What’s in a name?

Yesterday I was writing up comments on an essay on Heloise and Abelard, and found myself, somewhat to my surprise, stubbornly referring to her exclusively as “d’Argenteuil”. After all, we call him “Abelard”, not “Peter”, so why shouldn’t we afford d’Argenteuil the same courtesy? This stemms partly from my general predilection to refer to authors by their surnames rather than their given names or given name + surname, but I was surprised at how suddenly it seemed to me to be important that this be done uniformly for both women and men: There is something distasteful about referring to all the men by their surnames alone, and then to women by either merely given name or given name + surname (as you often find in contemporary philosophy). It seems to draw specific emphasis to the women simply because they are women.

The problem is, I can’t be uniform with this practice even dealing with men alone, not when the authors in question are medieval. Roger Bacon can be “Bacon” and Walter Burley can be “Burley”, and William of Ockham is often known simply as William Ockham, so “Ockham” works fine there too. After having previously referred to William of Sherwood mostly as “William”, I’ve started switching to “Sherwood”, and this seems to work. And yet, when it comes to Lambert of Auxerre, calling him “Auxerre” seems weird, and calling Peter of Spain “Spain” seems downright wrong. People on twitter chimed in with other useful examples. We have no problem referring to “Aquinas” or “Buridan”, but how about “the Great”? Or “Hippo”? (Irreverent note: More articles need to be written about Hippo and Pseudo-Hippo.) What all of these examples are symptomatic of is the fact that bynames in the Middle Ages simply weren’t constructed and didn’t function in the same way as modern inherited surnames, and trying to make them fit into that same mould is bound to give rise to problems. No amount of desire for uniformity in practices is going to make us call Augustine and Anselm anything other than Augustine and Anselm. Should we then take the uniformity all the way to that side, and talk of Albert, Lambert, Peter, Peter, Roger, Thomas, William, William, and Walter? Even this small list shows the problems with that: Given the popularity of a relatively small pool of masculine names in the 12th-14th C, this would get very confusing very quickly — and this was indeed part of the cause of the development of distinguishing bynames in the first place! So, there isn’t really any appropriate way of treating these names — even if I restrict my attention to men’s names alone — in a uniform fashion. So I’m just going to have to be happy with drawing an arbitrary line. If it sounds reasonable to use the descriptive byname in the same way as a modern family name/surname (for example “the Great” doesn’t; but “Magnus” seems OK), then I will do that. If it doesn’t, then I’ll use the given name.

Now that, let’s return to the case of women, such as Eloise d’Argenteuil and Christine de Pizan. Does it sound strange to call them “d’Argenteuil” and “de Pizan”? Not to my ears. Nor would anyone, I think, blink an eye at referring to Margery Kempe simply as “Kempe”. How about Julian of Norwich? Shall we call her “Norwich”? This too seems OK. So let’s say that we can: The next question is whether we should.

Over on twitter, Sylvia Wenmackers commented:

The British Journal for the Philosophy of Science suggested one reason why this might be the case:

I can see the reasoning behind this — and let nothing I say here make you think that I am not in favor of addressing some of the systematic lacks and oversights in traditional philosophical education especially in reference to philosophy by women — but I have to say, I find the especial flagging or starring of women as women somewhat uncomfortable. (Certainly, if I were being discussed in a group of male philosophers, I’d rather simply be “Uckelman” than “Sara Uckelman”, unless it was in a context where it was important to distinguish me from “Joel Uckelman”. Even then, “S.” and “J.” would work just fine). Regarding those who think that marking women out as women, in papers, on syllabi, etc., is a good thing, it makes me wonder what it is that is important: Having women on the syllabus or knowing that there are women on the syllabus. Put another way: Is it more important to read d’Argenteuil and de Pizan and Kempe, or to read them and know that they are women? My personal tendencies lean toward the former. The emphasis should be on the views and positions of the women, not on the fact that they are women.

So, when I can, I’m going to treat the medieval women as on a par with their male contemporaries. If it makes sense to refer to them by byname, then that is what I will do.

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2 Responses to What’s in a name?

  1. I wonder whether the standard practice might be accounted for by the following rules for disambiguating medieval authors: 1) The first name is to be preferred provided it suffices for unambiguous identification; 2) if it does not suffice, then the last name is to be used; 3) if neither the first nor the last name alone suffices, the full name should be used; 4) no one should ever, ever be called ‘of [place name]’. This would explain why Anselm and Augustine typically get a pass (unless, e.g. we find ourselves in a situation where we have to distinguish Augustine of Hippo from Augustine of Canterbury). Thomas also gets a pass in most contexts (since figures like Sutton and A Kempis are much less discussed), as does Albert. I would only call Gregory Nazianzus ‘Nazianzus’ in a context where he had to be distinguished from, e.g. Gregory the Great. I would call Roger Bacon ‘Roger Bacon’, to differentiate him from both Swyneshead and Francis, and would call him ‘Bacon’ or ‘Roger’ for short depending on which figure it were more salient to distinguish him from in a given context. Since the number of female figures in the period is fewer, there are fewer cases where figures with common first names need to be disambiguated from each other, and so the first name is defaulted to for identification purposes in most cases. I suspect this is why ‘d’Argenteuil’ sounds odd to many, where ‘Porete’ or ‘de Pizan’ sound perfectly natural and indeed preferable to ‘Marguerite’ and ‘Christine’ to my ears.


  2. Gustavo FW says:

    Many years ago, I was working on Nicholas of Autrecourt’s treatise for my PhD thesis. I attended a colloquium on Nicholas of Cusa, to hear the presentations of some friends and colleagues. During the coffee break, someone asked me if I also studied “Nicholas”. I hesitated before answering: “Well, I study ‘a’ Nicholas…” So, yes, referring to medieval authors is certainly problematic: I remember my first steps in Medieval Philosophy, when I had to keep in mind that Anselm of Canterbury, Anselm of Aosta and Anselm of Bec were one and the same person (much as ‘Bolingbroke’, ‘Lancaster’ or ‘Henry IV’ are all names for the same character). Nowadays, I try to use in each case the solution that seems best for that particular occasion, sometimes reading out loud the passage to see what works best…
    PS: Here’s a great case of someone referring to Albert the Great as ‘Magnus’: “I read some of the Albertus Magnus book… the guy who mixed up scientific theories with theology (…) Magnus seemed like a guy who couldn’t sleep, writing his stuff late at night, clothes stuck to his clammy body. A lot of these books were too big to read, like giant shoes fitted for large-footed people”. Bob Dylan, Chronicles, volume one, Simon & Schuster, New York 2004, p. 37


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