Names in the Low Countries before 1150

Early-medieval personal names in The Netherlands and Flanders

Analysis 6: Namesakes

There are various ways to choose a name for a child in such a way, that certain names or name elements are kept in the family: repetition, alliteration, variation, and combination. (1) Below, it is examined to what extent these principles were practised in the early Middle Ages the Low Countries.


Repeating names is the best known form of same sakes: a child gets the full name of a relative. This system was and still is applied in many cultures. In the late Middle Ages in The Netherlands, repetition became the common practise for choosing a name for a child, and the pattern persisted until the present day. (2)
In 712 individuals in the compilation (12%) the name of the father and/or the mother was known. Sometimes, also the name of one or more grandparents was known, or an uncle or aunt. Namesakes could be investigated in these individuals. (3)

Among the boys whose fatherís name was known, 10,5% had the same name as the father; among girls with a known mother this was 12%. Among the grandsons with one or two known grandfathers, the name was the same as one of the grandfathers in 21% of the cases; among granddaughters with grandmothers this was 15%. These percentages are much higher than was to be expected on the basis of chance, which indicates that (some) children were indeed deliberately named after a parent or a grandparent. (4)

In the most strict form of repetition, the first born son was named after the parental grandfather, the second son after the maternal grandfather, the first daughter after the parental grandmother and the second daughter after the maternal grandmother. Any subsequent children got names of uncles and aunts or of the parents. (5) This system was often applied form the later Middle Ages onwards. It has been suggested that is was already the rule in the early Middle Ages and that people did not depart from it; based on this assumption, complete genealogies have been constructed. (6)
However, the data found here do not support the assumption.
In order to calculate how often it could be expected that a grandparent and a grandchild had the same name - assuming a strict application of the rule above -, data on the size of families and on survival rates of young children are required. Unfortunately, such data are not available for the early Middle Ages. We can, conversely, estimate what the size of families must have been to get to the numbers found. If the first born children in each family were systematically named after the grandparents, an average early medieval family should have consisted of at least five sons and seven daughters. These numbers are unlikely. Therefore, the assertion that the first children were always named after the grandparents is not tenable. At the most, it can be concluded that naming after grandparents seemed to happen more often than naming after parents. (7)
Neither did the data registered in the early Middle Ages support the assumption that, when naming after grandparents was applied, a strict sequence was followed in which paternal grandparents preceded maternal grandparents. This could not be ascertained, because years of birth were rarely recorded. The sequence of births of children in one family could not be deduced from the order in which they were mentioned in charters or other written sources, because that order could vary. (8) All in all, there is no evidence for the existence of a strict naming system in the early Middle Ages.

With regard to namesakes a remarkable difference between the social classes was found. Among the nobility and clerics, the percentages of namesakes were consistently higher than among common folk. (9) In the naming after grandparents the difference was extreme: all of the 19 cases found related to nobles; there was not one common boy in the compilation for whom it could be demonstrated that he was called after his grandfather. Since the numbers were low, we must be cautious when drawing conclusions, but it seems that naming after grandparents was chiefly a habit of the higher circles during the early Middle Ages, and that it was adopted by the lower classes only later.


The system of alliteration implied that all names in a family started with the same character(s). In the English royal families during the years 800 - 1000, alliteration was often applied. Van der Schaar already stated that it was rare in our regions; the only example he knew was Hera fila Habonis. (10)
A more convincing example of this application would be a family in which all children had the same initial. The present comprised 299 sets of two or more brothers and/or sisters, with a total of 731 individuals. Among these 299, 205 were pairs (brother and/or sister). Based on chance, one would expect that in nearly 10% of those pairs the given names would start with the same letter, that is in 20 pairs. In reality there were 12 such pairs. Families with three or more children all with the same initial were not found at all. (11)
It seemed therefore that the principle of alliteration was unknown in the Low Countries, and that equal initials resulted from chance. It cannot be said that, conversely, parents deliberately avoided alliteration: although the number observed was lower than the number expected, the difference was not statistically significant. (12)


