SNSBI Twenty-sixth Spring Conference 2017

The Spring Conference was held from March 24 to 27 at the Milton Hill House Hotel in Milton near Didcot (SU475901). The location of the conference commemorated the earlier county survey volumes of Margaret Gelling; Milton was historically in Berkshire but is now in Oxfordshire (Gelling, The place-names of Berkshire ii.416).

Many of the conference papers related to Oxfordshire and the surrounding counties, but papers on all regions of Britain and Ireland were presented. The speaker on Friday evening was Ros Faith, on farming in woodland and in downland. Papers on place-names of Oxfordshire and the surrounding region covered topics including: Anglo-Saxon estates, animals and place-names, field-names and archaeology. To celebrate the publication of The Oxford Dictionary of Family Names in Britain and Ireland, we also had a number of papers on personal names of the area: locative surnames of Oxfordshire, South Midlands surnames, and names of the Gloucestershire Cotswolds.

The coach excursion on the Sunday afternoon was led by Ann Cole. She took us around South Oxfordshire and the Chilterns – the area that was the focus of her case studies in The landscape of place-names.


Friday 24 March

Saturday 25 March

Session 2: Toponymy – mostly Oxfordshire and surrounding counties

Session 3 Family names - mostly Oxfordshire and surrounding counties

Session 4

Sunday 26 March

Session 5 Toponymy – Oxfordshire and elsewhere in England

Session 6 Toponymy – from Scotland to Cornwall


Ros Faith (Kellogg College, Oxford): Farming in woodland areas

My paper begins with a short survey of the changing relationships between two disciplines: place-names studies and the study of the social and economic history of the countryside. I then turn to my first case-study of farming in woodland in Oxfordshire: Wychwood Forest and its environs. I focus on the element lēah in local place-names and describe some examples of what a farming a lēah here might have been like. I then discuss another woodland area, that of the South Chilterns. Here the place-names elements are of a totally different kind and I use this fact to start an enquiry into what woodland farming here might have been like in the early medieval period.

Katie Hambrook and Jane Harrison (University of Oxford): Land use in East Oxford – comparing the test-pit and field-name evidence

Archeox, the East Oxford community archaeology project, excavated a number of test-pits in Cowley, Iffley Littlemore and Blackbird Leys. This paper will look at how the results of the test-pits can indicate types of land use and can suggest approximate dating for changes in land use. For a selection of field-names, the test-pit results will be used to see whether they add extra information and dating to our interpretation of the field-names.

Kishli Laister-Scott (Cardiff University): Place-names and the study of the medieval wool-trade in Gloucestershire

The wool-trade in Gloucestershire is well-attested, and evidence of this vital trade can still be found in many Gloucestershire towns and villages. This paper seeks to establish whether place-names can help to broaden our understanding of this trade by studying a small group of place-names which appear to contain elements relating to sheep and sheep-farming. By placing them in an archaeological and historical context, I hope to establish that a significant link exists, and I will end by considering how this might be applied to other groups of place-names in my data-set.

Simon Draper (VCH Oxfordshire): Place-naming within Anglo-Saxon estates in Oxfordshire and beyond

This paper will attempt to draw out some common themes found in the naming of places within 'great estates’ of the Middle Saxon period using examples chiefly drawn from Oxfordshire, Gloucestershire, and Wiltshire. In particular, it will be argued that settlement and land-use within such estates were often zoned, and inhabitants segregated by social status. Received wisdom on the interpretations of 'Stoke’, 'Walton’, 'Netton’, and 'B(o)urton’ place-names will be challenged and/or refined, and the case restated for multidisciplinary place-name research.

John Baker (Institute for Name-Studies, University of Nottingham): Place-names and the evolution of administrative geography on the Chiltern dip slope

This paper will examine medieval administrative geography in parts of the Chiltern dip slope, using place-name evidence to help understand the evolution of arrangements during the Anglo-Saxon period.

