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Live-Blogging Kalamazoo: Thursday 7:30 What’s in a Name? A Roundtable on Names, Nicknames and Identity in the Middle Ages

Thursday, May 10, 2018 - 17:49

Had dinner at the usual favorite Indian place with a delightfully cozy group of just four. Dithered about whether to take in an evening session after that, but this roundtable about onomastics was impossible to resist.

What’s in a Name? A Roundtable on Names, Nicknames and Identity in the Middle Ages

Organizer: Elizabeth Archibald, Durham Univ.

Presider: Elizabeth Archibald

A roundtable discussion with Elizabeth P. Archibald [an entirely different Elizabeth Archibald than the organizer], Univ. of Pittsburgh; Katherine Travers, New York Univ.; Laurie Atkinson, Durham Univ.; Kathleen Ashley, Univ. of Southern Maine; and Michael J. Huxtable, Durham Univ.

The running joke of the introductions is that the two Elizabeth Archibalds not only studied the same topic at the same institution (though many years apart) but are sharing a dorm suite at the conference.

We begin with brief introductions on the speakers’ topics of interest

Elizabeth: Names and meanings were one of the first and key concepts of medieval linguistics. The distinction between proper and common nouns (and in Latin, “noun” and “name” are the same word) was a building block of exploring meaning. But there are contexts where the distinction between nouns and names is fuzzier. Examples are given from colloquies (textbooks in the form of a dialogue) where the speakers are identified with labels that are often both descriptive nouns and treated as personal names. The distinction of noun/name illustrates the general/specific contrast that is key in philosophy.

The presider points out that the two Elizabeths are the only two presenters in the conference program who have their affiliations appended to their personal names as a necessary distinction. Which goes nicely with the theme of the roundtable.

Katherine: Discusses women poets of 13th century Italy or at least poems presented in the voice of a woman, under pseudonyms that claim identities of location. This involves a verbal game between the voices of lovers where renaming/claiming names is part of the courtship.

Mike; The tension between sense and reference in the meaning/function of names. Looking at names via heraldic symbolism and its function in literature. Index, icon, and symbol as different modes of reference. Naming as an associative activity. In heraldic/chivalric writing there’s a clear distinction between type and token (category and specific instances). “Pseudo-heraldic names” in chivalric romances, such as “the Black Knight” shift between modes, being descriptive, individual, but also symbolic. As such, these would appear to break the boundaries of the usual categories.

Kathleen: The topic is patrons and name-saints in books of hours. There’s a lovely handout. The images of patrons paired with their patron saintly namesakes demonstrate a multi-faceted identification that goes beyond the link of the name. There are a number of relationships depicted in these images: saint as personal intercessor, as object of worship. But the object of worship can show a range of relationships from intimate to distanced.

Laurie: The fiction of authorship in dream-poetry. Naming the fictitious “author” of the dream-poem, internal to the text but not directly identified with the author of the actual text. This was a mechanism for both revealing and concealing the author’s relationship to the voice in his text. The focus for this discussion is the early Tudor poet Stephen Hawes. The narrator laments his hopeless love, falls asleep, and then interacts with a lady within the dream, explaining his troubles, and is eventually brought to his love (in the dream). It diverges from the usual formula in that within the dream, the author’s (Hawes’) actual book of poetry is brought up between the persona and his lady love. This creates a multilayered equation of the poet and persona, where it’s ambiguous whether the “real” text or only the allegorical in-story text is being discussed.

Elizabeth (the presider): A consideration of the multiple possible “Thomas Mallory”s and the general problem of identity in the context of name duplication. But this is a way of sliding into the Trojan characters in the legendary history of Britain, and the duplication of classical names (and even sets of relationships) transferred from the classical sources to characters in medieval romance. Sometimes this re-use seems almost random, not necessarily reproducing the key characteristics and even relationships of the original figures. When the primary characters of the story of Troy have their names given to secondary/minor characters in Arthurian legend, is this meant to indicate that Troy is now lesser than Britain? To what extent are attributes and stories carried over? Are all the Helen-variants in the Matter of Britain (e.g., Elaine of Astolat) bringing with them the attribute of women who cause trouble because of love? What of the Trojan characters who are borrowed and given a change of gender (as Hecuba who becomes a male knight in Arthuriana)? In general, how does this sort of “recycling” of names speak to the question of meaning/reference?

The session is now thrown open to general discussion. I’m not going to be able to identify speakers here. Connection made between the ambiguity of general/specific in colloquy speakers and the problem of naming women poets, possibly in the context of whether the female “persona” of a poem may or may not represent a female author? Relates to the identification question in the dream-poem. Real identities vs performative identities. In the book of hours portraits, we know these are real people, but they are also performing the role of pious person with artificial attributes brought into the picture for symbolic reasons. Examples of how re-naming with a saint’s name imbues the recipient with attributes of the saint. Discussion of the instability of the “meaningfulness” of names, depending on context or desired function. (It means something when you want it to, not when you don’t.) Relationship to coats of arms as “meaningful” versus arbitrarily referential. A consideration of shifts in the approach to medieval studies in general from the pursuit of a one-to-one correspondence of thing and meaning, to an acceptance of a greater multiplicity of meanings and associations. I asked a question about examples of “dynamic disambiguation” of otherwise identical names, sparked by the double name in the participants. (I mentioned a statistical study I did on name structure complexity in Welsh records tied to common name/patronym combinations.) But clearly not all cultures were concerned about this, e.g., the Pastons who often had multiple children in a generation with identical given names. The discussion is now becoming too wide-ranging to really summarize well.

Major category: 
historical