Wednesday, November 30, 2011

What's in a Surname?

Status, if you're a medieval Tuscan. As late as the catasto (tax records) of 1427, one historian estimates that only a third of the families listed (and those were just the property-owners) had surnames. Another historian, speaking of the same records, states that only about 16% of the surnames listed were "stable," i.e. consistent among generations and not still in flux. My research takes me back 100-200 years earlier than that, when surnames were even rarer. Men were more usually identified by adding their father's name (and, if necessary to avoid confusion, their grandfather's), like this: Giovanni di Ugo di Neri. If a man's father was deceased, he would be Giovanni del fu Ugo (absolute past tense: Ugo's finished and done). A woman was identified first by association with her father, and then, once married, with her husband.

It is fascinating to watch surnames emerge during a period of several hundred years, and to try to trace their derivation. Quite a lot of Florentine surnames were taken from the given name of an ancestor, often the ancestor considered to be the founder of the lineage. Thus, the Donati were descended from a Donato, the Gondi from a Gondo, and the Baldovinetti from a Baldovinetto.

Often the ancestor chosen by later generations to provide the family name was distinguished in some way: the Pazzi took their name from Pazzo di Ranieri, the first to enter Jerusalem in the first Crusade (1088); the Anselmi took theirs from Anselmo Fighineldi, who was knighted by Charlemagne (and who appears to have had a different surname of his own); and the Pandolfini from a notary named Pandolfino. The Pucci had a thirteenth century ancestor, Puccio di Benintendi, who was a cabinetmaker, but it appears that the name didn't stick as a surname until the more distinguished Puccio di Antonio, who served Florence as gonfaloniere di giustizia sometime later.

A family name could be derived from a nickname (the Canacci, from Lapo di Dino, known as Canaccio). It could stem from a profession or office, as the Visdomini, descended from one Davizo who had served as vicedominus, or episcopal caretaker, from 1009-1054. (An interesting sideline about this family is that Davizo's nephew Davizino married a woman called Tosa, and a future branch of the family adopted her name as their family name and called themselves the della Tosa, or the Tosinghi.)

The Pecori family took its name from Dino il Pecora (Dino "the Sheep"), the "Big Butcher" of Dante's day, a man prominent in the Butcher's Guild who was active in Florentine politics (and seems to have annoyed most of the contemporary chroniclers, who describe him in some unsavory ways).

A name could also be taken from a place: Buondelmonte dei Buondelmonti, the knight whose turbulent marital situation resulted in the split between the Guelfs and the Ghibellines in the early 13th century (and in my first book), came from a family which took its name from its castle at Montebuoni.

The Buondelmonte device, sketched on a wall

Incidentally, their coat of arms reflects all this emphasis on "good" and on "mountains": it consists of a stylized mountain, which looks like a gumdrop stacked on top of two other gumdrops, with a cross on top.

Even a product or commodity associated with a family could result in a name. The Rucellai were originally known as the Oricellari, because they imported the dyestuff orchil (oricello in Italian) from the Levant.

Women of the upper classes in medieval Florence were considered part of their fathers' lineages, not their husbands'. Women widowed during their childbearing years often rejoined their birth families after the death of their husbands and were given to new husbands, as their fathers (or brothers, if the father was no longer living) chose; sadly, they often had to leave their children behind, because the children, in their turn, were part of their own father's lineage, and therefore they stayed with their father's family. These kinds of marital politics had much to do with dowries and property, but that will be a post for another day.

Many women married into prominent families were identified only by given name and husband's name, but others, like Gemma Donati, who married "down" socially when she married Dante, are always referred to by their birth surnames. The Blessed Umiliana dei Cerchi was born into the wealthy Cerchi family and returned to them after her husband's death, and is always known by the surname she was born into. It appears that if a woman's birth name was the more prominent, she continued to be associated with it during her married life.

