If the classic Elizabeth strikes you as plain, perhaps this medieval variant will appeal.
In honor of my sister Bo’s birthday, today’s Name of the Day is Isabeau.
Suggest naming a daughter Beau on a message board, and at least a dozen replies will inform you that Beau is a boy’s name. And in French, it is masculine for beautiful. Belle, they will insist, is for girls.
This is all true, and what’s more, since the 1700s, it’s been a way to refer to one’s suitor. In 1936’s Gone With the Wind, Scarlet O’Hara has handsome beaux – plural – though her rival, Melanie, has a son called Beauregard, nickname Beau.
And yet Isabeau remains a valid variant of Elizabeth. The Hebrew Elisheva became the Greek Elisabet. Some suggest that the Spanish interpreted the name as El Isabet, and so we find Isabel, Ysabel and Isabeau throughout the Middle Ages. In Renaissance Italy, you might even stumble on an Isabetta.
It’s Elizabeth that is least common, at least until the reign of England’s Elizabeth I. Isabel was in favor before her ascendancy, with Isabeau also in use.
The best known bearer of the name was Isabeau of Bavaria, Queen of France through her marriage to Charles VI from 1385 to 1422. Some have argued that Isabeau was a nickname – apparently her baptismal certificate reads Elisabeth, a name shared by others in her family.
She was far from the first Isabeau in the historical record. Aristocractic Isabeaus can be found throughout Medieval France, several of them born well before Charles VI took a bride. In the late 1100s, “Belle Isabeau” was a popular troubadour’s song.
The name continued in use for several centuries. In the Spa, Belgium witch trials of 1616, an Isabeau is among the convicted. In the 1700s and 1800s, Isabeaus appear in the records of France, as well as Canada and the US, especially Louisiana.
Pietro Mascagni chose the name for the heroine of his 1911 opera Isabeau, based on the medieval legend of Lady Godiva.
Authors have used the name to signify a work’s medieval setting ever since. The 1985 film Ladyhawke features Michelle Pfeiffer as Isabeau d’Anjou, cursed to assume the form of a hawk during daylight, while her beloved is a wolf by night. Kate Forsyth’s Witches of Eileanan series features an Isabeau.
Today, Isabeau is quite rare. She’s never appeared in the US Top 1000 and only a few uses are recorded in France. But she’s not unknown. 2007’s Season Four of The Biggest Loser included an Isabeau. And the name surfaces from time to time as an alternative to Isabella.
If there’s an Elizabeth you’d love to honor, Isabeau could present an interesting twist on that classic. With her “o” ending, she’s surprisingly current. With Isabella at the top of the charts, Isabeau sounds less daring than she might have twenty years ago.
This is one medieval moniker that just might wear well on a modern girl.