Rob Briggs (UCL): Investigating -ingas: a fresh look at Old English group names and the social groups behind them

Anyone familiar with English toponymy will be aware that place-names ending in or incorporating inflections of Old English -ingas have been studied and debated for many decades. Is there anything new and meaningful left to say about them? This paper, and the PhD-level research project behind it, seeks to foreground the social groups behind the place-names in order to try to understand both name formations and group members through archaeology, history, geography and more. An interdisciplinary approach to this topic is not wholly unprecedented, of course; the groundbreaking study by John Dodgson published in the journal Medieval Archaeology is now over 50 years old. However, Dodgson’s article and those in a similar mould that followed it proferred comparatively simple analyses of the spatial relationships between the place-names and limited corpora of Early Anglo-Saxon-period archaeology. Half a century of additional archaeological data, plus a wealth of new scholarship and analytical techniques from several disciplines, afford the opportunity to reassess some of the current orthodoxies about -ingas names. Examples from Oxfordshire and beyond will be used to introduce some of the key themes and questions being appraised in my research: When did -ingas groups come into existence? Why use -ingas to form a group name rather than one the other options available to them? How can we best translate this group-name ending? And, above all, who were the -ingas of Old English place-names?

Harry Parkin (UWE): Change in the by-names and surnames of the Cotswolds

This paper will focus primarily on the influence regional identity has had on surname development in the Cotswolds, a region with its own distinct cultural, economic and topographical history. The names from a time when hereditary surnames had only recently been established, 1381, will be compared with those from a period of greater surname stability, c1600, showing that there had been considerable change in the names of the Cotswolds between these two periods. Often, this change can be related to the regional wool trade, with the shift in focus from raw wall treatment to cloth production appearing to affect the name stock of the Cotswolds. This paper will investigate changes in surname frequency and migration patterns, generating findings which suggest that there are some aspects of regional name development which are not yet fully understood.

Patrick Hanks (Editor in Chief, Oxford Dictionary of Family Names in Britain and Ireland): Surnames of the South Midlands

This talk contrasts certainties and problems in explaining the origins and history of surnames. It starts by presenting the surnames that, according to the Surname Atlas of Great Britain (Archer, 2003-2011), are statistically most associated with the counties of Oxfordshire, Warwickshire, and Berkshire in the 1881 census. The interpretation of “most associated” is derived from comparison of the 1881 nationwide frequency of each surname with its frequency in the county, as follows: Oxfordshire (10 names): more than 65% of each were located in the county in 1881. Warwickshire (18 names): more than 75% of each were located in the county in 1881. Berkshire (12 names): more than 58% of each were located in the county in 1881. Very rare names were disregarded. Only surnames with 50 or more occurrences nationwide in 1881 were considered. The recently published Oxford Dictionary of Family Names in Britain and Ireland (2016) offers an explanation for each of these names. The talk presents these explanations and discusses some questions arising. Chief among them is this: comparison of Archer’s data for Oxfordshire with the analysis of medieval data in The Surnames of Oxfordshire (McKinley, 1977) reveals a puzzle: McKinley’s painstaking survey of some medieval documents found little evidence for any of these names. To be precise, only one of Archer’s “top ten” Oxfordshire surnames (Serman) can be found in McKinley’s index. The other nine are not there at all—not in any spelling. On the other hand, of those surnames in McKinley’s index that survived into the 19th century, almost all have no particular association with Oxfordshire in 1881. They either have a statistically significant association with a county other than Oxfordshire or are widely distributed throughout England. How can this surprising contrast be explained? Were the “most associated” Oxfordshire names all late coinages? Or were they all late immigrants from other counties? Or were they lurking silently in Oxfordshire, unrecorded in medieval times? Or did McKinley not have sufficient data?

