given name distribution similar across social classes in medieval England

The Norman Conquest of 1063 transformed English given names from Anglo-Saxon names to Norman names within a few generations across the whole English population.  That’s an amazingly rapid and comprehensive shift in the symbolic economy of a largely pre-literate society.  This name transformation was not the result of a central, authoritative, or coercive order.  It seems to have been simply the product of communication through various social networks.

The Fine Rolls of King Henry III of England, 1216-1242, provide some indirect evidence on the encompassing nature of these social networks. The shares of named males and females with given names among the ten most popular given names in the Fine Rolls were 58% and 52%, respectively.  Assuming an average age of 40 for the named persons, the Fine Rolls names have roughly a representative birth year of 1190.  Since the Fine Rolls concern persons purchasing from the king various rights and privileges, the names in the Fine Rolls are likely to be of persons with higher social status that persons reported in other tax and census documents.

The Fine Rolls name distributions are similar to those found in approximately contemporaneous, lower-social-status collections of names.  Male names in the Winchester Doomsday Book associated with a birth year roughly about 1180 had a top-10 share of 57%.  Male and female names in the Essex Fleet of Fines associated with a birth year roughly about 1200 had a top-10 shares of 61% and 56%, respectively.  A collection of names from records of manorial tenants in southern England with a reference birth year about 1210 has male and female top-10 shares of 65% and 70%, respectively.  Naming patterns in England across the twelfth and thirteenth centuries were trending toward greater concentration of names.  The persons in the Winchester, Essex, and southern manorial name collections surely had on average lower social status than those in the Fine Rolls.  But they weren’t backward in keeping up with naming fashions.

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Data: Fine Rolls given names, 1216-1242

The Henry III Fine Rolls Project provides ready access and a wealth of information about rolls.  The name compilations come from Project posts on female given names and male given names.  An additional post provides females names for 1242 to 1248, but this compilation may not record all additional instances of names found earlier in the rolls for 1216 to 1242.

Needle, a fantastic new data tool, made it easy to collect and analyze these names and frequencies.

The comparative name data are from Galbi, Douglas (2002), Long-Term Trends in Personal Given Name Frequencies in the UK, Table 2.  Follow the references there for source documentation.  See the Given Name Frequency Project for more information on given name frequencies.

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