Back in 2012, I wrote a post imagining the medieval(ish) equivalents of the current girls’ Top 25. I wanted to call it the Medievalizer, but that sounds like a torture device.
I went with names that could be reasonably used today – Oriana for Olivia, Hilde for Hailey. Choosing only names that might appeal to modern parents sacrificed a degree of authenticity, but it also made it more fun – and more challenging!
A few readers have prompted me to do the same for boys, and I’ve meant to – honest!
But here’s the thing: there’s a decent chance that your son’s name would’ve been right at home in the England of a millennia past. While we’ve become more creative and daring when naming a son, it is surprising to see how many names remain in use over centuries.
But no more excuses! If you’re looking for an alternative to a very popular boys’ name, or if you’re just looking for something different, please step into the Wayback Machine: Top 25 Boys’ Names edition.
The most popular name of 2013 is a tough one to Wayback! Noah saw some use in the Middle Ages, and the Biblical story has always been well known.
But for something less common with that same vowel-heavy sound, perhaps Otto would work. All of the Otto names had a good run in the Middle Ages, even some obscure ones like Eudes that we probably wouldn’t consider today.
#2 Liam/#4 William
Lop off the first syllable of William and you’ll have Liam, a powerfully popular name in the twenty-first century. But William has a long and storied history of use. William the Conqueror led the Normans into England in the eleventh century, and changed the world – and our naming culture.
A more exotic form of William might fit here: Wilhelm, Willem, Guillaume. Only those feel more Globetrotter than Wayback.
Another possible solution: diminutive forms of William, no longer used today and far less common than Liam: Wilkin or Gill.
Speaking of Gill, it’s tempting to include Gilbert, an unrelated name that I think could be an interesting substitute. Though most of us probably see Gilbert, and instantly think Anne of Green Gables, so that might not hit the right note.
Though maybe the brightest possibility is another diminutive form, used as a surname today: Wilkie. It’s the middle name of Sarah Jessica Parker and Matthew Broderick’s son, James Wilkie. The famous couple chose Wilkie to honor writer Wilkie Collins. Wilkie is one-part William/Liam and one-part Riley.
Or, if your heart belongs to Liam, maybe you’d like a Leo- name, several of which would have been right at home in various parts of the Middle Ages: Leofwine/Leofwin, Leofric, or many of the forms of Leon and Lionel in use today, including just plain Lion.
#3 Jacob/#13 James
Like #1 Noah, Jacob is an Old Testament name that was used in the Middle Ages, but certainly wasn’t common. Jacob and James share roots – the Late Latin Iacomus, from the Greek Iacobus, for Yaakov – Jacob.
As with William, diminutive forms could appeal. Jem, in particular, feels like an interesting choice. But there are lots of J names that were in use in the era – Joachim and Jasper or Jesper are two promising possibilities. Jasper is very wearable today, but Jesper feels decidedly different. And while Joaquin feels Spanish, and is reasonably familiar in the English-speaking world thanks to actor Joaquin Phoenix, Joachim is seldom heard in English.
Oh, the Middle Ages – an era when someone could be actively employed as a mason, but not named Mason. Reverse that, and you’ll have the twenty-first century situation.
Instead of Mason, how about another storied M name – Moses? Or maybe a common diminutive for Moses, Moss? Moss feels more promising than Moses, but it read as a nature name today.
Miles is another possibility, but that’s almost too current in 2015. Trade the M for a G, and you’ll have Giles. Giles isn’t unknown in the twenty-first century – it’s a saint’s name, surname and Joss Whedon character, too. But there is something Wayback and out-of-our-time about Giles, without sacrificing wearability.
Ready for one more that straddles the past and the future? Mace was sometimes heard as a short form of Thomas. It makes sense, right? Though my first thought is Samuel L. Jackson’s Jedi knight character, Mace Windu. And, of course, a mace is a club much used in the Middle Ages, so this name could keep company with names like Arrow and Flint – not exactly the same vibe as Mason.
