25 May, 2006

Reconstructing seventh-century place names - North York Moors

I posted earlier about place names in historical fiction and the relative merits of using modern names (more recognisable to a modern reader) or period names (less likely to produce an incongruous modern image in the mind’s eye). The subsequent discussion came down firmly in favour of period names, with the addition of a map and/or glossary so that readers can look up the locations.

Writing a historical novel set in seventh-century Britain, I have a further issue over place names that wasn't touched on in the earlier post. A large part of the story is set on and around the North York Moors (north-east of the city of York, location map here if you haven’t heard of the area). This area, like much of northern and eastern England, was extensively settled by Danes in the 9th-11th centuries and many of the place names are of Norse origin. Now, the Norse names cannot possibly have been in use in the seventh century, as the Norse settlers did not arrive in substantial numbers until two hundred years later. How best to reconstruct/interpolate/imagine/invent place names that will fit the seventh-century setting and give a convincing feel to the story, without confusing the reader?

Some examples:

Whitby. The name is Norse, with the characteristic Danish element -by (meaning village or farmstead), and means ‘Hviti’s village’ (Room 1993). The early English (‘Anglo-Saxon’) name of the settlement was Streanashalch, which translates as Bay of the Beacon or Bay of the Lighthouse. This name was recorded in Bede’s Ecclesiastical History (Book III, chapter XXV) written in 731 AD, and so is about as authentic as one can get*. Clearly, the name ‘Whitby’ doesn’t suit a seventh-century setting. To anyone who knows that -by is a Norse place name element it conveys a date that’s wrong by two centuries. I could use Streanashalch on Bede’s authority. But I think that doesn’t capture the right feel. To a modern reader, Streanashalch is a proper name with no meaning of its own. But to the characters in the story, speaking Old English as a living language, ‘Streanashalch’ would have carried the meaning ‘Bay of the Beacon’ and would thus have conveyed something about the place beyond the mere name, much as names like ‘North Sea’ do today. I didn’t want to lose that meaning in the name. So I translated it into modern English and used ‘Beacon Bay’ or ‘Bay of the Beacon’ as the place name.

Lilla Howe. This is a Bronze Age burial mound topped by a stone cross of early medieval date. The cross is traditionally said to mark the grave of Lilla, thane to King Edwin of Northumbria, who died in 626 AD protecting his king from an assassin. (The story is in Bede, Book II Ch. IX] if you want to look it up). My story is set in 605 AD and Lilla is still very much alive, so it is unlikely that the mound was called Lilla Howe at the time. The cross would not have been there, but the mound would have been. What might its name have been? Probably Something Howe, as ‘howe’ is a common element in early English place names and means ‘mound’, often a burial mound. The mound commands a far-reaching view across the moors and stands near a junction of two important moorland tracks. My conjecture is that it was probably an important place in the district, perhaps a landmark for travellers and/or a meeting place. This would be consistent with its re-use for the secondary burial of an important man, particularly if he had connections with the area (perhaps he was the local thane?). Re-use of ancient burial mounds for high-status early English graves is attested elsewhere in England, for example at Roundway Down in Wiltshire. So I wanted a name that conveyed a sense of importance for the mound before Lilla was buried there. I picked on Guardian Howe.

Malton Roman Fort. This Roman fort stood on the river Derwent 17 miles north-east of York. Its Roman name, attested in the Antonine Itinerary, was Derventio, derived from the river name. The name ‘Malton’ is Norse (Room 1993), and so cannot have been in use in the seventh century. Several examples are known of early English place names that have been formed by adding -caster or its variant -chester (an Old English loan word from Latin meaning fort, especially a Roman fort or Roman walled town) to a recognisable variant of the Roman name. For example, Londinium (modern London) was recorded as Lundencaester in 890 AD, Isca Dumnoniorum (modern Exeter) as Exanceaster in 894 AD, Danum (modern Doncaster) as Donecastre in 1002 and Venta Belgarum (modern Winchester) as Wintancaster by Bede in 731 AD. I applied the same pattern and (re)constructed ‘Derwentcaster’ as a plausible seventh-century name for Malton Roman Fort.

What do you think of this approach? Naturally, there's also a map and a glossary giving the equivalent modern names. And if any of you have encountered a similar problem with missing place names, how did you deal with it?

Room A. Dictionary of Place Names. Bloomsbury, London, 1993. ISBN 0-7475-1511-5.

* I should note that some scholars argue that ‘Streanashalch’ is actually the modern village of Strensall a few miles outside York. I am not clear why an inland settlement would have acquired a name that can be translated as Lighthouse Bay, but perhaps there are alternative translations of the name elements, or perhaps it was a figurative name and referred to the monastery there as a ‘spiritual beacon’. I am not convinced by this argument, as early English place names are commonly descriptive, usually in a form that indicates ownership - ‘Fred’s farm’ - or topography - ‘hill farm’. So I shall stick to the identification of Streanashalch with Whitby. But it illustrates how nothing in this period ever seems really certain.