With variation, the children in a family had names in which one element differed (for instance Adalbert & Berta, Altbern & Eisbern, Gerard & Rutger) or in which the sequence of elements varied (Baldwulf & Wulfbald). Van der Schaar suggested that this system was rather widespread in Holland until the end of the 11th century. (13)
Based on chance, one would expect that in just over 8% of the brother/sister pairs the given names would share a common root, that is in 17 of the 205 pairs. (14) Variation was observed to occur in exactly 17 pairs of brothers and/or sisters, which did not deviate from the expectation.
Variation as in in Baldwulf & Wulfbald was not found. Neither was there any family with three or more children that all shared a common element in their names. There were 14 cases like Gherbrant & Isbrant & Adallard, with Ďincompleteí variation.
It can be concluded that variation, like alliteration, was a phenomenon that happened now and again due to chance. Van der Schaarís suggestion that it was a system that was deliberately applied was, for the Low Countries, untenable.


A special form of variation is the combination, in which the name of a child is a composed from elements from the names of the father and the mother. Examples of such names all stem from abroad (15); they have not been found in the present compilation.

1 - Van der Schaar (1953, p. 47); Ebeling (1993, p. 19).
2 - Van der Schaar (1953, p. 15 e.v.).
3 - This set of 712 individuals-with-known-parent was not a cross selection of the compilation. Nobles and clerics were over-represented: they comprised 33% of the 712, while they comprised 24% of the compilation as a whole. The region Flanders was also over-represented (53% versus 39%) and there were more women than expected (31% versus 15%). The distribution over the centuries roughly matched the total compilation.
4 - The chance that a random pair of women bore the same name was, with 421 unique womenís names, less than 1%. Among men (1387 unique names) this was even less than 0,1%.
When a grandsonís name equalled both the fatherís and the grandfatherís name, this was counted as naming after the grandfather.
5 - Van der Schaar (1953, p. 15 e.v.).
6 - Van Winter (1983); Cordfunke (1987, especially p. 31, 42 and 46); Dijkstra (1991, p. 114 e.v.).
7 - The differences observed could be ascribed to the fact that each boy had two grandfathers and only one father, so twice the chance that his name equalled one of his grandfathers. However, this argument does not hold, since only rarely both grandparents were known. The same goes for grandmothers.
8 - Nieuwenhuijsen (2009, p. 34).
9 - For the analysis of differences between the classes, clerics and nobles were lumped together on the one hand (because all namesake-clerics stemmed from noble families) and serfs and witnesses (for whom the numbers observed were very low) were lumped together with commoners on the other hand. The percentages for nobility and clerics versus the other classes were, for naming sons after fathers: 14% vs. 8%; grandsons after grandfathers: 26% vs. 0%; daughters after mothers: 17% vs. 11%; granddaughters after grandmothers: 29% vs. 9%.
10 - Van der Schaar (1953, p. 47 and 94).
11 - The expected value was calculated as follows: of all given names, 18,7% started with an A; therefore it was expected that 0,187x0,187=3,5% of all brother/sister pairs would be an A-A pair. This calculation was done for all letters in the alphabet, taking I and J together, and also C and K, and U, V and W. The sum of the expected percentages for all initials added up to 9,8%.
The 12 pairs were: Adelulf & Arnulf, Christina & Clementia, Hrodger & Hrodhard, Marchelm & Marcwin, Sigerus & Stephan, Walter & Wilhelm (4 times), Weremund & Werenburoc, Werenbold & Wulfard, Wetheric & Wilhelm. Furthermore, in two families the daughters had the same initials, but not the brother: Agatha & Ava & Petrus, and Friburch & Friduwic & Rudolf. This latter example was also the only one in which a parent had the same initial as two children (mother Frigart).
12 - X≤=3,55, df=1, N.S.
13 - Van der Schaar (1953, p. 94).
14 - The expected value was calculated in the same way as for the initial characters, only now the calculation was more complex since it had to be accounted for that each root could occur in two positions in a name (as first or as second element), and that the frequencies as first or as second element were not the same.
15 - Examples: Van der Schaar (1953, p. 47 and 48); Ebeling (1993 p. 20).


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