|Jewish Naming Practices in Angevin England|
Articles > Names
by Eleazar ha-Levi
The purpose of this paper is to use the naming conventions adopted by the Jews of Medieval England (c.1070 - 1290) as a way of generalizing the rules of period Jewish naming. Three basic rules were applied in naming Jewish children throughout the medieval period and, even, up to the present time: the Talmud, kinnui (secular) versus shem ha-kadosh (sacred) names, and the role of the female in Jewish ritual practice.
The Talmud, the great book of Jewish law, in tractate Rosh Hashana 16b states:
If there were two [men] in the same town, [and the] name of one [was] Joseph son of Simon and the name of [the] other [was] Joseph son of Simon, neither may produce a bond of indebtedness against the other, nor may another [person] produce a bond of indebtedness against them. How should they proceed? they should indicate the third [generation]. And, if [their names] are [alike] to the third [generation], they add [some personal] description; and if their [personal] descriptions are alike, they write 'priest.'" (Brackets are those of the translator.)
The basic progression of a Jewish name, then, would be:
Joseph ben (son of) Simon
I will discuss women's names later in this paper. Jacobs lists the most frequent male names as Isaac (59 men), Joseph (55), Abraham (49), Berachiyah and its Latinized form Bennedict (45), Jacob (4), Moses (38), Samuel (37), Hayyim and its Latin equivalent Vives (23), Elias (19), Aaron (18), Deulecresse (Solomon or Gedaliah) (17), Manesser (17), Samson (16), and Solomon (15). Variations in spelling showed the usual midieval flair for creativity. A chart listing all names found in this research is included as an appendix to this paper. Names are given as single words (with their origins and variants), rather than actual names. Placenames appear in the records to be the most common descriptions and were used alone (e.e., Joseph of London) about as often as "son" or "daughter" of. Some forty-eight separate towns are included in the "master lists" in The Jews of Angevin England, with London (110 names), Lincoln (82), Norwich (42), Gloucester (40), Northampton (39), Winchester (36), Cambridge (32), Oxford (22), Bristol (18), Colchester (16), Chichester (14) Bedford and York (13 each), Canterbury and Worchester (12 each), and Hertford (11) all having ten or more entries. Hebrew Deeds of English Jews Before 1290 contains the Hebrew text, with English summary, of over two hundred legal documents. In many cases, these and other placenames are listed, all rendered in Hebrew letters. (A good trick since such sounds as "w" and "th" do not occur in Hebrew.)
Two points worth noting about the "sons" of in the master list. In three cases, both father and son had the same name: Benjamin, Joseph, Moses. Several other cases occur in Hebrew Deeds. While present day Ashkenazic Jews (from northern and eastern Europe) generally do not name children after living relatives, Sephardic (Mediterranesan) Jews do. These cases may reflect that custom since much of the cultural separation between the two groups had not yet occurred. In some nineteen cases, a male is listed with his mother's rather than his father's name; e.g. Moysses fil Sarae (Moses ben Sarah). There are several possible explanations given. The father might be unknown, and the child the result of promiscuity or rape. (This is unlikely considering the value of the family in Jewish life, where the only bastard, by Jewish law, is the result of an incestuous union with the parents -- close relatives -- being forbidden to marry.) A second explanation is that the father had converted, and the child wished to be known by his Jewish parent. While there were some efforts to convert the Jews, these were not too successful. (the word "convert" appears only three times on the list.) The third, and most likely explanation is that the mother was simply better known. Jewish women were allowed to own property and enter into business on their own. Several became well-known financiers, such as Licoricia, widow of Isaac of York, who maintained the business after his death. A number of the cases in Hebrew Deeds involve a woman buying selling property, often with no mention of husband or family even as name description. Mildegod of Oxford was a prominent innkeeper. In such cases, a man might well find it advantageous to be known as his mother's son. Besides the common "son" or "daughter" of, several other familial descriptors are found. Most common are "wife", "brother", and "son-in-law", of. The full list is shown below:
Two other familial descriptors used by medieval (and modern) Jews are ha-Levi and ha-Kohane, denoting descent from the priestly castes of the Jews of ancient Israel. "Levi" appears several times on the list. In Hebrew Deeds, Davis suggests that the name le Blund or Blund may be a misspelling of ha-Levi, based on similarities in the Hebrew letters used for the two words. Considering the common Jewish name Weiss ("white" in German and denoting a fair-skinned or fair-haired ancestor), this may or may not be true. The name le Evesq, however, appears to be agreed upon as a Norman-French translation of ha-Kohane with Davis, Jacobs, and Roth all using it in that way.
A few descriptors, cum pedibus tortis (bandy - or bowlegged), le gros (the fat), lengus (the tall), and parvus (short) refer to physical appearance. Nazo (nosey) may refer to a long nose or to excessive curiosity.
Rabbi appears several times on the list. since the term means "teacher", it was sometimes translated as Magister or Master. The medieval Jewish service was often presided over by the cantor, which term is referred to in the master list as le Prestre (the priest). Parnas, the head of the synagogue or of the community, and gabbai, synagogue (or community) treasurer are also on the list. Throughout much of medieval Europe, the Jews had a great deal of autonomy over their own affairs, even to having their own local courts of Jewish law. Jacobs explains the descriptor Episcopi (bishop) which occurs several times as referring to the judge of one of these courts. (The Hebrew term is dyan, which has become a modern Jewish family name.)
