What's in a name?

Names identify us, officially and otherwise. They can tell people many things about us: our gender, place of origin, ethnicity. Surnames are especially useful for ethnicity and place of origin. “Spanish-surname” actually used to be a category in the U.S. census. I like to watch the titles scroll by after a TV crime show (one of my favorite genres). BBC dramas are made by people with predominately British surnames like Winterbottom and Branagh. Hollywood is more diverse, drawing surnames from all of Europe like Coppola, Spielberg, and Kubrick, as well from farther afield. (If you’re using titles as a pool for names, you’d better wait for the grips and the production assistants to scroll past.)

Given names go in and out of style over the centuries. How many Aelfwine’s have you met lately, or Agravain’s? You can find lists of names by period compiled by helpful members of the Society for Creative Anachronism, like this list of lists of medieval names. Here’s a list of sixteenth-century Spanish names. And here are lists of the 100 most popular names in the U.S. in each decade of the 20th century, brought to us by our own Social Security Administration. That’s what I call service! Somewhere out there I found a list of names in common use in the Elizabethan period. I copied it into a couple of tables (male and female) and mark the ones I’ve used with italics.

Arden farmNames are important beyond the basic identification features. They have a sound and flavor that can help paint your character. Tom is the name of a regular guy; Ben is a nice solid name too. Archibald is funny, Edward is friendly, Michael is a little posh, and Quentin is unquestionably the name of a villain. Names like Hubert and Oliver sound dubious to me, while names like Richard and Samuel are completely neutral. Women’s names work the same way. Only a peasant could be named Dowsabell — that’s a cow’s name! Isabel is a person of importance. Ruth can be trusted, Sybil can not. We don’t have Mildreds in the sixteenth century and not many in the twenty-first either, apparently.

I’m also very careful to ensure that my people’s names are never too much alike. I’ve read novels with both a Meg and a Peggy in the tale. Too confusing! Since I write series, it’s vital to keep track of the names I’ve used. My villains can’t all be Hubert or Sybil and my victims can’t all be Smith (a name I don’t care about.) There won’t be any Bakers in my Bacon books. I keep a big list of names at the top of the bible for each book, hyperlinked to the paragraphs with descriptions. That way I can see what letters and sounds have already been used when I need to make up a new name. I get the names for earls and barons from the map. I’m not the only one who does this either. While searching the Peak District for a likely suspect, I found a tiny town named Grindleford near another tiny town called Baslow. Put them together and you get the grindylows of the Harry Potter universe. I also like to browse lists of lost settlements for good English names that I can have my way with.

Some parents believe names can influence their child’s future. It’s no accident that there are so many girls named Elizabeth in the sixteenth century or boys named James or Charles in the seventeenth. Most of the men of interest in the twelfth century were called Henry, Richard, or William. Boring!

Puritans brought their own special flair to names, hoping to endow, or perhaps inspire, their children with virtues. It’s hard to imagine a real person going through life with the name Zeal-in-the-land. The great wits of the Elizabethan era, among the greatest wits of all time, found these names as absurd and irritating as everything else about the endlessly irritating Puritans. I have great fun with them myself in Death by Disputation, in which a group of siblings has names like Abstinence, Steadfast, Diligence, and Tribulation. Some of these names caught on and still are used, like Faith, Hope, Joy, and Grace. None of the boy’s names seem to have lasted. Do we not expect virtue from our sons? Maybe we should be looking for updated versions, modern names with that Puritan earnestness. Oh, like Earnest, except we no longer value that old-timey virtue. But what about Recyclable Jones or Plugged-In Jimenez? Buzz Aldrin? Viral McKenzie? You can just call me Be-Here-Now Johnson from this point forward.

Protestants behaving badly

Catholics had the Pope in Rome, King Philip in Spain, an armada, and schools of Jesuit missionaries to help them push back the English Reformation. Protestants who wanted to push it forward had only the unshakeable conviction of their own perfect righteousness. That was enough. England never returned to the Catholic fold, but Puritans drove the nation into civil war not forty years after Queen Elizabeth’s death.

John Calvin
John Calvin

Who were they?

The word ‘Puritan’ appears in print in 1565, according to the OED. It’s not a compliment, now or then. It indicates people who are overly punctilious in matters of religion, insisting on some self-defined ‘pure’ version of every last thing. They were also called ‘precisians,’ a word my mind’s ear rejects on aesthetic grounds. They called themselves the ‘godly,’ implying, of course, that everyone else was un.

