FAIR WARNING – there are some naughty words below.
Nicknames are not an uncommon occurence in early medieval Europe, and can be given to all ranks and classes of peoples (although, notably, female nicknames are substantially less frequent). One of the remarkable features of early medieval nicknames is their shock factor. The frequency of names that modern audiences find offensive is outstanding, and we’re left questioning how these names fitted into normal contemporary life. Surely, we ask, SURELY, they weren’t actually called that….?
Crucially, these names aren’t simply used within closed groups and behind locked doors – we find down-right offensive names in public documents for wide circulation. In England, for example, they appear in both Domesday Book and legal charters – that’s like putting your own amusing nickname on the census or your will. Sometimes, these offensive names appear to be used by the individual themselves, as when they sign charters or wills. Why would they accept such names – were they playing along with the joke?
If we’re really to understand early medieval Europe, we will need to explore the impications and intentions behind these nickname – are they genuinely offensive, are they light-hearted banter, or are they attempts to socially criticise unacceptable behaviour? Unfortunately, the origin of most early medieval nicknames are lost to history.
The evidence here is drawn from two major sources – pre-Conquest England and the Viking world (especially the settlement of Iceland).
Nicknames referencing male genitalia are remarkably frequent in the Anglo-Saxon corpus. The Winton Domesday (c.1110) has an individual identified simply as Balloc (‘Testicle‘ – Tengvik, 286). Sometimes there is additional information, as with Humphry Aurei Testiculi (‘Goldenbollocks‘ – Tengvik, 285), in what may be a reference to fertility. Æthelfrith Taddebelloc (‘Toad-bollocks‘ – von Feilitzen, 50) is a mystery that we should perhaps be content not unravelling…
Interestingly, nicknames of Vikings in Landnamabok (a later text recounting the settlement of Iceland) tend to focus instead on penis puns. Landnamabok contains two nicknames that can be translated (euphemistically, admittedly) as ‘horse-penis‘ – Auðun skǫkull (Peterson 2015, 219) and Þorkell vingnir (Peterson 2015, 240). Peterson’s thesis contains a multitude of other examples from across the Old Norse corpus, including the unfortunate Kolbeinn smjǫrreðr (‘Butter-Penis‘ – Peterson 2015, 65). What is actually at play here? Well, it seems likely that these are tied closely to ideas of male prowess, allowing for ridicule or (self?)praise of an individual.
The Roger Deus Saluæt Dominas (‘God-Save-the-Ladies‘ – Tengvik, 389) found in Domesday may be a reference to a prolific ‘ladies man’ although it is unclear whether this is intended in a more socially criticla manner. Here, we might compare Godwine Clawecuncte (‘Claw Cunt’ -Tengvik, 389), who also appears in teh Winton Domesday. Even by early medieval standards, this one is a bit of a shock. Remember this is found in an official document (Winton Domesday – the Survey of c.1110), rather than a secret joke among friends. As above, the implication here is unclear. It is potentially a method of social punishment at unacceptable behaviour. We certainly find both Anglo-Saxon and Viking nicknames that appear to vilify unacceptable traits, in a form of collective social pressure (eg. violence, feud-starting etc). However, a ‘Gropecunt’ lane is evident in London from the early 13th C, supposedly named for its prostitutes – it seems likely that a similar connotation is being played on here.
What exactly is implied by Herjólfr Holkinrazi (‘Man with a Crouched Arse’ – Peterson 2015, 163) is unclear (. Is it a reference a physical impairment or disability; if so, was this intended as an act of mockery and exclusion, or friendly familiarity? Eysteinn Meinfretr (‘Harm-Fart’ -Peterson 2015, 195) from Landnamabok, seems like a strange nickname to have immortalized. Presumably, it’s a classic example of ‘banter’, or an ‘in-joke’ among friends. What is unclear, however, is how widespread the use of this name was – would Eysteinn have taken kindly to someone outside his immediate kinship group using the name? Certainly, socio-onomasts have constructed models looking at the role of nicknames as a crucial password for access to a group, defining membership by their knowledge.