Thus, medieval Italian surnames can hint at lots of other things: affiliations, social status, whether one's parents were living or dead. They can be colorful - were the Infangati really covered with mud? were the Pazzi really mad? - and they can point to what a family takes most pride in. And, when the politics got really nasty, they could be changed to sever one branch's ties with another. I enjoy studying a time in which families were beginning to define themselves according to their own sense of history, and their own familial pride.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Stalking the Wild Historian

There I was, face to face with one of my heroes. No, not a figure from the news of the day. Not a famous musician, actor, or artist. Not a respected statesman, not a wealthy philanthropist, but - a historian. The unassuming gentleman in question, who stood there blinking at me in alarm, is an expert on church history in the Italian communes in the 12th and 13th centuries, and I have found his work extremely lucid, insightful, and helpful for many years.

And there he was, clutching his briefcase, about to walk into a room where he would join a panel that included another of my heroes, the woman who wrote the definitive book on the Florentine magnates. To top it off, in the audience was a woman who has spent years studying domestic law in medieval Lucca.

Okay, so it's not exactly the equivalent of cornering Bono somewhere and getting your picture taken with him. For me, it was better. That one session alone would have been worth my trip to Kalamazoo for the International Medieval Conference, despite the dorm room and the cafeteria food.

And I couldn't stop babbling: "I have all your books! They're wonderful! You're wonderful! I should ask for your autograph!"

It was at that point I finally noticed the panicked expression on his face and realized I'd better back off. Note to self: historians tend not to think of themselves as rock stars. Many of them probably harbor a secret fear that not even their doctoral committees actually read their dissertations. They are simply not prepared for adulation from an aspiring historical novelist.

He mumbled something polite and scurried into the room, and I gave him a decent head start and then went in myself, sitting discreetly in the back. The session was every bit as absorbing as I had expected - my heroes did not disappoint. I spent the rest of the conference attending most of the same sessions he did, carefully avoiding eye contact. I didn't want the poor man to think I was stalking him.

Historians can be extraordinarily generous with their time and their knowledge, at least when one's approach is a little more sane than mine was on that occasion. I've had delightful email exchanges on topics ranging from doing laundry in the middle ages to how late the Cathar heresy survived in Florence (though that latter exchange was forwarded to the historian's graduate student under the heading "Best email of the year!", which I still wonder about). A woman who gave a presentation on medieval baptism rituals was gracious enough to field my questions afterwards and then to follow through with quite a bit of additional information via email, after the conference. A Dante expert, who was planning a Kalamazoo presentation in a year when I was unable to attend, was kind enough to send me a CD of his talk, complete with all illustrations.

Kalamazoo is a wonderful place to observe medievalists at work and at play. Kathleen Norris, in The Cloister Walk, describes the Conference's Saturday night dance thus: "... dances that provide a spectacle worthy of Chaucer--hundreds of tipsy medievalists, some of whom are evidently let out of the library once a year, abandoning themselves to a tape of 'Born to Run'..."

One year, while I was waiting with others for the bus to take us to the medieval concert, I watched an eager graduate student charge up to a distinguished professorial type. Pumping the older man's hand, the student rattled on familiarly for quite a while about an Anglo-Saxon manuscript he'd had the opportunity to examine. The older gentleman nodded, smiled, and murmured an occasional polite response. When at last the bus pulled up (its destination was proudly announced as "Medieval"), the graduate student said an effusive goodbye to the professor and moved on to his next target.

The older gentleman turned to his wife and asked mildly, "Who was that?"

I'll write more about the Kalamazoo conference another time. This post, though about modern historians, is illustrated with pictures of earlier historians, in this order: Herodotus and Thucydides (image released to public domain by the photographer); Bede (the Venerable Bede), Notker of St. Gall (Notker the Stammerer), Snorri Sturluson, and Matthew Paris (all U.S.-PD: expired copyright); and Niccolò Machiavelli (public domain in the U.S.).

Monday, November 21, 2011

Dante's Offspring, or, The Internet Has Its Limitations

I enjoyed reading in Gillian Bagwell's guest post about how she used the internet to recreate a journey as part of her research for The September Queen. The internet is indeed a tremendous resource, but I find it has its risks and problems, too.

Often when I'm reading about a period I have not studied in depth, I'll do a quick Google search, or I'll glance at Wikipedia, and then I consider myself better informed than I was mere moments before. But once in a while, I test out the process by asking a question I know the answer to (or am pretty sure no one knows the answer to), and the results can be sobering.

