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Strange Historical Personal Names September 15, 2011

Author: Beach Combing | in : Ancient, Contemporary, Medieval, Modern , trackback

Full crisis here. A think tank that Beachcombing sometimes works for needs some urgent help with a text: in a format that no program on his computer can open… And Mrs B has a pressing deadline – more help needed – with a project she has worked up about what good Europeans (ha!) the young will be. Beach has to then, with apologies,  fall back on a  short post today: the strangest Christian name in history.

There are probably already half a million posts out there that celebrate curious Christian names. But most of these will be about weird names chosen by eccentrics or activists in the now. The man who got so angry at government policy that he rebranded himself Axepolltax. Frank Zappa’s inexplicable cruelty in calling his children Moon Unit, Dweezil and Diva Thin Muffin. Or God Shammgod, a basketball player for the Washington Wizards in the late 1990s.

But there are also, naturally enough, some lovely historical examples. In the medieval west a simple noun in one generation, was often casually made into a Christian name in the next. There, for example, was  – though Beach can’t find the reference – a bishop Vikingus: i.e. a bishop named Viking, which given what the Vikings did for Vikingus’s religion, was rather inappropriate. Beachcombing also has a vague memory of a sixth- or seventh-century bishop called Bacaudae or Bandit, though he might have dreamt this.

There are too some intriguing names based on historical misunderstandings. In 1918 when the Italian army finally rolled up the Austro-Hungarians at Vittorio Veneto, a beautifully written telegram was sent out by commander Diaz and was subsequently published in every newspaper in Italy and put up on many civic walls in stone. This letter ended with the words ‘firmato Diaz’, ‘signed Diaz’ much as Beachcombing might end a (rather pretentious) letter in Italian ‘firmato Beach’. However, in 1918 way over 50% of the country spoke dialect rather than Italian and confusion reigned it being believed that ‘firmato’ was Diaz’s first name. The result? A rash of baby boys called Firmato or ‘Signed’ in the south of the peninsula.

However, Beachcombing’s favourite without any question is the son of Heloise (obit 1164) and Abelard (obit 1142) (‘A&H, H&A, a man a woman, a woman a man’ with apologies to GvS). Born out of their illicit love and ultimately the reason that his father would be castrated with a rusty knife and without anesthetic this child was called Astrolabe, an instrument for taking astronomical readings. It is the equivalent of Beach naming a future son the Space Shuttle Discovery. What were these extraordinarily intelligent parents thinking?

Any other strange historical names? Drbeachcombing AT yahoo DOT com

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15 Sept 2011: Two fascinating comments on this. First up HB: ‘Doctor,The correct spelling is: Astralabius.  His real baptismal forename was Petrus, after his father.  Astralabius: Literally translated, ‘the most rare’, from the Greek borrowed name – inspired by the nautical instrument astrolabe. Beach is sceptical of the Greek here and would like to get back to his readers and HB after talking with Mrs B who is better in that language. It was, in any case, an utterly unique name in its day! Then Luis wades in with some pertinent examples of strange Dutch names. Beach wondered if this was too good to be true but anything is possible in the Netherlands. ‘When Napoléon Bonaparte started a census in the Netherlands in order to apply and control taxes, many Dutch didn’t have any family names. He obliged them to do so and the Dutch thinking this was a temporary obligation decided to have a good laugh and picked silly names for fun: Suikerbuik (Sugar belly); Spring in ‘t Veld (Jump in the Field); Uiekruier (Onion-crier); Naaktgeboren (Born naked); Poepjes (Little sh*t); Schooier (Beggar, bum, tramp); Scheefnek (Crooked-neck); Piest ([he] urinates); Zeldenthuis (Hardly ever at home); Rotmensen (Rotten people); Also, De Keizer (The Emperor), ostensibly to mock Napoleon himself. The problem is that this registration continues today so many families got stuck with them forever. You can read more about this here at the moderate voice: And here at baheyeldin.’ Thanks to HB and Luis! And, PS, HB has dug up a fabulous poem about Astralabius or however we spell his name.

16 Sept 2011: When Beach set up this post he was determined not to put up stupid modern names, only the historical ones. But JE sent in such a gem that it would be difficult to resist.’This name is not historical but it is hysterical and by far my favorite.In 1967 Richard Brautigan wrote ‘Trout Fishing in America’ with moderate success.In the early 80′s National public Radio announced the birth in Washington state of, wait for it, Trout Fishing in America. To my recollection she was a blushing baby Girl.’ Of course, she was… Then HB brings another consideration to the table, the words are of Bill East: ‘Abelard’s affair with Heloise is one of the best-known stories in the history of the Middle Ages, and we need do no more than recall the chief events: he became her tutor, they became lovers, she became pregnant, he abducted her and carried her off to Brittany, where she gave birth to their son, whom she named Astralabius, Astralabe. The name has never been explained. It is the name of a scientific instrument; but one would not now name one’s child Electron Microscope or Hubble Telescope. My suggestion, for what it is worth, is that it is an anagram: ‘Astralabius, Puer Dei’ is an anagram of ‘Petrus Abaelardus II‘. [Cf my article, 'Abelard's Anagram' in Notes and Queries, New Series Vol. 42, No 3, September 1995, p. 269]‘ Thanks JE and HB!

19 Sept 2011:Professor Constant Mews, author of The Lost Love Letters of Heloise and Abelard has written in to give some more background on Astrolabe, confirming much of what HB wrote above: ‘The name Astralabius, given by Heloise to her son (baptized as Peter, but given this cognomen or nickname), refers to a device, Arabic in origin, used for fixing the position of the sun, moon and stars and for casting horoscopes. It was only just then beginning to become known to Latin intellectuals like William of Conches, a contemporary of Abelard and Heloise. Because they frequently speak of each other in their love letters in terms of sun, moon and stars, Heloise may have thought of her son as the means through which each of them could contemplate the other, even when they were forced to live apart’. Thanks a million Professor!

30 Sept 2011: Invisible writes in with this: ‘While looking for something else at the historical society I was reminded of this remarkable man with the improbable name and title of Januarius MacGahan – Liberator of Bulgaria. Perry County is (and always was) a very rural, impoverished county of Ohio . It took some doing to get up and out of it in the 19th century.   (Not sure why they divided their info into several pages.)  Perhaps better here with a statue photo. Part of my husband’s family is from this area so I’ve visited and seen the grim, robotic statue to him in New Lexington – seems very out of place, as does a Bulgarian-American festival in a remote Irish Catholic village. Judging by the comments on various sites, some modern Bulgarians have never heard of him. I can’t tell if his title is an exaggeration or if his coverage of Turkish atrocities really did lead to Bulgaria’s independence. Perhaps a subject for a future post.’ Thanks Invisible, duly noted!