Fetching Names: Into the Wayback Machine with the Girls’ Top 25

Love Tapestry; fragment; Basel c. 1450

Image via Wikipedia

I’m fascinated by names from the Middle Ages. They’re often quite similar to those parents love today, but tend to be almost entirely overlooked.

Nameberry has the Coolator. I’d call this the Medievalizer, except that sounds like a torture device.

Instead, this is a list of the 2010 US Top 25 for girls, with suggestions for parents looking for something just a little different – or maybe something that would be right at home in the eleventh century.

1. Isabella

Isabella would have worn perfectly well in the Middle Ages – she was more common than Elizabeth in most places throughout much of the era. And yet, if you’re looking for something different, consider Isabeau, Isolda, Idonia, or Belsante.

2, 26. Sophia, Sofia

Like Isabella, Sophia is a legitimate medieval appellation. She appears as early as the twelfth century. But for something more exotic, consider Sapphira, Simona, Sabeline, or Selova.

3. Emma

She’s another one on this list requiring no transformation, but parents could opt for an elaboration like Emmeline, Emmelina, or Emmelise.

4. Olivia

This is one of the names that sounds like it could be authentic, but is actually relatively modern. Oliva was a second century saint, but her name had faded. Oliver was a fairly common masculine moniker, but for a medieval girls’ name with similar sounds, consider Oriana or Oriel.

5, 23. Ava, Avery

Av- names are available in abundance: Avelina, Avelot, Avice, and Avina are just a few that feel like they’re borrowed from a past era, while still being wearable in the twenty-first century.

6. Emily

You might have met an Emily in the fourteenth century, but there are other interesting, ends-in-y choices, like Adelie, Mabley, Cecily, and Sidonie.

7. Abigail

This one had me stumped. There’s nothing quite like the -gail ending, and it turns out that even Ab- is relatively unused. Amabel, the forerunner of Annabel and company, comes the closest.

8. Madison

They lack her modern, unisex sound, but this name owes her origins to medieval staples like Matilda and Maude. Another option is Allison – but she feels very twentieth century.

9. Chloe

They’re not related, but Clotilde feels like an elaboration. The Italian Colletta could be another possibility.

10. Mia

She’s super-short, as is period-correct Ada or Ida.

11. Addison

Like Madison, it is tough to find an ends-in-n choice for a girl. But Adela, Adelisa and plenty of other Ad- names are present.

12. Elizabeth

You could use Elizabeth, but Elisende or Helissent has more of that Great Hall vibe.

13. Ella

Like Emma, she’s perfectly reasonable for much of the Middle Ages. But Eleanor, Elinora, or Elysande might be more in the spirit.

14. Natalie

Like Abigail, a tough one to medievalize. Nanette might come closest, or if you’re interested in the seasonal ties, there’s always Christmas. Feast days were given as names to both genders.

15. Samantha

Samantha is a modern phenomenon, but Susannah, Sabina, and Sanchia are all options.

16. Alexis

While ends-in-n is a tough category, tailored appellations were common. Two that seem like medieval substitutes for Alexis are Averil and Ailith. Alexandra is another option.

17, 21. Lily, Lillian

The lovely Lily could become Lilias or Lilla. I’m also tempted by Laurencia. Laura was also present, but doesn’t feel like a throwback.

18. Grace

There’s Gratia or Gracia, or even Gratiosa, a rarity spotted in sixteenth-century Venice.

19. Hailey

A modern choice, Hailey’s medieval equivalent might be Hillaria or Hilde.

20. Alyssa

The obvious choice is Alice, but if that doesn’t appeal, variations like Aelis or Aleydis could work.

22. Hannah

Other H- names, like Honora or Havisa share sounds with Hannah. Like many Old Testament appellations, Hannah wouldn’t be in regular use until the Reformation.

24. Leah

Leah isn’t found in the Medieval era, but lots of L names are, like Leolina or Leticia.

25. Nevaeh

No, you wouldn’t meet a Neveah. But you might find a Nicola or an Eva.

27. Ashley

Neveah can be medievalized, but Ashley is a tough one. Ismay might serve.

28. Anna

There’s no need to stray far from Anne, but elaborations and diminutives like Anilla and possibilities like Antea are less expected.

