Sunday, 17 January 2016

applestand or given and received

I’ve really been enthralled lately with the discovery of a well researched and executed educational podcast series called Medieval Death Trip, which explores medieval chronicles and other texts more in depth than the usual footnoted references that they receive and the bidden commentary that they entail. Voraciously, I’ve been working though the extensive archive of episodes and am finding it a welcome change that a different light is cast on the Dark Ages, ethnographically speaking, rather than the usual cloistered and superstitious pall that’s afforded that epoch of history. As telling as linguistic developments and throw-backs are, one of the more illuminating points that revealed itself was in the urgency with which the need for family names came about.
Of course there was the administrate embargo of record-keeping in the form of the Domesday books that followed the Norman conquest of England for the assizers, but there was also a strong cultural emulation to give one’s offspring that patent of their usurpers, just like in the diglossic dissonance between the vernacular Old English—seen as backwards—and the courtly French. Quicker than ancient parlance fell away, giving one’s children Celtic and Nordic names went out of fashion. As few are called Cletus or Bethany any longer, within a single generation parents found it uncouth to draw on their heritage and no longer named their Æðelþryð, Ealdgyth, Ælfwine or Ælfgifu (respectively, friend or gift of the elves)—though Alfred (advised by elves) and Edgar (prosperous spear, rich prick) have survived. Old English and modern France, taken as an amalgam, have an embarrassment of names to choose from, but the Normans, though themselves of Scandinavian mercenary roots, only had a few: namely, Guillaume (reconquered as William) and Matilda (wife of said conqueror)—plus a few other crossovers, like Richard, Roger, Guy and Gilbert, which were not nearly as popular on the rankings of baby names in 1086. The potential for confusion was apparent soon enough, with brothers and sisters within the same nuclear family having to wonder who was being summoned. It sounds like a proverb, like how the camel got its hump or the Tower of Babel, to remove surnames from patronymic and codified reason, but it struck me as true and curious nonetheless. Incidentally, the name of the podcast refers to “Wisconsin Death Trip,” a thesis paper (adapted into a book and then as film) presented in a series of episodic newspaper clippings revelatory of the hardships of living in the US Midwest around latter decades of the 1800s.