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Recently I've read a certain book about the Middle Ages that has been quite popular with laymen but is held in utter contempt by professional medievists. In fact, I hadn't known the book's reception history before I finished reading it, so I approached it as tabula rasa.

Now, I'm no professional historian myself but I do know a few things here and there, so I spotted some of the glaring errors myself (and of course missed some of the others).

One point which I am almost certain is an error but would like to query you about is this: the book asserted that

[...] villages were frequently innominate [...].

Is it true that medieval villages didn't have names? Is there archival evidence with lists of villages or something like this?

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Official names perhaps. But when peasents living roughly equidistant from two or three towns talk about going into town for some reason, you figure they probably had some way of differentiating them outside of pointing. –  T.E.D. Dec 26 '12 at 14:17
About what country is the book? –  Anixx Dec 26 '12 at 16:36
@Anixx: All of them :) –  Felix Goldberg Dec 26 '12 at 17:38
Please cite the book. –  Mark C. Wallace Apr 29 '14 at 12:44
Aha -- I guessed which book it was, just from the comment about it being "held in utter contempt." (I haven't read the book, mostly because of its reputation.) Google tells me it's A World Lit Only By Fire by William Manchester. –  litlnemo Apr 29 '14 at 14:38

7 Answers 7

up vote 12 down vote accepted

My area of focus is medieval Britain (I wrote a book on medieval names found in Yorkshire), and in that context I can attest to villages and even smaller places having names. And there were a lot of them. Just a quick scan through a manor court roll will give you a lot of place names, sometimes of places that have been subsumed into larger cities today, and occasionally of places we can't even identify today.

Another thing to notice from the court rolls is that, while people didn't necessarily travel long distances, they still got around their local area. Note people of various social levels traveling from many villages throughout the (rather large) manor to appear in court.

Look at English surnames as well. (Here's a list of quite a few.) A large number of them are drawn from places where an individual lived or worked or otherwise spent time. They refer to villages, farms, fields, geographical features, buildings, and more. Naming of places is pretty much universal both now and and historically, at least in the cultures I've studied.

I'd like to see the context of the book statement -- perhaps in context it makes more sense (there must have been a reason, and there is that word "frequently" allowing for some wiggle room), but out of context it just sounds very odd.

Edited to add more:

Google says it's from William Manchester's A World Lit Only By Fire. This is a more complete quotation:

“Because most peasants lived and died without leaving their birthplace, there was seldom need for any tag beyond One-Eye, or Roussie (Redhead), or Bionda (Blondie), or the like.

“Their villages were frequently innominate for the same reason. If war took a man even a short distance from a nameless hamlet, the chances of his returning to it were slight; he could not identify it, and finding his way back alone was virtually impossible. Each hamlet was inbred, isolated, unaware of the world beyond the most familiar local landmark: a creek, or mill, or tall tree scarred by lightning."

This strikes me as... remarkably clueless, and very much a view of medieval people through a flawed modern lens.

(It's true that at some times people were known by one name, though. But even before hereditary surnames came into wide use, you had many, if not most, people known by a given name and a byname that referred to their parentage, or occupation, or appearance, or personality. And contrary to Manchester's assertion elsewhere on that page, it wasn't just the nobility.)

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IIRC, Manchester was writing about central Europe, particularly Germany of the time. I'm not sure I would generalize from England to the rest of Europe especially deep inland Europe. England is an outlier in almost all respects especially when it came to transportation and travel. –  TechZen May 8 '14 at 18:28

Some villages had histories and thus names going back to Ancient Roman times. A case in point is Matreium in the Austrian Alps, a small village then and now. So the statement that medieval villages didn't have names can hardly be true in an absolute sense.

As to whether villages were frequently innominate (as the verbatim quote claims), I'm not sure. As there were yet no national postal systems to speak of, there was perhaps no purpose in uniform naming of a domain's each and every village. But place names must have been in use by individuals: it seems just such an obvious concern for basic human discourse (e.g. "Where are you from?", etc.)

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I pretty much agree with this. But don't underestimate how differently the world looked to a Medieval person than to you or me. Almost nobody moved around much, nobles included. –  T.E.D. Dec 26 '12 at 19:16
@T.E.D. I did not mean to imply that distant travel was common at the time. A question "Where are you from?" e.g. from a person from Matreium could have received an answer "From village X in neighboring valley Y", I suppose. Concerning travels that did occur, I was reminded of Barbara Tuchman's A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century: the Wikipedia article on Enguerrand de Coucy mentions that at some point his estate included "150 towns and villages", so those would also have had names for claims to be established, etc. –  Drux Dec 27 '12 at 8:05
If people didn't travel, you'd only meet people from your village/town, so you wouldn't need to ask that question. –  Louis Rhys Feb 13 '13 at 1:55

Plenty of village names come from the medieval times, so yes, they've existed. An example for the origin of such names can be the usual profession of its habitants. That of course led to existence of several villages with the same name around bigger area. Polish language Wikipedia a provides us with a nice list of such names followed by professions, but they're just an example, as there were many more of them. According to this article, between 10th and 13th century there were more than 150 such names of villages around the Lesser Poland region and more than 110 around Silesia region.

