Names in the Low Countries before 1150

Early-medieval personal names in The Netherlands and Flanders


This website presents an overview and an analysis of personal names in the Low Countries in the early Middle Ages. The collection is derived from primary sources: charter books, annals, chronicles and vitae of the saints, until the year 1150, for The Netherlands and the Flemish part of Belgium. The compilation yielded 10.334 attestations, 6049 individuals, and 1808 unique names. For each individual a year, a region and a social class were established.

The lists give a complete overview of all given names that were found, the various spellings, and the numbers per century, per region and per social class. Most given names were Germanic names, composed of two elements. The table of roots gives the meaning of each Germanic name element.

The analyses focus on the changes over time and the differences between the regions, the social classes and the sexes. The present study covers the period until the year 1150; sometimes, a comparison was made with a compilation of personal names in the Low Countries in the 13th century. The analyses were hampered by the fact that the numbers of persons registered were not equally distributed between sexes, regions, classes and over time. Because of this, it was not always possible to determine the statistical significance of the observed differences.

In the early Middle Ages the vast majority of the people in the Low Countries had a Germanic name. Only a few percent carried a name derived from the Bible, the Greek mythology, or Celtic literary sources. From the 11th century onwards, the non-Germanic names acquired a bigger share, and in the 13th century one in every three persons had a non-Germanic name. This increase was most obvious among women and in the southern regions. The northern and eastern regions stuck to their old Germanic names. Among the nobility and the clergy, non-Germanic occurred more often than among common folk, and among the serfs they were virtually absent.

Sometimes a bipartite Germanic name was shortened, even to the extent that one element (usually the second) disappeared completely. Also, there were Germanic names that originally consisted of only one element (such as Brun and Ernst). One in every eight men and one in every five women carried such a single-rooted Germanic name.

The early Middle Ages were characterized by a great variation in given names, but this decreased in the course of the centuries. Among men and women this happened at about an equal pace.

As a result of the diminishing diversity in given names, the need for bynames emerged, in order to keep individuals apart. A byname could refer to the profession or the social status of the bearer, the place where he or she came from, kinship (son of …), and it could be a nickname. Unlike our modern family names, medieval bynames were not hereditary.
Already in the earliest centuries, nobles and clerics were often registered with a byname. Among common folk an increasing trend could be observed in the course of time: initially, less than 10% had a byname, but toward the end of the study period this was about 35%. This percentage increased even further in the 13th century. In the northern and eastern regions the scores remained relatively low, also in the 13th century. This could be the result of the fact that in those regions people continued to use a wide range of Germanic names (even in the 13th century) so there was less need for additional bynames.
Occupational bynames such as innkeeper, cook or leatherworker, were rare in the compilation until 1150. In the later Middle Ages such craft names appeared much more often, and some developed into family names that still exist today.

Nicknames, expressing a particular feature of the bearer, were rare: they occurred in only 2% of the individuals (mostly men). Remarkably, half of them were from Flanders, while in the North and East virtually no nicknames were found. Among the Vikings, by contrast, nicknames were very popular.

The literature mentions several principles and rules that medieval people used (or were supposed to have used) when choosing or composing a personal name. The data in the present compilation were analysed to find out to what extent these rules were actually applied in the Low Countries.
With regard to the second elements of Germanic names, there were exclusively masculine and exclusively feminine elements, but a quarter of all roots appeared among both sexes.
In Germanic women’s names the second element was never a weapon name.
In Germanic names the second element rarely started with a vowel, although there were exceptions.
In principle, all roots could be used as the first element in a Germanic name, both among men and women. However, in reality not all roots were indeed used as first element for both sexes: a quarter of the elements were predominantly or even exclusively masculine or feminine.
Rhyming (both alliteration and end rhyme) between the first and second element was very rare, but it did occur.

Children were often named after one of their parents or, even more often, one of the grandparents. There was no evidence for a strict system in which the first born son was always named after his parental grandfather, the second son after his maternal grandfather, the first daughter after her parental grandmother, and the second daughter after her maternal grandmother.
It seemed that, in the early Middle Ages, naming children after grandparents and parents was mainly done in the higher circles and that it was adopted by the lower classes only later.
Other naming principles were alliteration, variation, and combination. These methods were not applied systematically in the Low Countries.


Material & Methods

Male names
Male names extended
Female names
Female names extended
Table of roots
Non-Germanic names
Single rooted names
Composition rules Namesakes
© Dr. Kees C. Nieuwenhuijsen
Last update: September 2012