Ethan feels like a Colonial name to me, one rich with Americana. Possible medieval substitutes to consider might be Simon and Emery – except that I can picture Simon, Emery, and Ethan all sitting around a tavern in Boston, planning to march off and fight for the American Revolution together.
How about Everard? It survives as surname – and rising given name – Everett today. Everard is another Germanic name brought over the by Normans. It comes from the elements ‘boar’ and ‘hardy’ and has all but fallen out of use. Everard definitely feels like a contender for Best Wayback Name.
Michael was not the everyguy name it is today, but like many of our current favorites, it was known as a given name in the Middle Ages.
For a substitute, how about Malcolm? It’s an under-used classic, the name of four kings of Scotland in the right era.
Speaking of Scotland, if Malcolm doesn’t go far enough, how about Ranulf? We know the name as Randolph today, but Ranulf was brought by Norse settlers to Scotland. It might strike exactly the right note if you’re after a name that screams old school.
Alexander was well worn in ancient days and is quite popular today, too. Like Malcolm here were Scottish kings named Alexander in the Middle Ages, so it isn’t unthinkable.
But if you prefer something more distinctively different, how about Adelard, from elements meaning noble and brave. Or maybe Rainier, the French form of Rayner, another name that came to England with the Normans.
Yes, I know there’s a Jadon in the Old Testament. And yet, modern name Jayden feels like a nouveau coinage, the kind of name chosen precisely because it wasn’t used fifty or five hundred years ago.
This makes it tough to find an equivalent, but that bright ‘a’ sound was well-known in the Middle Ages. Saintly Blaise and obscure Blaive seem like options.
Though my favorite has to be Jolyon. An older form of Julian, Jolyon is rarely heard today, but shares sounds – and the letter ‘y’ – with mega-hit Jayden.
Sometimes a medieval form of a still-popular name sounds more modern instead of Wayback. Here’s another one: the enduring Daniel might once have been shortened to Dane. But Dane feels like a 2015 pick, not an 1215 possibility.
There’s also Durand, from the Late Latin durans – enduring. It’s the source of Durante and Dante, as in the thirteenth-century poet. Dante is probably my favorite Wayback option for Daniel, though in all honesty, it’s just a name that I love for any year.
Plenty of forms of Elijah have been used over the centuries, but they all feel quite current today: Elias, Ellis.
Everard feels like a better fit for Ethan, so how about Yves? A name related to the yew tree and worn by two French saints in the Middle Ages, Yves has the same gentle strength as Elijah.
Speaking of gentle strength – and French names – I’m tempted to suggest Remy. Except Remy is a foodie rat in Disney flick Ratatouille, so I’m not sure how this name would be perceived today.
There’s nothing quite like Aiden on the lists of medieval given names. Unless, of course, you consider Adrian, a name well-used in the Middle Ages – and today.
Instead let’s look at that bright ‘a’ sound again. Two possibilities emerge: Sayer and Bayard. They both feel like surname names today.
Sayer has several debated origins, but definitely saw some use as a given name.
Bayard is more of a stretch. There was the Chevalier de Bayard, a celebrated French knight from the early 1500s. There’s also a famous horse from a medieval romance.
Benjamin gives us lots of possibilities. There’s Berenger, a surname name today, but originally the name of a knight in a medieval romance. It comes from elements meaning warrior and spear, so Berenger is plenty fierce.
If surnames appeal, there’s also Bartlett, originally a diminutive form of Bartholomew.
Another thought is Benedict, though that might feel more suited for Catholics/fans of Sherlock Holmes.
For something really out there, and just as long as Benjamin, you might even consider Crispinian. It’s an obscure medieval variant of Crispin – which isn’t exactly a common name.
My first thought was Martin – well-used in the Middle Ages. But also in the US in recent decades. So let’s choose something slightly more obscure.