What's characteristic, grammatical forms of the villages' names changed with times. Before 13th century they were pointing at people who lived in the village. In 13-14th centuries they changed the way they could point at the name of village, what could be of course connected with losing of its unique, professional character.

Of course many villages changed their name with time. It could also happen if people lost the connection with previous name (f.e. particular profession didn't exist any more).

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Medieval villages in Britain certainly had names. Even before the Domesday survey, carried out under William the Conquerer shortly after his takeover of the English throne, towns and vilages had names. Rural areas too, were named, often for geographical features, the local Lord, or the Church (Kirkby, for example). Former Roman fort-towns were know (are still known) by placenames ending in -chester, -caster and -cestre. Some places are known from written sources to have names from pre-Roman (Iron Age) times right through to the modern era. Take somewhere like York; it was known to Anglo-Saxons as Eorfic and Vikings as Jorvic. Both before the 11th century.

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Good answer - but I can't vote it up until I see sources. –  Mark C. Wallace Apr 29 '14 at 13:05
I think the question is "named by and for whom?" –  TechZen May 13 '14 at 19:46

Many towns and villages took their name from the ruling family, the owners of the village.
For example the town of Bronkhorst in the domain of Gelre in the Netherlands is named for the family Bronckhorst (old spelling, the C has since been dropped) that ruled over the area and had its castle there. That keep was probably first built in the 1100s, when the lords of Bronckhorst came to power there.
Fantasy names, with no relation to the surroundings or history/political situation of a town were probably rather less common.

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There is a grain of truth to what Manchester says. First of all, realize that in medieval times, the population was much more rural and people were more spread out than they are now. There literally hundreds of little crofts for every town. Many of these would have no name, or have some offhand name that was used locally.

This is not just a medieval phenomena. If you pay attention you will notice that the same situation prevails today. Many small communities, especially in rural areas, have no name. For example, north of Cazenovia lake in New York are several small residential communities with their own cemetery and airport, but none of these has an official name.

In the old West it was kind of a joke when a town was "too small to have a name". Sometimes they would give local joke names to transient towns, like "Dirtpatch" or some such.

France is kind of notorious for having small villages without names. During World War II it was a real problem because American soldiers would get instructions like "go 5 miles and turn left at the next village", and then they would turn at the wrong village because many of the smaller villages had no names, so you had to guess which village was meant. Nowadays, a lot of these villages have been given names but in 1944 it was different.

You can also experience the nameless village phenomena by going to rural Africa.

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"or have some offhand name that was used locally" -- those are names. That's how the vast majority of names came about. The names we now think of as official place names were once simple references to, for example, "Gunni's farm" (Gunby), "earth fortification" (Yarburgh), "the dirty stream" (Fulbeck), "stud farm" (Horsington), or Stig's woodland (Stixwould). Source here: s-gabriel.org/names/gunnvor/LincolnshirePlacenames Any place where people live and gather tends to have a name -- even if the it is just "the brook where the sedge grows" (as you might guess... that's Sedgebrook.) –  litlnemo Apr 29 '14 at 23:33
True, I guess it becomes a question of how the name is know. So many "nameless" villages have names, but nowhere is the name published. –  Tyler Durden Apr 30 '14 at 14:39
In America prior to WWII, towns often didn't have official names until they had a post office. In rural, Tx the country side is littered with the remain of small "towns" each having a chruch/school a house or two for the preacher or schoolmarm and a small general store. They all have names to the locals but a great many of them never had post offices and died out before the geological survey in the 1950s so they never appeared on any official map. –  TechZen May 8 '14 at 18:25
"Official" names and maps aren't really relevant here. All of those places did have names! and I'm willing to bet you'd see those towns on earlier maps. The 19th C township and county maps I've looked at from other states certainly could be pretty detailed. The lack of appearance on a 20th century official map doesn't really say anything about the place's earlier named existence. It's a very modern sort of perspective to think a place (or a person!) has no name until it has been "officially" recorded. –  litlnemo May 8 '14 at 23:01
Yet again — this has no relevance to the question. Just because people who live some distance away don't know the name of the village does not mean it did not have a name. The kidnapping question is not what the original poster asked, and whether it is true does not have any bearing on the answer to the question. I think you are thinking of this in a modern sense — where there is an official govt. list of all the villages in the area, and a place is not named until it is on that list, and everybody knows what is on the list. That's not medieval, and it's not even strictly true today. –  litlnemo May 13 '14 at 21:17

1) I think we're taking Manchester out of context here:

The quote starts:

“Because most peasants lived and died without leaving their birthplace, there was seldom need for any tag beyond One-Eye, or Roussie (Redhead), or Bionda (Blondie), or the like.

