For this next set of posts, I’m going to pick a selection of names from my county, Huntingdonshire. I’ll then explain to you what the names show about the area!
Technically the county is Cambridge and Huntingdonshire is a district, but given that it only lost that status in 1974, people still view Huntingdonshire as a distinct thing. It was the third smallest county after Middlesex and Rutland.
So, where is Huntingdonshire? Well, first things first:
Now we’re talking my language! (Also, if anyone knows the origin of this map, please do tell me!! My dad brought it home one day some time before 2013 and I have no idea where from.)
Hopefully you can match the names and get a sense of where Huntingdonshire maps onto Cambridgeshire. Now, onwards!!
The names that I looked at are dotted all over the county. The earliest recorded name is Bluntisham, from 907, and there are lots more from the tenth century too. All of the names are also still existing today – so Huntingdonshire pride perhaps makes more sense when you realise that the places are over a thousand years old.
Lots of the names are basically named after someone. This is an exceedingly common naming practise across history and across the globe – check out the Wikipedia entry! But while places on that list are largely named after royal or famous people, settlements in Anglo-Saxon times are named after … well, certainly I don’t know. Possibly someone’s studied this, but if so I haven’t read it. Important people in the community, leaders, the first man to build a house … I don’t know.
So let’s look at some of these unknown, normal people.
A nice easy one to start you off with. This was the man immortalised in the settlement name Godmanchester. Its earliest form makes it even more obvious: Godmundcestre. I’ll address the -chester element properly in another post, but for now just know that this was the word that Anglo-Saxons used to denote a Roman fort, town, road station, anything like that. According to my undergraduate research, Godmanchester was built on the Roman town of Durovigutum.
This is the name behind the oldest name in my corpus: Bluntisham. This name is: Blunt (in its possessive form, Bluntes) and the Old English word for “homestead”. Blunt’s homestead.
He’s in the name Catworth. If you look at its earliest form, you can see that possessive -es again: Catteswyrth. The second element is Old English for “enclosure”. Catt’s enclosure.
Believe it or not, this is the name behind Abbotsley. This is a great example of how you should never, ever trust modern names when you’re looking for older forms. There’s no Abbot here! Its earliest recorded form is Albedesleg, and again, there’s the -es in the middle. The -leg ending is actually the Old English word for clearing, leah.
(Actually if I remember my books correctly, leah is an interesting bit of meaning change: it used to mean woodland, and was applied to areas where there had in memory been woodland. (All British settlers have enjoyed cutting down trees, sadly.) As time went on the word shifted from basically meaning “woodland that used to be there” to “Oh hey look, this is a clearing. Obviously it means clearing!”)
There’s another lesson in this next name. This guy had Haddon named after him. I’m going to show you the two earliest forms and you’ll see a massive difference:
[aet] Haddedune – dated 951
Adone – dated 1086
What on earth happened here?? The first form makes it easy to trace the name back to “Haedda’s hill” (Haedda + es + dun) but the second is warped beyond recognition.
What happened in 1066?
This is a record from the Domesday Book. If you don’t know what that superhuman piece of recording is, please, please check it out online. It’s basically a massive database of everything that the new king, William, had in his country, down to how many pigs a village man owned.
And the accepted wisdom is that the Norman scribes doing the recording couldn’t handle Anglo-Saxon spellings or names and so Norman-ised them. I have a few articles bookmarked to read on unfairly blaming Norman scribes, so don’t accept that as gospel, but it’s certainly what you’ll find in older introductions to the topic.
So, this is why that if you’re looking for the oldest form of a name you really want either something older than 1086, or something from a similar time but a different source, so that you can compare spellings.
And last but certainly not least:
Now, as someone who is regularly called an angry feminist at work it would be highly remiss of me not to feature the only woman in my corpus. Whoever she was, she was clearly something special. Her eponymous village is Buckden, and its second element is denu which means valley.
Thanks for reading, and come back tomorrow for the way that we can mirror the invasions of England (and thus Huntingdonshire) through the languages used in its names!