I am indebted to several sources for inspiration for this post: the extensive lists at the Medieval Names Archive, Kate Monk’s Onomastikon, and The Middle Ages.

Are there other Medieval names you’d consider using in 2012?


  1. Sarah says

    Thanks, Abby, for the very interesting read! I have known many Graces but only one Gracia in real life. Lots of interesting names here!

  2. Mere Mere says

    What a great naming exercise. Love the Medievalizer! I, too, am digging Belsante. Someone needs to use that, and soon!! And Amabel…I’m surprised how much I like that.

  3. says

    I’m loving the throw back names :) Elysande, Matilda, Isabeau & Aleydis are wonderful!

    More suggestions:
    Nevaeh….Would Mattea be found in the middle ages?

  4. Julie says

    How about Agnes for Abigail? And Heloise or Helena for Hailey?

    There was an Ailith in a novel I read last year. The character was horrible, but I couldn’t get over how stunning the name was.

    Any chance we could get a Fetching Names in the vein of the Hermiones, but for boys? I’m always falling in love with the girls names, but I struggle with the boys… so of course we’re expecting a little guy in July. :)

  5. says

    *sigh* I love medieval names. The obscurer the better. Aidric, Merewen and Endelyn are some of my longstanding favourites. I also have a think for the Mel- and Adel- names.

    • says

      I haven’t found a good explanation of why this happened, but SO many names that were recorded with a Latinate -a ending were actually used with a -y ending. Cecilia/Cecily, for example. Mabley – one that I love, too! – would’ve come out of the Amabel family, but I’m not exactly sure how.

  6. Leah says

    I’m not so sure you’re right about Leah. It’s an ancient Biblical name and has been in circulation, at least by Jewish families, for hundreds of years.

    – a Leah

    • says

      You know, you might be right. I don’t see her in the few records of Jewish women’s names from the Middle Ages that I’ve found … but then, there just aren’t that many records. I do see Rachel and Esther, as well as a bunch of variations on Miriam. It may have been used been relatively uncommon – or used but just in places where the written record is limited.

  7. i.heart.nerds says

    I keep getting smacked in the face by Belsante. It’s like she OS calling out to me ‘use me, use me’. I may just have to use her.
    My sister Maddy’s best friends name is Sabine. I think it is a lovely name.
    Elysande, Aelis and Amabel strike me as unusual but perfectly wearable.

  8. says

    You’d find a Nicola? I’m pretty sure that was male in origin (still is today).

    From the list I liked Havisa, Leticia, Lilias, Adela, Oriana and Sapphira the most. I actually prefer Sapphira or Safira more than Sapphire.

    • says

      Like many names, Nicola is legitimately gender neutral – has been for ages. Nicola is masculine in Italian and Nikola can be found in several Slavic languages. But Nicola also developed as a feminine form of Nicholas in many languages – Latin, for one, but also German and several Slavic languages. It certainly wasn’t a common name for women, but it does appear in the record. (Unlike Nevaeh – though who knows? There might be something similar out there that I didn’t find …)

      The tricky thing, of course, is that many people probably had their names recorded only a time or two, and the name recorded wasn’t necessarily as it would have been used in the vernacular. We find Amicia recorded, but Amice or Amy was probably what the woman would’ve considered her name … So, no, Nicola isn’t an exclusively masculine name that has been stolen, but it wasn’t common, either. Then again, Nicholas has fared best in English in very recent decades, so that’s another factor to consider.

      • says

        In the Middle Ages, it was common for girls to be given boys name (not a new phenomenon), but when their names were recorded in documents, as Latin was used, the Latin feminine was employed. Thus a woman called Nicola in a Latin doc would almost certainly have gone by Nicholas — which was still found as a girl’s name in Scotland as late as the nineteenth century. Same is true for most medieval Alexandras, Philippas, etc. Queen Philippa of Hainault, for instance, is referred to as “Philip” in contemporary English language documents.

  9. says

    I love Aldith, Annora, Rohese, Peronel, & Gytha.
    It’s not quite my style, but I’m surprised Tacey hasn’t made a comeback–it just sounds so modern!


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