They were English men and women who wanted to push the Reformation all the way, erasing every last trace of Romish superstition from every English parish and every English heart. They were mostly middle class: sturdy yeomen, skilled craftsmen, and merchants. A few members of the aristocracy shared their views, notably the Earl of Leicester and his brother, the Earl of Warwick. Sir Francis Walsingham, the Secretary of State, was another major supporter. “Opposed to this Protestant world-view [among the Privy Council]  was the secular, disengaged mind of the queen, shared in part by Burghley and more fully by Christopher Hatton and the earl of Sussex” (Collinson, p. 166.)

Puritan women, like Catholic women, were among the strongest supporters. “It was the women of London who occupied the front line in defense of their preachers, and with a sense of emotional engagement hardly exceeded by the suffragettes of three and a half centuries later (Collinson, p. 93.)” Remember that next time you read something about how helpless and oppressed women were. They had few legal rights, but that didn’t stop them from radical political action.

What did they want?

They wanted worship and life in general to be based as literally as possible on the word of the Bible. They loathed everything they perceived as Catholic and they were alert to any trace of idolatry. Among the things they wanted to reform were empty works, temporal excesses, prelatical pomp, the abuses of the ecclesiastical courts, images, prayers to the saints, pilgrimages and vows, feigned miracles like those at Canterbury and Walsingham, temple-works, good intents, blind zeal, superstitious devotion, painting of tabernacles, gilding of images, setting up of candles, unpreaching prelates, surplices, Maypoles, hot cross buns, Easter, and Christmas (two notoriously pagan holidays.) And stop that dancing.

Masters and students at Cambridge showed their colors, hissing at preachers who appeared in church wearing the traditional surplice and square cap. Puritan botanist William Turner trained his pet dog to leap up and snatch the square caps from heads of conforming clerics. Men sat in their pews hissing and knocking during sermons delivered from the Common Book of Prayers. Pickled sermons, empty babbling: a real preacher preached from the heart. An extremist might brag that he was ignorant of the contents of the prayer book. Yea, brother!

Puritans were highly sociable within their own circles. People called them gadabouts, since they loved to ride around to visit every preacher in the county; sermon-tasting, it was called. A preacher might go from house to house in the evening, enjoying a meal and afterwards prayer. Some preachers, famous for the super-hot sermons, lived hand-to-mouth in this fashion, traveling from parish to parish in between stints in the Clink for religious intransigence.

Both Puritanism and Catholicism were sustained in this manner, in a network of small groups. “The Elizabethan Commonwealth was no police state, and it was not thought acceptable that the law should interfere with the social gatherings of friends and neighbors” (Collinson, p. 376.) Remember that, next time you read a novel representing Elizabeth’s government as something like totalitarian East Germany. There was no such thing as Tudor despotism.

Very devout Asses

Ordinary people found them intolerable. They called them busybodies, fault-finding precisians obsessed with trivia. They were constantly poking their noses into other people’s business, criticizing anything that failed to conform to their idea of godly, scripture-based behavior and belief.  A popular saying of the day said it thus: “He loves God with all his soul, but hates his neighbor with all his heart.” Even Leicester was impatient with the “carping, curious Calvinist spirit.” He had never in his life seen “more envy stirring and less charity used” than in godly circles.donkey

These religious radicals were a serious problem, though. They divided communities, disrupted other people’s worship and traditional celebrations. Puritans had a strong presence in Parliament and tended to push harsher measures against Catholics, among other religious meddlings. They could not leave anything alone. Nothing was indifferent to them. They were absolutists who couldn’t wait for the church to evolve, for rising literacy to overtake superstition, for urbanization to snuff out village customs. They couldn’t let other people enjoy a good old-fashioned Sunday in peace. The only point in their favor was that they weren’t Catholics.

The literati made endless fun of them. Malvolio in Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night is a hyper-critical, social-climbing fool. Angelo in Measure for Measure is another hypocrite, covering his lust with precisian criticism. Ben Jonson and Thomas Nashe were merciless. Nashe is so much fun on this theme, I’ll let him end this missive.

From the Unfortunate Traveller: “Very devout Asses they were, for all they were so dunstically set forth, and such as thought they knew as much of God’s mind as a richer men: why, inspiration was their ordinary familiar, and buzzed in their ears like a Bee in a bose everyhowever what newes from heaven, hell, and the land of whipperginnie: displease them who durst, he should have his mittimus to damnation ex tempore; they would vaunt there was not a peas’ difference betwixt them and the Apostles.”



Collinson, Patrick. 1967. The Elizabethan Puritan Movement. Berkeley: The University of California Press.

 Porter, Henry C. (1958.) Reformation and Reaction in Tudor Cambridge. Cambridge at the University Press.

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