflect a situation where ethnic divisions were less stark, and Britons and Saxons mixed freely, even at the highest levels of society.
It was not just in Wessex that British names persisted. Cædmon, the ‘Father of English Sacred Song’, and the first named poet to have written in English, also had a British name, most likely an anglicised form of the Brittonic Cadfan, from Catamanus, which was shared with the influential Breton saint, Saint Cadfan, as well as Cadfan ap Iago, a seventh-century king of Gwynedd. Bede tells us that the Northumbrian Cædmon had been a lay brother at Whitby Abbey for much of his life, until one day he woke with the ability to turn the holy scriptures into ‘delightful and moving poetry, in English’. Bede goes out of his way to point out that English was Cædmon’s ‘own tongue’.
It may be that he was a native English speaker, but this clarification seems like a tacit acknowledgement that not only was Cædmon’s name British, but that there must have been people around whose first language was not English, and that some of them were bilingual.
Such bilingualism might be visible in the name of a man named Cædbæd, an ancestor of Ealdfrith of Northumbria. His name appears to be a hybrid, using the same Brittonic first element used in Cædwalla, Cæd-, and combining it with an Old English element -beadu – both of which meant ‘battle’. It may be that Cædbæd’s name was created to demonstrate a mixed heritage.
Alternatively, his name may have originally been a Brittonic one, Cadbodu, in which the second element referred to a war goddess, the ‘battle crow’. If so, this may be an example of a Brittonic name altered by English speakers to incorporate a more recognisable English element.
We can see a similar process in the names of two early English saints, the brothers Chad and Cedd, who were bishops of the Mercians and East Saxons respectively. Both these seventh-century churchmen bore shortened forms of names beginning with Cæd-, at least originally. Chad’s name was often recorded as Ceadda, combining the initial British element of his name with an English suffix. This suggests that, despite its British origin, it was being used and transformed by English speakers.
These names and their incorporation – if only temporarily – into the name stock of early English peoples suggest that the Romano-Britons cannot all have been annihilated or marginalised. We cannot say for certain that any of these people saw themselves, or their names, as being British. Names can be indicators of ethnic and linguistic identities, but it is never clear-cut. And it does not take long for a name that was once foreign to become accepted as native. Some of these names may have been seen as being as English as any other. But for this to have happened, there must have been a period of contact and interaction between Britons and Saxons that saw British names – and almost certainly some British people – acquire a new English identity.
James Chetwood is a Government of Ireland Postdoctoral Fellow at University College Cork.
Source: History Today Feed