Several kings, starting with Richard I, appointed what amounted to a "King's Minister or Laison for Jewish Affairs", a prominent member of the community and often a rabbi, these are remembered as the Judeus Presbyter. The term was first translated as a sort of high priest, although the role was secular. The term "presbyter" appears several times on the list and may well refer to these men (there were about a half dozen). One of the assistants, the cyrographer, is also mentioned on the list.
Other descriptors referred to professions: aurifaber (goldsmith), medicus (physician), and militis (soldier, or perhaps, even knight). The Hebrew translation of medicus was ha-rophe which can mean both "the physician" and "the leach". A "furmager" or "fermager" is a tax "farmer", paying the king a fee for the right to collect the tax in a given area. He kept the taxes for himself with all monies above the original fee being his profit for the venture. "Scriptor", scribe, generally referred to a sophar, a writer of religious texts, a busy man in a community whose religion emphasized literacy. "The Pointer" refers to two grammarians, students of the Hebrew language.
Jewish custom calls for the use of two separate, but often related names for the Jewish male. The shem ha-kodesh or holy name was and is used during Jewish ritual such as being called up to read a portion of the Torah. The other, common name, the kinnui, was used for everyday matters.
Kinnui could be formed in several ways: (1) the shem ha-kodesh could be translated into the vernacular. Berichiyah, "blessing", became Benedict; Obediah, "servant of G-d" was translated into Norman French as Serfdieu; (2) a name similar in sound to -- or using some of the letters in -- the shem ha-kodesh could be used; substituting Robert for Reuben, George for Gershom; or (3) a nickname could be made from the shem ha-kodesh. Hebrew nicknames go back to the days of the Bible. Numbers 13:4-15 lists the names of the spies Moses sent into the land of Canaan, giving several with a nickname as well. Josce, Hok, and Copin were common period English nicknames for Joseph (Heb Yos-eph, Ytz-hok and Ya-a-kov, respectively). Biket was used for Rebeccah. Even kinnui were not exempt. Deulecresse, the translation given for both Gadaliah and Solomon, is often abreviated to Crease.
Sometimes, a name that in some way referred to shem ha-kodesh (or the individual) could be used. A common practice was to take the references made by Jacob on his deathbed (Genesis 49) or Moses in his final oration to the Children of Israel (Deuteronomy 33). Thus, Judah became Leon ("Judah is a lion's whelp. (Genesis 49.9)"). Other times, a more obscure reference was used. Jacobs suggests that Jornet, coming from the word "jerkin" (jacket) was a kinnui for Joseph. And, in what seems to be a rare instance, the name Belaset was derived from bella assez (fair to look upon) and applied to Rachel (Genesis 29:17, "Rachel was fair to look upon.") Bonevent (good day) referred to a child born on a holiday, especially Passover.
Since women had very little part in Jewish rituals, few were a shem ha-kodesh. This was probably not intended as insult, for Jewish women were well-respected and had many more rights within their communities than their Christian sisters. However, that is a matter (happily) beyond the scope of this paper.
Without the need for a lofty shem ha-kodesh, parents of Jewish girls were free to use whatever name they felt suitable. Some Biblical or Hebrew names were used: Abigail, Zipporah, Esther, Anna or Hanna, Judith, Miriam and Sarah. Though few realized it, Alexandria has also been a Hebrew name since the days of Alexander the Great (remembered for his kindness to the Jews after he had conquered their Persian overlords). More common, however, were vernacular names: flowers (Fleur de liz, Fleur, Rose); things of value (Almonda, Chera (Greek: Iekara, precious stone), Licoricia); desirable traits: (Bona (good), Belia (pretty), Genta (gentle)), or terms of endearment (Columbia (dove), Comitessa (countess), Pucella (little girl); or simply the names their neighbors used (Elfid, Auntera, Margaret, Sweetecote).
I realize this discussion of female names is cursory. Since the primary records are mostly tax and legal records, such names appear far less frequently. In any case, the rules of Talmud and kinnui will apply.
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Footnotes and Bibliography
Sources of Jewish Names Myer David Davis, Hebrew Deeds of English Jews Before 1290 (London: Publication of the Anglo-Jewish Hisorical Exhibit, No. 2, Office of the "Jewish Chronicle", 1888). Names are from index.
Joseph Jacobs, The Jews of Angevin England (London: David Nutt Publisher, 1893), Listing of all names in book (pp. 344-69).
Joseph Jacobs, "The London Jewry", Papers Read at the Anglo-Jewish Historical Exhibition (London: Publication of the Anglo-Jewish Historical Exhibit, Office of the "Jewish Chronicle", 1888)
Jewish Historical Society of England, Anglo-Jewish Notabilities: Their Arms and Testamentary Dispositions (London: Union College, 1949).
Cecil Roth, Essays and Portraits in Anglo-Jewish History (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society of America, 1962). Names taken from various articles.
Cecil Roth, The Jews of Medieval Oxford (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1951). Names taken from text and from lists in appendices.
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