Tuesday, November 15, 2011

What's In a Name? (Historical characters)

Lately I've been pondering some of the difficulties involved in naming characters. The problems are different, of course, for invented characters than they are for historical characters, but each presents certain challenges.

How can there be any difficulty in naming historical characters? Perhaps for some times and places there isn't any, but my area of interest is medieval Italy, and there at least I can attest that discrepancies are rampant.

Historical characters' names can appear in many different forms in contemporary chronicles and history books. Several characters in my first book, set in Florence in 1215, illustrate this: Oddo Arrigo dei Fifanti has also been called Odarrigo, Oderrigo, Oderigo, Oddo d'Arrigo, and Oddo Arrighi, and Gualdrada is called Aldruda in some near-contemporary accounts. A relatively minor but necessary character in the first chapters, Uberto degli Infangati, had an unambiguous name, but he was onstage at the same time as members of the powerful Uberti family, and that confused my beta readers. After all, if messer Buondelmonte was a member of the Buondelmonti family, wasn't Uberto a member of the Uberti? Sort of like John Johnson or Pete Peterson or Ed Edwards? Well, no. Actually, Uberto was on the opposite side politically, and the Infangati would not have thanked us for linking one of their own with the hated Uberti. But the confusion was understandable, so I stuck the poor guy with the nickname "Berto," and he'll just have to live with it.

In my work in progress, I was flummoxed to discover that I was dealing with no fewer than four women named Tessa. Two of them are prominent, the other two not so much, but they all need to be there. What to do? It's not as much of a challenge as the one Kate Quinn took on in Daughters of Rome, where her four Cornelias were all present at the same time, but a challenge nonetheless. (And even more of a challenge for Corso, one of my main characters, since one of the Tessas was his mother and two others were Wife #2 and Wife #3.) What to do?

Beatrice's nurse is known to history as monna Tessa, the woman who inspired Beatrice's father, Folco Portinari, to found the Ospedale di Santa Maria Nuova. I decided to just go ahead and call her monna Tessa. Corso's mom is something of a regal grande dame, so I expanded her to Contessa, which is where the name Tessa comes from. I'm still not sure what to do about Tessa1 and Tessa2, the wives, but I'll figure something out. Actually, for all I know, Corso's first wife might also have been a Tessa--her name is not recorded--but let's not go there. I called her Margherita.

(You may be wondering why Italian girls were given a name that means "Countess," yet you don't see "Principessa" or "Marquesa" or "Duchesa" as given names. It's because all those Tessas are not named after just any old countess, but rather La Gran Contessa herself, Matilda of Canossa.)

"Maria" was a particularly rare name for girls in the records, with one exception: Florentines were baptized on the Saturday before Easter in a huge communal baptismal ritual that claimed the infants for the church and for their city at the same time, and it was custom for the bishop to perform the first two baptisms, naming the first boy Giovanni (for John the Baptist) and the first girl Maria. Since the main character of my work in progress has a mother named Maria, I am surmising that she (Maria) came from a distinguished family, as it seems unlikely that this honor was awarded randomly in such a hierarchical culture.


just me again said...

Wow! Huzzah! You have launched your blog! Well done. And now you have a comment, too!

Way to go.


donroc said...

Congratulations. Like your blog. I had the same problem with multiple names for my 9th century Historical characters in a novel I am polishing. Ambiguous/multiple birthdates too.

Tinney Heath said...

I'm not surprised that you encountered multiple names in the 9th century. And I've run up against ambiguous birthdates, too, such as the woman who was supposed to have been the grandmother of one of my characters - except that he was born in 1250, and she already had marriageable daughters in 1216, which makes for a rather long period of productivity.