Recently I decided to check with the all-wise aggregate intelligence and see if it could tell me how many children Dante had. Simple, right? How hard could it be? Well, harder than you might think, actually, for various reasons. But here's what my search turned up (first page of search results only):

1. Dante had four children: Iacopo, Pietro, Giovanni, and Antonia.

2. Dante had five children, names and sexes not specified.

3. Dante had six children: Iacopo, Pietro, Giovanni, Gabrielle, Alighieri, and Antonia.

4. Dante had three children: Iacopo, Pietro, and Antonia.

5. Dante had "several" children, including Iacopo, Pietro, Giovanni, and Antonia.

6. Dante had four children: Pietro and Iacopo and two daughters, one of them named Beatrice.

7. Dante had three or four sons and a daughter (Iacopo, Pietro, Giovanni, Gabrielle [maybe], and whoever the daughter was).

8. Dante had five children: Iacopo, Pietro, Giovanni, Antonia, Gabrielle.

What struck me most forcefully about this search was that in each case, the answer given was presented as absolute truth. With the exception of the "three or four sons", not one indicated even the slightest uncertainty. (Although I suppose "several" does leave some wiggle room.)

Then I checked the Dante-related books on my shelves (and lo, they are many...). Still no definite agreement, but here, at least, people admit to doubt, lack of proof, or the existence of other possibilities. We have very little information about Giovanni; some speculate that he could have been an illegitimate son, possibly born prior to Dante's marriage. Or was he the son of a different Dante Alighieri, perhaps a cousin? And what about Gabrielle? Another cousin, or possibly a child of Dante's who died young? At least one writer seems to believe that Gabrielle (sometimes Gabriello) was female.

We do know that Iacopo, Pietro, and a daughter reached adulthood, and we have some information about their lives. We do not know birth years, birth order, whether other children were born and died early (which is statistically likely), whether other children lived to adulthood and left no historical record, or why exactly this fellow named Giovanni signed a legal document in Lucca in October of 1308, calling himself the son of Dante Alighieri, and was then never heard from again.

As for Dante's daughter, it's now widely believed that Antonia took the name Sister Beatrice when she entered a convent, which would account for some of the confusion over the number of daughters and their name(s).

Does the order in which names were listed suggest birth order, at least of Dante's sons? If so, who came first, Iacopo or Pietro? And where does Giovanni fit in?

Will we ever know for sure? Probably not, but you'd never know it from the internet.

(My thanks to Tim, my husband, for the slightly irreverent illustrations.)

Friday, November 18, 2011

The Next Best Thing to Being There - Recreating a Journey by Internet (Guest post by Gillian Bagwell)

I'm delighted to introduce a guest post by author Gillian Bagwell, whose acclaimed novel The Darling Strumpet is subtitled A Novel of Nell Gwynn, Who Captured the Heart of England and King Charles II. Her readers can attest that Gillian's warm and delightful Nell has captured our hearts, as well.

Now we also have her recently-published second novel, The September Queen, to enjoy, and Gillian has graciously offered to share with us some of her research, in the form of a recreation of the journey taken by King Charles II and Jane Lane in 1651.

