She’s an obscure botanical name with ties to Chaucer, witches, social reformers, and The Guardians of Ga’Hoole.
Thanks to Madelyn for suggesting Eglantine as our Baby Name of the Day.
She was a bloom before she was a given name.
Sweet briar is also known as eglantine or eglantine rose. In Latin, acus means needle. It’s the source of aculentus, the Vulgar Latin name for the flower. It became aiglent and aiglantin in Old French, and eventually eglentyn in Middle English, then eglantine, eglantyne, or eglentyne, along with several other spellings.
Geoffrey Chaucer used it for a prioress in his Canterbury Tales.
“The Prioress’s Tale” isn’t a happy one. And the prioress, with her lap dogs and fancy accessories, isn’t much of a role model. Her story would have been familiar to a medieval audience – that of a child martyr, a Christian killed by Jews. It was deeply anti-Semitic, but it all too ordinary in its time.
Where did Chaucer find the name? The Chaucer Name Dictionary gives two sources of inspiration: first, a nun known as Madame Argentyn lived in a convent close to Chaucer’s home. Second, The Travels of Sir John Mandeville, an Anglo-Norman travel journal written in the 1300s, detailed the types of thorns used in the crown of thorns worn by Jesus. Eglantine was among them.
If Eglantine entered common use, the records are too spotty to tell us. Instead, the name is best known for its fictional bearers:
- A young Angela Landsbury starred in the 1971 Walt Disney musical Bedknobs and Broomsticks. The film was inspired by Mary Norton’s stories from the 1940s, when scores of women and children left cities for rural areas during the London bombings, and children often went unaccompanied by an adult to live with strangers. It’s a grim set-up for a fanciful tale. Charlie, Carrie, and Paul arrive in a tiny village where Miss Eglantine Price is to (reluctantly) take in the siblings for the duration of the war. It turns out that Miss Price is an apprentice witch, hoping to use her skills to support the war effort. Adventures follow.
- Pippin’s mom in The Hobbit is called Eglantine.
- The first time I noticed the name was in Guardians of Ga’Hoole, a series by Kathryn Lasky. Lasky’s books begin with barn owl Soren, his brother Kludd, and baby sister Eglantine. Soren calls his little sis Egg. Soren and Eglantine are heroic, while Kludd proves to be a villain. A movie adaptation of the early stories was released in 2010 as Legends of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga’Hoole.
All of these fictional uses mean that plenty of children have stumbled across Eglantine. And yet she’s never really caught on, so rare that she’s not even a blip in US records. She’s better known in France, but still uncommon.
I did find a mother/daughter pair of reformers from nineteenth century England, Eglantyne Jebb and Eglantyne Louisa Jebb.
All of this makes Eglantine a fascinating choice. She’s clunky, but vaguely French. She’s rare, but not completely unknown. Egg is a non-starter of a nickname, but Ellie or Ettie would work. If you’re after the rarest of the rare names, Eglantine might be one to consider.