Kay Muhr: Family names in Irish townland names

Land in first-millennium Ireland was divided into small named administrative units of c.300 acres. The system has been preserved to the present under the English descriptor ‘townlands’, and the townland names mostly reach us in anglicised form. Approximately 10% of townlands have what might be regarded as ownership names, containing the genitive case of either a personal name or, after they had come into being, a surname. Ireland had a rich tradition of personal names, and Irish surnames are almost always relationship names, asserting descent from a named ancestor; beginning late in the 1st millennium by prefixing Ó, literally ‘grandson’, then alternatively from early in the second millennium by prefixing Mac, literally ‘son’. The survival of Mac (genitive Mic) in a townland name is usually a good guide to the presence of a mac-surname, but unfortunately Ó (genitive Uí) is often elided with the personal name following. Establishing the presence of a surname, and distinguishing surnames from personal names, both need evidence from historical spellings. Parallel research on FaNBI has been invaluable. The surnames attested can then provide more information on the origin of this type of townland name.

Dagmar Wodtko (University of Cambridge): Foreign names in medieval Irish

Names of settlements, locations, rivers, countries and peoples outside the British Isles were adopted into medieval Irish writing at various times and in various contexts. They reflect a historical and geographical conception of the world into which Irish literature integrated itself. The direct sources of such names are usually Latin, whether they come from Christian writings, secular scholarly works or adaptions of Latin narratives. Some such names continue to be used in their Latin form at least in the written language, others remain of quite limited occurrence; but a number of names were more or less adapted to Irish morphology and thus become a specific subset of loan-words. This paper will look at methods of Gaelicising foreign names in relation to their Irish morphology and examine the distribution of various formations with regard to the role the name plays within medieval Irish literature and learning.

Justin Ó Gliasáin: Meitheal Crowd-sourcing minor place-names

A meitheal, in Irish, is a group of people working together to accomplish a task, such as saving hay; in this case, it is used to describe a crowd-sourcing project. Knowledge of minor place-names is not as widespread as it once was, due to a number of factors, and as such, it is vital that minor place-names which are still part of the public memory are collected before they are forgotten. Meitheal provides the public with an opportunity to preserve minor place-names which are known to them. This paper will cover the background of the Meitheal project in terms of its relationship to and the Meitheal Dú folklore transcription project. A brief overview of the functionality of the site will be given as well as a review of user statistics along with examples of the material which has been submitted to date. Challenges which may face the project in the future will also be highlighted as well as possible solutions to such challenges.

Daphne Nash Briggs: Pre-Roman language(s) in East Anglia

The inscriptions on ancient British coins mostly name the war-lords, rulers, or officials, responsible for the coinages in question, and lend shreds of insight into language use, at least amongst the senior social elite, in southern Britain between the late first century BC and c. AD 45, or whenever native coinage ended soon after Claudius’ conquest. Almost all such names are plainly in Brittonic, or are in Latin reflecting Brittonic (an interesting language choice in its own right). There are, however, some conspicuous exceptions, all in northern Norfolk, where several coin inscriptions suggest that non-Latin, non-Brittonic, but plausibly West Germanic, names and speech-forms occur. These must belong to some of the richest and most powerful families in the northern cantons of the civitas Icenorum, long before the Romans can have had any direct influence on the character of Britain's ethnic mix. They therefore raise some very interesting questions about the identity and maritime connections of some of the long-established peoples on the Fen edge and north-sea shoreline.

Ann Cole: South Oxfordshire place-names

This talk is designed to set the scene for the coach trip and to show views of a few of the places inaccessible to the coach. It describes the topography and underlying geology of southern Oxfordshire and relates them to the place-names used by the Anglo-Saxons to describe their settlements. The area ranges in the north from the Oxford Heights - dūn country, through the clay vales drained by the rivers Ock and Thame, threaded by many streams and subject to flooding, where names for dry points and crossings predominate. Then through the Chiltern Loam Belt with its strip parishes and spring-line settlements, to the Chilterns - a chalk upland crowned with clay-with-flints where names for the scarce water supply and the sheltered valleys predominate.