The Next Best Thing to Being There - Recreating a Journey by Internet
I was thrilled that when my agent sold my first novel, The Darling Strumpet, she also sold my second book, as yet unwritten, and was very excited to have the opportunity to write the first fictional account of Jane Lane, an ordinary Staffordshire girl who risked her life to help the young Charles II escape after the Battle of Worcester on September 3, 1651.
I wanted to retrace the path Jane had taken in her travels with Charles, and as some of the places associated with my story would be closing soon for the winter, and traveling around England wouldn’t get any easier as it got colder, wetter, and darker, I immediately planned a research trip. My friend Alice Northgreaves and I set out from London on October 26, 2009, making our way to Worcester, the site of the battle, from which Charles had fled to Staffordshire, where Jane became involved in his desperate flight.
Charles’s six-week odyssey covered more than 600 miles before he was finally able to sail from Shoreham near Brighton on October 15.
After he was restored to the throne in 1660, the story of his escape became known as the Royal Miracle, because of the numerous times he narrowly eluded capture. He told the story to Samuel Pepys, and others also recorded their parts in it, so that the route of his travels is well known. The Monarch’s Way footpath can still be followed.
Some of the sites associated with Charles’s adventures are well preserved. It was thrilling to visit Boscobel House and Moseley Hall and to see the actual priest holes into which the fugitive king curled his six-foot-two-inch frame when hiding from Cromwell’s cavalry patrols. These lovely houses are beautifully maintained by English Heritage and the National Trust respectively, and we enjoyed very informative tours. Whiteladies, where Charles arrived and was hidden at about three a.m. on the morning after the battle, is now a ruin, but is only a short walk from Boscobel, and easily found. Jane’s home, Bentley Hall, is unfortunately no longer standing, but thanks to directions from the staff at Moseley, we were able to find the site.
Following the path of Charles’s travels with Jane Lane, and in particular finding the places where some of the events on the journey had taken place – the inn and the smithy where Charles had to have a horse re-shod, for instance – was a little more complicated. Contemporary accounts provided their general route, through Bromsgrove, where Charles’s horse threw a shoe; to Stratford-Upon-Avon, where they had to ride among enemy soldiers crowding the street; and down to Long Marston, where they stayed at the home of Jane’s cousins John and Amy Tomes. They spent the next night in Cirencester, and reached Abbots Leigh near Bristol the following evening.
Finding that no ship would leave Bristol for France or Spain in less than a month, Charles and Jane then made their way southward to Castle Cary and then to Trent, in Dorset, where they stayed at the home of the Royalist Wyndham family.
When Alice and I weren’t sure about the location of some of we had very good success by popping into a pub to ask the locals, and in this way we were helped by the staff and patrons of the Red Lion in Bromsgrove, the Crown in Cirencester, and the George in Castle Cary.
Jane left Charles at Trent and returned home when it appeared that he would shortly be able to find passage on a boat from the southern coast of England. As it turned out, Charles spent another month in England before he was able to make his way to France, traveling to Charmouth, back to Trent in Dorset, then spending several days near Salisbury before sailing from Shoreham. But that part of his ordeal takes place offstage in The September Queen (titled The Royal Exile in the UK), which tells Jane’s story. Very little is known about what happened to her after she parted from Charles.
From the preliminary research I had done before embarking on my trip to England, I learned that when Jane’s part in helping Charles escape was discovered, she fled with her brother and walked to Yarmouth, hoping to reunite with Charles in France. As one book identified Yarmouth as a small town on the south coast near the Isle of Wight, I believed that her travels took her through much the same country through which she had journeyed with Charles.
It was only when I got home to California that I learned to my dismay that she probably sailed from another Yarmouth – on the east coast of England, and so in a completely different direction and through vastly different country than where I thought she had walked. This part of her story was very important, and I needed to know what she had experienced. But it just wasn’t possible for me to go back to England for a second trip.
I would have to reconstruct Jane’s journey some other way. From a book on historical maps, I learned that in 1686 John Ogilby had published a book of road maps of England – 35 years past Jane’s date, but close enough that not much would have changed.
I was overjoyed to find online and be able to buy a 1939 facsimile of the book, which shows the routes between major cities, laid out on parallel strips across the page. It’s a little hard to get used to looking at a map like that, but it gave me an idea of much of the route that Jane would likely have traveled to get from Staffordshire to Yarmouth, and just as wonderfully, depicted the roads and the country surrounding them in great detail, showing the kind of terrain, and features such as villages, bridges, and even large houses and windmills.
But the book didn’t provide guidance about some of the routes Jane must have taken. Another difficulty to surmount. Fortunately, a writer today is blessed with the vast resources of the internet, and I was able to accomplish forensic travel research in a way that wouldn’t have been possible even a few years ago. Google Maps and Google Earth to the rescue! I used Google Maps to ask for directions from one major town on Jane’s route to the next, and then zoomed in close enough to discover the names of the roads, which provided major clues. Unlike many roads in the U.S., which are named somewhat haphazardly or fancifully, old roads in England are frequently still called simply by where they led. So, for instance, finding a road labeled Norwich Road let me know that it was likely that was the path Jane would have followed to reach Norwich. Then I could soar along above the road to see what the landscape was like – and again fortunately for me, even now much of England is rural, and the countryside hasn’t changed substantially from what it had been like in 1651.
So miraculously, I was able to write the long sequence in which Jane and her brother walk from Bentley to Yarmouth accurately describing what they would have seen on their travels.
I was able to use up-to-the-minute technology to help me with this very old story in another way, too. When Alice and I were where we thought should be the site of Jane’s home Bentley Hall, just off the Wolverhampton Road near Walsall, we weren’t sure we had found it. There was a muddy building site that we thought might be where the house had stood, but the area is sadly very run down and not at all like what it would have been in Jane’s time. We asked in a shop if anyone knew about Bentley Hall, and were directed to the home of a local lady, Pauline Gibson, who we were told knew a lot about the area’s history. But she wasn’t home, and the neighbor with whom we left a note didn’t know when she’d be back.
We had to press on in order to get to our appointment to tour Packington, where Jane lived in later life. But having come so close, I was reluctant to leave without knowing we were in the right place. On an inspiration, I pulled out my iPhone and Googled “Bentley Hall Staffordshire.” Bingo! Up popped Michael Shaw and Danny McAree’s article “The Rediscovery of Bentley Hall, Walsall,” originally published in West Midlands Archaeology Vol. 50 (2007), pages 2-5.
It told me that we were very near the site of Jane’s home. We still couldn’t find the cairn that was supposed to mark its location, and it wasn’t until I spoke by phone with Pauline Gibson later that I learned we should have continued another hundred yards or so south, but still, I had been able to find the place that Jane had lived, to see the horizon at which she would have gazed, and to feel the cool October breeze she would have known in that spot.
Still other parts of Jane’s story took place in Paris and The Hague, and to a lesser extent in Breda, Spa, Aix-la-Chapelle, Dusseldorf, and Cologne. It was just as impossible for me to visit those place in person as it had been for me to return to England. But once more I was fortunate in being able to find online old images and descriptions of these places, which, with modern images and descriptions, and help from my friend Kirsten Shepard, who was fortuitously in Paris at the time, I could conjure the backdrops for scenes from my book without ever leaving home.
Not as much fun as traveling for research, but as Jane might have said, “Needs must when the devil drives!”