Bernita said...

I think you have chosen the best approach.

Carla said...

Thank you, Bernita.

Alianore said...

I agree - Whitby would feel wrong for the period, and Streanashalch says nothing to a reader, as well as being almost impossible to pronounce! The names you've chosen fit really well, I think, and have an authentic feel.

Bernita said...

Thank YOU, Carla.

Made me double check Neasham Ford to make sure the location could have born that name around 1120 and if Roger de Conyers might have called it that.
I believe it is derived from topography - a nose-shaped meander in the Tees.
Now I wonder if - when he speaks he should refer to it as "Neseham" or simply rely on variable spelling and leave as is.

Kelly G said...

I think the approach is sound - it's thought through from an historical point of view, but still works for the modern reader.
"Derwentcaster", to my ears, is just a little clunky, but if it fits in with your chosen period, go for it.
It's a pleasure to see such research going into name choice.
I've had to deal with the same issues, largely in making complicated or apparently unpronouncable Maltese names suitable for young English-speaking readers - as well as accurate. Once I simply had to make up a name that fitted with the narrative; at other times, I've done as you have, and chosen names that had been used at some time and would work as substitutes. But not with quite as much intellectual rigour as you!

Martyn said...

Sounds about right to me. I think you're right about the fluidity of names during the period, long before mapping and even settled political identies etc. I'd never heard the Streanashalch/Strensall theory before. The only water nearby is the River Foss.

Carla said...

Alianore - many thanks, that's exactly what I was trying to achieve.

Bernita - assuming that Neasham Ford is derived from either Old English 'ness' ('nose) or its Norse equivalent 'nes' (either of which is entirely plausible on the Tees), then it would be absolutely fine in 1120. I would just stick with the modern form and put it down to variable spelling. Roger de Conyers might have pronounced it with a Norman-French accent - I think 1120 is probably a little early for the top brass to have started using English as a day-to-day language, unless he has English ancestry - so the spelling could probably have been almost anything. (You might want to use the spelling to indicate his accent?) The 'nose' is quite likely to refer to the headland or tongue of land created by a meander in the river, especially if it's one of the places where the river runs between sizeable cliffs, as at Durham. Many coastal promotories have names based on 'ness' for that reason, e.g. 'The Naze' on the Essex coast.

Kelly G - hello, and thanks for dropping by. That's exactly the issue; how to create atmosphere with names that feel right, without creating confusion for a modern reader. I've been interested in place names for ages - I can't remember whether place names drew me to early English history or vice versa - and often the place names are the only clues we have to the early English landscape. So the place name research is a large part of recreating the world. A name like Derwentcaster would probably have been contracted if it had continued in use, probably first by dropping the middle 't' to make Derwencaster and then perhaps down to Derrencaster or Dencaster. Though Derwentwater in Cumbria, which derives from the same root, has survived in full form, so perhaps not. Now and again I have to make up names too, especially in areas that would have spoken Brittonic (ancestor of Welsh) languages at the time but where the names are now English or Norse, and I generally do that by 'back-translating' the topographical later names.

Martyn - the book I found it in has long since been returned to its home library so I can't give you chapter and verse, but there's an online document that mentions the issue here (Footnote 245 on page 72). The writer comes to the same conclusion as me (what a splendid fellow!) and also adds a piece of evidence that I forgot to include in my post, namely that Bede says 'Streanashalch' was 13 miles from Hackness, which fits Whitby but not Strensall. Which I would say is conclusive. Interestingly, the footnote says there are two 'Streanashalch' in Worcestershire, not a notably maritime county (!), so presumably the 'bay' element of the name can also refer to a river feature, like a big meander or a noticeable widening or indentation. Though I'd have thought the Foss might be a bit small to have a feature like that.

Dennis said...

Bernard Cornwell in his historical novel The Last Kingdom, describes a massacre at a nunnery in Streonshall which he gives as modern day Srensall in N Yorks. i cannot find a reference to a nunnery in Strensall which is where I live. Can you help please?

Carla said...

Dennis - I think it likely that Bernard Cornwell may have taken the identification of Streanashalch as modern Strensall rather than as modern Whitby. The identity of Streanashalch is uncertain, as I noted in the post and in my reply to Martyn's comment. To find you a reference I'd need to know what Bernard Cornwell says in his Historical Note to the Last Kingdom and then check the source he quotes. I don't have a copy of his book to hand, so if you can give me the exact text of his statement (either post it here, or email me at the email address in my blog profile), I'll gladly see if I can help you.

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