Then I came across Merrick. Maurice has been around forever. In medieval England, the usual form would have been Morris. That still says “cat” to many in the US – thank you, 9Lives. But Merrick is a diminutive form, turned surname name. It’s a little private detective, but I think it could work. Merrick is less ordinary than Derek, but has less bravado than Maverick.
There’s no shortage of men named John and Jack and all of their associated forms … pretty much ever. So how to take Jackson from the 21st century to the twelfth?
Two thoughts: Jock, though that feels awfully Scottish/athletic.
And then the one I vastly prefer: Gervase. The Normans brought this one with them, too, though it’s definitely died out in English. Gervais is the French form – and, of course, the surname of comedian Ricky Gervais. It comes from the element ger – spear. On sound alone, Gervase feels like the kind of name that’s only slightly extravagant today.
Here’s a name that could have been invented in 2015: Lanzo. Only it’s the real deal, a German form of Lance. Lance was originally from the element lan – land – but has long been associated with the spear carried by mounted knights in warfare.
Many of the Leo- names are also options for Logan, as well as the Scottish Lochlan – except Lochlan and Lachlan and all of the associated spellings feel like up-and-comers in 2015 for style reasons.
Medieval diminutive Daw gave us Dawson – but somehow that doesn’t quite scream Middle Ages, does it?
Many names are utterly transformed when imported into new languages. David remains remarkably stable, meaning that even other European languages don’t give rise to distinctively different forms.
I was tempted to suggest Digby, but that comes a little late to be considered a Middle Ages name, despite having the right vibe.
Here’s a real stretch: Vieri or Viaro. Both appear in Italy during the Middle Ages. I can’t find a shred of information on them, but I wonder if they’re related to Vieira. Vieira is the Portuguese word for scallop, and sometimes heard as a surname. Pilgrims who had been to the shrine of Santiago de Compostela may have taken the name, as the scallop is a symbol associated with the saint. It’s a wild, crazy guess – but Vieri has an interesting sound, and the ‘v’ reminds me of David.
Anthony is ever so simple to take back in time.
Just use Antony.
While Anthony might seem like an unchanging classic, the ‘h’ spelling and pronunciation is actually a later innovation. The Roman family name became associated with the Greek word anthos – flower – in the 1600s.
Take away the ‘h’ and you’ve just shaved centuries off the name’s age.
Another case where a nickname comes to the rescue! Joss could be a short form of Joseph today, but it originally was associated with Joyce. Yes, Joyce – back when Joyce was a masculine name. It originally came from a Breton name meaning lord.
The best substitutes for Joshua have already surfaced elsewhere in this post: Gervase, Giles, and Jolyon.
Andrew is often nicknamed Drew, and back in the day – wayback in the day – Drue was a short form of Drogo.
Drogo sounds like the villain in a historical epic. But it was yet another name brought to England with the Normans, one with several possible origins and related meanings.
Finally, name that is a pleasure to Medievalize!
Today’s Lucas becomes Lucian, or spell it Lucien for a French spin on the name.
Another possibility is Hugh and all of the associated names, a choice much favored in the Middle Ages, but less common today.
There are a handful of solid options for Gabriel. I found Gabrien listed as a variant form. Does Gabrien seem medieval, or modern and invented?
There’s also Gaylord – probably a non-starter in our Meet the Parents age. But Gaylord-related names include Galeran and Gale. Maybe I’m too swayed by The Hunger Games, but Gale seems dashing on a boy right about now.
Another oddity: Galien, rhymes with alien. Which might be a problem, or a great reason to go with an outer-space theme in the nursery. Your choice.
Biblical names like Sampson and Solomon are two possibilities.
I’m also intrigued by Kenelm, the name of a ninth century saint now fallen out of use.
And lastly, there’s Saint Swithin. Weather conditions on his feast day – July 15th – are said to predict the weather for the rest of the summer: St Swithun’s day if thou dost rain, for forty days it will remain …
Which is your favorite medieval name for a boy? Can you think of any other substitutes that would work better?
P.S. Want to go looking for your favorite Medieval(ish) names for a boy? Here’s my favorite online resource.