Gillian, thank you so much for this glimpse into your research journey. May you make many more, each more fascinating than the last.
Gillian Bagwell’s second novel, The September Queen was released on November 1. Please visit her website,, to read more about her books and read her blog Jane Lane and the Royal Miracle, which recounts her research adventures and the daily episodes in Charles’s escape after Worcester.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

What's In a Name? (Fictional Characters)

Naming fictional characters in historical fiction requires adhering to the usual rules: avoid multiple names beginning with the same letter, try not to pick something unpronounceable, vary the rhythms and number of syllables. But the name must also be right for the time and place, and it's surprisingly easy to get this wrong. I keep two lists of given names that I find in period sources, one for males and one for females. I've been lucky enough to find two lengthy journal articles analyzing naming patterns in Tuscany in this time period, which alerted me to some things I would not have expected, such as the scarcity of saints' names in the early part of the 13th century.

Origins of names can matter, too. I almost made the mistake of naming a character Francesco in a book set in 1216. But Francis of Assisi was still alive at that time, and the glut of Francescos who were named after him and who would appear in future generations had not yet been born. (Similarly, Luigi becomes a common name after the canonization of Saint Louis in 1297, but not before.)

When I use placeholder names in a draft, usually for minor characters, I make sure the names stick out, so I won't inadvertently leave them that way. I don't use modern Italian names, lest I fail to notice their inappropriateness; instead I have people like Tiffany, Muffy, Irving, Jared, and Brad running around in medieval Florence until I assign them better names.

With Italian, pronounceability is not the issue it is for many other times and places, but the reader unfamiliar with the Italian language can still encounter pitfalls. An example (historical, not fictional): Beatrice, Dante's beloved, is a character in my work in progress, but everyone calls her (and this is historically true) Bice. Some readers might look at that and hear BEE-uh-triss and Bice (rhymes with mice), but what I want them to hear is Bay-ah-TREE-chay and BEE-chay (rhymes with eBay). I know of no way to make this work except for a brief pronunciation note at the beginning.

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.