Medieval Names

Deciding on a good name for a character seems to be almost as difficult as naming a real child. One of the questions about the Middle Ages I see most often is "What should I call my character?" Fortunately, there are a number of resources online that can help you find just the right medieval name.

Sara L. Uckelman (aka Aryanhwy merch Catmael) of the Society for Creative Anachronism has combed through the indices of quite a few edited medieval documents and produced some useful lists of names for different regions and time periods, most of them from the later Middle Ages.

An additional source for Anglo-Saxon names right up to the reign of King John is the Onomasticon Anglo-Saxonicum edited by William George Searle in 1897.

For Old Norse names, see the detailed discussion at The Viking Answer Lady.

Like today, medieval people also enjoyed coming up with imaginative names when they wrote fantasy. Leaf through Ernest Langlois's Table des noms propres dans les chansons de geste to see the kinds of names for people and places that showed up in the romances.

Finally, see if you can lay your hands on a copy of Means of Naming: A Social and Cultural History of Naming in Western Europe by Stephen Wilson. Its section on medieval names has useful information about the spread of Christian names in Europe, medieval conventions for naming children, the point at which second names came to be used in different regions, and the periods when surnames became hereditary for different peoples and social classes.

Medieval Money and Coinage

I haven't forgotten about this blog! Here's another post to re-start the momentum.

Have you ever wondered what kind of money people were using in the various kindoms of medieval Europe? The following resources can help you discover what what's jingling in your characters' pockets.

The Money Museum has images of coins from all over the world and all periods of history. To find the ones you want to see, just check off the modern country that corresponds with your desired kingdom or principality, and move the arrows on the timeline to indicate the desired timespan. Don't be intimidated by the fact that the site is in German. It's quite user-friendly. Here's some handy vocabulary to navigate it.

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A similar database is the Corpus of Early Medieval Coin Finds at Cambridge University. It catalogues the discoveries of single coins minted between 410 and 1180 and found in the British Isles. Many of them come from distant lands, and that's something to keep in mind. During the Middle Ages, there were usually many different currencies circulating at once in any given region.

If you want to understand how medieval people used money, you can find an introduction to the subject in the early pages of John F. Chown’s book A History of Money: from AD 800. You can read most of it online at Google Books.

Chown answers a great many questions about how medieval money worked, and can tell you a great deal you didn’t even know you should know. Why does bad coinage drive out good? Did gold coins always have a fixed value in relation to silver coins? Why were prices and accounts often recorded in denominations that didn’t match the coinage in circulation? Chown’s nice clear prose makes some fairly complicated concepts easy to understand.

Another useful book, Money and its Use in Medieval Europe by Peter Spufford, can tell you a great deal about minting and the sources of gold and silver in your kingdom and period. This one is mostly online too.

Another common question people want to know is “How much did X cost in the Middle Ages?” That one can be tricky. However, if you’re studying England in the late Middle Ages, you can refer to the classic book A History of Agriculture and Prices in England by James E. Thorold Rogers. The first volume, covering the years 1259-1400, is on

Thorold Rogers painstakingly tracked down records of prices for agricultural produce, fish, wool, textiles, metal, and other products and produced charts showing price fluctuations over time.

If you’re trying to guess how much something would have cost in the Middle Ages, remember that some things would be much more expensive, relatively speaking, than they are today. Before the industrial revolution made textile production cheaper, a full set of bed hangings and bed linens might be worth more than a modest house. Guessing the medieval value of something isn’t just a matter of dividing the modern price by a certain number to account for inflation. The last word on the subject goes to Lord Beveridge, from his book Prices and Wages in England, published in 1939.

At Hinderclay in Suffolk, before the Black Death, wheat was being sold at prices varying with the harvest but ranging about 5s. a quarter; steel was being bought for ploughshares and other implements, at prices also varying from year to year and ranging about 6d. a lb., that is to say, at £50 and upwards per ton. To-day a normal price for wheat is about 50s. a quarter, and for steel is about £10 a ton. While the price of wheat has multiplied ten times, that of steel has fallen to a fifth; a quarter of wheat will buy fifty times as much steel as it once did. The contrast between the wheat age and the steel age could hardly be better illustrated. The difficulties of making index numbers to cover centuries need no further comment.

