It's not often studied in schools - indeed, I had to wait until my degree course before I was offered the opportunity to study it - and it's a bit, well, far away. Not as far away as the Romans, though, or the Ancient Greeks.
What probably doesn't help is the names.
In an average day's writing, I can find myself with at least one Aethelwold, an Aelfhere, a couple of Aelfric's, an Aelfsige, an Aethelweard and several Aethelreds. Aelthelflaed, Lady of the Mercians, was far from being the only woman of this age who was given that name.
Of course, I know who they all are. Just as you might know one or more people named Michael; you will be able to distinguish them in your mind. So much so that you hardly notice that Michael from the office, who drives you mad with his habit of tapping his pen on the desk while he works, has the same name as your lovely Uncle Michael who always brings presents when he visits. So it is with me: I know that Bishop Aethelwold of Winchester, formerly abbot of Abingdon, is a completely different person from Ealdorman Aethelwold of East Anglia. And that neither of them has anything to do with Aethelwold, son of Aethelred, who fought at the battle of the Holme in 902 and held a nun hostage...
|'Aethelwold' silver penny|
Later on, in the Tudor age, try getting away from folks named Thomas - Thomas Wolsey, Thomas Cranmer, Thomas Cromwell, Thomas More, Thomas Tallis...
Parents or teachers today will see the same trends in the classroom. When my children were little, it seemed like every other male child was named Matthew or Daniel, and common girls' names were Hannah and Bethany.
Æ and æ turn the name Aethelflaed into Æthelflæd, which looks better to me, but I imagine it's more difficult to read if one is not used to the OE alphabet characters. Turn it into Æðelflæd and it looks even worse!
|Charter of Aethelflaed, Lady of the Mercians and Aethelred, her husband|
So what do these names mean?
Most OE names of this period are composites. The Aethel, or Æthel prefix means 'noble'.
We also have the prefix Ælf, which means 'Elf'.
Ead, as in Eadred or Eadgar, means 'blessed'. This prefix is very common, and is the original prefix of names such as Edward, Edwin and Edgar.
The endings of names have meaning, too.
Wine means 'friend', so Aethelwine translates as 'noble friend'.
Red, or more properly ræd, means 'counsel'. Thus we have the most famous of all puns on a king's name. Aethelred the Unready, whilst he might always have been caught a bit unawares by boatloads of Danes, was not actually named thus because of his inability to anticipate the Viking raids.
Originally his epithet was a play on words: His name, Æthelræd, means noble counsel. Unræd means badly or ill-counselled. So in OE, Æthelræd Unræd was 'noble counsel, ill-counselled. He was, as in the title of Ann Williams' biography of him, Aethelred, the Ill-counselled king.
|Charter of Aethelred the Unready (detail) note all the 'Æ' names|
Stān, meaning 'stone', when added to Æthel, gives us the name Æthelstān, or Athelstan, a fitting name for a king: 'noble stone'.
Other name endings include 'thryth', or ðryth, which means 'strength'.
Thus, Queen Ælfðryth, or Aelfthryth, has a name which means 'elf strength'.
Many noblewomen's names end in gifu, meaning gift, and pronounced 'yiva'. Perhaps the best known of these is Lady Godgifu - modernised to Godiva (from Godyiva)
These names, by and large, are reserved for the 'upper classes', and are prevalent in the later portion of the period. Go back to the seventh and eighth centuries and you find more variety in the personal names, partly as a result of there still being separate kingdoms, with family, tribal and linguistic traditions. Thus the royal house of Mercia had two branches, known as B and C, with names such as Burgred on one side, and Ceolwulf on the other. Going back further still, the names get even stranger, but even so, patterns are detectable. Penda, Peada and Pybba were all from the same family. (And all male, which might seem strange to us - as was King Anna of East Anglia.)
Other OE names have a similar composition to the later, noble names, but are easier on the eye: compound names beginning with Wulf, for example, such as Wulfstan, Wulfric, and Wulfnoth.
Older compound names are less easy for our modern eyes to read: Cynewulf, Cynethryth, and Cynegils, for example.
Some are simply delightful because they incorporate what we would refer to as nicknames.
Eadulf Cudel was an eleventh century nobleman from the north east. Cudel means cuttlefish.
Eadwig Ceorlacyng's nickname translates as 'king of the peasants' although we don't know why he was known as such.
Athelstan Rota was so named because he was Athelstan the Red, and so, presumably, red-haired.
It's fairly safe to assume the reason why Æthelweard the Stammerer was so called. Or how about Godwine the Driveller?
Possibly the most infamous was Eadric Streona - whose name translates as Eadric the Grasping, but one of my favourites is Æthelmær se greata - Aethelmaer the Fat.
Ladies, too, had their nicknames, although goodness knows whether Æthelflæd Eneda's nickname 'the duck' was meant as a compliment or an insult.
Another Æthelflæd was known as 'The White' (se hwita), perhaps to describe the colour of her hair? We must assume that Eadgifu Pulchre was rather beautiful, since her by-name means The Fair.
The name Eadgyth Swan-neck (swanneshals) conjures up images of a beautiful, long-necked woman, perhaps someone like Audrey Hepburn, but it's a shame that somewhere along the way, many of these OE names became modernised in real life and yet, at the same time, unfashionable - Eadgyth becomes Edith.
Then there's Cuthbert, Wilfrid, Mildred, Audrey (yes, there she is again, although Aethelthryth Hepburn doesn't have the same ring to it), and even, though it was never an OE name in and by itself, Ethel. Some, however, retained their popularity and their noble bearing - Alfred, Edmund, Edward.
I like them all - although I stopped short of naming my children after any of them! And pronunication? Well, take your pick:
Many people call her Ethelfled, Lady of the Mercians. But I have also heard her referred to as Athelflat. I know which I prefer.
The difficulties with these OE names, and the evidence for the use of by-names or nicknames, helped shape my decision to modernise some names in my novels, and to give several characters nicknames or pet names.
So I gave my Aethelflaed a nickname: Teasel. If you want to know why, pick up the book - the pet name leads to some confusion...
To Be A Queen - the Story of Aethelflaed, Lady of the Mercians