Jeremy Harte: Talk of the Devil: ‘Devil’s’ in English place-names

The paper will deal with the group of names in England beginning Devil’s-, as in the Devil’s Punchbowl, Devil’s Bridge, Devil’s Arrows etc. Previously, this group has been loosely considered with other ‘superstitious’ names involving goblins, giants and pagan gods, but a review of the corpus shows a very different history, beginning tentatively in the later Middle Ages and becoming much more general in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. As such, it correlates with changes in the semantics of place-names which led to figurative and allusive constructions supplementing the earlier, literal class of field-names. The Devil of toponymy is deliberately unreal in contrast to the Devil of theology and I shall explore the sense of genre which led to this specialised way of speaking.

Jennifer Scherr: From Birnbeck to Boatstall and beyond: some names of coastal features in Somerset

This will be a preliminary survey of some 80 minor names along the Somerset coast, retrieved from maps, sailing directions and coastal charts (partly extracted from Adrian Webb’s collections for Somerset Record Society publications, vol. 97, 2014). The names to be treated are those of features on the mainland or immediately offshore, along with a few nearby sandbanks in the River Severn. Some general points can be made about the particular problems, and overall typology, of these (and probably other) coastal names. In particular, I will concentrate on a dozen or so particularly interesting or baffling names, including Birnbeck and ‘Boatstall’. In conclusion, possible language influences, and the wider importance of historical settlements on Somerset’s western seaboard, will be summarised.

Carole Hough (University of Glasgow): “All that glisters”: gold and silver in English and Scottish place-names

As polysemy is common not only in the lexicon but in the onomasticon, many place-name elements have a range of potential meanings. Thus even when the etymology of a place-name has been established, its interpretation may still be problematic. This is particularly the case with colour adjectives, some of which give rise to substantive uses, while others are themselves derived metonymically from concrete nouns such as precious metals. The first group has received some attention in recent scholarship, leading to significant re-interpretations of individual place-names and place-name elements. The second group will be considered in the present paper, which highlights the contrasting treatment of gold and silver in the respective entries in Smith’s English Place-Name Elements, and focuses on occurrences of the latter term in the place-names of northern England and southern Scotland. The paper arises from research undertaken for REELS (Recovering the Earliest English Language in Scotland: evidence from place-names), a 3-year research project funded by The Leverhulme Trust at the University of Glasgow (2016–2018). The study area is the historical county of Berwickshire, the heartland of Anglo-Saxon settlement in Scotland. The project aims to use place-name survey to investigate the Northumbrian variety of Old English and its development into Older Scots, and to advance understanding of the relationship between place-names on different sides of the present-day border between Scotland and England. Drawing on comparative evidence from other place-names in both areas, this paper re-examines the interpretation of Silverdale in Lancashire and Silverwells in Berwickshire in light of recent archaeological discoveries and developments in colour semantics.

Simon Taylor (University of Glasgow): Dating medieval Scottish place-names: from Balbuthie to Stevenston

Place-names are notoriously difficult to date: we know when they first appear in the record (either written or spoken), but this can be many centuries after their coining. An exception to this are those place-names containing the names of persons whose floruit can be independently established. While such an anthropotoponym does not necessarily have to be formed during the life-time of the eponymous individual, we are at least given a secure terminus a quo or earliest possible date, which itself is immensely valuable. This has implications also for dating the use of certain generics, as well as for understanding wider power-relations in medieval Scottish society. I will concentrate on the 12th and 13th centuries, looking at names formed both in Gaelic and Scots, and including recent work from the Berwickshire place-name survey being conducted as part of the ‘Recovering the Earliest English Language in Scotland’ Project (REELS), based at the University of Glasgow.

Oliver Padel: English place-names in west Cornwall

The English aspects of Cornwall’s heritage tend to receive less attention than the Brittonic ones. By about 1300 the eastern half of Cornwall was thoroughly English-speaking, with only residual Cornish-speaking, if any. The west remained thoroughly Cornish-speaking, but even that was a bilingual community, with English in use from at least the tenth century. In order to assess the extent and chronology of the bilingualism I will examine the types of English place-names found in the western half of the county, and the dates at which they are attested. English-language surnames also provide evidence of the bilingual nature of the western community.