Their villages were frequently innominate for the same reason...

It's been a few years since I read the book but clearly Manchester is talking about names from the perspective of the peasants who lived in them and not anyone else. They had little to no reason to refer to their village by anything other than "our village" anymore than they needed last names to identify individuals.

Manchester didn't mean that the villages literally had never been named by anyone ever. He meant that the peasent prespective on the world was so small that they individually did not require or know names that identified individuals or their village to peoples distant from the village itself.

We forget that:

1) culture and language were stratified by class in the medieval age, the nation state in which every social class in a polity was of the save ethnic group had not yet evolved. That meant that nobles spoke one language, the urban middle class another and the peasants yet another. Lack of direct communication made local variation of the same language very extreme.

So, no doubt the local tax farmer from the city had a name for each little village, and perhaps the clerks for the nobles had another but that doesn't mean that the peasants in the village knew what either name was or spoke the language the name was in.

People name things for labels. The same thing can in have as many names as there are reasons to label it. There is no such thing as true canonical name.

2) There were no quantitative spacial maps.

Look at the Doomsday book. It's not a map, it's a list of properties and surviving population with vague spatial inferences of relative direction and distance. If all you had was the Doomsday book, you could not recreate a map of England nor likely navigate to any small place mentioned in the book with any reliability.

All navigation, even at sea, was done by sequential landmarks. Miss one and you were lost. To navigate to a particular village you would have to know and follow precisely, a specific series landmarks making the correct turn at each one.

3) People who actually had knowledge of the wider world most likely wouldn't bother to go through the hassle of helping out a lost peasant. He would have to find someone of his own social class, from at least his general area, identify that individual as such, and then try and solicit help.

So, you're a peasant that calls your hometown "our village" day-to-day. Maybe you've heard someone else call it something or the other in a language and dialect you don't understand. Then an army comes through, binds you, blind folds you, beats you and keeps you hungry and dehydrated while they march in what to you is a random direction. Lose track of your local landmarks for just one branch and your lost.

When they let you go, which way do you run? Whom do you ask for help? The nobles who impressed you in the first place or their servants? Ask to see their copy of the local version of Doomsday book because...oh wait your illiterate. Doesn't matter anyway because they can't understand you and can't be bothered to try.

You likely would have to find an actual chain of fellow peasants, one captured local who knew someone captured a little further away who knew another and so on until you could follow the chain back to someone who lived within spitting distance of your home. How likely was that?

The village could have dozen names and be every public record and famous throughout the land for reasons unknown to the peasant but if the peasant can't map what he knows about the village with what distant outsiders know, he can't find his way home.

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I disagree that peasants would have had no need for any name beyond "our village." In the Wakefield manor courts rolls, for example, we see peasants moving about the manor to various villages for a variety of reasons. The manor wasn't a small place as you might think -- it was 650 square miles, and the manor land was non-contiguous. Yes, they did not have the same mobility we do, but they did have awareness beyond "my village." The issue of whether someone kidnapped would ever find his way home was not the question the OP asked. –  litlnemo May 8 '14 at 22:49
@litlnero - 1) Manchester was talking largely about continental Europe, not coastal Europe or England. In any place where there was water transport and/or easily traversed land, then peasants likely had knowledge of the wider world. In say, the mountains of Transylvania, probably not. 2) The op didn't ask about kidnapping but that was the context of Manchester statement i.e. did the peasant know a name for the village that would allow him to identify to someone without proximate knowledge of the village? Manchester says no. –  TechZen May 10 '14 at 16:30
@litlnemo - BTW, a contiguous manor of 650 sq miles would be contained in a radius of less than 15 miles. Areas are squares so they sound big but in linear terms of travel, they can be quit small. A medieval army could reliably move roughly 12 miles a day, conditions permitting. The rule for impressment by kidnapping was seven days, or 84 miles, which to a land bound central European peasant, really a serf, was long, long way. –  TechZen May 10 '14 at 16:44
@litlnemo - You might want to read up on the difficulties that merchants had navigating away from water during the era (in central Europe.) Wander down the wrong cowpath in the Black Forest and you might never come out. It was real easy to get lost and hard to communicate with locals. Merchants had to hire local guides, often retired soldiers who knew more than the local dialect. –  TechZen May 10 '14 at 16:49
Why would "distant people" have anything to do with this question? Of course distant people probably wouldn't know of the person's village. That has no bearing on whether the village had a name or not. Anyway, from what I can tell, Manchester's errors go way beyond "lack of nuance", as you can see from the discussions I linked to above. I am not sure why you defend it so strongly. If History:SE is going to be a respected resource, we need to use better sources than that. –  litlnemo May 13 '14 at 21:09

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