Take the 2-minute tour ×
History Stack Exchange is a question and answer site for historians and history buffs. It's 100% free, no registration required.

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?

share|improve this question
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
add comment

3 Answers

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.)

share|improve this answer
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
add comment

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).

share|improve this answer
add comment

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.

share|improve this answer
add comment

Your Answer


By posting your answer, you agree to the privacy policy and terms of service.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.