The Money-Changer and his Wife, Martinus van Reymerswaele, 1539. Image from

Peasant furnishings

Finding out about medieval peasants can sometimes be tricky. Since they were illiterate, they didn't leave many records of their daily lives. That's why this conference paper by Christopher Dyer is interesting. Dyer is a leading English economic historian. Here he has pulled together disparate sources of information to give us a picture of the furnishings you could find inside a late medieval English peasant house.

Dyer also has an article on English peasant buildings from the same period. You can see the first few pages of it here.

February, from the Très Riches Heures of the Duc de Berry

Project Woruldhord

Here's a useful new resource for people interested in Anglo-Saxon Britain. Some scholars at Oxford have put together a collaborative database of educational resources about the period. They solicited contributions from museums, historians, literature profs, art historians and others. It's interesting to note that some of the material was also contributed by reenactors.

Here are some examples of the incredible diversity of materials in the database.

The interior of a reconstructed dwelling from Bede's World museum.

The course pack for first-year Old English at Oxford

Images of coins

An account of the Battle of Maldon, with photos from the site and extracts from the Old English poem.

Image of the Franks Casket, courtesy of the British Museum and Woruldhord

Late medieval and early modern craftsmen at work

In 1388 a charitable merchant in Nuremberg named Konrad Mendel founded a pensioners' home for elderly craftsmen from that city. In 1425 the foundation began a chronicle that featured a comemorative portrait of each pensioner when he died. The craftsmen were portrayed working in their former professions. Another philanthropist, Matthäus Landauer, founded a similar house and began another book of portraits in 1511.

These house-books, as they're called, are an incredible source of pictorial information about medieval trades, crafts and tools. You can now find all the images from them in one place on the internet, organized by occupation, tools, materials and products.

Check them out here.


Medieval Outlaws

As the greenwood turns yellow, orange and red, let's look at medieval English outlaws.

You've probably heard some tales of Robin Hood, but do you know about his medieval predecessors Hereward the Wake, Eustache the Monk, Fulk Fitz Warin and Gamelyn? These stories were later subsumed into the legends about the Merry Men of Sherwood. The Robin Hood Project at the University of Rochester has posted editions of the early poems along with a lot of other interesting out-of-copyright material relating to the Robin Hood legends.

To find out more about the historical context of yeomen, robbers, greenwoods and fraternities, check out A.J. Pollard's book Imagining Robin Hood. The Google version is cut up pretty badly, so you'll have to track down a physical copy to get more than a taste of the text.

If you're ready for some advanced outlaw studies, a great collection of articles came out just last year. Outlaws in Medieval and Early Modern England: Crime, Government and Society, c. 1066-c. 1600 has pieces about local judicial officials, criminal soldiers, poachers, pirates and more.

There's also a classic article by John Bellamy: "The Coterel Gang: an Anatomy of a Band of Fourteenth-century Criminals" in the English Historical Review from 1964. The Coterels were a real robber band in the neighbourhood of Sherwood Forest who grew so powerful, they became a kind of medieval mafia. The article is hidden behind a paywall, but the highlights are summarized on this page from a genealogical website.

ETA: You can now get the Bellamy article at

And speaking of the greenwood, don't forget about my post from last year on medieval woodland.

Howard Pyle, Robin Hood Slayeth Guy of Gisbourne, 1883. Image gacked from the Robin Hood Project.

More marvellous medieval maps

Here's a nifty new tool. Harvard University has just released a beta version of the Digital Atlas of Roman and Medieval Civilizations (DARMC). You can use it to construct customized maps of Europe and the Mediterranean world, including physical features, the political boundaries of various kingdoms and periods, Roman roads, medieval universities, fairs and markets, and other useful details.

I'm up to my ears in a chapter at the moment, but I promise there are more posts coming.

More about food

Last week, I promised another post on Peter Brears’ book Cooking and Dining in Medieval England. This time I’ll talk about what he has to say about the food itself.

To me, the most interesting thing about the book was not just that Brears presented a great deal of information about medieval meals, but that he also included some discussion of the complications involved in researching and recreating the recipes. It was not just a matter of finding references in old manuscripts and copying them out. Writing the book required him to have a solid background in medieval history and also an understanding of how modern social forces affect our perception of medieval food.
Here are a few more of the quotes that I thought were interesting.

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As I mentioned last week, I found that there was as much to be un-learned about the subject as there was to be learned.

Medieval diners from the fourteenth-century Luttrell Psalter. Image courtesy of A Feast for the Eyes