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OK, I confess: Some of my character have names I made up. Gerhilda, one of my supporting characters in The Ashes of Heaven’s Pillar is one of them.

But in an age where the vast majority could not read or write, who is to say the name didn’t exist? Like most Frankish names, it has two elements (dithematic, if you want to get fancy), and the elements in Gerhilda’s appellation (meaning lance and combat) are common.

Many women’s names translate into traits a modern mind typically associates with men. Both genders shared many of the elements, but even deuterothemes reserved for women mean combat, strength, and power. Others mean fortress and dwelling place—perhaps a reflection of the woman’s authority to take care of the home.


Clothilde, from the 1882 Costumes of All Nations. Her name means “celebrated combat” (public domain image via Wikimedia Commons).

Historic Frankish women had names that meant “combat and dwelling place” (Hildegard), “lance and city” (Gerberga), and “fight and power” (Chiltrude). This all illustrates a point I’ve made before: Although early medieval women were expected to obey fathers and husbands, they weren’t passive flowers awaiting rescue. They ruled abbeys and their minor son’s lands. A queen was not just the king’s wife and mother of his children. She was also his treasurer and chief of staff, controlling access to her husband.

Frankish parents might not have been thinking of what their daughters’ names meant. Children were named for their ancestors or for a saint.

Still, when you read about Gerberga crossing the Alps to protect the rights of her sons, Bertrada serving as her husband’s full partner in a coup and her son’s diplomat, and Chiltrude defying her brothers and eloping with the duke of Bavaria, the names underscore early medieval women were tough.


Medieval Names Archive

Excerpt from Stephen Wilson’s The Means of Naming