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 stems 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:
@SaraLUckelman Hm, I noticed that first name is included more often for female philosophers (e.g. Mary Hesse in PhilSci) than for male. Odd.
— Sylvia Wenmackers (@SylviaFysica) May 18, 2016
The British Journal for the Philosophy of Science suggested one reason why this might be the case:
— The BJPS (@TheBJPS) May 18, 2016
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.